DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — The war in Syria isn’t the easiest topic to break down in a brief newscast. But that’s exactly what Senegalese rapper Makhtar “Xuman” Fall does — and throws it down in rhyme no less.
“All eyes are turned to the powder keg of the world;
To the Middle East where Syria is sitting on a bomb.
Dialogue, discussions and negotiations;
To legitimize a war you need a coalition.”
Fall raps these lines in French from behind a newscaster’s desk, sporting reading glasses and a blazer with his long dreadlocks tied back behind his head.
Next he turns to a “guest commentator,” Senegalese rap icon Didier Awadi who adds a few words of his own: “The bastards are getting organized and they want blood … One more time they want to make us swallow their lies. And even without the proof, they’ll bring out the heavy artillery.”
In the span of a program just five minutes long, Fall and his co-host Cheikh “Keyti” Sene tackle everything from the Middle East to local woes like the flooding that disproportionately hits poor suburbs of Senegal’s capital. They even interview people on the street — all of whom can conveniently rap as well.
The program “Journal Rappe” is now aired twice a week on a Senegalese television network after it went viral on YouTube earlier this year. In an effort to reach even more fans, Fall raps his portion in French while Sene’s contributions are in the other national language, Wolof. It’s not an identical translation but the two try to offer up rhymes along the same lines.
Over the last several years, many rap artists in Senegal were active in anti-government protests that helped lead to the ouster of longtime President Abdoulaye Wade. Their timely and politically tinged lyrics, though, haven’t easily translated into real-time sales.
“Unfortunately in Senegal it takes six months to a year to make an album. By that time, the songs are no longer news when they come out,” says Fall, a towering and lanky 40-year-old long active on the Dakar hip-hop scene.
Night clubs and neighborhood hangouts radiate rap music in this West African country although most of what is played comes from the United States or France. Hip-hop is wildly popular, and artists here are seen in many ways as modern-day griots, traditional West Africa musical storytellers who pass on history through their songs.
It’s a laborious process: The co-hosts spend an entire week crafting and filming their tracks for a single five-minute show. Each week they record their performances together in advance and then gather at a second-floor apartment to tape them as they voice the lyrics. As buses and horse-drawn carts clack by on the pavement below, they take turns sitting in front of a green sheet.
Two electric fans whirl as more than a dozen men crowd into the room to watch the process. Glasses of Senegalese tea are passed around and cups are shared as one guest stumbles over cramming French President Francois Hollande’s name into his tight lyrics.
Sene is a linguist at heart, having studied translation at university. He speaks French, Wolof and English, and insists there is no topic they can’t break down in verse. In Senegal, though, he admits it’s hard to talk about homosexuality or marabouts, the country’s highly influential Islamic spiritual leaders.
“They love that this is a place where we give more than information. With journalists they may tell the other side but they stay neutral. We don’t,” he said as he drafted his thoughts inside a Dakar recording studio alongside Fall.
The “Journal Rappe” program shows just how innovative hip-hop artists remain in Senegal, says Murray Forman, an associate professor of media and screen studies at Northeastern University.
“They’re taking it to some different place, a place we don’t commonly see hip-hop which I think is fun and exciting,” he said after watching their programs online. “What I also like about this — they’re pushing and challenging the flexibility of established media forms like a newscast.”
The concept already has been an artistic hit with real commercial potential, says Senegalese hip-hop icon Duggy Tee. On a recent show, he joined “Journal Rappe” sporting a diamond earring, white blazer, and black and white tie with his image emblazoned on it as he waxed poetic in Wolof.
“Rap is the street and the street is reality,” he says. “That’s why the concept has been such a success.”
Journal Rappe on the Internet: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xzNcvP1jG3c
Follow Krista Larson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/klarsonafrica.