Hip-hop, Africa and theatre. How do these things fit together?
The first time that three-way connection became personal for me was while listening to the groundbreaking recording “Le Bien, Le Mal” by Senegalese rapper MC Solaar and the late African-American rapper Guru (of the legendary rap duo Gang Starr). Solaar and Guru, rapping in French and English, subverted the mid-1990s commercial hip-hop success formula, built on excessive materialism and misogyny. These revolutionary artists presented hip-hop as a transnational cultural movement. Their inspired commentary moved me to see this musical form as the theatre of my generation.
That insight prompted a question: How far, in our global culture, was hip-hop traveling? I looked for the answer in Africa. In these notes, I share my memories of Dakar during the late 1990s, where scores of Senegalese artists were working across artistic mediums to craft and define their unique voices in the global matrix of hip-hop. And my observations are remixed with the voices of artists and activists working in the United States as well as in Senegal—artists who have witnessed the powerful cultural exchanges enabled through hip-hop that have reshaped the artistic and political landscape of that West African country almost 20 years after my first trip there.
Track 1: Dakar 1996
In summer 1996 I was awarded a fellowship from the West African Research Association to explore the influence of hip-hop music on theatre and fine arts in Dakar. Living in Senegal allowed me to see the influence of hip-hop on young artists of the city. City walls were marked with cautionary warnings painted in wildstyle graffiti about the threat of SIDA (AIDS). Painted images of Tupac Shakur and Michael Jordan were visible on the façades of barbershops. Spoken-word-style theatre events featured hip-hop dance and DJ-ing. These were powerful sights to witness.
Hip-hop borrows from the oral and music traditions of the griots just as much as it does from the polycultural influences that helped to forge it in the multiracial crucible of the Bronx in the 1970s. Senegal was in the process of sampling back from the myriad of cultural connections embedded in American hip-hop’s aesthetic.
During the several months that I lived in Dakar, local artists educated me about their use of hip-hop as an arts practice, not just as a popular music. Aspiring theatremakers, fine artists, musicians and dancers spoke about how they wanted to use hip-hop art to address problems of HIV/AIDS, to create political agency, to fight misogyny and the threats of poverty, joblessness and the artistic limitations imposed by Dakar’s École Nationale des Beaux-Arts. I participated in a daily theatrical tea ritual, attaya, which involves the preparation of three rounds of mint tea in various phases of bitterness and sweetness. In between each round, there were performances on simple stages created in living rooms with my new friends. Hip-hop artists spoke to one another in a hybrid of languages—Wolof, French and Arabic—spliced with hip-hop vernacular in English. Traditional Senegalese dress mixed with jeans, skirts, tennis shoes and other hip-hop styles. The theatre of hip-hop was everywhere.
My new friends were in the process of making a hip-hop arts movement tailored to their specific national context, a movement that could address their particular social, cultural and political aspirations.
When I returned to the U.S. after those months in Dakar, my worldview about hip-hop had been transformed. The U.S. was more than 20 years deep into hip-hop in 1996, and the political direction of the music’s purpose was split at the fault lines of positive music for social change and music dedicated to excess and violence. While the quality of hip-hop music was suffering in the late 1990s, the arts practices it inspired in the U.S. were thriving. By the early 2000s, hip-hop arts activists and theatre pioneers—Danny Hoch, Eisa Davis, Will Power, Kamilah Forbes, Toni Blackman, Daniel Banks and many others—were traveling the world promoting positive political and artistic agency enabled by hip-hop performance.
At the same time in Dakar, political crises began to erupt as youth became restless under the multi-term rule of autocratic then-president Abdou Diouf. The youth desired a new type of leadership that spoke to their specific needs of employment, economic opportunity and political representation. The seeds of change I witnessed in the mid-’90s took root. Hip-hop became a tool to organize youth toward political consciousness.
The theatre of hip-hop in Dakar is not played only on proscenium stages with linear playscripts. It is performed on street corners, in living rooms, in community centers and under the auspices of arts organizations. AuthorJoseph G. Schloss argues that the hip-hop movement is by definition theatre: The grassroots feel and interdisciplinary strategies of hip-hop arts practice are reminiscent of revolutionary theatre practices inspired by jazz during the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement in the United States. These movements are sampled in hip-hop arts and inspire similar arts activism around the world. Current debates over the political and ideological role of hip-hop-inspired art echo similar debates about the use of art as propaganda during the Harlem Renaissance and the Cold War.
Track 2: Patterns of Liberationist Performance
My African colleague, theatre scholar Omofolabo Ajayi-Soyinka, sent me her observations about hip-hop-inspired arts within the larger history of liberationist theatre and arts practices on both sides of the Atlantic.
OMOFOLABO AJAYI-SOYINKA: The historical and ideological connection between the patterns of performance and the evolution of contemporary theatres of Africans and African Americans took powerful, insistent tones that could no longer be ignored by the 1960s. As Ivor Miller points out, the general consensus is that “the Middle Passage was a historical discontinuity, one in which Africans lost their identities and lifeways.” Few scholars regarded performance as a source of information for transcontinental continuities. Recent performance-based studies and methodologies validate African-centered vernacular arts and patterns of performance in mainstream scholarly discourse. It is within these patterns of performance that the undergirding ideology of black theatre, on both sides of the Atlantic, is embedded and embodied, finally exploding in the radical liberation theatres of the 1960s. We see this continuation in hip-hop theatre and performance.
For Ajayi-Soyinka, hip-hop’s influence on African and African diasporic theatre practices must be situated within the historic frame of post-colonial and post-emancipation narratives of self and community, forged in the wake of political crises. The post–Civil Rights generation that created hip-hop in the 1970s, and ushered it into the mainstream in the 1980s, fashioned it into malleable artistic movement that was responding to de-industrialization, Reaganomics and the rapid growth of the prison-industrial complex. Forty years after its inception, hip-hop’s capacity to reference the past in the present teaches its practitioners to adapt and customize its aesthetic practices to fit local political tides.
Hip-hop’s arrival and incorporation into the social and cultural landscape of Dakar by Senegalese artists in the late 1980s also accompanied social and political crises. The underground arrival of hip-hop via cassettes and radio in the wake of school riots, political elections and social unrest opened opportunities for youth to find alternative creative outlets. Many found community with American hip-hop artists whose lyrics and videos narrated experiences with which they identified.
By the 1990s, hip-hop in Senegal had gone through waves of experimentation by local artists. Mimicry of American hip-hop styles gave way to youth discovering the good and the bad of American music—they forged their own translations of the art form, sampling what was useful to accomplish their particular goals. The positive points of hip-hop that were extracted became tools that would allow them to address the contradictions of tradition and modernity. Hip-hop theatre’s broad definitions in Africa, incorporating anything from forum theatre to MC-ing, allows for it to be translated and customized within global artistic and political contexts. This flexibility is what makes it so attractive as a tool for social change.