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Changing Senegal Through Rap: Y'en a Marre

By Atul Bhattarai

The Senegalese rap group Y'en a Marre, meaning "fed up," has ambitions that go beyond simple entertainment. Founded in 2011, the group promotes democracy and good governance by engaging the Senegalese people through its music. In 2012, it drew international attention for helping to vote the president, Abdoulaye Wade, out of power, after Wade announced that he would be running for an unconstitutional third term. In 2015, it was one of the Prince Claus Fund laureates. World Policy Journal spoke with Djily Baghdad, a member of Y'en a Marre, about the group's current work and where it sees itself in the coming years.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Compared to rap in other countries—say in France, the U.K., the U.S.—how is the rap in Senegal different?

DJILY BAGHDAD: In Senegal, hip-hop is different, it’s very politically and socially engaged. I'm not saying it's not entertaining—there's a lot of entertaining hip-hop—but the essence of Senegalese hip-hop is more about protest, it’s more socially driven, it talks about social issues and political issues. The members of Y'en a Marre were already known to be very engaged either politically or socially when the group formed. Hip-hop nowadays is about entertainment and moneymaking. We have that here as well, and people are making a living out of it, but at the same time we deliver very strong, empowering messages.

WPJ: Y'en a Marre attracted a lot of attention when it rallied around the cause of getting Abdoulaye Wade out of power. Almost four years after he's been voted out of office, what do you see as the purpose of the group today?

DB: First of all, you need to remember Y'en a Marre wasn't created just to get rid of Abdoulaye Wade. That’s not the case. When we created Y'en a Marre, we just wanted to say that we were fed up. We saw all the political and social inequality, the bad situation in Senegal, and we said “y’en a marre.” The political battle with Abdoulaye Wade came along the way. We formed the group because we were fed up with being defeated, not doing anything to change things.

We organized to say, We refuse, or, We have to bring this, which has been going on since independence, to a breaking point. Y'en a Marre is here to fight for democracy, and good governance, and social participation. Even though Abdoulaye Wade is gone, we're fighting against the new president, Macky Sall, who said he was going to do five years before being elected president. And even during his term, for years he said he’d do five years. Next year there should be an election. But he just changed his mind, I guess, he said he'd do seven years. Right now, we're on a battlefield against Macky Sall. We'll have a referendum on March 20—he's trying to change the constitution, he wants people to vote yes, but we have a coalition trying to make people vote no, to have our leaders respect their words and their promises. Look how they’re playing with the people!

Y'en a Marre is also doing a lot with youth. We’re helping youth in Y'en a Marre spirits—which is what we call the smaller Y’en a Marre groups—get some financing to start their own business so they don’t have to wait for the state. Y'en a Marre is sensitizing people about all these counter values that are not good for our democracy or our environment. Our main work is to encourage citizen participation.

WPJ: What would you say are some of your main projects at the moment?

DB: The biggest project is called “Building the Future 2022.” Right now, we can't evaluate what we are doing. We're doing it for the long run. We're trying to change a mentality. That's why we have this slogan, NTS: New Type of Senegalese. We created that, because we know that change will come in people's minds before it becomes action.

It's long work. During the last election, we got more than 400,000 young Senegalese to register in the election database to vote. After Abdoulaye Wade, we created new leaders in villages, in the countryside of Senegal. If there’s a problem in any area, the local authority will ask for Y'en a Marre's advice. If people have something to denounce in their neighborhood, they are able to say, this is not right.

Y’en a Marre also organizes meetings between local authorities and the regular population, it’s the bridge between those two. In the countryside, people have a different mentality, they're scared of leaders. But Y'en a Marre came and broke all that ice, created dialogue between local authorities—the mayor, the governor—and the population, asking about their budget, their plan for the short and long term. Creating this is a step—a small step, but it's something to get people to participate and be informed about how our democracy is working.

WPJ: What did you learn about political mobilization in 2012? What are you learning now with the new president?

DB: During Abdoulaye Wade's time, he was trying to run for a third term. And the constitution was against that, and we thought that would be a regression of our democracy. So we stood against that and said no. The new president, Macky Sall, he's the best elected president since the start of Senegalese democracy. He was elected by 65 percent of the people—no president has ever had that kind of support. People had hope, but we’ve noticed that they're all the same. Macky Sall used to be a campaign director for Abdoulaye Wade, Macky Sall was president of the National Assembly, he was prime minister under Abdoulaye Wade. We’ve noticed that these people are all the same—they’re a breed of politicians that we need to get rid of to move forward. 

As far as mobilizing people, in Senegal people don't mobilize, or protest, or demonstrate for anything. It has to be really serious—you have to push them to the limit for them to go out. We've learned also that our music is a very strong tool to gather people, to get them together. We just got a new single out, talking about this referendum, and Macky Sall and what he's done. Our music will help people, bring energy to people to engage and to stand for their rights. 

But I can’t really recap and say I learned this and that in a definite way. It's still an experiment going on, I can't be in a very rigid state of mind. We're still living it; it’s still going on. 

WPJ: What was your strategy to get people to register in 2012? 

DB: Y'en a Marre has a very singular way of working. For example, to get 400,000 young Senegalese to register in the electoral database, we did what we call “mobile council”—we made songs to encourage them to go out and register, about how every vote counts, told them not to leave the country in the hands of the politicians. And we made the hook of the song very catchy and very plain and simple so the regular people can hear it. We use the music. For everything we do, the music is at the forefront—we use it to deliver a message. I’ve learned that music is a very strong tool to gather people behind something.

I’ve gotten a lot of feedback about the song we did some time ago about the referendum—people are calling is saying that's a nice song, we're going to vote no. Music touches people, and we're glad as hip-hop artists that music is doing all that. 

WPJ: So you have broader songs, and you have songs tailored to certain situations?

DB: Yes. How Y'en a Marre works is that we have Y'en a Marre projects and a vision. But if something really important happens, politically or socially, then we have to speak up. Then we pick some artists inside the group and write a song with the message we want to deliver. The song is useful when we're doing mobile council—we take a big truck, go to a neighborhood, and we perform in the truck. People get closer, and after they listen to the song, we'll stop the music and start the speeches, talking to them about the importance of being engaged politically or socially, or just being concerned about how your country's being handled.

We also have our own careers—we're all hiphop artists. We have our individual careers, but Y'en a Marre is like a national team, if it needs us we leave our own music and go to work. We’re the founders and we have to hold it down. Every time something happens that's compelling, that requires us to do a song, we do a song. We have songs about lots of issues, but many about politics. During the presidential election, we had songs about fighting against Abdoulaye Wade and his system. With Macky Sall it's the same—we have a song about the referendum. Before this we had lots of songs helping Gambian artists come to Senegal, about their exile, how their lives are threatened. Every time we think a song might be helpful to push a message forward, we make it. 

WPJ: Do you do anything to pass this down to the younger generation?

DB: We've been doing that—we have workshops, in Dakar, where we teach hip-hop writing skills, and we have kids from a lot of different regions who attend those workshops. And not only in Senegal—I’ve been to Bremen, in Germany, to teach young German kids how to write socially-oriented songs.

And we connect in other ways too. We used to go to elementary schools to talk about engagement. We did that until two years ago, but then the Ministry of Education said that we had to stop making those speeches in public schools. So we started doing it in private schools—we go and give lectures, about engagement, about Y'en a Marre, about our experience.

WPJ: You talked about NTS: New Type of Senegalese. What are the characteristics of an NTS?

DB: There are a lot. An NTS will try to get rid of all the negative values and counter-values that Senegalese people usually have. If you're aiming to change the values, you're an NTS. For example, when regular Senegalese people say, Let's meet at 7, it means let's meet at 9 o’clock, or 10 o'clock. We have a bad interpretation of time, and now we make fun of ourselves for it—when someone gives a time, we say, Is that a New Type of Senegalese time or Old Type of Senegalese time? 

It's a lot of things: I'm an NTS, I want better public transportation. I'm an NTS, I will come on time for meetings. I'm an NTS, I won't close my eyes at a traffic cop who's being bribed. I'm an NTS, I will look at how my community is working; if there's anything wrong in my community, I will call people, I will sensitize them and talk about how we can make it better. NTS is nothing but how to be a good citizen, and how to get involved in how your country's doing. And Y’en a Marre is raising awareness about how to be a good citizen.

WPJ: Is the NTS ideal fixed or constantly evolving?

DB: You know, it’s getting bigger. In the university, you hear students saying they're NTS: New Type of Students. And everyone can adapt it to themselves. We need a new Type of President. And we take it further: the New Type of African.

WPJ: Do you have movements like Y'en a Marre elsewhere in Africa?

DB: Yes, there are youth movements of the same shape as Y'en a Marre, founded by artists and journalists. For example, in Burkina they have a movement called Le Balai Citoyen. Y'en a Marre members have been to Burkina a few times—I’ve been there twice—and we have workshops and we share our experience and teach them about how Y'en a Marre started and the Y'en a Marre way of organization.

Our friends in the Congo have a movement called Filimbi, which means "the whistle." That movement is also like Y'en a Marre—it's a civic, social movement. We have links in Mali, Mauritania, all over the subregion. We're planning to organize a big meeting in Dakar sometime this summer—something like an African citizens' week—between Y'en a Marre and all these youth movements in the subregion and in Africa.

WPJ: Does rap and hip-hop have the same influence in these other countries as it does in Senegal?

DB: It's getting there. In Burkina, for example, the leaders of the movement Le Balai Citoyen are hip-hop artists as well. 

WPJ: Y'en a Marre has a history of being unaligned with political movements. Do you think of that as a core policy of the group?

DB: It's very important. Being away from politics is important—we're in the political battle but we're not part of a political party. We will always be apart from political parties in the way that they do politics. We don't receive any money from political parties, and they don’t endorse us. We don't go to political meetings, unless it's a meeting between politicians and civil society. Other than that we don't mess with politics. 

WPJ: What do you envision the role of Y'en a Marre to be in the coming years?

DB: What Y'en a Marre will do tomorrow will depend on the situation, political and social, at the moment. You never know. Very small events can have big consequences in history or in shaping the political scene. For now, I know Y'en a Marre will be as it is, because we need it to be a counter-power. Our democracy needs that. 

But I can't talk for the people in Y'en a Marre. You know, a lot of people ask whether Y'en a Marre will turn out to be a political party in the future. The movement will continue as a sentinel, but I can see the leaders in Y'en a Marre taking their work further, maybe into politics. I remember during the last legislative election, lots of people were saying that our role as a sentinel can be played better in the national assembly. We think that when it's time for Y'en a Marre to do that, it will come naturally.

For now, we have our big project, "Building the Future," and we have it until 2022. But we don't know what tomorrow will bring. In 2022 we can do a retrospective and look at all that Y'en a Marre has achieved and ask, Is Y'en a Marre useful for Senegal? We'll start questioning ourselves then, but until then there’s a lot of work to be done.

Maybe even before 2022, in two years, things might change—we never know. But we will always try to be on the side where we will be the most useful for Senegal.

*****

*****

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Atul Bhattarai is an editorial assistant at the World Policy Journal.

The group Y'en a Marre is a 2015 Laureate of the Prince Claus Fund for Culture & Development.

[Photo courtesy of MONUSCO]

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