From the field: Hip-hop and social activism in Senegal

World Learning    Yobo Member
April 21st, 2011

Sonya Shadravan with a group of young activists in Senegal

Sonya Shadravan with a group of young activists in Senegal

Sonya Shadravan is an alum of the SIT Study Abroad Senegal: National Identity and the Arts program and a Barnard College graduate. She recently arrived in Senegal where she will be implementing a series of youth-empowerment programs as a World Learning Alice Rowan Swanson Fellow. This is the first of several blog posts we will receive from Sonya as she completes her fellowship project.

When I first arrived in Senegal in 2009 I quickly became fascinated by the Senegalese hip-hop movement, by the social consciousness and engagement of Senegalese rappers, and by their ability to affect change locally and throughout the African Diaspora. Through my SIT research I had the privilege of becoming close friends with many rappers whose work ranged from creating educational TV shows on child rights to public health announcements to projects encouraging Senegalese youth to vote.

Mbaaye, a young filmmaker participating in an animator training

Mbaaye, a young filmmaker participating in an "animator" training

Many of these artists, however, expressed frustration with what they identify as a sort of endemic of apathy—of youth who are frustrated with the daily realities of Senegalese life yet are too disenfranchised to enact change. Though leading hip-hop artists proudly portray their commitment to examining social issues, the legacy of Senegal’s caste system and rigid age hierarchy as well as the residue of colonial rule in educational systems hinders opportunities for the majority of youth to explore issues pertinent to their daily realities. These issues include the history of slavery and sex trafficking in Senegal, gender inequality, public health, politics, and post-colonial studies. The inspiration for my Alice Rowan Swanson Fellowship project, informed by Senegalese adolescents and community leaders, was the recognition that Dakar is in need of safe and inclusive spaces for youth to explore these themes to awaken within them a sense of belonging to their community and a responsibility to catalyze its betterment.

Prior to studying abroad in Senegal, I became involved in youth empowerment projects in New York, and went through a training called Releasing the Powers of Junior Youth. This training is a part of a model of Junior Youth Empowerment, initially created in Colombia and now utilized in almost every country internationally. In this model, young adults undergo training to become “animators” (or facilitators) of small groups of junior youth aged 12-15 who meet regularly in their neighborhoods, engaging in discussions on their daily realities and creating and executing their own small-scale service projects.

Musicians and activists participate in an animator training workshop

Musicians and activists participate in an "animator" training workshop

Since I returned to Dakar it has been clear that social frustration with the government, unemployment rates, and the difficulties of daily life have risen. As I write this, thousands are protesting in the streets under a movement named “Y’en a marre” (or “Fed Up”). In the past few days I have met with community members, hip-hop artists, youth, and educators to begin organizing “animator” training programs. Each group’s exploration of reality may include turning towards local media, political speeches, and discussing cultural values. Sessions may also include personal reflection, drama, meditation, art, and in this case we are making a special attempt to use hip hop as a mode of reflection and expression. The animators of each program will aim to encourage their junior youth to identify needs in their communities, and devise small-scale projects that will collectively transform those communities. Some of the projects we have already discussed for groups in Dakar range from neighborhood clean-ups to the hosting of gatherings aimed at ameliorating ties between people of different religious backgrounds.

For now I am working to reach out to artists and youth in different parts of Dakar, especially those areas deeply affected by poverty and a lack of educational opportunities. Children’s rights organizations, school directors, and artists have asked many questions but also expressed excitement about the project, all of which gives me encouragement about the impact this project can have on Senegalese youth.

Activists Abdou Aziz and Omar

Activists Abdou Aziz and Omar

This story originally appeared at World Learning.

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