Prominent American Muslim rappers Lupe Fiasco, Mos Def or Jurassic 5 are often asked about their beliefs and how these conflict with hip-hop. Orthodox Muslims, on the other hand, are generally suspicious of pop culture – especially of American hip-hop culture which often celebrates materialism and openly flaunts sexuality.
But in Western Africa, hip-hop and Islam aren’t at odds with one another. As the rap movement swept through Africa in the last few years, young rappers (in many African countries the majority of the population is under thirty) learned how to make Islam an aspect of their music. Some combine devoutness with social criticism, others criticise using religion to achieve political aims. ‘Many Lessons’ offers a new, different and young approach to Islam and its topics.
The history of Islam in West Africa distinguishes itself from the Islam practised in Arabic-speaking countries or in Southeast Asia. Since the 12th century, the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed have been spread south of the Sahara by Arabic merchants and charismatic clerics. Islamic kingdoms such as the Songhai Empire arose, along with cities like Timbuktu, which even in modern Mali retains a ghost of its former glory. Religious leaders known as ‘marabouts’ formed extensive brotherhoods that continue to play an important role in many West African countries today.
In every sense, Western Africa has become a cultural patchwork. Muslims are in the absolute majority in countries like Mali, Gambia or Senegal, where religion often plays a key role in binding society together, whilst in countries such as Ivory Coast or Benin, Muslims are just one minority among many. Yet even though most West African nations adopted secular systems after achieving independence, the amount of influence wielded by Islamic groups has also grown in Africa in proportion to unsolved problems like poverty, unemployment and underdevelopment.
Music in Africa has always had strong religious undertones. It therefore isn’t surprising that many musicians take religious topics as a source of inspiration, and also view themselves as moral authorities. Rap is the most recent musical phenomenon to grip the entire continent. In West Africa, Senegal is at the centre of the movement with an estimated three thousand rap bands active in the capital Dakar alone. Rap’s success is at least partially due to the fact that many Africans recognise the echoes of their own traditions in the modern art of song-speech (i.e. rap), and do not perceive this style of music as foreign.
While many African rappers imitate standard poses and typical hip-hop fashions worn by the American hip-hop acts they see on MTV, musically many have freed themselves from their ‘role models’ in the US, and have discovered their own styles, which employ both native traditions and native instruments like the kora or the djembe.
Highlights on this compilation include:
• Sister Fa from Senegal who now lives in Berlin. In her home country, she continues to be involved in the movement to stop genital mutilation of young women and girls, which is officially banned in Senegal but continues to be widespread.
• Mali’s Les Escrocs who have produced six albums so far in their home country, and also contributed a song to Blur singer Damon Albarn’s album “Mali Music”.
• German-Nigerian rapper Bantu, well-known for his Brother Keepers project and collaborations with the likes of Gentleman and UB40. Together with Nigerian Fuji master Adewale Ayuba from Lagos, he recorded “Fuji Satisfaction” (Piranha), an album mixing ragga and Afrobeat which combines also the traditional Yoruba rhythms with Afro-American funk.
• Docta, a legend in Dakar’s rap scene, also a graffiti artist who has now branched out into fashion and is developing his own line of hip-hop clothing (he himself wears a turban). Docta says that to blindly repeat Western styles is to abandon yourself. He enjoys lecturing on Islam, hip-hop and politics. “Xonet” tells the story of poverty in his country, of beggars and lies, and the question of whether there’s anyone left to trust.
• The group Silatigui which is involved in AIDS and youth violence prevention in their home country, the Republic of Guinea.
• Vociferous Senegalese rap-combo Keur Gui which has taken aim at traditional Islamic authorities in their country and use their music to harshly criticise the corruption and abuse of power among religious figures.
This project was produced in cooperation with the German Federal Agency for Civic Education (Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung/bpb, http://www.bpb.de/); Berlin-based radio station RBB Radio Multikulti (http://www.multikulti.de/) is a media partner.