'I became politically active at the end of the 1980s. There were disturbances in Senegal. Young people really wanted a different system because the country’s politics were only directed at politicians, operating in a vacuum. There was no place for young people. Music was the only way we had of expressing ourselves and discussing public matters. It was then that we created the group ‘Positive Black Soul’ (PBS). Some people were shocked by our way of addressing political problems and rebelling in our songs, but a whole generation joined in.’
This is how Didier Awadi, 38, the pioneer of rap in Senegal and West Africa describes his beginnings. His career has combined music with politics ever since. ‘In 2000, when the elections were held in Senegal, all the rappers voted for the opposition,’ Awadi recalls. And the unlikely change of political power did in fact take place in the former French colony, independent since 1960, after thirty years of leadership by presidents Léopold Sédar-Senghor and Abdou Diouf.
Didier Awadi’s success continued to soar, particularly among the youth of West Africa. In 2002, Awadi released his first solo album Kaddu Gor, under the title Parole d’honneur (‘Word of Honour’) in France. The album won him the Radio France International (RFI)’s World Music award in 2003. In October 2005, Awadi continued to unite rap and political activism with his album Another world is possible, a reference to the slogan of the World Social Forum born in Porto Alegre, in Brazil. Awadi now contributes to each edition of the ‘alterglobalist’ forum. He was among those who topped the bill at the first summit organised this year in Nairobi, Africa.
Presidents of Africa
‘We’ve had influence because young people trust us. But beware, we must deserve that trust,’ warns Awadi. That’s a great deal of responsibility in West Africa, where the under 25s represent more than half the population of most states. Awadi is completely aware of this responsibility, and this shows in his new album. He plays us a few snippets in his Dakar studio: on his face, both the clear satisfaction of a job well done and the hope that the message will once again be heard by young people.
The Presidents of Africa album, released in January 2008, brings together contributions from African rappers and aims to emphasise the historic heritage common to Africa and the need to unite the continent. Behind this album, a painstaking task. Not only to gather together so many rappers from all over the continent, but also to collect the written records and the video footage of speeches by African leaders that he weaves into different sections of the album. Among others, these include the very poignant speeches of the first man to become prime minister of Congo in 1960, Patrick Lumumba, who was assassinated in 1961. Joining him is Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso, often considered the African Che Guevara, also assassinated in 1987.
As he calls to mind the links between Europe and Africa, Awadi stresses the ‘state of ghettoisation’ in which many young French people from immigrant families find themselves, but also the common nature of the political problems facing youth on both sides of the Mediterranean. ‘Within my generation, many people are exchanging and sharing ideas across the borders. The subjects that concern them are often the same, for example unemployment or the environment. I often go to Europe and find the exchanges you can have there astonishing, especially on university campuses. Now I always hope to use my European tours to meet and encourage the children of immigrants who are getting involved in citizen and political action.’
In response to Sarkozy
In order to become more than just militant, then, it’s important to remain vigilant: ‘What is really essential is to not take yourself too seriously and think that you’re the new Che Guevara. People who applaud us on stage are there above all for our music. Many musicians and rappers amongst us have oversized egos. If you take yourself too seriously, you can really quickly lose the plot and forget the battle we are engaged in.’
There’s no doubt that with his latest album, Awadi is going to once again find a balance between music and politics, adding a new piece to the tapestry of African rap whilst giving a strong message of support to a whole generation of African artists fighting for a united and issue-free Africa.
‘Some say that we don’t have a sense of history and memory in Africa. With this album we will make them think again…’ jokes Awadi, referring to the speech made by the French president Nicolas Sarkozy during a visit to Dakar in July 2007. The speech was very controversial, mainly due to the small phrase stating: ‘the tragedy of Africa is that the African man has never really entered history.’ Awadi then eagerly shows us one of the videos from the album, which incorporates archive images from the day of the discovery of Lucy, the name given to the skeleton dating back around 3.2 millions years and unearthed in Ethiopia in 1974.
Where is the borderline between music and politics. Don’t you sometimes get the feeling that you are being hijacked? How do you remain yourself?
'The borderline is not to take yourself too seriously. It isn’t because you are on stage and that people are applauding you, because you have said ‘ready for the revolution’ and people say to you ‘the fight continues’ that you are going to start thinking that you are Che Guevara. There is a line that we must not cross: already not taking yourself too seriously and then knowing that if people are applauding you, it is because you are on stage.
I do not set out on the back of a divine mission. When I feel like saying something which is pissing me off I say it, when I don’t feel like saying it I don’t say it and I would never say something just because someone asks me it by saying to me, ‘Come on say it, because it’s good.’ I remain a free thinker. Therefore the borderline is really not to keep your feet on the ground, show humility and respect people who put their confidence in us by supporting everything which we do. This respect is achieved through a certain humility.
The fight is so great that we do not have the right to talk nonsense and mess around, because we have an ego which is far too big. And consequently we, the artists, have often big egos like that, we must watch what we say as the borderline between music and politics is very fine. Some have crossed it quickly and at times we do not even realise that we have crossed over from the other side, quite simply'
Translation: Christopher Hall
Dakar video interview: (Alexandre Polack/ cafebabel.com)