Hiphop and Islam – to western ears, the two seem like they have to be at odds. It’s true that orthodox Muslims are generally suspicious of pop culture, but this is especially true of American hiphop culture, which celebrates materialism and openly flaunts sexuality. In spite of that, Muslim beliefs and modern pop culture long ago entered into a variety of new symbioses in many parts of the world, particularly in Africa.
By Daniel Bax
The history of Islam in West Africa is unique, and distinguishes it 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 there, along with cities like Timbuktu, which even in modern Mali retains a ghost of its former glory. Religious leaders known as ‘marabouts’ founded 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 as the mortar that binds society together. In countries like Ivory Coast or Benin, on the other hand, 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 under-development.
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. Like the salsa, funk and reggae that have gone before it, rap is simply the most recent musical phenomenon to grip the entire continent. Its 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 we call rap, and do not perceive this style of music as foreign. The many private radio and television broadcasters, whose numbers have soared in West Africa since the mid-90s, have also played an important role in the spread of the enthusiasm for hiphop there.
Many African rappers fall back on the standard poses and typical hiphop fashions worn by their MTV role models in the US – baggy pants, baseball caps and basketball jerseys. But musically, they have freed themselves from their idols in America, and have long since discovered their own styles, which employ both native traditions and native instruments like the kora or the djembe. DJing is less well known there, as few of the musicians can afford expensive equipment like turntables or mixers.
Hiphop has given young Africans a voice. In West Africa, Senegal is at the centre of the movement. It’s estimated that around three thousand rap bands are active in the Senegalese capital Dakar alone. In many African countries the majority of the population is under twenty, and many rappers make an effort to address political topics and social issues in their music. The group Silatigui, for example, is involved in AIDS and youth violence prevention in their home country, the Republic of Guinea.
Religion is important to a lot of young African musicians. Belief is a key moral linchpin in the work of artists as diverse as Moroccan boy-band MidNight Shems, Mali’s Les Ecrocs, and rap veterans like Dread Skeezo and Docta from Senegal. The members of Silatigui even view African rap, with its spiritual component, as superior to the rap being produced in the US, which they see as bogged down by vulgarity and materialism. And then there are approaches like that taken by vociferous Senegalese rap-combo Keur Gui and Franco-Senegalese rapper General Snipe, who have 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 there.
In West Africa, both Islam and rap are part of the everyday culture that shapes social life, and the two spheres have begun to permeate one another. In her song “Seulebou Yoon”, rapper Sister Fa hits the nail on the head: “She (music) was there in the time of the Prophet. Believers united in the night to sing hymns of praise to Allah”. What she means by that is that she believes music and Islam are not mutually exclusive.