Hip Hop and the “African Spring”

by Edward B. Rackley

Nile basinWhy didn’t the momentum and exuberance of last year’s “Arab Spring” extend to African countries south of the Sahel? Sub-Saharan populations, many immediate neighbors of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, followed the drama with fascination and some envy. When we spoke, I was surprised how few colleagues and friends in sub-Saharan Africa were optimistic about a counterpoint “African Spring.” They claimed their societies “weren’t ready” to rally widespread discontent towards a political tipping point.

Historically, my friends were wrong—SSA has much experience with successful opposition movements, from colonialism to apartheid. But I took their resignation to mean that social fragmentation had secured the upper hand, proof that poverty and cynical governance were not just misanthropic but bitterly divisive as well. The process of overcoming deep social, generational and political divisions, with their common denominator of skepticism and self-interest, cannot simply be ignited like the proverbial box of tinder.

Internet connectivity was clearly an enabler for the Arab Spring, and SSA still lacks reliable connectivity and familiarity with social media. But coastal North African countries are different from their southern neighbors in infinite other ways as well. Despite non-western culture, values and religious beliefs, North Africa’s Mediterranean exposure imposes a definite political and economic orientation towards Europe, for ill or good. Solidarity in any form—security, economic, ideological—is almost non-existent between countries divided by the Sahel. Few North African countries look south for constructive economic or political opportunity. Exploitation of less developed southern countries (human trafficking, resource predation) is more the norm.

I’ve written here before about the Nile Basin Initiative, an internationally-funded effort to negotiate equitable use rights for the countries of the great river, killed by mutual mistrust in 2010. The late Colonel Gaddafi led Pan-Africanism, the only other north-south unification effort. His utopianism managed to defy open ridicule thanks to his hefty wallet, but never commanded serious attention. In hindsight it proved far more effective at ensconcing the dinosaur club of out-of-touch leaders, like Gaddafi himself, for decades. This retrograde model of leadership, widely practiced among newcomers to power, is arguably the continent’s greatest impediment to modernity.

To some, the sum of their cultural, political and economic differences would suggest distinct sub-continents, but key demographic indicators show a near complete continuity between African countries on either side of the Sahel. The much discussed ‘youth bulge’—the purported correlation between outbreaks of civil conflict and a bourgeoning youth population—is endemic across the continent. A rapidly growing young population coincides with rampant unemployment, making for large pools of disaffected youth who in turn are susceptible to recruitment by rebel or terrorist groups. Exclusion and social fragmentation breed grievance, and this will always blow up, sooner or later. The mystery is how the low-burning embers of grievance can, under the right winds, ignite and illuminate a path for positive change. Yet the last 20 years of conflict across dozens of countries convinced cynics that African youth were only capable of self-sabotage, not rational collective action.

All the more reason that last year’s “Arab Spring” proved an exciting exception to this trend, demonstrating the power of youth to galvanize popular demand and help redefine their political landscape.

My day job involves helping fledgling ministries in African countries emerging from conflict to improve their quality of service, foremost by responding to popular demand for reform. In industry jargon we use the phrase “good governance” to mean building accountability and transparency mechanisms into the democratic space between governors and the governed—basically, a supply and demand upgrade to the social contract founding any modern state. We do this in the legislative arena, through social marketing and urban media, police reform, civil society and anti-corruption campaigns, to name a few. So while the Arab Spring in north Africa was a radical leap forward in “demand-driven change,” champions of the same in the sub-Saharan realm continue to toil in the trenches.

Enter Nomadic Wax, a North American production house that uses film, music and social marketing to build constituencies for social change among urban youth and promote cross-cultural awareness. I first learned of Nomadic Wax through their award-winning documentary, Democracy in Dakar, which followed Senegalese rappers in their quest to mobilize youth in advance of presidential elections in 2007. As with recent elections there, voting in 2007 was marred by fraud, violence and voter intimidation. Nomadic Wax caught the crescendo of popular hope and crushing disappointment on video, as Dakar musicians and their followers struggled to consolidate the youth vote against President Abdoulaye Wade, who in the most recent presidential contest conceded to his former protégé, Macky Sall.

Discussions with Nomadic Wax began in 2010 about a similar approach using musicians and music to politicize youth in the DR Congo, in advance of presidential elections in late 2011. Our USG-funded governance project sought to “increase citizen demand for accountability,” but after three years of working we lacked a serious youth constituency. More broadly, we also sought new ways to confront the fragmentation problem afflicting Congo, there being no hope for popular demand without first generating a unified voice. Did-header-2

Nomadic Wax brought expertise in two strategic areas, youth mobiilization and hip hop production and recording. And although hip hop is not well known in the DRC, young Congolese are intimate followers of the country’s exceptionally fertile music scene. Congo’s youth bulge plus the huge popularity and reach of its music made us optimistic that a catalytic synergy was possible. As an alternative to weapons and apathy, music could become a tool for youth to express their frustration and fears, project their political perspectives, and inspire activism among their peers.

As with any experiment, there were risks, many unforeseeable. World famous for its dance rhythms and gleaming guitar lines, Congolese music is more panem et cercum than protest and pedagogy. And although famously disenfranchised and readily exploited by power brokers and warlords, Congolese youth have rarely self-organized or mobilized around a particular social or political agenda, as Nomadic Wax had documented in Senegal. In essence, our gamble was to upset an otherwise harmonious pairing: Congolese music is very effective at distracting and entertaining the hapless masses, who seek well-deserved escape from the despairing grind of a survival economy. In practical terms, how would we engineer this creative disruption, and prevent it from backfiring?

Congo-specific ideas were needed, not just to use music to “create demand” among youth but more fundamentally, how to politicize them. Would we work exclusively among youth and young musicians, or try connecting them with civil society and established thought leaders? Congolese society is extremely hierarchical, and the country's pervasive destitution means incessant inter-generational competition over jobs and opportunities; there is no tradition of mentoring, for instance. Youth have no voice because, besides being atomized, they aren't respected in the first place. But the team took inspiration from a local proverb, which came to capture the challenge of our mission: “When a young drummer plays, even old people will dance” (Mwana muke abetaka mbonda, mpe bakolo babinaka).

Three Nomadic Wax members from the US, Senegal and Canada converged in Congo to facilitate dialogues between civil society, youth and musicians. A series of workshops in Kinshasa, Bukavu and Kikwit served to introduce aspiring and established musicians interested in socially conscious music and media, and to explore possible linkages with civil society and established media outlets. As an icebreaker, a screening of Democracy in Dakar exposed participants to possible intersections of art and politics in an African context, and to offer a model of youth leadership and music as public voice. In Congo, generational stereotypes divide youth and the mature or established generation, undermining the potential for collaboration. Given the scarcity of employment, the dynamic between young and old is often characterized by competition, not mentorship. These direct encounters allowed participants to air their mutual suspicions and perspectives, and seek common ground. More importantly, musicians were able to raise the severity of censorship and excessive taxing by media outlets. Civil society and state media representatives were not aware of the austere restrictions on free speech, or of the spurious taxes applied to artists and artistic production.

The outcomes and impact of the experiment were diverse, as the exercise was heavy on stage-setting and exploration for future programming and activity development. Bridge-building efforts between young musicians and civil society organizations were illuminating if barren, reminding us that Congolese civil society is seen as a career, not a representative, populist movement. This was also due to intergenerational competition and mutual skepticism, both symptoms of the larger fragmentation dynamic hindering progress generally. On the upside, it was extremely encouraging to note how keen young musicians are to use music as a tool for social and political change. The climate of censorship, intimidation and economic hardship are powerful disincentives to a flourishing artistic culture unafraid to lead through constructive criticism.

The viral path of one video produced during the Nomadic Wax visit encapsulates the multiple challenges and pressures facing young Congolese artists seeking change through music. The clip for “Reveil” by Alesh Chirwisa, a rapper from Kisangani, was posted on YouTube last September, and gathered steady momentum. When I met Alesh in Kinshasa recently to get his feedback on the Nomadic Wax consultancy, I congratulated him on “Reveil” having been showcased that day by MTV International, a major accolade for an unknown hip hop artist. Alesh reveil

He thanked me with a rueful smile, admitting that the day had been up and down, “au rythme du pays.” Only minutes after hearing of his MTV success, he learned that the Communications Ministry had banned his song for its “propensity to incite violence.” We both laughed; it was Kafkaesque in the extreme. No “Reveil” listener could ignore the compelling patriotism that framed the song’s honest diagnosis of Congo’s state of affairs. Evidently, calling officials to account for their failure to control violence and impunity was still too controversial for those in power—authoritarian reflexes die hard in new democracies.

It was a painful personal blow, but Alesh focused on the silver lining. Through Nomadic Wax and the artists inspired by their visit, the wider world would be listening and learning about Congolese struggles not through foreign journalists and pundits, as is too often the case, but from a Congolese perspective. This too was an important breakthrough.