The presence of social commentary on human rights in music is not new, it is not unique to Africa, and it is not limited to hip hop. Musicians have often engaged in social commentary around human rights, which has sometimes put them in opposition to the state. Hip-hop artists often confront their governments over corruption and state human rights records. The genre’s history of anti-establishmentarianism and of valuing confrontation over acquiescence has made it an important platform for African artists. This history has also made hip-hop less amenable to state control and, as such, more likely to be seen as a threat by state actors. Therefore, hip hop is an important vehicle for state and non-state actors alike to hear and understand popular views regarding corruption and human rights.
Perhaps one of the more notable examples of hip-hop activism in Africa is Fela Kuti and his engagement with the Nigerian government concerning corruption and human rights abuses. Fela Kuti was innovative in his use of music to critique the Nigerian government and in the use of his popularity to mobilize Nigerians against state corruption. In songs like “Zombie,” “Authority Stealing,” and “Coffin for Head of State,” Fela Kuti criticized corruption in the Nigerian government. Several hip-hop artists have built on Fela Kuti’s legacy in Africa, engaging the state and building on hip-hop culture’s tradition of speaking truth to power.
However, states have often refused to positively engage in the conversations that artists initiate around human rights via their music. Governments and politicians receive information about policy and state actions filtered through mediums that often favor specific agendas. Engagement with artists who remain outside “acceptable” mediums and insist on both transparency and accountability is often seen as detrimental to political actors. For artists, this lack of engagement can result in limited access to media outlets, as well as censorship by state regulatory agencies. The use of social media and the internet has allowed these artists to circumvent traditional media to reach their audiences, and sometimes gives their messages more credibility because their music is barred from mainstream media networks.
Despite this censorship, hip hop artists in Africa have continued to produce material critical of the state and have tried to enact political change around human rights and other social issues. Keur Gui, one of the hip hop groups at the forefront of the 2012 Y’en a Marre movement in Senegal, which sought to hold Senegalese regimes accountable for their human rights abuses, has long been an example of hip hop engaging the state. Launching a movement that articulated popular discontent with then-President Abdoulaye Wade’s undemocratic actions, Y’en a Marre mobilized thousands of Senegalese to vote, denying President Wade a third term in office. Producing music critical of the previous regime under Abdoulaye Wade, Keur Gui continues to hold the current regime of Macky Sall accountable. The group used the song “Marginaux” (Marginals), released in early 2018, to hold the government responsible for the living conditions of socially marginalized Senegalese citizens.
Similarly, in post-Arab Spring Egypt, rap artist MC Amin has maintained a critique of the state’s human rights record. MC Amin’s 2014 release of “Mabrouk Ya Sisi” (Congratulations to Ya Sisi) critiques President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s human rights record and calls for a “third revolution.” Under al-Sisi, human rights abuses committed by the state have increased, and artists and activists like MC Amin continue to risk arrest. The hip-hop artists provided a soundtrack to the Arab Spring, and post-Arab Spring they gained international recognition for their role in spreading popular messages of discontent. While Egyptian hip hop remains underground, it is still an important weapon against government propaganda.
Furthermore, artists like Keur Gui and MC Amin lack allegiance to any political party. The decision to engage the political system from the outside means that artists align themselves with the population and operate in a space hostile toward attempts to co-opt it politically. This affords the artists greater credibility, especially among the youth who are often distrustful of political institutions. While these hip-hop artists were not solely responsible for the political changes that occurred in their countries, their music provided a narrative of the discontent with political institutions many youth felt. Their music helped galvanize the youth who took to the streets and offered messages of solidarity and action. In Senegal, this music inspired youth to register to vote and in Egypt, to protest in the streets or on social media. While grassroots organizing and mobilization by various nonstate actors coalesced in the push for change, these artists also played important roles in the political changes taking place in their respective countries. Having developed reputations as socially conscious artists, they had the needed credibility to be voices of their movements and to articulate the goals of those movements.
However, rather than creating dialogues with these socially conscious artists, many politicians resist engaging with artists over human rights concerns. Instead, governments often pay lip service to human rights concerns while dismissing songs that demand that the government be held accountable. Examples include artists critical of African (and Western) states’ roles in the emigration of economic refugees out of Africa, such as DJ Awadi of Senegal and Wanlov the Kubolor of Ghana; those criticizing the prevalence of gender-based violence, such as Sister Fa of Senegal and Kanyi Mavi of South Africa; those protesting human rights abuses committed in conflicts, such as Blackbird of Zimbabwe and Blaise of Nigeria; and those objecting to the military tactics frequently used to silence public demonstrations and unrest, such as Emile YX? of South Africa and Luaty Beirão of Angola. When artists use their influence to involve themselves in mobilization efforts on the ground – rather than use their music to create positive change – regimes are more likely to perceive them as threats.
In the wake of Y’en a Marre and the Arab Spring, states have become increasingly sensitive to the influence of hip-hop artists. Seeing the influence and credibility of hip-hop artists in Senegal and Egypt, some states have clamped down on censorship and have more closely monitored artists’ activities. For example, in Zambia in 2017, when hip-hop artist Pilato released the song “Koswe Mumpoto” (Rats in the Pot) – accusing rats, inferred to be members of the ruling party, of stealing from the pot (state resources) – and participated in a public protest over government corruption, the backlash forced him to flee to South Africa for several months. Upon his return to Zambia, he was arrested for his participation in the protest.
Hip-hop artists have often linked corruption with human rights violations, which is why their music and actions target the state. Artists frequently decry the pervasiveness of corruption in political institutions, both in general and of specific government policies that infringe on certain freedoms. Presidents are common targets. They may present these critiques as direct challenges to the state or within the subtext of their music. Censorship has not impacted the reach of these artists, who often utilize social media to communicate with their audiences. Banning an artist’s music can often increase their popularity, turning their music into a symbol of resistance. In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni has enacted a social media tax, meant to curb “gossip,” that will impact artists who use social media platforms to reach their audiences. Due to his opposition to President Museveni and his popularity in Uganda, Bobi Wine, a musician-turned-Member-of-Parliament, was arrested and beaten in detention, and has been prevented from performing. Via Tanzania’s art council, Baraza la Sanaa Tanzania (BASATA), the government has fined, banned, and restricted artists from performing inside or outside the country. In 2017, hip-hop artist Roma, long-critical of the state, was abducted and beaten. In 2018, BASATA banned the song “#219” by opposition MP and hip-hop artist Joseph Mbilinyi, aka Sugu, saying it incited “public violence.” Neither Uganda nor Tanzania have silenced critique. Their actions have instead boosted the credibility of the artists in question, and made their music symbols of anti-government protest.
States like Uganda and Tanzania, which have credibility issues with youth, risk further alienating those youth when they attempt to silence musicians. The inability, or unwillingness, of these states to resist censoring artists or to engage the issues the artists raise is unfortunate. Hip-hop artists often represent youth voices in their music. The unfiltered language is often used to justify state censorship. It should instead be viewed as an opportunity to understand the constituencies that these artists represent. States must show attempts to understand and address the concerns voiced in the music. Rather than relying on censorship and repression, states need policies that allow arts councils and state agencies to be spaces that encourage dialogue with youth and artists.
State leadership should not see hip-hop artists as enemies. Relaxing censorship laws and regulations that restrict freedom of speech allows space for diverse viewpoints. These spaces provide opportunities for states to understand popular opinion and to see the impacts of their policies. Policies that restrict expression or punish artists critical of the state do not silence dissent; they drive dissent underground, where it continues to grow. In the cases of Senegal and Egypt, when that dissent emerged, it resulted in political transformation in governments that had lost credibility. Other states could also see these massive changes if they do not respond to hip-hop artists’ criticism.
Dr. Msia Kibona Clark is an Associate Professor in the Department of African Studies at Howard University. Her work has focused on popular culture, migration, and gender studies in Africa. Dr. Clark has written numerous scholarly publications on hip hop culture’s intersections with social change, gender, and politics in Africa. She has published almost a dozen scholarly books, articles and book chapters on hip hop in Africa. Her published books include Hip Hop and Social Change in Africa: Ni Wakati (2014) and Hip-Hop in Africa: Prophets of the City & Dustyfoot Philosophers (2018), the first solo-authored book to address hip hop culture across Africa. She also teaches the Hip Hop & Social Change in Africa course at Howard University, and produces the Hip-Hop African blog and monthly podcast hosted at hiphopafrican.com.