Where Hip-Hop Brought Down a Government

In Senegal, hip-hop artists have gained exceptional political influence.

February 19, 2009, 6:51 AM

DAKAR, Senegal, Sept. 1, 2008 — -- In a country where journalists are banned from saying or writing what they want, hip-hop artists have stepped up to speak for those who can't.

Moussa Lo, a.k.a. Waterflow, is one of Senegal's most famous hip-hop artists.

He said he became a hip-hop singer not for success or his own glory, but to be "the voice of the voiceless."

"Hip-hop in Africa needs to grow," Waterflow told ABC News, "because we are the journalists for the people."

While Senegal's daily papers praise the government's action – new roads being built for a recent summit, urban renovations -- Waterflow denounces the corruption and the poverty that plague his country.

"Most people," he said, "the masses, don't have everything they [need] to live a normal life. They don't have running water, often they don't have electricity."

With more than 2,500 groups that enjoy increasing popularity, the hip-hop scene has gained exceptional political influence.

"Senegal, for the past 10 or 15 years, is really one of the best examples of how hip-hop can be used not just to create jobs, but also for political action," said DJ Magee, a New York-based produced who with Nomadic Wax records put together a documentary called "Democracy in Senegal."

Many political observers agree that hip-hop artists influenced voters to oust President Abdou Diouf in 2000, who had been in power for almost 20 years, and elect President Abdulaye Wade.

"The election of 2000," said DJ Magee, "is the only known case in the world in which hip-hop has been seen as one of the main reasons behind the change of regime."

Wade's election prompted great hope in Senegal, especially among young people who thought that poverty would finally be reduced.

But according to Waterflow, with Wade at the helm, the country's economic and social situation has not improved.

Waterflow, along with other hip-hop artists, have lost faith in the politicians they helped get into power.

"There was so much hope that Wade would bring hope," said DJ Magee, "and that was crushed."

So now, Waterflow and others see hip-hop artists as the only new political force able to drive the country and defend the deprived. He says the hip-hop community has a mission to cheer up the Senegalese people and help them stand up for their rights.

"We need to wake up," said Waterflow, "Senegal, please stand up."

"I believe it's the people who can change the Senegal," he said, "not the political leaders."

Poverty and unemployment are endemic in Senegal. Every year, young people flee the country and put their lives in jeopardy just to try their luck in Europe.

They often spend fortunes in trying to reach the Canary Islands illegally onboard fishing boats.

Some are found washed-up dead on the Senegalese coast after their small vessels were overturned by raging seas.

"For them, it's an attempt to escape," said DJ Magee, "very much like the people who flee Cuba for the U.S."

But even for the Senegalese who make it safely to Spain, Italy or France, Europe is no dreamland.

Senegalese immigrants are often forced to work illegal and menial jobs.

According to Waterflow, many Senegalese who emigrated to Europe now wish they could go back, but they don't, simply because they are ashamed not to have established themselves in the West.

Like many young people in Senegal from a modest upbringing, Waterflow and his crew Wageble had a dream.

But instead of giving up, or trying their luck in foreign lands, they stayed in their home country to show that they could make their dreams come true in Senegal.

"Wageble is an amazing group," said DJ Magee. "They really walk the walk. They practice what they preach."

"It is amazing to see how much they have done for their neighborhood, Thiaroye Azur."

"We want to show to the Senegalese youth," said Waterflow, "that even when you come from a very like poor place in Africa, you can be someone else, you know, you can like, travel around the world and do your music."

Despite his numerous business trips to Europe and America – a privilege usually reserved to the elite in his country -- and the fact that he speaks fluent English, which is also rare in Senegal, Waterflow says he feels 100 percent Senegalese, and he would not trade either his roots nor his identity for any other.

"Senegal, it's me, me I am Senegal," he said, "so of course I love Senegal, it's my country, it's my soul, you know."

Additional reporting by Gallagher Fenwick.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events