DAKAR, Senegal — A revolution led by rappers says something about a country’s politics or its music, or maybe both.
Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press
Senegalese rappers and other members of Y’En A Marre marched during a rally in July in Dakar.
In Senegal, the political mainstream appears stagnant and the musicians anything but, which explains why laid-back musicians with stage names like Fou Malade (“Crazy Sick Guy”) and Thiat (“Junior”) are leading a vigorous demonstration movement against the country’s octogenarian president, who does not want to leave office.
The usual regional trappings of power — a $27 million monumental statue overlooking the capital, a new presidential plane, tinkering with the country’s Constitution — have not gone down well in a poor but proud West African country used to something better. They have led to a season of revolt, on the North African model, in this coastal country, a former French colony.
There were riots this summer with tear gas and tire burnings, and several large-scale demonstrations, one of them even forcing President Abdoulaye Wade to back away from constitutional changes that would almost ensure his third term in office.
At the forefront have been rappers like Fou Malade (real name: Malal Talla) and Thiat (Cheikh Oumar Cyrille Touré). They have been firing up the crowds of young men who have surged through the city’s streets, leading the demonstrators and — picked on by Mr. Wade’s police officers — serving as martyrs for the antigovernment cause.
In July, dozens of fans waited for Thiat outside the main prison in Dakar while the police asked him whether he had publicly disrespected Mr. Wade at a rally.
“An old man of 90 who lies has no role in the country,” Thiat was accused of saying, and he did not deny it. (Mr. Wade is believed to be in his mid-80s, though there are conflicting accounts.) Amid an outcry in the news media and on the streets, Thiat was let go.
It is not that Senegal lacks established politicians, political parties or even newspapers opposing Mr. Wade, often with torrents of incendiary if wide-of-the-mark verbiage, a Senegalese tradition. The rappers, however, have struck a nerve because they cut to the chase. Their language is direct, sometimes crude and quite unambiguous.
“In politics, nothin’ but hypocrites, robbers of cash. Government, why do you always lie, always?” rap Fou Malade and his “Bat’Haillons Blin-D” (“Fou Malade and the Armored Battalion,” with a play on the word for “rags,” haillon) in French, in the song “We’re Going to Tell Everything.”
In Wolof, Senegal’s dominant language, they continue, comparing the state to a small, traditional fishing boat: “The pirogue is sinking, and whoever dares say it spends the night at the D.I.C.,” referring to the Criminal Investigations Division.
As for Mr. Wade, Fou Malade sings, his “speeches get on our nerves.”
The rappers have not had lucrative turns in power themselves, as many in the political opposition have. And as young men in ragged T-shirts and rough wool caps — carrying the look and style of the thousands of youthful dispossessed who eke out marginal existences here, selling phone-recharge cards on the streets, for instance — they are easily identified and easily contrasted with the aging president.
So it was natural that the rappers would help found a new political movement here, Y’En A Marre (“Fed Up”), that has become a potent force at the heart of resistance to Mr. Wade’s efforts to stay in office despite his previous promises and constitutional provisions to the contrary.
Though the group is based here in the capital, Dakar, where opposition parties and politicians have the most support, Y’En A Marre remains officially unaligned. Ever since the group was formed in January, its leaders have vowed that they will not be co-opted by establishment politicians from richer neighborhoods, instead sticking to their roots in the rough, working-class district of Parcelles Assainies — the name translates as “cleaned-up lots.”
In Parcelles Assainies, the treeless streets are sandy, goats share the living space and a “Treatment Center for Witchcraft and Evil Eye” adjoins a horse-drawn-cart delivery depot for bottled gas.
True to form, Fou Malade, a k a Mr. Talla, does not stand on ceremony in delivering the group’s message. He sprawled on an old sofa, spread out the newspaper and yawned during a recent interview at the group’s headquarters. An imam called the faithful to prayer from a small mosque across the street, and goats bleated next door.
“We are equidistant from all parties,” said Mr. Talla, 37. “We are a watchdog movement. We have no ties to the parties,” he added, between glances at the paper.
Thiat did not show up as expected: it was well after midday, but a telephone call revealed that Y’En A Marre’s other leading rapper had not yet emerged from bed.
While other opposition figures recently made the pilgrimage to Touba, Senegal’s equivalent of Mecca, to consult with religious leaders — Mr. Wade often makes the same trip — Y’En A Marre refused. “We don’t think Senegal’s problems are resolved at Touba,” Mr. Talla said.
“We are the ones who started the movement,” he said. “We said the moment was over for talking. We think the political parties have failed.” He added: “They talk, but the Senegalese don’t listen.”
The government spokesman, Serigne Mbacké Ndiaye, defended progress under Mr. Wade. “Those who criticize us governed Senegal for 40 years between 1960 and 2000 and didn’t do a single thing that would have allowed the country to develop,” he said.
About the presidential plane, Mr. Ndiaye said, “This plane addresses issues of security and national dignity, and besides is not the property of President Wade but of Senegal,” adding that the plane also transports the country’s national sports teams.
Mr. Wade, in a recent interview with the French newspaper La Croix, directly questioned how much influence the new opposition group could wield. “The rappers of Y’En A Marre represent only themselves. They’ve got nothing to do with the youth in the interior of the country,” he said.
But the size of the recent demonstrations, and the fact that Mr. Wade had to back down from his efforts to change the Constitution after one of them on June 23, appear to indicate something else.
Y’En A Marre was born in frustration: at days of cuts in electricity, at pervasive poverty, and at a leader who does not want to give up power.
“One day, there was 20 hours of cuts,” said Fadel Barro, 33, a journalist and a friend of the rappers, whose dimly lit apartment served as the place where the movement took shape. “I said: ‘Guys, everyone knows you. But you’re not doing anything to change the country.’ ” Those words energized the musicians.
The movement’s objective is simple, Mr. Barro said: “That they stop making futilities priorities, like the Monument de la Renaissance” — the giant statue — “or buying new planes. We’re fighting so that the preoccupations of the Senegalese return to the center of politics.”