A new compilation showcases ‘Islamic hip-hop’ from West Africa. Jace Clayton digs the music but is dubious of the marketing.
Black Africa and black voices lifted in praise have had a special relationship with Islam ever since the Prophet Mohammed appointed the freed slave Bilal ibn Ribah his first official muezzin. Endowed with a convert’s passion, the Ethiopian’s voice rose beautiful, clear, and cutting when he called the faithful to pray. Even today, many Sufi brotherhoods venerate Bilal. So do scores of young Muslim rappers. Bilal’s latest fans are West African hiphoppers born in the MTV generation and raised in Islamic households.
Senegal’s capital city, Dakar, is the epicentre of non-Western rap. Though hip-hop’s popularity there hasn’t surpassed that of a regional style called mbalax, even conservative estimates put the number of crews in the city over 500. This development is traceable to the 1970s, when mbalax musicians, armed with electric guitars and keyboards, started mixing native Senegalese sounds (most notably sabar drums) with elements from rock, funk and Cuban styles. Two decades later, pioneering groups like Positive Black Soul, Daara J and ALIF, the city’s first all-female crew, upped the ante by throwing approaches borrowed from French and American rap into the mix. Their sounds danced between West Africa’s profound musical history and reinventions of that history facilitated by samplers, drum machines and increasingly affordable computers. Given the rich Senegalese tradition of griots – troubadour-poets who specialize in renovating classic tales with current relevance – it’s no surprise that hip-hop’s popularity has skyrocketed. Between griot and mbalax, the blueprint was there all along.
A new compilation CD, Many Lessons, collects 14 tracks of what it labels “Islamic hip-hop” (its subtitle is Hip-hop Islam West Africa). The majority of its songs are from Dakar ; others come from nearby Mali, Guinea, Morocco and Nigeria. The use of Islam differs from artist to artist, leaving one with an overall impression of pop heterodoxy. Some MCs spin a moral narrative informed by religious beliefs without mentioning them explicitly ; others employ sacred language, albeit in dance floor-friendly packages.
Importantly, this clearly isn’t a case of opportunists thinking “Let’s take hip-hop and graft some Islamic concepts onto it.” Instead, it’s West African kids rapping about their lives, in which Islam happens to occupy a significant place. This should not surprise anyone : kids worldwide use hip-hop’s tool kit to express daily life in all its multilayered complexity. Daily life encompasses fantasy (gangsta rappers in, say, Stockholm), reality (gangsta rappers in, say, wartime Sierra Leone), the deeply personal and, in West Africa, generous doses of the spiritual.
One of the takeaways of Many Lessons is that rap production – with its pluralistic, cut-and-paste mentality – can erase the barriers between traditional and contemporary just as easily at it melts traditional dividing lines between sacred and secular forms. That kora or talking drum your father taught you how to play ? Now you can sample it – or play it in the studio over a sample of someone else’s beat, as Lamine Kouyaté does here. The Muslim statement of faith known as Shahadah ? Reciting it in a pop song can be a form of worship – just listen to Backa’s Ya Rassulilah.
Backa’s honey-dipped lead vocals, explicitly religious lyrical choices and (mostly) live backing band recall his fellow Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour (whose Egypt is one of West Africa’s most high-profile religious albums). Backa doesn’t rap ; Ya Rassulilah qualifies for Many Lessons thanks to an English-language guest rap by Abou Nourah, who obviously harbours the best of intentions – and even recites a few lines about Bilal. Unfortunately, they are delivered in a cringeworthy monotone – as if, instead of rapping, Nourah were reading from a broken teleprompter.
Another directly religious track comes from the Moroccan group MidNight Shems. The liner notes describe their track Jbal Atlas as “one long invocation to ‘the Merciful’.” The sound, however, is far from liturgical ; this ode to divine mercy gets boosted by contemporary production tricks. Studio alchemy transforms backing voices into a dancehall beat. Barbershop-style quartet harmonies get slicked up by R&B-style computer tricks for making vocals glisten, and someone makes “beatbox” drum noises with their mouth while the lead vocals rise above the instrumentation in the plaintive style common to Moroccan chaabi (pop). Though Jbal Atlas lacks standard hip-hop instrumentation, the genre’s sonic ingenuity shines through in the song’s use of the human voice – pulled almost literally out of thin air, give or take some post-processing.
One of the most beautiful songs on Many Lessons is Rifo and Lamine Kouyaté’s Deadfathers/Fayaal. An unobtrusive drum machine interweaves with acoustic percussion while Kouyaté’s plucked kora provides high-end sparkle. The song alternates between English rapping and Wolof singing. Rifo’s English rap sections contain a sped-up female vocal sample. Set low in the mix, the sample gives the verses some extra sonic flesh. When Kouyaté starts singing his full-bodied chorus in Wolof, it’s a stunning moment : the sample keeps going, but now, instead of serving as background for a rap, it forms a delicate harmonic counterpart to the lead melody. Traditions overlap and blur, different cultural speeds reconcile. The lyrics inhabit the common ground between griot and Islam : issues of tradition, lineage and filial respect saturate a pop song that could hold its own on commercial radio anywhere in the world.
There’s arguably more crossover between rap and reggae in Africa than anywhere else, and Many Lessons is packed with signifiers of the island music. Several tunes actually draw on the Jamaica-born style more than on rap. African Akhlou Bi toasts in reggae patois, spitting out familiar yardie slang ; Mighty Intelligence, the CD closer by Dread Skeezo, uses “Jah” and “Allah” interchangeably. This makes sense – reggae’s influence in Africa is massive. Tales of poor people’s sufferation that went global with Bob Marley took easy root across the continent. Then there’s the complicated business of Haile Selassie – and you don’t need to squint to see commonalities between dreadlocked Rastafarians and ganja-smoking Sufi teenagers in Dakar.
Selebou Yoon, Sister Fa’s pop-reggae track, is a treat. It opens with a breezy chorus followed by a gutsy 20-bar solo sung over a sparse beat. After the chorus splashes you with melodic sunlight, the beat double-times, and deep melodies shift the tune into flawless pop high-gear before it ends, as befits a mini-epic, with the sound of a cheering crowd.
It’s heartening to learn that the artists on Many Lessons are capturing the public imagination in their hometowns. The first release by the Guinean rap quartet Silatigui sold 40,000 legal copies in a few weeks – astounding numbers for any debut by an independent band. Socially conscious American rappers struggle to sell 25,000 copies. Bantu, a popular Nigerian-German musician who provides Many Lessons with its opening title track, is no slouch either : he was in on the German hip-hop scene from its inception, and has collaborated with the popular UK reggae act UB40.
Populist, ecumenical, Muslim, fun : Many Lessons is good, right ? Yes. (This is probably the only fun you’ll have this year that was co-produced by the German Federal Agency for Civic Education.) This album feels fresh. Earnest. Even when the beats rock, there’s an underlying gentleness. Hip-hop in West Africa has more in common with the up-the-the-people vibe of early US hip-hop than the corporate juggernaut it has become. And don’t worry if you can’t understand the words : the good-natured spirit transmits itself via the music too.
None of this diminishes the fact that the label releasing Many Lessons (Piranha) is using Islam as a marketing hook. It’s a postmodern irony : the religiosity of artists who take a moral stance against Western materialism gets used by a German label to promote their CDs. Foregrounding “Islamic” in a region where religion and spirituality have long inhabited popular music seems disingenuous somehow. As the African-American (in the Obama sense) DJ Chief Boima put it to me : “I wasn’t sure why they even had to signify that it was related to Islam.” What is unremarkable across Western Africa is a selling point in Europe and the States.
Slapping Islam on the front cover also helps to camouflage the fact that several artists on Many Lessons also appeared on Africa Raps, a seminal compilation released in 2002. Six years ago, the “African hip-hop” tag was enough to secure an act decent media coverage beyond the continent. That novelty is wearing off. Nowadays several African hip-hop CDs are available. In certain bleeding-edge corners of the blogosphere, diasporic rap is old news. A lively substratum of blogs dedicated to global urban beats have stepped in, often making African songs without international distribution available as free MP3s (Awesome Tapes From Africa is a great place to start digging). Coolhunter interest has shifted to faster, more party-orientated music from Africa : kuduro, kwaito, coupé décalé.
Hip-hop’s ethos is youth culture speaking itself into existence, plus the knowledge that youth culture can be leveraged. Got a message ? Great. Got merch to sell ? That works too. Find the voice of a community and you’ll have identified a key tastemaker in a target market. Steroid-guzzling American stars serve as cautionary tales among politically or spiritually-minded rappers, but their business savvy doesn’t go unnoticed. The cover of Many Lessons features a picture of the Senegalese rapper Docta wearing a white turban while standing in the middle of a street, his eyes closed. Docta looks mediative – perhaps he’s reminiscing about when hip-hop dance first hit Senegal back in 1985. Or maybe he’s strategising the next move for his streetwear line, Doctawear, clearly inspired by the clothing brands pushed by US rap moguls (Jay-Z’s Rocawear springs to mind).
Religion informs the music, the music pushes fashion and fashion pushes back. Money glues it all together – even when part of the message is anti-materialism. In Dakar’s enormous Mouride population, Islam meets entrepreneurism (and mysticism). The Mouride are followers of the Sufi leader Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba, locally revered for his anticolonial pacifism and emphasis on hard work, and they run the music business in Senegal, which I can only see as a spiritually-grounded alternative to the crass worldview the Wu-Tang Clan once labelled CREAM (Cash Rules Everything Around Me).
A confession : I heard Many Lessons before I knew what it was about. I hadn’t examined the CD cover, and wasn’t following the scattered English-language lyrics. But by the time I reached track four – Sister Fa’s reggae tune – I’d recognised the compilation’s organising principle. Although Arabic isn’t widely spoken in West Africa, many of these MCs sprinkle their verses with sacred phrases in Islam’s mother tongue, and they leap up to catch the ear. The electronic bass and drums demonstrate one type of internationalism, but the deepest cosmopolitan moments on Many Lessons come from a timeless Arabic phrase you hear popping up between Wolof and French : bismillah. Were Bilal around today, he might be confused by the beats, but he would understand that word and the devotion unfolding from and within it.
Jace Clayton is a writer and musician living and working in Brooklyn.