One of the best art shows in New York last year was the group exhibition Looking Both Ways at the Museum for African Art. The show consisted of African artists now living in various Western cities. At times a cross-cultural pollination was very obvious; at times it wasn’t. But something connected almost all of the work by this mostly young group of artists: Politics, and not just the politics of self and identity, but the politics of colonialism, of enduring racism, and of corrupt governments, was everywhere. At a time when young American artists whose country had plunged into an amorphous war were largely making colorful, shabby and vacant work with a pathetic whiff of countercultural angst like a pack of Vice-reading faux shamans, the all-star cast of African artists in Looking Both Ways showed them up with intelligent work that considered the effect of globalization, the media and government-sponsored aggression carefully and rigorously.
Hip-Hop Senegal explores a similar premise. Hip-hop is America’s most recent nationally specific contribution to a global cultural pantheon — the rock ‘n’ roll of Gen-X. Hip-Hop Senegal is the first in what Nomadic Wax promises will be a series of hip-hop compilations exposing hip-hop’s diaspora in African nations. The album features fourteen tracks from twelve different Senegalese emcees or groups speaking the persuasive language of hip-hop — indelibly American, but inarguably global. A good majority of its tracks are jiggy-style party bangers rapped in the Wolof language, and many suffer from overly predictable production and song structure.
Although the emcees are pretty diverse, the compilation’s overwhelmingly feels like a second-generation Wu-Tang, with a few notable exceptions. Omzo’s “Missalu Aduna” is just great. In contrast to virtually all of Hip-Hop Senegal‘s other tracks, Omzo displays a mellow, effortless flow, changeups in the beat and some slick MIDI programming. Yat Fu are apparently the cats whose style young Senegalese are always copping, and you can hear why — the weird sing-song chant from this triple-emcee squad sounds like nothing else on the album. Sul Suli Klan’s fast-mo rappers probably will sound the most “underground” to Western ears, and the airy string sample they rap over is bewitching, though the track suffers from a dull beat.
It’s important to remember that this is the criticism of a through-and-through Westerner, and it’s hard for me or anyone who hasn’t experienced first-hand what this music means to the Senegalese. To return to politics, the liner notes stress that hip-hop is used in Senegal as a vehicle to persuade youths and those in disenfranchised neighborhoods to exploit the now-democratic political system to pursue social change. In light of this, it’s frustrating that I don’t feel the album a little more. For all its well-meaning, it’s probably going to come across sounding a little dated to hip-hop heads in the United States. But while form counts for a lot in music (if not close to everything), there’s also a lot to be said for function. And it’s inspiring to hear of a culture where music that actually receives airplay is critical of its government and is aggressively fighting for positive social change.