A TYPICAL EPISODE of Journal Rappé begins with Senegalese rapper Makhtar “Xuman” Fall dressed in a suit and seated behind a news desk. At first glance, the show looks like an ordinary newscast. But then Xuman (pronounced human) launches into his intro, rapping in French instead of talking. “Welcome! Make yourself comfortable. These are the news for you. Some good ones and bad ones too. But they’re all news for you.”
The set is professional if simple, with a news ticker running across the bottom of the screen and images, videos, or interviews to accompany the week’s stories. At 10 to 12 minutes long, it airs weekly on Dakar television channel 2STV, after the traditional Friday evening news.
Xuman and his co-host, Cheikh “Keyti” Sene, who raps in Wolof, one of Senegal’s primary local languages, have been friends for 20 years. They launched Journal Rappé on YouTube in 2013 and quickly gained a loyal following, averaging 45,000 weekly views. Their goal, they say, was to make national and international politics resonate with young people. “It’s about how we can use hip hop and rap to do something more, to learn something,” Xuman says.
The two take on a variety of topics, from politics and education to religion, the environment, and immigration. Some issues are touchier than others, says Keyti, citing those that relate to religion as among the most sensitive in Senegal, which is 95 percent Muslim. “We have more and more debates about religion, the importance of religion, and how it is to be targeted as Muslim once you are outside a Muslim country.” The show has also taken on terrorism and radicalization, both growing concerns.
The rappers have also broached the topic of homosexuality, a particularly sensitive issue in a country where same-sex acts are illegal. “Even telling people we should have the debate [about homosexuality] gets us attacked,” Keyti says, citing verbal criticism and online harassment. “I don’t really care. At some point someone has to be courageous. We need to talk about it, not because the West wants us to or because foreign aid is linked to those things, but because we as a society have to grow.”
Journal Rappé has also reached beyond Senegal’s borders. With support from the Open Society Foundations, Keyti and Xuman have worked with rappers in Cote d’Ivoire, Mauritania, Uganda, Madagascar, and Jamaica to foster similar approaches to the news. Next year the rapping duo plans to start training rappers as “correspondents” in Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso.
“In every single country in West Africa, youth are the majority of the population, so it’s important to engage with the youth,” says Abdul Tejan-Cole, executive director for the Open Society Initiative in West Africa. “We normally speak a language that does not resonate, so…to connect to the youth, we’ve got to speak a language that they understand,” he said in a 2015 interview for the Open Society Initiative for West Africa. “Using music and using arts as a means of connecting with people provides an opportunity to break that gap, to breach the mistrust that exists.”
A popular segment (over 90,000 views on YouTube) from 2015 featured a young Gambian rapper, Killa Ace, talking about life under Yahya Jammeh, a dictator who ruled Gambia for 22 years until he was voted out of office in December. (Jammeh initially refused to accept election results, and didn’t cede power until January.) In the segment, Xuman asks Killa Ace to tell viewers about freedom of speech in Gambia. “Yes, sir, that question is interesting which has a lot of points I would love to mention,” he responds in rap. “First, saying the wrong things you end up in detention. TV is controlled by … hmm. His name I can’t mention. Yo, it’s crazy how we’re living out here. We’re scared to speak our mind because we’re really living in fear. That’s how we’re living here. As soon as you cross the border, you feel it in the air.”
Rap has long played an important role in Senegalese politics. In their 2014 book, The Arts of Citizenship in African Cities, authors Mamadou Diouf and Rosalind Fredericks describe how rap has been used as a political tool and a means of youth mobilization since the 1980s. “It opens up the field of democratic communication to those positions on the outside of legitimate knowledge and public debate,” they write. Though in its early years Senegalese rap was significantly influenced by rap from the US and France, it quickly found its own form rooted in local culture and language.
In 2011, a coalition of journalists and rappers in Senegal founded the “Y’en a Marre” (Fed Up) movement, which organized widespread protests against then-president Abdoulaye Wade’s proposed amendments to the constitution. (One amendment would have reduced the percentage of votes required to win the first round of elections from 50 to 25. Another would have created the role of vice president, which many people interpreted as Wade’s intention to bring his son, Karim, into power alongside him.)
The Y’en a Marre movement is credited with playing a significant role in both the rejection of Wade’s proposed amendments and Wade’s loss in the 2012 elections to President Macky Sall. Its success inspired similar activist groups in other countries, such as Balai Citoyen in Burkina Faso and Filimbi in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
While public response to Journal Rappé has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic, some in Senegal’s journalism community were initially unsure what to make of it. “Some of them were really impressed, but some of them were like, ‘How dare you touch the mighty news?’” says Xuman. Wanting to take on some of the most important issues facing their country but not wanting to get into arguments over whether or not they are “real” journalists, Keyti and Xuman call themselves “journartists,” and consider what they produce to be “edutainment.”
Even as “journartists,” their impact on the media landscape in Senegal has been considerable. They take their role seriously, says Xuman, adding that they regularly work with experienced journalists to verify information before writing and recording their lyrics. “It’s very important for us to inform ourselves,” he says. If they defy tidy classification, all the better. “Not fitting into one category gives a lot of freedom.”
We normally speak a language that does not resonate with the youth. We’ve got to speak a language they understand.
Bineta Diagne, a Senegalese journalist working for Radio France International, recalls discovering Journal Rappé on YouTube in its early days and being immediately impressed. “The basic concept of what they’re doing is journalistic,” she says, citing how they incorporate interviews, vox pop, and analysis in the show. “The journalistic base is there but the result is more creative.” She says the show enriches Senegal’s “vast” media landscape, which includes private radio stations, newspapers, magazines, and a burgeoning audiovisual sector.
On the musical front, the project has breathed new life into Keyti and Xuman’s work as rappers. “It’s exciting, a new avenue for being creative,” says Keyti. “It’s important that we have fun when doing it, and most of the time when we’re here at night recording, we laugh at ourselves.”
Though the show is often focused on serious and potentially controversial issues, humor plays an enormous role. “Humor helps deal with direct reality,” explains Keyti. “If it’s something serious, it’s still something serious, but maybe taking it from another angle makes it easier to tackle.”
Xuman and Keyti plan to continue rapping the news as long as the process remains fresh and creative. They also hope to bring the learning-through-rap approach to schools across Senegal, working with teachers to create curriculum that uses rap to help teach history, geography, math, and other subjects.
In a changing media landscape, Keyti and Xuman are doing their best to navigate the increasingly complex intersection of news and social media, to create a moment of pause in a swirl of information. In addition to reaching out to youth, one of Journal Rappé’s aims is to help viewers combat information overload. “On Twitter things go really, really fast. People talk about things like children getting killed in Aleppo, and there’s outrage for one, two, three days, and then something new happens and everybody forgets about it,” says Keyti. “We forget what’s really important.”
With the speed of news and social media, Keyti and Xuman are—like many journalists and citizens around the world—increasingly concerned by the rise of fake news and misinformation. “We’re convinced that if people are informed that can help create a different type of citizen, who are more aware of the choices they’re making when it comes to politics,” says Keyti, emphasizing that access to information should be considered a basic human right. “It’s important not just that people are informed, but that people are well-informed.”
From the streets of Dakar to the heartland of the United States, it’s an observation that resonates, and a good reminder of what it takes for journalism to thrive and for democracy to exist. “For me, this is one of the purposes of Journal Rappé,” says Xuman.
“We’re trying to create some energy and to put people together.”
This post originally appeared on the Columbia Journalism Review and was written by Marie Doezema.