As if living in Senegal isn’t exciting enough as it is, this year I was extremely lucky to have the extra bonus of living in Senegal during the time when the “Third Edition” of the World Festival of Black Arts and Cultures was happening. The festival, called Le Festival Mondial des Arts Negres in French, better known as FESMAN, took place in Dakar throughout the month of December. The first of these festivals was held in Dakar in 1966 during the time that many African countries were gaining their independence. The second was held in 1977 in Lagos, Nigeria, and the third 33 years later again in Dakar, around the time that many African countries have been celebrating fifty years of independence. The goal of the 2010 festival was to represent an Africa that is “liberated, proud, creative, and optimistic” and celebrate “cultural diversity, and a dialogue between peoples and cultures”.
There were art exhibitions, theater and dance performances, fashion shows, and of course lots and lots of MUSIC. Since I was still in the midst of moving and settling in, I wasn’t able to soak up all that I wanted (had I been able, I would’ve spent all day every day attending the different events!), but I did make a point to catch as many concerts as I possibly could.
For me, some of the highlights included Youssou N’dour, Salif Keita, Tiken Jah Fakoly, Vivian Ndour, The Last Poets, Angelique Kidjo, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and Seun Kuti. Sometimes getting to the right show ended up being a bit of a scavenger hunt around Dakar. The schedule changed by the hour and you could never really be sure who was going to play where and at what time. This disorganization notwithstanding, when you finally got to the right place at the right time, the quality of the music was absolutely amazing!
Alongside all of the classic crooners and afropop stars, the festival definitely highlighted the importance of hiphop to young Senegalese… Artists like Wycleff Jean, Busta Rhymes, Fat Joe, Rick Ross, and Akon (whose family is Senegalese), all from the African diaspora, were invited to take part. I expected their shows to be packed, and they were (a special highlight was the way Akon rolled around the crowd at his concert in a giant human-sized clear plastic hamster ball ~ sorry that I don’t have a photo of it!). I was not necessarily expecting, however, to see an audience bursting at the seams for the local hip-hop shows.
While many people flocked to Senegal from abroad for FESMAN, at the local hip hop shows, I was one of the only foreigners. The audience consisted mostly of sixteen to thirty-year-old Senegalese men wearing Nike or Converse sneakers, crisp tees, and fitted caps adorned with US basketball team logos. They all seemed to know the words to all the songs, and the songs, were littered with English slang and curse words — along with rich Wolof metaphors and word play of course.
I wasn’t able to attend all of the FESMAN local hip-hop events, but one that I attended was Rap Galsen Show Part II, at which over fifteen different local hip-hop groups rocked the stage. (note: Galsen is the word Senegal inverted, it’s a slang term that was picked up in Senegal from French “verlan” word play, where the two halves of a word are inverted). Here are some photos from the show.
Being able to take part in this festival was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. At the same time, it definitely brought to light many complexities facing the state of the African continent, power relationships, globalization, and the effectiveness of the arts and culture concerning social change. On one side, it was inspiring to see real pan-Africanism at work. It was really moving, for example, to see Haitian American superstar Wycleff Jean performing on the continent of Africa underneath the huge African Renaissance monument for an audience that included the 180-odd Haitian students that were given full scholarships to study in the universities in Senegal after the 2010 Haitian earthquake. At the same time, hearing certain Sengalese people’s critique of the extravagant spending on FESMAN when many people in the country are suffering from severe poverty and half the country was (and still is) experiencing power cuts every day, to the extent that they couldn’t even watch the festivities on TV, told the other, more negative side of the celebration. I might add that these same extensive power cuts have been making it very difficult to post my blogs!
I enjoyed immensely the amazing music and art that was presented during FESMAN. At the same time, I also appreciated the way it made me think deeply about the complexities of bringing real tangible social change, prosperity, and recognition to a continent and Diaspora of people who have added so much to global creativity. Music and art is clearly of core importance to the movement that many have dubbed the “African Renaissance”. Despite the complicated intricacies involved, one can’t help but be optimistic for the future.