#11 youth
Ben Herson / Eva-Maria Verfürth

Magic Can Happen

Some say music can change the world. Hip-hop music definitely does, according to Benjamin Herson.

It was at the end of the 90s, when the US-American drummer travelled to Senegal for his first time. When strolling around a local market place, he stumbled upon some music shops, and discovered what he'd never expected: a vibrant local hip-hop scene. He was fascinated by the social and political message of the lyrics. And he decided to dedicate his life to it: by launching the Nomadic Wax record label and production studio.

Since that day, Benjamin Herson has been bringing urban sounds from developing countries to an international audience. We talked to him about youth culture in Africa, global hip-hop music, and politics.

Ben, you grew up in New York and worked as a primary school teacher in the US. How did you discover Senegalese urban music?

I travelled to Senegal with a friend of mine in 1999. Back then, I didn't know much about the local music, and I didn't have a clue that there was a hip-hop scene at all. But I was interested in music of course, as I am a drummer myself. While we were at a market, I said to my friend that I'd like to get some music. The vendor first suggested some Bob Marley music to me, but I eventually pointed to some stuff in the back, which turned out to be Senegalese hip-hop.

What fascinated you about the music?

When my friends translated the lyrics for me, I realised that it was the expression of a social movement that no one in the US knew or was talking about. I discovered that people around the globe use hip-hop as a powerful tool to engage with social and political issues. This was before the internet had really grown and information was still spreading slowly. So I decided to bring this music to a Western audience.

You set up a little studio in central Dakar with an open microphone – that meant anyone who passed could simply grab the mic and join in. Then you published your first compilation of Senegalese hip-hop. But as a drummer you used to play Ska and Reggae music, right?

That's true. My initial interest in African music actually emerged through Ska and Reggae. It fascinated me that it was born in the US and picked up and re-interpreted by Jamaican musicians. I discovered that there is a strong connection to the music of the countries once involved in the transatlantic slave trade. When I listened to Senegalese hip-hop, I realised that this process of cultural interpretation was happening in other genres too.

"Young people have taken up this musical genre, adapted it to their cultural backgrounds, and created a social movement through music."

Back in the US, you wrote your undergraduate thesis on the role of hip-hop as a tool for political change in Senegal's 2000 presidential election. What is the political mission of hip-hop in Senegal?

For about 12 years, Abdullah Wade was in power in Senegal. He tried to control the hip-hop movement, but he didn't succeed. Before the elections of 2012, the opposition movement Y'En a Marre ("Fed Up") emerged with the aim of mobilizing Senegal's youth to vote against Wade. It involved artists, activists and journalists. During that time rappers were being arrested, beaten up, or detained without charge. But it was successful: Wade lost in the run-off elections, and now his former Prime Minister Macky Sall is President. Luckily, he doesn't come down on young people the same way Wade did. The hip-hop scene is now figuring out its new role. It is trying to critique the existing power structure in a constructive way. It's a really interesting time for hip-hop in Senegal.

Over a period of years, you produced a trilogy of documentary films on hip-hop and politics in three countries on three different continents: Senegal, France and Haiti. They are called "Democracy in Dakar", "Democracy in Paris" and "Democracy in Haiti". What are the most striking differences between the hip-hop cultures in these places?

There are many differences, but what is most striking are the similarities: young people have taken up this musical genre, adapted it to their circumstances and cultural backgrounds, and created a social movement through music. I found it really striking to see how hip-hop was completely assimilated and morphed according to the specifics of each of these places.

I find that very surprising since most mainstream hip-hop music in the US – where the genre was born – doesn't seem very political.

Music and its message in general tend to have more educational and social value in Africa than most of the mainstream music from the West. But of course I'm generalising a bit – not every rapper in Africa raps exclusively about politics.

In the US hip-hop is often considered gang music. For some people it has a rather bad reputation, since some songs glorify violence. Is this different in African nations?

First of all, the first assumption is not completely true: in the US, hip-hop originally evolved as a counter movement against the gangs. It started in the 1970s in the Bronx, where many young people had nothing to do and were pulled into gangs. At that time, youngsters were performing different types of art like dancing in crazy styles, tagging their names on walls, or performing this new type of music.

Afrika Bambaataa, a gang leader in the "Black Spades", noticed that these different art forms occupied young men in a positive way. So he used the structure of the gang to get them involved – but instead of making crime the gang's central occupation, he chose art as the group's objective. He brought the different art forms together – rapping, DJing, breakdancing and graffiti – and called it hip-hop. This is how he managed to pull a large number of youngsters out of the gang scene and more into the arts. Sadly today, mainly due to the media and the commercialisation of the genre, mainstream hip-hop in the US has changed and acquired this negative gang connotation.

So you are saying that although hip-hop originated as an alternative to the gangs in the US, it has swung back around and gone gangster? How come this is not the case elsewhere in the world, especially in Africa?

The hip-hop scene in Senegal, for instance, was influenced by US pioneers like Public Enemy or Boogie Down Productions. They used music to put forward positive messages. In many places around the world, this was the first experience people had with hip-hop music, and so it laid the foundation for their own hip-hop scenes.

"The fact that these hip-hop scenes have survived is a testament to how dedicated young people are to the art itself."

It's hard for people to make money through music, even in the US and Europe. Does this hold true for African musicians as well?

It is very difficult. The only way to make money is to either do big live concerts or find corporate or governmental sponsors – something that is especially difficult for socially critical music. The fact that these hip-hop scenes have survived is a testament to how dedicated young people are to the art itself. And this was one of the main reasons I founded Nomadic Wax: I wanted to get Senegalese music out and market it to an international audience.

Apart from marketing and producing music, Nomadic Wax also does a lot of educational activities both in the US and in Africa. What do you tell college students in the US?

When we started these activities, the fact that hip-hop was used as a means for social change in other countries was a brand-new concept for most students. They were very curious and wanted to know more about it. This has changed a lot thanks to the internet. Many American students have already read about Y'En a Marre or other social movements. I frequently meet students who have done some travelling and know much more about the hip-hop scene in say Kenya than I do.

Let's look at the other end – what activities do you implement in African countries?

We always work with local partners and ask them what they need. Then we try to fill the void. Last year, for example, we worked with a civil society organisation (CSO) called Africulturban, which is organising a hip-hop academy. In a month-long workshop we taught 20 Senegalese youngsters how to produce documentary films. Another project is planned for June: we'll be organising a rapper exchange between the US and Dakar. They'll give concerts together and also produce an album.

"When you get different groups of people together who might have nothing in common on the surface, magic can happen."

These projects sound pretty similar to traditional development cooperation. Would you recommend that development actors involve artists in their work?

Definitely! Actors and musicians have such unique and refreshing perspectives. We once did a project that involved both musicians and CSOs for the first time ever. Together they collected ideas for songs and artistic collaborations to promote the issues that were important to the CSOs. What I learned from this experience is that when you get different groups of people together who might have nothing in common on the surface, magic can happen: they might come up with incredible ideas. Furthermore, I would strongly recommend that traditional development projects always incorporate a local perspective. I know they do bring in local partners quite often already, but they never manage to make them co-owners of the project.

How would you describe the atmosphere among African youths today? Are they optimistic and ready to take action, or are they rather discouraged?

Personally I have experienced a lot of optimism among young people. There is all this optimism around technology and new media. In the past, many African societies were almost entirely closed off from the rest of the world. But the young people of today are completely open to the rest of the world and know so much about what is happening globally. They are connected, and there is a real hunger and desire to engage.

Who is your favourite hip-hop artist personally?

I'm particularly impressed by the group Keur Gui, one of the most socially engaged groups in Senegal. Their music is great, as is their message and their desire to use music as a tool for social purposes.

As a global hip-hop expert, do you have any recommendations for me? Where should I start if I want to discover new music?

We published two compilation series, "Internationally Known" and "Diaspora", which are available for free download and present many great hip-hop artists. I would suggest that you start by listening to these compilations, and then dig deeper on your own. There are so many artists getting their music out on social media channels! It's really easy to find and discover great music; you just have to start looking.

Nomadic Wax

is a fair trade record label and production company. Its aim is to use music, media and arts as tools to educate a Western audience on issues of global importance and provide a platform for cultural exchange. Nomadic Wax works with musicians from all over the world, primarily in the hip-hop genre.

In the beginning, the company's main goal was to produce CDs and provide musicians with revenue. But the development of the internet and the fact that many people now download music has made it very difficult to monetise music. Early on, from 2001 to 2005, Nomadic Wax began focusing more on educational activities at universities and colleges. In 2007, the team started work on their first documentary film. Since then, Nomadic Wax has produced a trilogy on hip-hop and politics in Senegal, France and Haiti. In 2010, Nomadic Wax also began doing educational work in Africa.

Nomadic Wax's is entirely staffed by volunteers, although organising events on college campuses has provided an opportunity to generate some revenue for both Nomadic Wax and the artists involved. Today Nomadic Wax has successfully brought together limited funding for some individual projects, but staff members still volunteer their time on most others.

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