The History of Senegalese Hip Hop

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Hip hop has obtained widespread popularity through its complexed culture and meticulous style of expression. It has always been the voice of the Black inner-city youth. The traditions and culture of hip hop manifested to new areas across the world, one area in particular is the West African county of Senegal. The rise of Senegalese hip hop was more than just another form of music – its empowered people’s lives and was used to address issues such as education, poverty, violence, racism and government. African hip hop artists were notorious for utilizing their talents to voice their frustration towards the government. American-Senegalese hip hop artist, Akon wrote music to address social and political issues while improving millions of African lives through his charitable work and initiative. In this paper, I will discuss briefly the history of Senegal, the origin of hip hop, the hip hop scene in Senegal, and the life and contribution of Senegalese-American artist, Akon.

The Country of Senegal

The area that is known as Senegal today was once part of the West African Empire of Mali, Ghana and Tekur. In the early 16th century, Portuguese traders made contact with coastal kingdoms, and became the first in a long line of ‘interested’ foreigners: the British, French and Dutch soon followed, jostling for control of strategic points where slaves bound for the Americas could be collected. Ultimately, French gained control over the land. After three centuries of French rule, Senegal became an independent country on April 4, 1960 under the leadership of the writer and statesman, Leopold Senghor, and with the short-lived union of territories from the Sudanese Republic and Senegal creating the Mali Federation .

Independence Day – The First President

The Mali Federation help Senegal develop its first functional government. Due to his work in the national assembly in Paris as early as 1946, Leopold Senghor was named the first president of independent Senegal. He provided Senegal with a constitution to give executive power to presidents. He also authorized the formation of two opposition parties in 1976, the Democratic and Socialist Party. The socialist party has been the dominate party for 40 years. This prompt more political parties to emerge. Soon a restricted number of parties were only recognized. However, the political power in Senegal would significantly change in the year 2000. In this era, Mr. Abdoulaye Wade, founder of the Democratic Party, would beat President Abdou Diouf, belonging to the Socialist Party. After 12 years of his presidency, he was defeated by Macky Sall on March 25, 2012.

Ethnic Group: Wolof

The largest ethnic group is the Wolof, which makes up over 35% of the population. The official language belongs to the Atlantic group of the Niger-Congo language family. A high percentage of Wolof practices the Muslim religion. The population is approximately 16 million people including indigenous people, and a non-African population that are mostly Lebanese and French. About 3 million people reside at Dakar, the capital of Senegal. It is considered one of the poorest countries in the world despite their abundance of natural resources including phosphates, iron ore, fish, and etcetera.

Economy of Senegal

The economic system is based solely on agriculture, industrial arts and trade. The division of labor was arranged by two major factors: social status and gender. Men occupations in the higher hierarchy include historians, praise singer and drummer (griots), leatherworker, smith, political and religious leaders. Occupations in the lower social group include house building, fishing, herding and clearing fields. Women occupations are comprised of gathering wild plants; drawing water; caring for children; managing the household; engaging in trade; planting, weeding and harvesting crops.

Sociopolitical Organization

Wolof society has been described to have a complexed system of social stratification. Historically, the society was organized into a hierarchy of castes, a rigid structure in which descendants of royal lines and nobles ruled over artisan castes and slaves (Diajayette, 2018). This system kept the elites in power and had a devastating affect on the poor. The elites created a new means for achieving power through the market economy and the development of the educational system. This broken system would carry to modern day Senegal.

According to the Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Wolof political system has been characterized by authoritarianism, manipulation, exploitation, intrigue and factionalism (Encyclopedia of World Cultures, 1996). Prior to Senegal independence, each village was ruled by a powerful headman, and then they would appoint chief to collect taxes and tributes. Many people believed that the new government system was working in favor of the elites and against the poor. The new government prioritized in creating economic prosperity, providing a systematic youth educational system, cut down poverty and improve the well-being of the population in low-income areas.

The Origin of Hip Hop

In the late 1970s, American hip hop as both a musical genre and culture has become gradually popular amongst predominantly African-American youth. The initial message of hip hop can be described as an outlet for youth reflecting on the social, economic and political realities of their lives. Rap artists and groups like Sugarhill Gang, Public Enemy, Run DMC and Afrika Bambaataa used their platform to spread their message. The hip hop mark of diversification began in the mid-1980s as other regions of America began to create their own style. Styles such as Southern rap (Tennessee, Georgia and Florida), Midwestern rap (Missouri, Illinois, Ohio) to Western rap (California) began to emerge and add new affluences to the hip hop culture. The culture has evolved over the last 40 years, with the emerging subgenres of hip hop (East and West coast, crunk, snap, gangsta and trap), innovation to obtain music digitally (streaming services), and globalization of hip hop.

The Hip Hop Scene in Senegal

The hip hop movement began in Senegal in 1984 with the arrival of the break dance craze and recordings of African rappers (Charry, 83). The appeal of the beats of hip-hop music and the message American hip hop carried naturally became fashionable (Bassene, 22). The urban African youth could relate to the American narrative regarding poverty, education, unemployment, violence, government corruption and human rights. Hip hop was more than a new style of music in Africa, but rather a new form of expression.

Hip hop in Senegal serves as a medium for youth disempowered by a combination of traditional and postcolonial power structures that leave them voiceless in domestic, economic and political forums (Appert, 2016, p. 243). New rap artists and groups emerged to voice their frustrations with the current conditions of their country. The most prominent rap group to come out of Dakar was Positive Black Soul, also known as PBS (members, DJ Awadi and Doug E. Tee). PBS had great success in establishing a local style of hip hop and were known for promoting political activity and activism in other areas. Examples of tracks promoting their message are: Je Ne Sais (1995), Return of the Djelly (1995), and L’Afrique (1997). In a 2001 interview with RFI radio, host Gerarad Bar-David sat with both members and asked, “Do you feel your African hip hop is trying to set some kind of example to the international community?”

“DJ Awadi replied, “African hip hop is still in its early days compared to hip hop in the States or Europe. But that’s because we lack certain basic infrastructures. We were determined to sing in our own language and jazz things up by throwing in a bit of French or English here and there…

… it’s the same thing with our instruments – we use instruments from our culture.”

(Bar-David, 2001)”

Elements of Hip Hop in Senegal – Mbalax and Tassu

Senegalese hip hop is a combination of Mbalax rap element with strong musical traditions, including Tassu and American hip hop. Mbalax is a genre of Senegalese urban popular dance music, dominate mostly in Dakar. It is known for its “modern” style, like jazz R&B, Rumba, highlife (Niegerian and Ghanaian pop), and Makossa (Cameroonian pop) (Mangin, 2013, p. 97). Mbalax is accompany with sabar drumming, a small instrument used by percussionist from the Wolof ethnic group (Fadel Lo, 2015). By the late 1980s, mbalax was mainstream and considered the dominant genre of music in Senegal. This was led by three vocal groups: Youssou N’Dour et super Etoile, Thione Seck et Raam Daan, and Omar Pene et Super Diamono (Mangin, p. 98).

The predecessor of rapping was known as Tassu, the traditional verbal art form. Taasu is a traditional Senegalese Wolof oral art of rhythmic panegyrics, involving the declamation of heightened rhythm speech over accompanying percussion (Charry, 2012, p. 85). Taasu was practiced for centuries by women and men, especially by male griots. Known typically for its improvisation, it is also performed in a variety of contexts, ranging from neighborhood parties, life-cycle ceremonies and women’s association meeting to airing political discontent and general entertainment.

Documentary – African Underground

In 2009, Ben Herson and Magee McIlvaine film a documentary title, “African Underground: Demoncracy in Dakar”. This 7-part documentary goes in-depth on the hip hop scene in Dakar. The film follows Senegalese rappers, DJ, professors and people on the street as they examine hip hop’s role on the political process before and after the controversial 2007 presidential election. In 2000, the people elected president Abdoulaye Wade to serve the country. President Wade made promises to improve the country. People suggest that no changes had been made and that the conditions have worsen since his presidency. Senegalese hip hop artist, Baat Sen express that:

“The music is our weapon. We (the people) don’t have any pistols, any bazookas or any cannons. But we have our voice and it’s a terrible weapon.” (Herson & McIlvaine, 2009).

The Story of Akon

Early Years

His father, Mor Dogo Thiam, was a Senegalese drummer, cultural historian and traditional jazz musician; his mother, Kine Gueye Thiam, was a dancer. Married with a total of six children; four sons and one daughter, the couple moved to St. Louis, Missouri prior to giving birth to Akon, born Aliaume Damala Badara Akon Thiam, on April 16, 1973. After Akon’s birth, his family returned to their native land Dakar, Senegal, West Africa. After seven years of living in Dakar, the family decided to relocate back to United States where they settled in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Mor Thiam is a descendant of the Dagon tribe of Senegal whose members use drums to tell stories of the Wolof people. His instruments include tama, sabar, djembe and other African membranophones. Mor made a living teaching drumming at many major African and American Universities, including the University of Dakar in Senegal, the University of Miami and Boston University. Kine spent her time taking care of the household.

Growing up, Akon was a mischievous child who continuously got in trouble at school and in the community. He had a hard time getting along with other children due to his accent and dark skin. He began to lash out violently towards other children who picked on him. His reputation ended with him hanging with local gang members. He started to commit crimes in his area: robbery, fights, drug distribution and car theft. He was jailed multiple times for his crimes. He knew that this life of crime was going to end with him being dead in the streets. Akon sought music as an outlet to change his behavior and turn his life around.

Akon started to develop a passion and love for music, specifically hip hop. His father taught him how to play the drums and djembe. He also picked up the guitar, piano and began to sing. As a teenager, he grew up appreciating the hip-hop culture and could relate. He began writing and performing his songs around the local area. After completing high school, his mother and father relocated to Atlanta, Georgia and Akon stayed with his older brother in Jersey City. He saved enough money to open a barber shop in Jersey City. Music became more of a hobby because music was not giving him the success he was seeking. One day in the barber shop, he met Haitian hip hop artist, Wyclef Jean from the Fugees, in New Jersey and they became good friends. Wyclef encouraged Akon to pursuit his music career and recommend that the Atlanta area would be a great location to start. Akon moved in with his parents. He enrolled briefly at Clark Atlanta University and left after the first semester to focus on recording music.

Music Career: 2003 – Present

He is characterized around the music industry as a hybrid artist with West African-styled vocals mixed with East Coast and Southern beats. He received his first record deal with Columbia Records in 2003. Over the next decade, he would publish four albums and collaborate with over 50 performers; Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Lady Gaga, Snoop Dogg, Lauren Hill, Wyclef and the Fugees; Usher and Eminem contribute to his success as an artist. As his success grew, Akon invested in several recording studios in the Atlanta area where he gave artists free time to record music. His actions resulted in numerous recording artists landing record deals from the usage of his studio. He would personalize utilize his studio late hours (mainly between 4AM and 7AM) to record his music. In an interview with journalist, with Travis Gonzalez, he stated that:

“I was the kind of person that didn’t voice my concerns and business to too many people, so I would head into the studio in the early morning and vent and lay down my experiences in the studio (Gonzalez, 2016).”

Each album features material regarding his personal life, his growth and success, speak to social issues around the world and pay homage to his Senegalese roots.

His first album debut in 2004 is titled “Trouble”. The top tracks from his album were ‘1. “Locked Up”, “3. Senegal”, “5. Ghetto’ and “8. Lonely”. This eleven-track album has a deep, emotional feeling that is linked to Akon’s early childhood. Most of Akon’s songs begin with the sound of the clank of a jail cell’s door with him uttering the word “Konvict”. The first track, Locked Up, focuses on his past lifestyle; dealing drugs and robbery, reflecting on his experience in prison and how he created a new vision for the future. In a 2018 CNCB Life interview, Akon explained that:

“In prison, I continued to write music on my experience and was inspired to write, Locked Up, that was considered the anthem of my cell pod. I remember an old cellmate came up to me and said if you put as much hustle in your gift as you did in the street, it’s no way you can’t be successful. Life is all about choices… it all depends on where you put your energy (CNBC, 2018)”.

Senegal provides Akon’s interpretation of the ghetto in Senegal. The line, “So what you know about…?” is used by Akon throughout the song to reference new topics on his personal experience from living struggles (poverty), the history of slavery, war to his favorite food, his religion and the importance of investing:

Verse 1:

So what you know about the struggles

That my people went through

So you can live the way you live now?

So what you know about seeing

That brand new mother givin’ away her newborn child?

So what you know about Mr.Amadou Diallo

The Senegalese cop shot down?

So what you know about

How people love to perceive us

When we come into a brand new town?

So what you know about the Goree Islands

Where all the slaves were shipped from?

So what you know about

Being born in America to avoid immigration?

Verse 2:

So what you know about Tchebou Dje

Yassa, Deraay and Maafay, my favorite foods?

So what you know about niggas throwin’ rocks

Bustin’ shots at the military invadin’ my hood?

So what you know about kids with automatic machines

Waiting for the war to get on that side?

So what you know about how God comes first in our lives?

Everything that we do is for Allah

So what you know about that Holy place called Touba

Where Prophets were born?

So what you know about comin’ here

Gettin’ money and investing it back home?

Following the success from his first album, Akon started his new record label, Kon Live Distribution under Interscope Records.

In November 2006, he released his second album, Konvicted. The album sold over a million copies in the U.S. in six weeks. Two of the most infamous tracks to come off this album is his first single “Smack That (ft. Eminen)” and his fourth single “Mama Africa”. “Mama Africa” was very symbolic for everybody with African descendants. Nnamdi O. Madichie provided a discourse analysis on the lyrics. Verse 1 focuses the aspects of motherhood and Diasporic chords:

  • A – this is for all the love and the life took away
  • F – don’t forget we were born in trade
  • R – ripped from the land and shipped away
  • I – is the inspiration we used to survive
  • C – have to see it with your own cries
  • A – don’t play, add it up and alright (Madichie, 2011, p. 184)

In verse 2, Akon’s lyrics reference the “poor media coverage” of Africa and points out the positive aspects. He makes it known that the only way to know the truth about Africa is to travel and see it for yourself:

  • A – that’s my favorite place when I need to get away
  • F – must forget but we can’t forget to pray
  • R – like Lance riding on the runway
  • I – in my homeland and I’m feeling so alive
  • C – hear me chant Africa unite
  • A – going to accept mass alright

Still you don’t know, Skin is so dark and brown,

She lifts me right off the ground,

But no you’re not gonna see it on your TV (p. 183)

Akon’s last two albums were “Freedom”, released on December 2, 2008 and “Stadium”, which is still in progress. Akon starts to segue from the music industry and focus on entrepreneurship by creating business opportunities for low-income individuals, developing a clothing line and programs that would have a lasting effort on people.

Lighting Africa – Solar Power Initiative

In 2014, Akon founded a project that would provide 600 million Africans with electricity in 15 countries. Populations in Africa are suffering from the lack of energy. People residing in isolated towns and villages, far from the capital cities, struggle to carry out their day to day functions. Akon witnessed a need for affordable, clean and endless energy. With the help of co-founders, leader Thione Niang and entrepreneur Samba Bathily, they developed the Akon Lighting Africa initiative. This vision for Lighting Africa is to:

  • Allow school children and students to do their homework and pass their exams.
  • Allow shopkeepers, tradesmen and cooks to work and small businesses to expand their activities and revenues.
  • Provide a great opportunity for families who will be saved from using pollutant, toxic and costly domestic fuels such as kerosene.
  • Ensure better access to information, through the radio, television or computer, and improve communications as the people will be able to recharge mobile phones faster and cheaper.
  • Empower the young people of Africa, who account for 70% of the population and who will be responsible for driving growth. (AKON LIGHTING AFRICA).

The project partnered with key figures, such as the National Basketball Association (NBA), SUMEC, LORENTZ, GAUFF Engineering, LUCAS NULLE (LN), Give 1 Project and ADS (Africa Development Solutions) Groupe to aid in creating an energy source.


Senegal is in rich culture and uphold traditions with an insecure government system. Young Senegalese were growing frustrate with their current political system. When the hip hop music and culture landed in Africa between the 1980s and early 1990s, this caused a musical and cultural revolution. The emerged of young Senegalese rapper develop their abilities to express their frustration and connect with the millions of people. Akon is very innovative and influential. He finds the Senegalese culture near and dear to himself. It is apparent that Akon has contributed a lot to society in socio economics, entrepreneurships and both the hip scenes in the United States and in Senegal, also in philanthropy. He is very socially cognizant and has used his music as an outlet to enlighten his people to motivate them.

Works Cited

  1. AKON LIGHTING AFRICA. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://akonlightingafrica.com/our-activities/overview/
  2. Appert, C.M. Locating hip hop origins: Popular music and tradition in Senegal. (2016). Africa: The Journal of the International African Institute, 86(2), 237-262.
  3. Bar-David, G. (2001, March 30). RFI Radio Interview with Positive Black Soul.
  4. Charry, Eric. (2012). Hip Hop Africa New African Music in a Globalizing World (African expressive cultures). Bloomington; Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
  5. CNBC Life Interview with Akon. (2018, January 25). Retrieved October 18, 2018, from https://www.cnbc.com/video/2018/01/25/akon-i-did-everything-in-my-power-not-to-get-locked-up.html
  6. Diajayette, M. (2018). Cultural of Senegal. Retrieved October 16, 2018 from https://www.everyculture.com/Sa-Th/Senegal.html
  7. Gonzalez, T.J. Interview. (2016, August 30). Akon Makes Announcement of nomination for the 50th Annual Grammy Awards. Retrieved October 18, 2018, from https://uinterview.com/news/akon-bio-words/attachment/akon-3/
  8. Herson, B. & McIlvaine, M. (2009, February 22). African Underground: Democracy in Dakar – Episode 1 – 3. Retrieved October 17, 2018, from
  9. Madichie, N. (2011). Marketing Senegal through hip-hop – a discourse analysis of Akon’s music and lyrics. Journal of Place Management and Development, 4(2), 169-197.
  10. Mangin, T., Lewis, George E., Larkin, Brian, Ochoa, Ana, & Washburne, Christopher. (2013). Mbalax: Cosmopolitanism in Senegalese Urban Popular Music, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.
  11. Lo, F. (2015, February 9). Mbalax in Senegal. Retrieved from https://www.musicinafrica.net/magazine/mbalax-senegal
  12. ‘Wolof.’ Encyclopedia of World Cultures. Retrieved October 19, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/wolof


Cite this paper

The History of Senegalese Hip Hop. (2021, Oct 26). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/the-history-of-senegalese-hip-hop/



What West African country started rap music?
Rap music started in West African country, Senegal. The music was created by DJ's who mixed traditional Senegalese music with American hip hop.
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Who invented hip hop?
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Who is the best rapper in Senegal?
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