Bundung, The Gambia – “If you don’t stand for anything. You will fall for anything. Anything, anything. Anything, anything,” blast the speakers of a yellow and green taxi in the Gambian capital Banjul as cars jostle for space during the afternoon rush hour.
“Twenty years Yahya done for me anything. Anything, anything. Anything, anything,” a rapper shouts angrily as the dreadlocked driver and his passengers rhyme along.
A short distance away in Kairaba Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare, on a newspaper stand beside the road, the cover of G-life magazine reads ANYTHING. It is a reference to the song that was playing in the taxi.
Big Faa is the rapper behind it. A 30-year-old father-of-one, he penned the protest song that has grabbed the nation’s attention as a way to share his frustrations following more than two decades of rule by The Gambia’s former president, Yahya Jammeh.
“Since I was a child I saw a lot of things but I could not open my mouth,” he explains as he prepares for a show in Banjul. “Anyone could report you to Jammeh’s people and you might not be seen again.”
“For example, the drug squads who were supposed to stop people from selling drugs were themselves selling weed and other drugs. If you said anything they will arrest you,” Big Faa adds.
Jammeh, who came to power through a military coup in 1994, was forced from power by the regional force ECOWAS in January after refusing to concede defeat in December’s election. He went into exile in Equatorial Guinea and many Gambians now say they feel free to express themselves for the first time in decades.
“My latest song, Anything, is about corruption and how it stops us from moving forward. It also talks about things like prostitution and how when the girls bring the money from prostitution home no one says anything,” he says, holding a book in one hand and a mic in the other.
‘Jammeh feared musicians’
Unlike neighbouring Senegal, which has a vibrant music scene, the industry in The Gambia has been heavily restricted and underfunded. Many musicians who felt unable to freely express themselves went into exile.
MC Mbaye is another artist breaking his silence after years of staying out of the limelight in Banjul. He is hoping to capitalise on the country’s new-found freedom. In a two-bedroom house outside the city he is writing and recording a mix tape that he hopes will put him at the top of the country’s music charts.
“You could not make money as a musician unless you were singing songs praising Jammeh,” he says. “He corrupted some musicians by giving them money and they made songs for him and also performed for him.
“The whole country has no music school or a good standard studio. Jammeh saw us as a threat and feared we will challenge him,” Mbaye adds.
It wasn’t only musicians who felt restricted under the rule of the former president. In the town of Bundung, as students at Nusrat Secondary school play football during their break time, teacher Musa Bah is putting the final touches to his latest poem.
It is about presidential term limits and is a warning to the new president, Adama Barrow, not to dare stay in power beyond two five-year terms.
“We have to let our politicians know that they are here to serve us,” he explains. “That they can’t just stay in power until they die.”
Bah says that even when times were tough, he never stopped writing.
“During Jammeh’s time I still wrote poems. I wrote them in such a way that it was not easy for them to fully understand. I left room for doubt,” he says, as his students gather at the window to listen in.
“I have seen colleagues going to prison and their loved ones living in fear. But now we are free to write. I write one poem a day and my focus now is on topical issues.”
Across The Gambia the mood is upbeat. Songs about love and politics can both be heard on the airwaves.
No more radio silence
At Paradise FM they no longer just play love songs; they also take calls from listeners who want to discuss politics and current affairs.
“I have been a radio DJ for 15 years and this is the first time I can play any song I want without the fear of been arrested,” says Kebba Camara, popularly known as DJ Kepz, just before going on air for his weekly three-hour-long Thursday night music show.
“They were always listening to everything that went on air. During Jammeh’s time if I played a song they did not like they will raid and shut down the whole station,” he adds.
“It was not easy. As a DJ when you see a talented artist the least you can do for them is give them airtime. But we could not play songs from many artists because of the political message they carried.”
But artists such as Big Faa believe they no longer have to worry about that.
“My whole life changed the day Jammeh was kicked out,” he says as a hint of a smile flashes across his face. “Now we don’t just get air play but get mobbed by crowds singing our songs everywhere we go. It is a new dawn and great time to be Gambian.”
Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa