Dakar, Senegal – In the lively neighbourhood of Medina in Dakar, horse-drawn carts jingle around crowded buses and makeshift stalls sell everything from clothes to mobile phones.
In a narrow alley, behind a bustling street, noisy beats pulsate from a colourful building, a community centre.
Inside, Jah Moko invites young people to write some lyrics on pieces of paper. The Malian born musician is trying to encourage them to become the voice of their communities through music.
“Music is our spiritual battle. It is an engagement to sensitise and educate young people to love our continent and have faith in themselves,” he says.
While some African artists want to move to Europe to pursue opportunities, Jah Moko quit his career as a music producer in France after 10 years to settle in Senegal and create the Jah Moko Family project, a band based in Dakar.
The band’s musical influences include West-African reggae and Afro-beat and they use traditional African sounds.
The players form a multicultural group – the nine members come from Mali, Senegal, Benin, Central African Republic and France.
They sing in the local languages of Bambara and Wolof but also French and English.
“Our music is not easy because it is a statement,” says Moko, who is the lead vocalist and songwriter. “We talk about things that matter to all, such as corruption, immigration, war, justice and access to education. Through our music, maybe we can make people think and change behaviours.”
Johann Gibault, 27, is the bass player and songwriter. He and his mother recently fled their native Central African Republic, exiled by the war, to start a new life in Senegal.
“As long as I can remember, war has always been part of our lives. In Senegal, I found the peace I needed to express myself as an artist,” he says. “Back home everybody had a weapon to kill. My weapon is my music. We do not need guns to fight, we have a powerful gun which is our voices and our words. And we can bring change.”
Despite an annual growth rate of 6.8 percent, unemployment is high in Senegal and the World Bank estimates that only one in four people have a full-time job, while three in five have only seasonal work.
With an estimated 500,000 Senegalese overseas, many families rely on remittances to survive – in 2016 they accounted for 12.6 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).
But a new generation of activists, artists and entrepreneurs is now trying to change that.
Elodie Diatta, known as Melody, is a journalist who presents a music show called Gospel Challenge on DTV. She also produces a radio show that introduces hip-hop and reggae artists to the public.
She believes that young musicians in Senegal are playing an increasingly influential role in shaping the future of the music industry in the country.
“There is a new generation of musicians that choose to produce their music outside major labels and engage with their fans primarily through social media and radio. Take for example artists such as Aklhou Brick, Omzo Daller, Dip Doundou Guiss, Ngakka blinde, all part of the growing hip-hop, rap and reggae scene that makes socially engaged music,” she says.
Senegal has long been celebrated as one of the most dynamic music centres in West Africa, producing international stars such as Youssou N’Dour, Baaba Maal, or Thione Seck.
But according to Diatta, the messaging in music and production have evolved over recent years.
“The previous generation of musicians was making music that reflected their personal experiences but artists today want to speak about problems that society faces such as unemployment, corruption, exclusion, migration. And they want our politicians to bring answers on these issues, ” she concludes.
However, a lack of infrastructure and government support means most artists struggle to survive on music alone.
“Dakar is one of the most musically vibrant cities in Africa, but an independent artist in Senegal cannot make a living from music,” says Birom Ceptik Seck, a rapper and slam poet.
“There is no financial support or any kind of job security and it is extremely difficult to secure a contract or find a venue to play. Performance venues are inaccessible to artists due to the high costs. I have been in the music industry for more than 20 years and I have four albums. I had to invest a lot of money in my music and if I did not have another job, I would not have been able to do so.”
Born in Gabon and living in Senegal, he believes that artists should be encouraged to be more entrepreneurial, to attract advertisers that could sponsor events and concerts.
“The labour market is already saturated, add to this the lack of infrastructure and proper guidance and you have a recipe for failure. But it is difficult to produce quality work when you have no money,” he says.
In the Ouakam neighbourhood, the orange-painted walls of Mandinko Records stand out.
Mandinko is an independent label founded by Freeman, a young Senegalese artist and entrepreneur who wants to help young artists produce quality material and contribute to the growth of the African music industry.
The label, like most of its rivals, is small and cash-strapped, but Freeman remains confident.
“We continue to make music against all odds. When we started we did not know what was going to happen, but we took the risk to invest our money and create a cultural space for African artists. Music can build an identity, stir emotions and engage people to take actions.”
In the label’s brand new recording studio, Jah Moko Family is rehearsing for live shows that begin next week in Les Mamelles. Lead guitarist Pape Matar Faye, 29, is playing his last solo.
Matar is an architect, designing houses in the morning and making music in the evening.
“African countries face many challenges, bad governance, poverty, kids who do not go to school. Music can give to the most destitute a life skill to earn a living but most importantly it can give hope and a vision of the future.”
For Matar making music offers a great opportunity to reach a large audience and convey messages.
“We are the young generation of Africa and it is time that we stand up and change perceptions and stereotypes.”