Those who followed the campaigns leading up to Senegal's presidential election late last month would have been struck by one of the defining features of Senegalese politics - hip-hop artists and the pivotal roles they can play in elections.

A major reason for that: demographics. The average age of citizens there is exceptionally low - just 19. Rappers were among the founders of the country's largest social movement, credited with swaying the previous election back in 2012. This year, all the leading candidates hit the campaign trail with at least one rapper in their corner.

The influence of Senegalese rappers in West Africa and beyond has been pretty extraordinary; one of the most interesting political phenomena I've seen. They were actually able to foment popular movements in multiple West African countries. And so hip-hop artists have really sort of recognised that they can play this role in mobilising the youth. It is a tremendous credit to ... the activism of Senegalese rappers in particular.

Zachariah Mampilly, Professor of Political Science, Vassar College

"Many young people turn to hip-hop artists as being kind of the voice of the streets and providing them [with] a way to think about politics. Especially in the most recent presidential election, the use of rappers was a remarkably cynical attempt by these politicians to gain popularity with youth," says Zachariah Mampilly, professor of Political Science at Vassar College.

But the power of hip-hop as a gateway to Senegal's youth goes beyond politics.

Journal Rappe is a newscast rapped to a beat. Its founders Xuman and Keyti rhyme their take on the news in French and Wolof. They even host debates. Journal Rappe started out on Youtube, but its success in attracting Senegal's digital natives soon caught the attention of mainstream media.

"Traditional media, like television and radio, have had to adapt and catch up with changing times. It's no longer like before when we had a monopoly on the news," says Maimouna Ndour Faye, journalist and presenter at 7STV. "Journal Rappe is a way of simplifying political news, and making it accessible to citizens who might not want to watch news broadcasts. They do not report the news, they do not produce information, they take news already pre-processed by television channels to present it to citizens with a taste of music and it's lovely. It is quite an artistic creation."

The social media boom under way in Africa, driven by young populations and cheap Chinese smartphones, has enabled Journal Rappe to go international and its rappers have kickstarted similar projects across the region.

Rap duo Keur Gui, one of Senegal's most political and most popular groups, are also taking conscious rap beyond Senegal's borders - with more traditional means, and more radical ends. Back in 2011, they helped found the social movement Y'en a Marre - French for "Fed up". 

"For example, we went to Burkina Faso and together with rappers and civil society activists there we created the Balai Citoyen movement, which helped overthrow the president in 2014. We went to the Republic of Congo, to Equatorial Guinea, to Mali, to Gambia, Madagascar, to meet young activists and musicians from various movements, and last year we hosted a gathering with all of them here in Dakar," says Thiat, Keur Gui rapper and cofounder of Y'en a Marre.

"We think hip-hop can serve as an agent of change in Africa, in developing the youth of the future."

The Listening Post's Daniel Turi reports on how hip-hop has become the language of politics for Senegal's youth.

'Hip-hop is meant to be a tool for raising awareness, a tool of social transformation,' says Thiat, Keur Gui rapper and cofounder of Y'en a Marre [screengrab/Al Jazeera]

Source: Al Jazeera