Giving politicians a lyrical trashing

As far as rap group Keur Gui are concerned, nothing has changed in Senegal.

Rapper Thiat of Keur Gui in a still from the music video for "Diogoufi."

You’re heading straight to jail after that song is released” is what 25 year old rapper LDP said to the two members of Keur Gui (“the house,” in Wolof) when he heard the lyrics of their track “Diogoufi” (Nothing has Changed) the first single off their recently released double volume album titled “Encyclopédie.”

For those who need reminding, Keur Gui – consisting of rappers Kilifeu and Thiat – were founding members of the Senegalese youth-led protest movement, Y’en a Marre (Fed Up). Keur Gui is arguably one of the most engaged hip hop acts on the African continent today.

After being away from the scene for a few years, the duo set off a media storm in August when they dropped the single. Thiat’s verse is a somber reflection on the situation in the country. It includes lyrics like:

same cats, same dogs
same electoral promises
it’s only two years and we’re already fed up.

Kilifeu then enters singing the catchy lyrics to the chorus, which translates to something along the lines of: “the way you wake up is the way you will go to bed … You go straight to jail if you dare speak out.” The ultimate message seem to be that nothing has changed in the country but the president.

The song addresses the economic situation, power cuts, soaring prices for basic necessities, the selling off of coastal land to international entities, and most controversial, rumors about the interference of the first lady in matters of government. They also assert that current president, Macky Sall, was pushed into power by accident and ultimately has no solutions for Senegal. The track quickly became an anthem for the population. Thiat and Kilifeu were not arrested; however it wasn’t long before they started to feel the ripple effects of their critique as sponsors slowly dropped them. Thiat and Kilifeu were not to be silenced.

Keur Gui’s activism started when they were just 17 years old. Their first album set to be released in 1999 was thought to be too critical of the government especially against President Abdou Diouf and Le Haut Conseil de l’audiovisue (High Audio Visual Council) required that they change four out of the six tracks. The album was in essence censored and never released. Another track directly criticized Abdoulaye Diack, the then Mayor of their hometown of Kaolack for the difficult social situation experienced by its residents. The young duo were beaten by men sent by the mayor, arrested and stripped of their clothes. This is why they go shirtless during concerts, because they say; never again will anyone have the opportunity to strip them.

Keur Gui was not discouraged; they went on to release several albums over the years that tackled a variety of social and political issues. In 2008, Keur Gui returned with “Nos Connes Doléances” (Our Idiots Complaints)—a French pun of “Condolences”—an album that sought to both entertain and educate. That album led to numerous awards and they became recognized continent-wide for a brand of conscious hip-hop that confronts elements of bad governance and corruption. (Check out “Coup 2 Gueule” (Lets Act on our Words) from their 2008 album.)

Even though they were widely recognized as conscious rappers, Keur Gui rose to another level of international fame as founding members of the Y’en a Marre movement that shook the Senegalese nation to its core when a collective of rappers and journalists joined forces to declare we’re fed up. Since the intensity of the protest movement died down, people wondered how Kilifeu and Thiat would interact with the new government that many imagine they helped to elect. The duo wanted to get back to the business of hip hop and went into the laboratory to concoct an al-bomb they say.

The album was recorded over a five-month period at The House Studios in Washington DC. They emerged with their encyclopedia in two volumes: “Opinion Public” and “Reglement de Compte” (The reckoning). :Opinion Public” is a reflection on the state of Senegal, the future of the country and their take on continent-wide issues. The reckoning is a classic hip hop battle style album where they aim to quiet those who asked if they are still serious players in the Senegalese hip hop game.

They then released their second single “Nothing to Prove,” which is a classic ego trip song. On this track we see that Thiat and Kilifeau are clearly in sync as they share verses in order to argue that Keur Gui has “nothing to lose, nothing to prove.” They tell other rappers we fear nothing and have no equals, we never back down. We spit medicine for those in real need. We provide real solutions to problems. They further assert that they are the only hip hop crew that can give the government a deadline and are prepared to sacrifice our lives for the masses that we represent. We gave y’all a break, but now we’re back.

There are tracks for people with all types of tastes. General, a young rapper in Senegal noted, “Public Opinion is for the intellectuals but The Reckoning, wow that shows Keur Gui is the best.”   One thing that’s for certain, Keur Gui has maintain their hard hitting, in your face style. The track Dankanfou (Warning) is deceptive with its serene piano and slower flow that draw the listener in. The song is a warning to Macky Sall as Kilifeu starts with,

what kicked out Diouf
pulled down Wade
is warming up Macky and later, your grace period is over
life is still so hard.

They warn Sall that he did not learn the lesson from the 2011-2012 protest movement but they take it further back by citing Diouf and Wade because youth were instrumental in helping to vote both out of office.

There are also songs like “France a Fric” that address France’s history and contemporary policies across Africa or No Comment that calls out everyone from Mugabe to Gbagbo. Personal tracks are also incorporated. In “Alma Noop” (Listen to Me), they speak to the next generation as Kilifeu passes on lessons to his son and Thiat to his imagined future daughter. While in “Fima Diar” (My History) Thiat talks about his life journey that led to meeting Kilifeu.

Keur Gui fans will be impressed by their evolution as they vary their technical flow; Thiat changes up his rhyme pattern and Kilifeu excels at his rapping and singing hybrid; have hooks in English, French, and Spanish; include a number of collaborations with DC-based musicians especially the Grammy nominated emcee Kokayi; blend hip hop and African sounds with traditional African instruments; and highlight Senegalese beat makers who are represented on 20 of the 26 tracks. Yet they remain true to their roots as they provide social commentary and give politicians and other rappers a lyrical thrashing. The album is a musical, personal, political, and ideological experience.

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.