THE INTERSECTION OF hip-hop and activism gets a lot of lip service in the U.S., but the reality is that popular rap music is still mostly about the bling, not the political ring. That’s not the case in Senegal, where political hip-hop thrives.

Ben Herson (Nomadic Wax) and Magee McIlvaine (Sol Productions) have been documenting the Senegalese hip-hop scene with a series of CDs and documentary films, including the multi-part “African Underground: Democracy in Dakar,” which can be viewed in its entirety on Brightcove.com. The duo will present the movie and discuss their activities on Wednesday at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, followed by an after party at Club Peju in Bethesda, featuring performances by African hip-hoppers Moussa Sall (Senegal), Dumi Right (Zimbabwe) and Salim Diallo (Mali).


» EXPRESS: How did you get interested in Senegal — its music and its politics?
» HERSON: I started this project in 1999 with my college thesis titled “Fat Beats, Dope Rhymes and Thug Lives: Youth, Hip-Hop and Politics in Dakar.” It was an undergraduate dissertation about the role of hip-hop on the political landscape in Dakar during the 2000 presidential election. After I finished writing the thesis in 2000, I stayed in touch with the MCs who I had been interviewing over the past few years and they asked me if I would be interested in producing or distributing some of their music abroad.

Though I had been playing music professionally and recording, I had never produced a record from the ground up before. I called my cousin — and now co-producer — Dan Cantor of Notable Productions and the two of us went over with a hard disc recorder and a few microphones in the summer of 2001. That recording session focused primarily on groups who had been involved in the underground hip-hop scene in Dakar — who at the time, I felt, were not getting the attention they deserved. Those songs ended up on the “African Underground: Hip-Hop Senegal” compilation — the first of an ongoing series of underground hip-hop compilations, and now films, from Africa. The most recent one, “African Underground: Depths of Dakar,” is now out on Nomadic Wax.

» MCILVAINE: I spent my childhood in between Southeast D.C. and Southern and Eastern Africa. With over half of my childhood spent in Zambia, Kenya and Tanzania, the various cultures, languages, and musical styles had a significant impact on my life. As music became more and more a part of my life, I found myself resorting to the musical sounds of my childhood. When I first heard African hip-hop, specifically Positive Black Soul of Senegal, something clicked. It was a kind of music that matched my own experiences at that moment. Hip-hop had been taken from the U.S. and, throughout Africa, made into something new and unique.

Throughout college, I had an international hip-hop radio show and organized small concerts as well. In 2005, I studied abroad in Senegal and this cemented my interest in African hip-hop, particularly Senegalese. Seeing it with my own eyes, the music, the culture, and meeting the artists who I had been listening to from thousands of miles away was an incredible experience. Upon my return to the U.S., I contacted Ben of Nomadic Wax — the only label in the U.S. promoting Senegalese hip-hop — and we began to organize shows together. With a few others, we organized the first-ever-in-the-U.S. international hip-hop festival. That year — my final year in college — I did my senior thesis, which was a documentary film examining the ties between West African griot culture and hip-hop in the U.S. today.

Those projects really cemented my ties with Ben and Nomadic Wax and pushed my involvement in international hip-hop to a professional level. After graduating from college, I began a nonprofit film production company with two other friends. After filming the presidential elections in Venezuela and gaining a great deal of experience filming politics in a potentially unstable country, Ben approached us with the idea of filming the elections in Senegal.

» EXPRESS: How many “Democracry in Dakar” segments are you planning on making?
» HERSON: The “African Underground: Democracy in Dakar” series was filmed and edited on location in Dakar, Senegal. There are six episodes that were recorded during our 2007 trip to Dakar and one segment recorded in New York City and D.C. with Senegalese living abroad. We are currently in the process of editing a 65-minute piece with all the segments to be screened as a feature length documentary.

In April and May the Sol Productions team continued the “African Underground” film series in France with “Democracy in Paris” — a similar series of shorts also focused on the role of hip-hop and politics, but this time in France. We’re working on continuing the series on other countries as well. The goal is to take this format of guerrilla style film making, journalism, video blogging and music production to other countries in Africa. The top choices where we have some excellent contacts are Sierra Leone, Morocco, Kenya and Tanzania.


» EXPRESS: What do you hope these videos inspire in the viewers?
» HERSON: To create a dialog about the role of youth and hip-hop culture on the political, social and cultural landscape in around the world, especially Africa.

Western audiences are becoming acquainted with and interested in urban or nontraditional African culture thought films like “Blood Diamond,” “Tsotsi,” “The Constant Gardener,” etc. We’re looking to take this dialog a bit further and let those living in Africa talk about their experience for themselves. Documentary film is an excellent medium to both reach a captive audience as well as create a platform for people to express themselves.

Part of the concept for this was to use the Internet as a way to facilitate the dissemination of this in both the Western world as well as Africa. Each time we completed a part of the series it was immediately released on every viral media channel that we could access — YouTube, MySpace, Current TV, etc. — in an effort to allow others to watch it, repost it and blog about it. In that sense, it was a massive success. The first episode went to number one on Current TV in only a month and Senegalese people were watching the episodes in the thousands. It’s been amazing to see how both a Western audience as well as an African one has gravitated to the story.

» MCILVAINE: We are among the first to really use music, film, and the Internet for a political purpose. Our films had a political impact in that they told a story that no one else was telling and were picked up by all the major Senegalese media sources. As it was free and on the Internet, anyone could repost them, and we watched as the videos began to spring up everywhere. And with each new reposting of them, we saw the online conversations and dialogue grow.

For Senegalese, these films have had a major impact on the Senegalese diaspora communities. For non-Senegalese, we have watched as thousands of people from all over the world have compared the situation there to their own, from Australia to the U.S. What became quickly obvious was that, even if you are not Senegalese, there is much to learn from this story.


» EXPRESS: Did you face any difficulties from politicians or police while making the videos? And have you heard from any Senegalese authorities since the videos have gone online?
» HERSON: At the time of making the videos we had virtually no problems at all. Everything is rather informal in Senegal and, for the most part, no one really seemed to care we were filming. Having said that, no one in the government knew that we were making this film. The videos have gotten close to 70,000 views since March, so I wouldn’t be surprised if someone in the Senegalese government has seen them, though I have not heard anything about it.

» MCILVAINE: The videos have been picked up and posted by all the major opposition newspapers, so I am sure the government has seen them.

» EXPRESS: I know hip-hop is popular in many parts of Africa, but outside of South Africa — where, in reality, kwaito rules — is Senegal the African home of hip-hop right now and why?
» HERSON: The Senegalese have over 1,000 years of musical and oral traditions that are very similar to hip-hop. Tassu is a griot style of chanting/singing over beats where rhyme and wordplay is a key element. Tallif is a freestyle form of poetry without music — similar to a hip-hop a capella.

And as a side note: Leopold Senghor, Senegal’s first president, was a poet. So for Senegalese, they really feel that hip-hop was born in Senegal and was taken to America, via the slave trade, and re-exported back to them. Ask any Senegalese rapper where hip-hop was born and many will say “Africa” — or even more specifically “Senegal” before they say the “South Bronx.”

» Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Ronald Reagan Building, One Woodrow Wilson Plaza, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; Wed., 5 p.m., free with RSVP to leadership@wilsoncenter.org; 202-691-4000. (Federal Triangle)
» Cafe Peju, 4867 Cordell Ave., Bethesda; Wed., 8 p.m., free with RSVP to rsvp@nomadicwax.com (put “DC/After Party” in the subject line); 301-523-0480. (Bethesda)

Photos courtesy Nomadic Wax/Sol Productions