When Thiat and Kilifeu were 17, starting their lives as hip-hop artists in Kaolack, Senegal, they were arrested and beaten for performing a song that spoke out against their mayor. That didn’t shut them up: A decade and a half later, the music of their rap group, Keurgui Crew, helped mobilize one of Senegal’s biggest youth voter turnouts in history for the 2012 presidential election.
“Our hip-hop is not for dancing or having a party,” Thiat says. “We create music that gives people hope.”
As Keurgui, Thiat and Kilifeu helped found the Y’en a Marre movement (translation: “Fed Up”) with their manager, two journalists and a student in 2011. It became one of Senegal’s most prominent youth movements, mobilizing nearly 350,000 protesters onto the streets of the capital of Dakar. The protesters denounced what they deemed as unconstitutional measures, frequent electricity outages and a lack of government accountability. Since the 2012 election — which saw longtime incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade ousted — the movement has helped youths engage in Senegal’s social and political spheres.
While leading demonstrations and get-out-the-vote campaigns, Keurgui has become one of Senegal’s most celebrated socially conscious hip-hop groups — although many tried to discourage Thiat and Kilifeu at the start of their journey.
“My father wanted me to be a banker,” says Thiat, 35. “I spent 10 years without talking to him because he wanted to choose my life path for me, and I decided to choose for myself.”
His success as an activist-musician and his vision of a unified Africa inspired Thiat to travel to D.C. last year as a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow. Thiat sought to explore how hip-hop could be used to develop democracy throughout the African continent.
One idea that emerged was to create a compilation album — due within the next year — featuring West African hip-hop artists rapping about the political and social issues of their respective countries.
“I learned in D.C. that wherever you come from, you have your point of view, and your point of view is important,” Thiat says.
Keurgui, which raps in Thiat and Kilifeu’s local language of Wolof, ended up recording its forthcoming album “Encyclopedia” at a studio in Northeast D.C. They invited collaborators, like Grammy-nominated D.C. artist Kokayi, to rap in French and English and, in true Keurgui fashion, the record will have political and social messages woven into beats reminiscent of 1990s American hip-hop.
Thiat says his passion for advocacy was inspired by his mom.
“My mother trained me to become really engaged. She made me happen,” Thiat says. “[I’ve learned] to observe my society, which is like a mirror for me. I look at my society and see myself.”
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