The Senegalese Rapper Whose Song Became an Anthem

A group of rappers and musicians sits outside a house in Dakar, Senegal waiting to make a music video that is critical of the current government. Image by Ricci Shryock. Senegal, 2012.

I had wanted to meet Senegalese hip-hop artist Red Black ever since I began hearing his song blasting from speakers at protest marches and opposition rallies all over Dakar during election campaigning in this West African country.

Rappers and other musicians have long been a noisy presence in Senegal’s political landscape, but during the current presidential elections, they reached new decibels after a group of artists founded one of the main opposition forces, known as “Y’en a Marre” (Enough is Enough), which is trying to drive President Abdoulaye Wade out of office.

Though Red Black’s isn’t a member of Y’en a Marre, his song “Na Dem,” (Go Away) had become the unofficial anthem of the opposition. It was played by many of the 13 opposition candidates and could be heard at nearly every protest. People burst into song and dance, waving their hands along with the chorus, “Go away, Old Man,” as they gestured for Wade to leave office.

The first few times I talked on the phone to Red Black, whose real name is El Hadj Dia, it was hard to determine a time to meet. He told me he wasn’t spending the night in the capital city of Dakar, because he feared for his safety. “Every time I do an interview, I get calls from the president’s people saying they will kill me,” he told me. I can’t confirm these threats, but because of this Red Black said he moved around a lot, often staying in different houses.

When we finally did meet, it was in a stark, off-white room at Senegal’s Socialist Party headquarters in Dakar. The skinny 30-year-old wore baggy black and red jeans that hung loosely on his legs. He was surprisingly soft-spoken for a rapper, though oddly enough most of the rappers I’ve interviewed are more calm than one would expect.

He told me that “Na Dem” was part of his first album and he was thrilled his song was being used in the way he intended it—to urge people to vote Wade out of power rather than give him a third term. The country’s constitution limits presidents to two terms.

Just days before, as Wade voted in the first round of balloting, angry Senegalese constituents around him began chanting “Na Dem!”

“It was very hard for me to see my people suffering, to see the president do whatever he wants,” said the rapper. “They did not respect people; they did not respect our laws, our constitution.”

Despite his enthusiasm for politics, Dia did say he was upset that none of the politicians using his song had paid him any royalties, and he planned to take his case to Senegal’s Office of Artists' Rights, though he wasn’t sure if his complaint would amount to much.

After our chat he was off to another interview with a local radio station. I shared a taxi with him, and though concerts are suspended now until end of the elections, he promised to let me know if a show came up.