"In One, All": Senegalese Women Freestyle Artists Unify the Global Ghetto

As plenty of proud nostalgic discourses locate the residues of hip-hop culture circling the drains of sample exhaustion, scene fatigue, patched-in cameos, or the same old cushy R’n’B, people world over just keep going about inventing new worlds of musical talk in deep conversation with the hip-hop movement. Call it what they will; the global rap styles that saturate youth culture show no signs of grounding. In Africa, hip-hop traces a host of genealogies that bounce back through, tangle with, and circumnavigate narratives of a New York genesis. Africans were B-Boying and B-Girling right along with us in the ’70s and ’80s; they shaved asymmetrical fades in the baggy ’90s; they doubled styles into backpack-introspection and true crunk at the outset of the oughts, and then multiplied into today’s spectrum of sounds and styles that thrive in conversation with all of hip-hop’s classic elements. Sujatha Fernandes speaks to this diffusion in her chronicle of hip-hop’s many trajectories, Close to the Edge, even as she points to processes of gathering, collection and articulation that weave diversity into a common global project.
Looping and doubling back: northern hip-hop found many of its best artists in African and Diasporic migrants. Today, American producers mine the thickness of Afro-funk and talking drums at the genre’s rhythming wellspring. Subsaharan drummers, Brixton dancers and the Caribbean purveyors of the Bronx’s original style sunk their prints into the genre’s forming body; fresh cadences and brilliant remixes inspire the best contemporary global artists to sound ahead. Black Atlantic artists circulate throughout the global “Dirty South” in antiphony to the East Coast’s sample-driven style. African hip-hop’s latest instantiation comes with a thick dollop of history and hip-hop sociology courtesy of the work of public hip-hop scholars as distributed over the web and through readily-available TV “History of…” documentaries. With serious respect for the innovations of the American schools, African artists engage local traditions of musical speech: women’s ritual poetics (taasú), collaborative song, rhythms of self-identification and praise, and an economy of eloquence to position themselves at the forefront of hip-hop futurity.
The genre’s newest sounds unfold in the dusty banlieue (outer suburbs) of Dakar, where a group of young women rappers who call themselves GOTAL Connexion (From the Pulaar term for “unity”) imbibe global hip-hop history and infuse their verse with a thick, self-described, “gangsta” accent. Ever-renewing, ever generous hip-hop unfolds on the shifting Senegalese ground it calls home. In the community of Ginaaw Rail (the name means “across the rail tracks”), this resource-starved community ground is crisscrossed by open sewers and urban pollution. Its dusty surface is packed by the feet of its young people, who walk themselves to any work they can find during the day and visit their neighbors and build community at night. Here, the women of GOTAL meet at member Anta’s house to practice their freestyle licks as she, her brothers and her neighbors gather around the boombox to improvise over found beats.
The organizer and elected president of the group, Toussa, has just recorded her first solo studio single with rapper/producer Gaston of Def Dara Studios in the close Dakar outskirt of Parcelles Assenies. She calls her rap style (and song) here “Ego Trip”–a kind of hip-hop self-introduction and declaration of a new personal style–and kerned some complex Wolof-language phrases (with a sprinkling of French and English peppered in) for her debut:
Toussa by Ethnolyrical /div>

I’ve been working with Toussa since I saw her perform a Wolof-English hybrid rhyme at her high school talent show in May 2009, and I’ve seen her grow into her own wiser-than-her-19-years rap persona, complete with prescription “Leopold Senghor” Raybans and a notebook of lyrics always in hand. She’s always studying new sounds in American rap, sitting at my laptop for hours checking out Swisha House-style Houston rap and its Dirty South counterparts, Bronx-Era Old-School, Bay Area underground. She asks me about the history of R’n’B and why Southern rappers prefer to use their voices for sonic dimension instead of the big city’s spitfire lyrical complexity. We discuss the ways Senegalese artists use American English to express themselves and trace the ways in which some of these words and styles change context in the transcontinental milieu.
In the two years since I first met her, Toussa has grown from the “little sister”‘ voice on the guys’ recordings to writing and recording her own songs with professional producers, including Rapper Gaston and producer Mario of Def Dara Productions. In order to make space for her voice and vision in the testosterone-heavy Senegalese hip-hop industry, Toussa and a few of her contemporary young women upstarts formed a group of their own as an umbrella by which they could organize together while branching into their own projects.  The budding group of Dakaroise women, GOTAL Connexion (from the Pulaar word for “unity”), started with Toussa, freestyle talent Anta from Ginaaw Rail and Zeyna from Pikine. In the last year, their numbers have grown to eleven, including self-described “gangsta” Sister Dia, radio personality Sister Kia, singer-songwriter Tabú and Thiaroye personality Sista LB of the Fippu Clan. Following pioneering Senegalese all-woman hip-hop crews ALIF and Farafina Mousso, the group both makes space for women in global hip-hop and centers many of their lyrics on political and economic issues of concern to African women. Their far-ranging conscientiousness, however, doesn’t get in the way of their ability to talk about the specificities of who they are and where they’re from as they write themselves and their communities into the center of the emerging African hip-hop movement: one that circumvents notions of the hybridization, indigenization, or importation of Westernness by demonstrating the presence of an interior wellspring of style from within a realm of practice Senegalese rappers call “Africanity.” Within their collective framework, each member of GOTAL calls for her own unique vision of a future for African women, for herself, and for the possibilities of hip-hop as a space for  radical self-invention amidst a world of cultural conversation.
This is a recording of GOTAL performing their song is “Hey Jiggen,” (‘Hey Women”), and it functions as a kind of anthem for the group, balancing out each member’s own unique hard-hitting style with an original classic beat from Gaston and Mario at Def Dara studios. The lyrics to this song are a collaboration between all of the women. The chorus is translated from the Wolof to the English like this:
“Hey Jiggen, Hey Damay Wax la/Baayleen lo xonte bi/goor-goorlu ci reew mi.”
“Hey women/Hey, I an telling you/Leave your confusion/And find strength to move forward with this nation.”
Rapper Zeyna tells me she is the American of the group, and she matches her East-Coast fashion sense with a brilliant Wolof/English lyrical hybrid that makes fo
r original concepts and an inimitable rhythmic flow. Her song below, “Waxtu Wi Jot” (“The Time is Now”), contains her artistic philosophy, as well as a stylistic declaration: her delivery on the mic is incredibly inventive, and her flow shows the complexity of her Wolof-English lyrical hybrid and an intensive engagement with the off-kilter beat.
  Zeina-wakhtouwèdiote by Ethnolyrical /div>

Sister Coumbis is an upcoming mover and shaker in African hip-hop who comes from an accomplished family of Jélis, or Bambara (Mandé) griots known for their praise songs and expertise with the kora. She has been gaining international attention with her two videos from 2011, which feature strong social messages relating to children and women in poverty.
Sister Dia is one of the members of the group who claim gewel, or Wolof griot, heritage, and the strength of her voice and rallying originality of her lyrics highlight her talent as an expert in traditional rhythm and rhyme.
And Sister Anta, whose family hosts the weekly freestyle sessions in Ginaaw Rail, collaborates with her brothers and neighbors on homemade recordings that engage the concept of a “ghetto” that connects the contexts of racialized American struggle and the socioeconomic circumstances of the African postcolony.
For more on this group and Senegalese traditions of eloquence, visit my multimedia website.
Top image of Toussa provided by the author.

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