Gambia: A rapper’s song breathes new sense of hope

By Sanna Camara

KIllah Ace, a Gambian rap activist has broken new grounds few months ago when he released a powerful hit song, Ku Boka C geta Gi (meaning ‘who belongs in a herd is bound to drink from the milk’) from Dakar, Senegal.

The song’s release marked the beginning of a new rap revolution that would help organise young people around the change agenda in Africa’s smallest country and worst dictatorship in recent years.

Killa Ace 1

Gambian president is seeking a fifth term in office in 2016 amidst staunch opposition within and outside the country. As a country with ingrained crackdown on freedom of expression, the Jammeh dictatorship is now faced with this new wave of rap music as a driver of change in the Gambia.

Michael Eric Dyson, a professor at Georgetown University once said of the politics of hip-hop subject: is it “pavement poetry [that] vibrates with commitment to speaking for the voiceless?”

Or the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN), a pressure group, contends whether it is “an enormously influential agent for social change which must be responsibly and proactively utilised to fight the war on poverty and injustice?”

Whether Killa Ace’s hit song answers these questions is yet to be seen. What is clear so far is that the young rapper, who released two albums, three mix tapes prior to the controversial hit single Ku Boka Ci get Gi, saw it as “a mission to speak up”… especially concerning issues affecting the population – from poverty to freedom of speech, and the back-way to Europe syndrome that is claiming lives of the country’s youths.

Reps of rights groups supported the rapper
Rights groups reinforced the messages in Killah Ace’s song at the press conference in Dakar

“People are afraid to speak their minds due to fear of being put away, tortured or other things that can happen to them. From religious to community leaders, journalists and artists, these threats do not exclude anyone,” the rapper told journalists at his first press conference in Dakar. Apparently, he fled Gambia upon releasing the song.

Just like in Senegal where music is considered “the life force of the people” – where it has become “news, opinion and pleasure all wrapped up into one” according to Rose Skelton of Freemuse, in her article Rappers’ quest for change – rap music is also a vital part of political campaigning, and this has a long history…

During elections in Senegal, the rappers go on the campaign trail, just like the Presidential candidates. “The rappers were saying with their music, ‘OK, you want things to change? There are some things you can do. If you don’t vote, no one else will do it for you: you have to take your destiny in your hands’.”

That musical discourse, said Freddy, a Senegalese rapper, helped a lot of people realise for the first time that they were able to take part in the political destiny of their country.

“The country’s rappers – who bear no resemblance to their gun-loving American counterparts – were speaking a language that young people could understand. The result was monumental: the country had a new leader. A sense of hope was breathed into its people and rap music lived its moment of glory,” Rose Skelton said.

Now with this new rap revolution pioneered by Ali Cham, aka Killah Ace, short for “Killer on the mic, Ace in rap”, many are asking whether Gambia’s young population, in this era of social media and smart phones, will take the change campaign to new levels.

Upon releasing the song, Boka C Geta Gi went viral within 24 hours. It registered unprecedented levels of more than 24, 000 plays within a day; 35, 000 within the next.

“It is a song that brought hope back to the Gambian people – that the country is ours, that we should be free to express what is on our minds,” the rapper said.

Killa Ace with exiled journalists
‘Do you have the song in your phone…” Killah Ace, with exiled Gambian journalists in Dakar

The song also touches on social injustices, detentions without trial beyond the constitutional time limits, disappearances, and jailing of people for their political views; the high rate of official corruption in the country, police brutality which according to the rapper, is common in the country.

It further touched on the mismanagement of national resources and funds – for example, the president spending millions of Dalsi on foreign artists while people in the country are faced with hardships, with little to eat or no decent houses to sleep, he said.

Gambia‘s much larger neighbor, Senegal, is home to a thriving hip hop scene, which has exerted a strong influence on Gambian hip hop, but Gambian hip-hop is now evolving its own unique style.

In 1999, the Gambia Radio & Television Services gave out the first Gambian Rap Award. The first crew to win the award for best new act was Da Fugitvz, who rapped in Wolof, the national language of Senegal, and thus became popular in both countries.

The group, even though sang at least one song that was critical in their hey-days, it never reached such popularity, attention and controversies like Killa Ace’s.

Heather Maxwell, producer and host of the award winning radio program Music Time in Africa and African Music Editor for the Voice of America argues there is more to the rap music and African culture than most people know.

“The roots of rap are African in a roundabout way because the art of storytelling and lyric improvising over a beat is quite ancient and found in many West African musical traditions.  Something about hip hop/rap music is proving to be the most popular tool for African youths to organise and express collective resistance,” said the journalist.

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This is probably the key reason why the government of Yahya jammeh got uneasy with the release of the hit song in The Gambia. Radio stations were banned from playing it. The one station that hosted a talk show on the release of the hit song got its manager arrested by the state intelligence agents twice.

“The fact that the state security agents were searching for me threatened my family, which led to my coming to Senegal. Considering the influence the government of The Gambia has in Senegal, I don’t feel safe…” The rapper told journalists.

He is optimistic though the song is going to bring changes: “The change of giving people hopes… As a gradual process, change starts with hope, and then to the next level. The song in that case has accomplished its main objective,” he added.

“Everyone has it in their phones, including those close to him [the president] – military, students, young people; I received a video of people playing the songs freely on their phones, and on the streets without using earpieces,” he said.

Killa Ace 2

The Muslim feast marking the end of the fast month also witnessed the song being played in one of the most popular and biggest clubs in Banjul.

“When the DJ played the song, the place went on fire and everyone was chanting the song word for word, line by line from beginning to the end. Some people even gave money to the DJ to play the song again….,” he said, with smile and a tone of pride in his tone.

“My song is liberation for the people. It was like a song that everyone was waiting for… [It sang about] something[s] that were already in everyone’s heart. Even though it was banned from the radio, it went viral,” the rapper who sought exile in Senegal said.

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