How Senegalese Artists Are Changing The System With A Microphone And Spray Paint – NPR

Babacar Niang, known as Matador, raps in a recording studio at one of Africulturban’s facilities in Pikine, Senegal, on April 26, 2018.

Ricci Shryock for NPR

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Ricci Shryock for NPR

Babacar Niang, known as Matador, raps in a recording studio at one of Africulturban’s facilities in Pikine, Senegal, on April 26, 2018.

Ricci Shryock for NPR

In 2005, heavy rains flooded neighborhoods around Dakar, Senegal, forcing tens of thousands of people from their homes.

It was the worst downpour in decades and Babacar Niang, a rapper also known as Matador, witnessed the devastation.

“People’s faces read first worry, then fear,” reads a line from their song, “Catastrophe.”

But he couldn’t just sit there and write songs about it, he wanted to do more.

In 2006 he founded Africulturban, a cultural center where young people go to create music and art.

The center feeds a large and lively hip-hop scene that is often socially conscious.

Listen to our full report by clicking or tapping the play button above.


Climate change creates many problems. In Senegal, it is forcing people to go to Europe. We are about to meet a man who has found a grassroots solution. In a Dakar neighborhood called Pikine, street vendors sell peanuts, watermelons and chicory coffee. Horses pull rickety carts. You can buy slippers placed on tarps on the sidewalk. Life happens outside on these streets, streets that can be inundated with water in heavy flooding.

BABACAR NIANG: (Through an interpreter) I told myself, as an artist, I should do something about it.

SHAPIRO: This is Babacar Niang, but no one calls him that. He is a rapper who goes by the name Matador and is a legend in the Senegalese hip-hop scene. He is also an activist. In 2005, when a particularly severe flood hit this part of Dakar, he gave a concert to raise funds.

NIANG: (Through an interpreter) So it all started with climate change.

SHAPIRO: That fundraiser turned into an organization that became this place, a cultural center in Pikine called Africulturban. I ask Matador about one of his best-known songs, “Catástrofe” or “Catástrofe”, and he starts reciting the lyrics.

NIANG: (language not English spoken).

SHAPIRO: “The clouds that accumulate from the north herald rain,” he says. “People’s faces read first worry, then fear. With the first rains comes the first wave of departures. Those who prayed for rain surely got their prayers answered.”


NIANG: (Rapping in a language other than English.)

SHAPIRO: When you do that, how do people respond?

NIANG: (Through the interpreter) They find themselves in what I’m singing because they also find those difficulties.

SHAPIRO: If “Catastrophe” describes the way the climate is changing people’s lives here, the song “Tukki” talks about the way young people are responding to those changes. They go on boats to Europe.


NIANG: (Rapping in a language other than English.)

SHAPIRO: The song lists the countries: France, Belgium, Italy, Spain.


NIANG: (Singing) Sudan, China, Japan, Portugal (rapping in a language other than English).

SHAPIRO: All these places are great to make a living, he sings. But after traveling, she comes back. Senegal is still your home.

When you perform “Tukki” and say that traveling is good, but it’s better to go back home, do people believe that too?

NIANG: (Through the interpreter) Yes, because I am an example of that. Every time I travel, I go, I do what I have to do and then I come back.

SHAPIRO: In the late ’90s, Matador was part of a popular Senegalese hip-hop group called BMG 44.


BMG 44: (Rapping in a language other than English.)

SHAPIRO: They toured all over Europe. Everyone else in the group stayed there, but Matador went back to Senegal and started this organization. Now, it’s a bustling hive of artistic activity. There are breakdancing classes, rap battles. Matador points to a stage being built on a vacant lot.

NIANG: (Speaking French).

SHAPIRO: Behind us is a brightly colored mural painted by another of the stars in the center. Dieynaba Sidibe goes through Zeinixx. Inside Africulturban, we pass a music studio and art gallery and an outdoor lounge where chairs are set up for a later event. And we enter the graphic design room where we find Zeinixx herself. She is 32 years old and she started doing graffiti when she was only 18. At that time, she says, there were no other women in Senegal doing graffiti.

DIEYNABA SIDIBE: They had a reaction like, wow, a girl who paints graffiti.

SHAPIRO: Hundreds of spray paint cans are arranged by color along the wall.

SIDIBE: My dream was to be a globetrotter with my beret and my spray and…

SHAPIRO: You have the beret and you have the spray.

NIANG: Yes, now. And yes, travel a lot and share my art.

SHAPIRO: And now you travel the world?

SIDIBE: A little.



SHAPIRO: And do you want to stay in Senegal or would you like to go live in Europe?

SIDIBE: Senegal is my country, it is my first love. I will stay in Senegal.

SHAPIRO: Many young people don’t see a future for themselves in Senegal. Why do you think you feel differently?

SIDIBE: For me, youth is the future. I’m young. And for me, I can change many things. We travel and come back here. We will come back. We’re always trying to show them how they can stay and work and just create, for themselves, what I can do. But we are always trying.

SHAPIRO: Asking people here if they know anyone who has left Senegal for Europe is like asking people in Hollywood if they know anyone who works in show business. Like, duh.

CHEIKH SEYE: Yes. Most of my childhood friends are not in Senegal.

SHAPIRO: Cheikh Seye, or Kingbeat, is a producer at Africulturban Music Studio.

Why did you stay?

SEI: I don’t know. Maybe thanks to the music. Here I was trained and now I am here. I work with many artists: Sumbaga Mbaye (ph), Iswe Sa (ph), Jeeba (ph), Matador.

SHAPIRO: Oh, I’ve heard of him.


SHAPIRO: You’ve only been producing for four years and you’re already working with some of the biggest names in Senegalese hip-hop. He opens a music video for a song that he produced. It has 13 million views.


ISS 814: (Singing in non-English language).

SHAPIRO: Matador looks on, smiling like a proud father.

NIANG: (Through interpreter) Yes, yes. Fifteen years ago, I created this organization to give this generation this opportunity.


ISS 814: (Singing in non-English language).

SHAPIRO: Back in the courtyard, I realized that, in our hours together, there was something I hadn’t asked him about. Everyone here has a stage name: Zeinixx, Kingbeat. So how did he get the name Matador?

NIANG: I don’t know. (Speaking French).

SHAPIRO: (laughs).

NIANG: (Through interpreter) When I go on stage, I become a different person.

SHAPIRO: The murderer – the Matador is the murderer – (speaking in French). He is funny. El Matador (speaking French) – The Matador is a murderer. You are saving lives. You’re helping people stay here and make art and find a place for themselves. That is the opposite of a matador.

NIANG: (Through interpreter) The matador fights against the black beast, the black beast. The black beast, for us, is the system. So I fight the system, but I don’t fight it alone. I give weapons to young people to fight the system, to fight poverty. These opportunities are your weapons.

SHAPIRO: The matador is sharpening his sword.


SHAPIRO: We’ve been talking about people leaving Africa for Europe, but 80% of African migration is within the continent. So Senegal is not just a country of departure, it is also a destination. Tomorrow we will meet people who came here fleeing climate change in other parts of Africa.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: There really is no place like home. Whatever happens, I feel at home.

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