“I’ve got a story to tell,” Faada Freddy insists loudly over the mic, “rap music was born in Africa.” If the crowd at the Loring Park Summer Music & Movie event consisted of mostly Africans, they would have roared their agreement. But since a majority of the 1300 people in the audience probably claim northern European heritage, we stand there a bit befuddled. I could have sworn hip hop started up in Harlem, New York, back in the late 1970s.
Monday evening, July 17th, the Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board present the first combo gig in their summer series of free concerts and movies. Daara J, Senegalese hip hop band will be a hard act to follow.
The band points to American group, Public Enemy, as one of their mentors, but daara j’s music, filled with political and social concerns, accompanied by tuneful background melodies, and lacking language that offends captivates me far more than PE.
Besides, daara j’s approachability creates an intimacy with the audience that I find irresistible. We crowd right up to the low-rise platform, mimicking the dance moves of the trio of rappers that forms Daara J. A few fans, either overly zealous or inebriated, climb the two-foot high step, only to be escorted off-stage by attentive security.
Daara J challenges conventional US-based rap, if there is such a concept, both in lyrics as well as music. When I arrive at their gig Monday evening, I’m 30 minutes late, much to my chagrin. The band has just started up playing Le Cycle as the DJ plays a prerecorded intro sung by Rokia Traoré.
I’d interviewed Traoré a couple years ago and what impressed me about her was her strong sense of equality between sexes. I can’t imagine Traoré would have agreed to sing with daara j if the band displayed disrespect for women or considered them second class citizens, which gangsta rap in the US often does.
Freddy comes to the lip of the stage and intones several notes of the song. He then asks the audience to echo him. At least the first several rows of people join in. Then Alajiman steps into the grass where we are standing and holds his mic up to a young woman, encouraging her to solo Freddy’s notes. She demurs, holding her hand over her mouth.
I want to nudge her from behind, exhort her to take advantage of the unique opportunity. I mean, will she ever get another chance to sing a duet with these world musicians? Her hesitation is my good fortune because Alajiman turns his 6’ 7” body to me and holds the mic up, smiling and gesturing for me to sing. I’m so far from shy, I’m probably overeager. Freddy sings the notes and I parrot them back, thrilled with the opportunity.
Then we all dance. Two steps to the left, two steps to the right, interspersed with high jumps, although daara j seems to be soaring into the air effortlessly. As with much of African music, dance is intrinsic to the song, not exploitative at all.
Their set ends much too soon for me. By 8:15, they say good night and pack up. I follow them back to the performers’ area where a table hold some food and drink for the musicians.
I fall into an easy conversation with Ndongod, the third member of the band. Like Alajiman and Faada Freddy, he’s in his early 30s. I wonder aloud why daara j has remained in Senegal, rather than relocating to the United States or even France as many Senegalese musicians seem to do.
"Africa is our homeland and it’s very important to keep Africa alive," he tells me. "We need to have some people to stay and build something for the children, for the next generation. We are setting an example," Ndongod says.
Then Ndongod says something that I find very insightful and frank when he states, "music is the real power, it’s not politics." With respect to rampant AIDS disease and HIV virus, famine, and civil war ravishing the African people, "the only thing we have is culture," Ndongod says with conviction.