Hip-Hop in Africa: Promoting Peace through Language

“Music is actually where I see heaven.”
-Emmanuel Jal, 2009[1]

This quote is from a very poignant testimony by Emmanuel Jal who has been a child soldier and who identifies music as his way of transmitting a message of hope. He uses his hip-hop music to criticize the Western way of intervening in Africa, and to suggest that, in order to help the continent, education should be promoted instead of massive amount of aid that perpetuate dependence[2]. While I was preparing this blog, I travelled into an amalgam of emotions and feelings when listening to young hip-hop artists from the African continent. And I came out wanting to share this peace message that is now spreading throughout Africa.

African use of music to resolve or transform conflict is not new. One of the most impressive demonstrations of this art was during apartheid in South Africa where “music was a life-line for black South Africans […] helping the oppressed maintain a sense of hope and sending important coded messages throughout black community[3]”. Music thus played an important role in “creating unity and inspiration”[4] in that struggle in South Africa, but music is a crucial part of everyday life in Africa: dance and music have always be part of the process of conflict resolution in most countries, even where the “elders” still regulate everyday disputes[5].

Hip-hop is currently “one of the fastest growing and most widespread youth cultural phenomena in Africa[6]”. The hip-hop movement, with its five elements (MC’ing, DJ’ing, breakdancing, graffiti art and knowledge[7]), has always been both controversial as well as linked to social protest and engagement. In fact, ever since hip-hop started, in New York’s Bronx, it has been strongly associated with youth empowerment as a way of giving young people a voice that they had never had. We are currently seeing the spread of this phenomenon throughout the continent of Africa where there is an important trend in urban centres of giving expression to social inequalities and painting “a picture of the kind of society in which they [young people] desire to live[8]”. Additionally, hip-hop in Africa has uniquely “undergone significant indigenization” and deep integration with “local music styles and sensibilities[9]”, as for example the Bongo Flava[10] in Tanzania. Let’s explore some different expressions of this new wave.

East African hip-hop: a source of inspiration for political and social issues

Globalization gave birth to a “cross-border and regional reality[11]”: East African hip-hop, is very rich in social protest:

Almost always, youth in East Africa use hip hop to create spaces through which they enter a public domain that often excludes them in favour of those who wield social, political, and economic power. […] Hip Hop is then a forum through which East African youth, often left out of important socioeconomic and political commentaries and decision-making processes, attain agency that enables them to variably shape their lives and participate in raising public awareness and consciousness to social and political issues while also appropriating it for their own economic and political gain[12].

East African hip-hop has been crucial for youth empowerment in recent years. Additionally it gives a voice to the voiceless, gives young people a way of expressing political thoughts, and gives them a chance to talk about social issues. Sexuality is among the most prominent subjects for East African rappers. As Mwenda Ntarangwi suggests, singers promoting the use of condoms, for example, can deeply influence the sexual behaviour of young people[13]. Hip-hop is therefore a tool to “break the culture of silence surrounding sexuality and HIV/AIDS[14]”. Meanwhile, the growing numbers of female artists in East African hip-hop are making a consistent noise about gender inequalities, using their music to attack “patriarchal hegemony” and the victim status they are often associated with[15]

An example of East African social protest through artistic means is this great song  by rapper Karpchizzy, a Kenyan artist, in which he raps about the realities of everyday life in poor countries, discouraging violence as a means for change:


Other relevant examples: DRC, Senegal, and Somali diaspora hip-hop  


Source: www.warchild.org

Beyond East African hip-hop, there are very good hip-hop social movements in other countries in Africa. Probably one of the most explicit examples is the work of the hip-hop artist Didjak Munya, in Congo, where he is working with the UK-based organization WarChild (Internet Web Page: http://www.warchild.org.uk/). They are working, through hip-hop to empower children so they can finally be heard:

If you’re a street child in Kinshasa, the best you can hope for is that people ignore you. It’s preferable to the regular violence and abuse. That’s exactly why street children need to get their voices heard by the people whose responsibility it is to protect them. […]A microphone can amplify those voices. And through the power of hip hop and they can be heard across a whole country[16].

In addition to being heard, these kids can learn to express themselves, and have a chance to continue performing their art if they are good at it. Here is an excellent video of kids rappin’:

This same artist is also combating gender violence, insisting that any violence against women should be stopped, arguing on the basis of the beauty and precious qualities of African women. This video is a real piece of art, starting a new dialogue between men and women in society:


But these Congolese are not the only ones fighting against oppression. There is an important Somali protest against Al-Shabaab through hip-hop music. The Waayaha Cusub group is deeply (and dangerously) engaged in combating violence by discrediting Al-Shabaab, currently the main insurgent group in the Somali conflict. The group is composed of 11 members from Somalia, Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia. They risk their lives headlining a powerful song called “No to Al-Shabaab”, since the Islamist group is constantly threatening them. They call for peace in a region where music is the last hope of combating endemic violence.  

Another example is the Somali-born hip-hop singer K’naan, who fled early from the civil war in 1991 to live in Canada. He is gaining increasing renown around the world, but still trying to send a message of hope and giving a critical view of what is going on in Somalia. He took advantage of his position to criticize the UN and actions by the international community in Somalia by reciting a politically-loaded poem in front of the “world’s most powerful men” at an event organized for the 50th anniversary of the UN’s refugee agency[17]. K’naan is a powerful example of what the diaspora can do to initiate peaceful nonviolent action against violence by insisting on issues of justice.

Finally, there is the beautiful example of this teacher in Senegal who is preaching the use of hip-hop as a tool for education. He uses the poetry in hip-hop music to teach French to his students, while also fostering their social commitment, explaining that hip-hop is a form of social protest. But he is not alone in using hip-hop this way. Following the Arab uprisings, hip-hop and youth movements in Dakar (Senegal) and Luanda (Angola) were involved in nonviolent action. This makes it of great interest to study these phenomena seriously, since, as we saw with Tunisia and Egypt, hip-hop can play a distinct role in both fomenting and organizing people’s demands. You can see an example of powerful Luanda rap music in the following video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y4ZjVD1_100.

In conclusion, even if some authors warn of the possible appropriation of the hip-hop phenomenon by the West, most of them also recognize African hip-hop as a useful tool for social protest. Hip-hop movements have already been successful in fomenting political change in Senegal in 2000 and in Kenya in 2002[18]. Hip-hop should also be considered as a useful tool for peacebuilding. Music, when exploited properly, is a powerful instrument for fostering a sense of community and helping people understand each other. 

[1] Jal, Emmanuel (2009): “Emmanuel Jal: The Music of a War Child,” TED, available online: http://www.ted.com/talks/emmanuel_jal_the_music_of_a_war_child.html, (Consulted: June 12th, 2012).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Gray (2008) in Johnston, Mindy Kay (2010): “Music and Conflict Resolution: Exploring the Utilization of Music in Community Engagement,” MA Thesis, Portland State University, p. 5.

[4] Ibid., p. 32.

[5] Bergh, Arild (2010): “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing: Music and Conflict Transformation,” PhD Thesis, University of Exeter, p. 33.

[6] Ntarangwi, Mwenda (2010): “African Hip Hop and Politics of Change in an Era of Rapid Globalization,” History Compass, 8(12), p. 1317.

[7] Alim, H. Samy & Alastair Pennycook (2007): “Glocal Linguistic Flow: Hip-Hop Culture(s), Identities, and the Politics of Language Education,” Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 6(2), p. 89-90.

[8] Ntarangwi, op. cit., p. 1318.

[9] Ntarangwi, op. cit., p. 1321.

[10] Suriano, Maria (2011): “Hip-Hop and Bongo Flavour Music in Contemporary Tanzania: Youths’ Experiences, Agency, Aspirations and Contradictions,” Africa Development, 36(3-4): 113.

[11] Gathigi, George (2010): “East African Hip Hop: Youth, Culture and Globalization,” African Studies Review, 53(2), available online: http://lion.chadwyck.co.uk/searchFulltext.do?id=R04332158&divLevel=0&trailId=137458B7061&area=abell&forward=critref_ft, (Consulted: June 12th, 2012).

[12] Ntarangwi, Mwenda (2009): East African Hip Hop: Youth Culture and Globalization, University of Illinois Press, p. vii & 3.

[13] Ibid., p. xi.

[14] Gathigi, George, op.cit.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “Using Hip-hop to Fight Violene in Congo,” (2012), War Child Organization, available online:

http://www.warchild.org.uk/features/using-hip-hop-to-fight-violence-in-congo, (Consulted: June 12th, 2012).

[17] Sesay, Isha & Jessica Elils (2012): “Somali Rapper K’naan Makes Songs in the Key of Love,” CNN, available online: http://www.cnn.com/2012/04/24/showbiz/knaan-somalia-hip-hop/index.html, (Consulted: June 12th, 2012).

[18] Herkenrath, Mark (2007): Civil Society: Local and Regional Responses to Global Challenges, LIT Verlag Münster, p. 21 & 89.


6 thoughts on “Hip-Hop in Africa: Promoting Peace through Language”

  1. This article provides an inspirational incision into the role of hip-hop music in peacemaking and peacebuilding: in non-formal education; its potentials in building broken bridges between communities (as it unites the young and adults alike); its role in reconciliation; as a form of therapy; best used in collective memories; as a forum for getting potential suitors, etc. However,just like the food that we eat can be potentially hazardous, the ‘ingredients’ of music can potentially cause harm to our souls (intra-personal well-being) or socio-political (inter-personal) relations. For instance, let’s think about the potential harm which music can do to us, say, in derogatory or demeaning songs; war songs, etc. What do other readers think?


  2. Great article. Have you ever seen the documentary Hip Hop Colony? It’s not as extensive as your writing here, but provides a great resource to share with people in video form.


  3. Very interesting article! But let’s also consider the juxtaposing view rife among some critics that Hip Hop is “killing the musical diversity that is in Africa” (NYT). There seems to be a problem with fitting African music to “standard” categories like R&B, Hip Hop, etc as a means of gaining access to prestigious recognitions such as the MTV and Groove awards. Budding talents in indigenous African genre like Lingala, Zouk, and Kijaluo have for instance been forced to de-indigenize their music to suit the popular brands. This might have served the whims of the youth given their natural orientations to medernity and urbanism; but the older generation and patrons of traditional folk genre have been left more disoriented.

    Can one see a potential for intergenerational and cultural conflict lurking some where? Do we now see elders losing control over the youth since music was traditionally used as a rallying factor for young people to recognise their heritage?

    New York Times: Phonetic Clues Hint Language Is Africa-Born


    1. You are totally right. Actually, while I was reading, I found this interesting chapter on “Unpeaceful Music” (George Kent in the book: “Music and Conflict Transformation: Harmonies and Dissonances in Geopolitics”) and it definitely needs to be nuanced. George Kent was saying that “Some music may help to make some kinds of peace some of the time, but, like many other good things, music has a dark side as well” (p. 104). Hip-hop is a controversial music since it discuss a wide range of topics, including bad ones. It has the default to be a sort of “misunderstanding” between generations and the relations between the youth and elders in Africa regarding hip-hop is a good one. We can argue the same thing for Western society where some generation clashes are frequently seen between young hip-hopers and their parents. That’s a very interesting debate!!!


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