Last week I introduced the claim that art contributes to society by providing a space for social dissent. This, I tried to explain, is one of points of intersection between art and media. However, while the role of social media in this function may be more apparent (in that sites such as Twitter, Facebook, etc. literally provide an open platform for debate), art’s contribution is more understated.
In a sense though, art is an open forum—while there are common themes that may override a piece, the act of listening or viewing is unique to each individual. Through this process, the audience may find themselves in a song (or a picture, or a play), and, in doing so, gain a sense of ownership over this art, and see a space for them in the public forum. In other words, the art, or the artist, begins to represent the voice of the audience.
During an interview with NPR, Professor Lester Spence elaborated on this point while discussing the cultural and political role of hip-hop. As he explained, the appeal of hip-hop is that it recognizes an audience that otherwise feels left: “there are no institutions… that indicate at all that they are worth listening to politically… that they are worth being treated as citizens.” Essentially for the audience, hip-hop becomes another way of reaffirming their existence and expressing their frustration, which otherwise manifests in higher occurrences of “non-traditional political behavior… protest behavior.” But while Spence is addressing hip-hop’s place in the US, a lot of this discussion can also be applied globally. Consider, for example, Y’en a marre, a political movement organized by a group of Senegalese rappers.
Often translated as ‘Enough is Enough,’ Y’en a marre is an expression of just that–frustration. But, as with Youssou N’Dour, it’s not just their frustration. As one artist explained, these rappers are akin to “modern day griots… taking over the role of representing the people.” And, because these musicians are closer to the streets, they can “bring into their music the general feeling of frustration among people.” But what happens after this, is where these rappers break from their American counterparts.
As Professor Spence noted, there are too many constraints in America for hip-hop to fully realize its political potential. And, he also makes the point that the political behavior of the audience should not be attributed to the music; rather, the audience chooses the music for certain reasons. In Senegal though, where the “moment for talking has passed,” Y’en a marre is focused on creating a “new” type of Senegalese citizen.
As the group explains, while the politicians have failed, the public’s willingness to sit back and wait for change to happen is just as much of a problem. For their part, Y’en a marre is trying to prepare the public for action; to change the current state of “inequality, the people being exploited and the leaders stealing money from the pockets of the poor.” But, redefining citizenship for the public takes time, so for now, Y’en a marre is focusing on a smaller task–preserving Senegal’s democratic legacy. And for them, this begins with the ballot box and the registration of voters.
Also, because who doesn’t love political hip-hop, here’s a link to a playlist from artists around Africa.
[image via Y’en A Marre]