Thiat, from the hip-hop group Keur-gui and a member of the Senegalese movement Y’en a marre, explains that, when he was little, his mother always brought him and his siblings a chocolate bar or something sweet when she came home. But one day, his mother went straight to her room. He found her lying on the bed, looking at a map they had of Africa: Thomas Sankara had been assassinated by Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso (1987). Thiat claims that on that day her mother explained to him who Sankara was. “The next day, I went to school and told the story. I realized that my classmates were interested in what I was saying.” And that, he reflects, is how he got into activism. “Every day when I came home, I would ask my mother to explain things to me. I learned what apartheid was, who Mandela was, Lumumba, what racism was, discrimination, and so on.” It was then that he started writing poetry. In 1996 he started composing his first hip-hop songs. And he still does to this day. But Thiat’s activism has not been an easy road. When he was 16 years old, he was arrested for the first time, because of the lyrics of a rap that put the mayor of Kaolack, where he lived, at the center of criticism. “The song talked about the mayor’s corruption. I was in custody for three days and then I had to go to court every month to sign in. It was quite a scandal in Senegal,” he says. A while later, together with Kilifeu and DJ Gath, he created the group Keur-gui, which in Wolof means “the house”. In 2000, Keur-gui’s first album was censored. It was the first time a hip-hop album was censored in the region.
Thiat is one of the people who founded Y’en a marre. It all happened by chance and without much thought. “It was January 16 and I was at a friend’s house filling out some online forms that I had to submit that very day. Suddenly, the power went out. It wasn’t the first time it had happened and we got annoyed.” They began to think that they had to channel the unrest and take the protest to the streets, to get involved in the struggle for basic rights. “We realized it was time to take action, to do something else. But we didn’t want to create a political party or an organization. We needed a slogan that would mobilize people and that’s what we did. Y’en a marre means, “we’ve had enough, or we are fed up”. We are the youth of this country, and we are the ones responsible for things to change, we thought. It was time to take responsibility and start getting involved in the social issues of our country. And above all, we focused on changing the narrative: the streets are not dirty, we are the ones who make them dirty. To change our country, we must change our behavior first,” explains Thiat. And this is precisely one of the pillars of Y’en a marre: if society wants a different kind of politician, certain behaviors must be changed. “The philosophy of Y’en a marre is aimed at the political class, but also at ourselves. Change starts with us and our environment. Everyone is Y’en a marre.” The movement began to structure itself and launched campaigns. The first had a clear objective: to get the population to register to vote. “The idea was to bring down Abdoulaye Wade and we wanted young people to mobilize. We managed to mobilize the vote of a million people.” During the campaign we were on the streets and acted in different directions: making informative talks, handing out leaflets, organizing concerts, etc.” Y’en a marre managed to capture the discomfort of Senegalese society and acted as a catalyst for people to come out in protest. This was done using artistic language as a means of protest, with songs sung in Wolof, the local language, to reach as many people as possible. The former French colony, considered a democratic and model country in West Africa, rose up to call for social change that would put citizenship at the center and more democracy. In June 2011, some members of Y’en a marre were arrested. This was a turning point in the movement, which gained more strength. The result was as expected: Abdoulaye Wade lost the election against Macky Sall, the current president of the country.
Y’en a marre is not just a movement, but a way of life. The movement promotes the NTS concept: the New Type of Senegalese. The idea behind it is that it is not possible to ask administrations and political power to change if there is no change in society. The NTS refers to a citizenship that takes sides and is responsible: a citizenship that claims its rights but also fulfills its civic rights. The idea of NTS must also include the perception of the migratory phenomenon. The lyrics of the song Wake Up make it clear: “Act instead of waiting, believe in yourself, fight. Our life, our path, what we believe, the path we draw, that’s what we fight for. We want to get out of this, we don’t want to emigrate, we want to stay and work. We want to stay and avoid problems with the police. We want to earn money with dignity”. The Y’en a marre movement points directly to the complicity between African and European presidencies and asks young people to fight to try to stay in their country and make it more resilient. “For people to stay, we have to improve our schools, our employment system, and our health system. We must try to retain the African youth”, claims Thiat, who defends the right to the free movement of people as well.
In March 2021, Senegal experienced a wave of protests. Clashes between protesters and police forces ended with fourteen people killed in the five days of demonstrations. The riots were sparked by the arrest of Ousmane Sonko, an opposition politician accused of disturbing public order. Citizens rose up against the abuse of power by the current president Macky Sall. In June of the same year, the riots were reactivated because of the exclusion of an electoral list and the police repression was as violent as that of March.
How did Y’en a marre spread to other African countries?
Since the movement started, we have been doing workshops, talks, training, etc. in other African countries such as Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Congo, Gambia, or Madagascar. In Mali, we inspired ‘Las Sofas de la République’, and in Gambia the ‘#GambiaHasDecided’. Right now, we work from the Afriki platform, and we do it as a network. When something happens, we debate and try to solve it together.
Were the actions you carry out in Y’en a marre improvised or planned?
Some of the actions we did were planned and some were not. For example, the launching of the song Faux pas force was planned. Keur-gui [el grup de hip-hop del qual forma part en Thiat] was part of the movement, but there were other rappers.
Did you think about entering politics? Or was it offered to you?
This was one of the main debates of the movement, but from the beginning, we established an important rule: if you are part of Y’en a marre, you cannot be part of a political party. It was and is one of our ten commandments. However, people who have wanted to leave Y’en a marre to become part of the institutional political arena have been able to do so without any problems. In my case, I never considered entering politics because it is a completely different struggle and discourse and I think that activists must stay out of politics. Y’en a marre is a movement and, like social movements, it straddles the line between civil society and the political class. Precisely, if we do what we want, it’s because we are outside politics.
You sing in French and in Wolof. What connotations does each language have?
Singing in Wolof was my first revolution, my first activism. Wolof is not a dialect, as some people say. It is a language, a culture, a way of understanding life. Through this language I speak to my country. If my people don’t understand me, then who am I singing for? We have examples like Bambara, Selif Keita, or the speeches of Che Guevara, Malcolm X, or Martin Luther King. All of them used their own language. I am very clear about it: I speak my language; if you want to know what I say, do your research, search the Internet and translate it. I also sing in French, but with the Wolof, I feel I am putting my country and my people on the map.
On some occasions, you have said that art should always be connected to activism. You say that, before being an artist, you are a citizen, therefore, you have a responsibility. You also talk about ‘pedagogical concerts’.
I consider that making music means having a responsibility. People listen to you and you have to tell them something that will help them in their lives. I understand that people want to dance, laugh, sing, etc. But at the end of the day, you go home and so what? I make a type of art that makes you think and that wants to be useful. It’s good that we do this for a living, but the most important thing is to get our message out to the world. Because this is what can change the history of the country. And we have done that: we have changed the course of Senegal. I consider myself an agent of social change.
The Western media have a particular way of portraying and reporting on the African continent. They almost always talk about poverty, violence, inequality… There are few occasions in which the work done in the field of social movements, or art, among others, is shown.
Media show poverty and charity. Just as we need alternative energy, we need alternative media that show another Africa. We are survivors and the world should learn from Africa. We are survivors and the world should learn from Africa. As for the crisis caused by Covid-19, Africa is the continent that has had the fewest deaths. The pride of the West blinds them from recognizing that we have done better than them. They say it is because we are a younger population; it is a lie: our social life is different, and that is why we have managed it better. We, Africans, learn from the rest of the world, but nobody learns from us. We speak the other languages of the world, but nobody speaks ours. The same goes for dances, culture, food, and so on.
What projects are you working on right now? *
I am in the United States, working in the university sector. I do seminars on democracy, or on my concept of democracy. For me, a minority can be more democratic than a majority, because we can be talking about a corrupt majority, bought through the vote. In these talks I do, I share my experience as an artivist[activista a través de l’art] and explain how Africans are changing the corrupt regimes in many countries. We are showing that we can change everything without the intervention of other countries and without military interventions. And without the West, of course. Just look at what happens when the West gets involved in other countries: Iraq or Libya, for example. Most African presidents are puppets of the West.
France has exercised, and exercises occupation, domination, and colonization; and we must ask them to stop occupying us, to stop controlling our telecommunications, our currency and our economic system.
What would you say to the Senegalese youth of today?
That they are the future, and that it is time to take on certain responsibilities, not to wait. I am self-taught and it took me many years to understand the world and learn languages because I didn’t study much. Young people must be eager to learn and be proud of who they are and whom they want to be. Every person in a country is part of its solution. Read, learn, act.
*At the time of the interview, Thiat is in New York giving a series of lectures at different universities.