Dakar in the House: Hip-Hop Boomerangs Back to Africa


*Daara J*
*Cedar Cultural Center*

“What is my identity?” shouted Daara J’s three MCs, N’Dongo D, Lord Aladji Man, and Faada Freedy, as a bass-heavy reggae beat boomed through the Cedar Cultural Center. Daara J (pronounced “Daara Gee”) has become one of the most prominent African hip-hop groups, and for them the answer seems obvious: the group gave shout outs to their home turf of Dakar, beneath a large Senegalese flag. Daara J is one of hundreds, if not thousands of hip-hop groups that have sprung up in Senegal as part of the global proliferation of hip-hop from the South Bronx in the late 70s. Following in the footsteps of MC Solaar and Postive Black Soul, other famous Senegalese hip hop figures, the decade-old Daara J, by taking advantage of hip hop’s globalization, has crafted a rich musical and cultural identity, filtering it all through the lens of hip-hop.

The group believes hip-hop is fundamentally African, and that it’s now “mature enough to go back home.” While the statement problematically disregards the immense contributions of Caribbean and other cultures on hip-hop’s development, the sentiment nevertheless informs the underlying philosophy of the group’s latest album, 2003’s _Boomerang_ (“Wrasse Records”:http://www.wrasserecords.com/), the title functioning as a seductive metaphor for hip-hop’s historical trajectory (Africa to New York and back to Africa).

The diversity of their music, however, seems to speak a more complex narrative. Lyrically, Daara J’s MCs draw on Wolof, English, French (Senegal was a French colony until the early 1960s), the patois of Jamaica, and even a bit of Spanish, for their rhymes. The MCs possess a highly infectious rhythmic flow, culled especially, it seems, from the rapid-fire rapping style heard over dub records, while Lord Aladji Man (also known as “Mr. Melody”) possesses an extraordinary singing ability. Yet their on-stage rhetoric consisted of the rhetorical posturing of American MCs, punctuated with shouts of “Make Noise!” to get the crowd riled up (which wouldn’t have taken much), and one song whose refrain consisted of the standard “You live by the mic/You die by the mic.”

The beats, which weren’t much more than a pre-programmed CD occasionally spun by the DJ, were equally culled from diverse musical cultures. They invoked the pre-history of hip-hop by their extensive use of reggae music, even with shouts of “Reggae music is still alive!” There were also traditional Senegalese drums and chanting that formed the base for their rhymes, with a bit of Cuban guitar, representative of that country’s musical presence in Senegal for most of the last century.

Tracks like “Babylon” and “Exodus” evoke the Rastafarianism often expressed in reggae, revealing that it was more than just the sound of dancehall and reggae records that shaped Daara J’s musical identity and that they ascribe to loftier goals than just rocking a party. Not that they had any problem at the Cedar: the three MCs immediately captivated the crowd, a racially mixed group filled with the youngest of children on their parents’ shoulders to the cosmopolitans who’ll most likely see anything simply because it’s marketed as “world music.” The group’s name means “School of Life,” and their lyrics are filled with messages of hope and empowerment, while also being somewhat critical of contemporary African life in Senegal. Daara J does not just complain, however; they recently lent their music to the successful cause of voting out a corrupt regime.

If hybridity is the new authenticity, than Daara J are using it to their fullest advantage. Attempting to have their global cake and eat it too, Daara J wants to maintain a distinct sense of national pride while believing that all can be embraced under the multi-colored banner of “One Love.” Their music offered an interpretation of hip-hop’s historical strands and perhaps, through their embracing of its complex cultural identities, they may have offered also a vision of the music’s future.

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