Ouaga Hip Hop Festival

Ouagadougou is much more than the capital of Burkina Faso, it is one of the cultural capitals of the world. The city hosts several major festivals: the International Craft Show of Ouagadougou, the Festival International de Théâtre et de Marionnettes de Ouagadougou (The International Theater and Puppets Festival of Ouagadougou), the Jazz Festival of Ouagadougou and two other important theater festivals.

The city is also the meeting place for all lovers of African cinema. Since 1969, every 2 years, the Ouagadougou Pan-African Film & Television Festival (FESPACO) welcomes thousands of festival-goers and represents must-see festival.  At the very beginning of this new millenium, Ouagadougou was once again the leader of another cultural phenomenom, The International Hip Hop Culture Festival born under the name Ouaga Hip Hop.

Some New Yorkers were lucky enough to get a glimpse of this new festival at the screening of the documentary by Benny Malapa, Ouaga Hip Hop 3 during the eleventh edition of the New York African Film Festival in April 2004. The documentary captures the soul and the passion that goes into this great human, musical and cultural adventure that is Ouaga Hip Hop. At the source of this annual event is Ali Diallo, a young burkinabé who prides himself on a long and fruitful experience in the arts and culture in his country and in Europe. He is a theater actor, a producer and a director.

When Ali, who was working on the promotion of the first album by Basic Soul (the precursor of rap in Burkina Faso), met a few young rappers who complained to him about the difficulty of finding a producer and a market, creating a platform for these young hip hop artists became Ali’s mission. That same year, Ali founded Umané Culture, an organization based in Ouagadougou whose goals are to encourage and promote cultural contacts and exchanges; to facilitate the processes of professionalization and the blossoming of young hip hop artists. Thanks to national and international partnerships, Umané Culture and its dedicated staff brings its artistic, administrative and technical expertise to produce, co-produce and promote music shows in Burkina Faso and abroad.

Because the guests were mainly locals and Ali Diallo had a very small budget–e used his own personal funds to finance the first festival–this cultural and musical venture had modest beginnings. About 500 people attended the two-night festival in 2000.

In a recent e-mail, Ali wrote to me, “One can not live without dreams, so one has to find ways to realize them.” Ali put his money where his mouth is. We now can appreciate his dedication, his faith in his dreams and his passion to increase the diversity and the richness of these annual cultural meetings.

The festival is a two-part event over a two-week period every year in October. During the first ten days or so, Ouaga Hip Hop offers several workshops which cover different artistic disciplines related to hip-hop such as hip-hop dance, theater, graffiti, management, sound technology, writing, and studio recording techniques. There are no technical schools for sound technology in Burkina Faso and it costs a great deal of money to send young people to study these technologies abroad. Taking advantage of the festival to train technicians during workshops is the great idea behind the whole event, and Ali hopes that in the near future, they will be able to find technicians in Burkina instead of having to invite them from abroad.

The festival ends with a four to five day period of performances and concerts, and in 2003, it showcased the talents of established rappers such as Yéleen, Wed Hyack, Basic Soul, Smokey (Burkina Faso), Tata Pound (Mali), Dhalaï K (Bénin), Kaïdan Gaskia (Niger) , Daara-J, Pee Froiss, Djoloff (Sénégal), Lennox Lindsay (Trinidad & Tobago), IZM (France).

African rap differentiates itself from its American counterpart in several respects. First, the use of African traditional musical instruments like the balafon and the cora, give singular sounds that are immediately recognizable as sounds from the African continent. A lot of African rappers mix musical genres, and their sound combines rap, ragga, reggae, soul and local sounds. And last, but not least, the true originality of African hip-hop stands in its lyrics.

While American rap tends to feature gansgta rap which glamorizes crimes and often disrespects women, African rap is mainly a militant form of expression. It carries political and social messages and denounces social injustices. African rappers were inspired by a musical style which originated in urban centers in the United States and imported it back to the continent. They reappropriated hip-hop by giving it a new lease on life, new words (a lot of these artists rap in their language : wolof, songhai, moré, bambara, djoula, among many others), and other themes since these artists primarily concern themselves with issues related to their respective country, their continent, the environment, politics, their present and their future, injustices, human rights, their community, and the whole world. All of this for the pleasure of an ever-growing African public.

In the documentary Ouaga Hip Hop 3, one of the rappers of the Senegalese band expresses his desire to see more and more African rappers “copy” their own culture, to make sure that the “old generations” can listen and relate to younger generations’ rap music and to make sure that there is no “cultural contradiction”. Has there ever been any cultural contradiction in African hip-hop? Although African rap gets its inspiration from American hip hop as far rhythm, clothes, graffitis and body gestures are concerned, it is nevertheless rooted in the ancestral tradition of the griot who tells stories as well as history over music.

The modern griots of the hip hop scene are questioning the world of today more than they retell the history of their people and they contribute to the creative and cultural richness of Africa. The new hip-hop griots address the present in a direct manner while their traditional elders tell them who they are by recounting their past. These young artists want to be heard and their claims validated. In one of his songs, Wed Hyack (Senegal) pays tribute to Thomas Sankara and to Patrice Lumumba : two symbols of hope for a better world. Kaidan Gaskia (Niger) rap on all socio-political and economical problems which –although not specific to Africa- are prevalent on the African continent : such as AIDS, corrupted governments and politicians, poverty, social injustices, dictature, unemployment, etc. Smokey, a rapper and producer from Burkina, is not afraid of  challenging and confronting the government in his songs and is an active participant in the hip-hop scene by managing his own recording studio in Ouaga.

It is with poetry, conviction, talent and humor that these African rappers take their mic and their fate into their hands each time they go up on the  Ouaga Hip Hop Festival stage,  offered to them every year under the auspices of Ali Diallo, the soul of this event.

About the Director

Muriel Placet-Kouassi

Muriel Place-Kouassi is a French professor at Drew University. She is a also a published author, having written a French textbook, Berlitz Language: Essential French in 2009.