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Senegal artists discover ‘freedom’ in slam poetry

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A man performs during a slam session in Dakar on October 29. Open slam scenes are organised every last two Fridays of each month at La Maison de la Culture Douta Seck, in Dakar’s Medina district. AFP

Senegal artists discover ‘freedom’ in slam poetry

Dilaminou Theila strides confidently onstage in a working-class neighbourhood in Senegal’s seaside capital Dakar to recite free-form verses about love.

“Like the prodigal son/I set out to discover the world and its seductions/But all I got was sorrow,” she declaims, in French, winning uproarious applause from about 50 slam-poetry enthusiasts.

Theila, a second-year law student and Gabonese national, is one of a growing number of people drawn to the thriving slam scene in the West African metropolis.

In Dakar’s Medina district, dozens of slammers – many of them stylish youngsters – have gathered for one of the first open-mic nights after over a year-long hiatus caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Colonialism, Africa’s place in the world, feminism and love are recurring themes among the poets, who often recite their verses in a rapid patter reading from their smartphones.

“Slam, for us, is a form of expression to free ourselves,” Theila said after leaving the stage.

“I came tonight and didn’t expect to recite,” she said, suggesting that she was inspired to perform because of the infectious atmosphere.

Slam poetry, a genre of spoken verse influenced by hip-hop music, is popular across French-speaking Africa.

But Senegal has a particularly strong tradition of the art form. Senegalese native Abdourahamane Dabo, who died last year, won the first Africa-wide tournament in 2018.

All 14 of the country’s regions have slam associations, according to Senegal’s Slam League president Omar Keita, in addition to numerous school and university groups.

“More and more people are interested,” Keita said, adding that even established writers and theatre directors are hoping that slam can bring them new audiences.

The rich literary tradition in the nation of 16 million people may contribute to the popularity of slam poetry, Keita suggested.

Griots – a caste of storytellers, singers and oral historians – played an important role in traditional Senegal.

But Senegal has a vibrant literary tradition too. Senegalese author Mohamed Mbougar Sarr won France’s leading literary prize the Prix Goncourt in October, and the country’s first president, Leopold Senghor, was a renowned poet.

“We’re close to the classical poets,” said Keita, the Slam League president.

Several slammers interviewed by AFP suggested that the form allowed them to mingle interests in hip hop and literature. Many also pointed to a feeling of release when they recite on stage.

“It’s an art that allows me to free myself, to say out loud what I think and to relieve all the pressure I often receive in life,” said Mbeley Moussa Ndiaye, one of the coordinators of the open-mic night in Medina.

The 31-year-old who goes by the stage name “Dinstroy” is a tax advisor, but remains committed to the hobby he took up in his youth.

“We consider that the cheapest therapy in the world is lyrics, it’s slam,” Ndiaye says.

At the open-mic night, slammers slip back and forth between different languages, touching on risky topics such as sex or domestic abuse.

Most slam poetry in Senegal is French, but the dominant language Wolof is also widely heard.

Not everyone understands, but one of the organisers of the event, Nzengue Ulrich, stresses that the words don’t always need to be understood.

“What moves us is something else: the rhythm of the person’s text,” he said.

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