Believe the hype. Hip-hop can stir a revolution. If you need proof just look at the West African nation of Senegal, where a generation of rappers have dedicated their lives to keeping the feet of elected officials to the fire in a movement that has spurred action across the region.
You'll meet these rebels with a cause in the latest episode of MTV’s "Rebel Music," the riveting "Senegal: Ready For Change."
One of their leaders is Kilifeu, a rapper activist from the city of Kaolack, which he describes as being a "super-political" hotbed of youthful activism in the otherwise "tolerant" country that gained independence from France in 1960. Senegal has a long history of democracy, a system that was tested in the late 1980s when the economy collapsed, youth took to the streets to protest and officials had to invalidate the entire 1988 school year due to massive strikes and protests.
Those kids who lost out on a year of learning became the leaders of the nation's hip-hop scene, and a neo-political movement that spoke out against corruption and the nearly two-decade presidency of Abdou Diouf.
"We started rhyming about what was wrong in the country," said rapper Xuman about the generation that found their voices amid the chaos.
Among the most vocal and visible spokespeople was Cheik Oumar Cyrille Touré, better known by his stage name, Thiat, which he uses to lead one of the nation's most popular hip-hop groups, Keur Gui. Formed in the midst of a 1996 student strike, Thiat said initially Kilifeu didn't want to join Keur Gui because he didn't want to be part of something he feared would be about "nonsense."
"If really we're going to be rappers, we going to talk about important things," Thiat recalled Kilifeu telling him.
"I told him, 'If I give my word that I'll start rapping, it will be forever,' " Kilifeu said he pledged at the time. On that point they agreed. Their choice, however, came with harsh consequences after they criticized the mayor of Kaolack, which resulted in near fatal beatings that landed them in the hospital for three weeks and then in prison, where they said they were tortured. Their music was then censored and, according to Kilifeu, they essentially became enemies of the state.
Like many young people, Keur Gui supported the charismatic Abdoulaye Wade in the early years of his presidency (2000-2012), when they hoped he'd hear the frustrations of Senegal's youth. Rapper/activist Xuman said despite those dreams, Wade eventually "became exactly what he was fighting against and we realized it," as poverty and corruption increased, power supplies became sporadic and democracy weakened during his tenure.
Spurred to speak up against Wade by a journalist friend, the Keur Gui crew hooked up with political activist Denise "Sofia" Sow, a leading social media voice of the burgeoning youth push for change.
"We agreed that it's up to us, the youth, to do something, and not wait for others," she said. Together with other activists and rappers, they formed the Y'en A Marre ("I'm fed up") movement, which resulted in mass protests that, similar to the Occupy Movement in the U.S., passed the mic to anyone who had something to say.
Thousands showed up for the first mass protest in 2011, marking the first time artists in the nation had grabbed a public space to speak their minds. On June 23, 2011, the opposition seemingly caught the Wade government by surprise with their strength and numbers and their refusal to accept the president's attempts to change the constitution in his favor. Sow said the street uprisings quickly escalated, with many losing their lives in the skirmishes.
After trying to fight back in the street with force, intimidation and threats, Kilifeu said Wade explored other tactics. "When that didn't work, he started to infiltrate us and set some other rappers against us," he said. The protests achieved their goal, however, with Wade withdrawing his proposed constitutional amendments.
Sow said word soon came down, though, that there was a bounty on Thiat's head and that he was targeted for death.
"The most terrifying moment was when they were trying to assassinate us," Thiat said. These rappers, who banded together years before to speak truth to power, were now facing possible execution by what Thiat said he was told was a group of four assassins from Liberia. At one point, he could see the red dots from their sniper rifles targeting the musicians as they scrambled over a wall to escape.
"I saw my death very close and I escaped," Kilifeu said. "The state is capable of anything." Then, things seemed poised to change again when former prime minister Macky Sall ran against Wade in 2012 and won. Kilifeu said the people of Senegal have given their new leader a two-and-a-half year grace period to see if he'll be different, but so far they're not sure.
And while the Y'en A Marre movement went silent for a time in Senegal, Keur Gui broke that quiet with the first single from their recent album, 2014's hit "Diogoufi," which lamented the forced sale of property and jail terms for dissidents. Y'en A Marre has since spread all over West Africa to nations including Burkina Faso and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Y'en representatives traveled in March 2015 to collaborate with the local Filimbi group.
"Senegal is my life," Thiat said. "We cannot do anything else than what we are doing, because that is your entire life."
Tune in every week for new episodes of “Rebel Music,” which premieres each Thursday on YouTube.com/MTV.