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Senegal's artists are fighting the system with a mic and spray paint

A man wearing glasses and headphones sings into a microphone in a recording booth.
Ricci Shryock for NPR
Babacar Niang, known as Matador, raps at a recording studio at Africulturban's center in Pikine, Senegal.

PIKINE, Senegal — On Senegal's peninsula, just west of Dakar, is a neighborhood that attracts hundreds of the country's most gifted musicians, artists and creatives. They all meet at Africulturban, a cultural center in the neighborhood of Pikine. The man who founded it wants radical change.

"I'm fighting the system, but I don't fight it alone," says Babacar Niang.

The system he is referring to is poverty. It is high in Senegal, and so is the unemployment rate. The agricultural sector is the country's largest source of employment, but it's been rocked by the unrelenting challenges of climate change.

Niang is an internationally celebrated hip-hop artist who founded Africulturban in 2006. As he walks through the corridors of the center, he is warmly greeted by young people who call him Matador. It's a stage name as well as an alter ego that contrasts with his calm, welcoming presence.

"The matador fights the bete noir, the black beast," he says. "The black beast, for us, is the system. I give young people weapons to combat the system and poverty."

A group of people sit in a recording studio with a laptop and keyboard on the desk in front of them.
/ Ricci Shryock for NPR
Ricci Shryock for NPR
Niang, left, is a leading figure at Africulturban in Pikine.

Those weapons are of a musical and artistic variety. They manifest as opportunities realized at Africulturban. And the foot soldiers against the system are the center's 1,500 young members.

There are more than 15 million people in Senegal, and a third of them live in poverty. Climate change exacerbates these issues, particularly in the agricultural sector, where 70% of crops depend on rain, according to the World Food Program.

The challenges in the agricultural industry lend to the country's high unemployment rate, which shot up between 2002 and 2006, when Africulturban was getting off the ground. The country saw the start of a steep decline in 2011 that ended in 2019. Since then, unemployment rates have been increasing again.

Paintings and sculptures line the hallways of Africulturban, and music fills the air. Members can take their pick of jazz or break dance lessons. Outside, a young man makes a drum by hand. The center is brimming with artistic energy. You almost forget its turbulent origin story.

"It started with climate change," Niang says.

In 2005, heavy rains in the Dakar area turned to severe flooding. It was the longest downpour in two decades. Floodwater spread disease. Cholera cases shot up. Hundreds of people died. More than 50,000 were displaced from their homes.

"I said to myself, as an artist I should do something about it," Niang says.

He wrote a song called "Catastrophe," which quickly became one of his most recognizable songs. "Clouds piling up from the north announce the rain to come," reads one verse. "People's faces read worry first, then fear. With the first rains comes the first wave of departures."

Niang says the onset of floods created an exodus; young people started leaving in search of stability. "Even before it starts raining, people leave and go somewhere else," Niang says.

As climate change made its slow, unrelenting progression, he started to notice that his community was changing too. "I saw the situation," Niang says. "Families that I knew very well were obliged to leave the district."

Niang wants to change the way young Senegalese see their future in the country.
/ Ricci Shryock for NPR
Ricci Shryock for NPR
Niang wants to change the way young Senegalese see their future in the country.

And others had dreams of leaving the continent altogether. That didn't sit well with Niang. "It's not the young Europeans and young Americans who can come and do the job here," he says. "It is those young people, the Senegalese young people who are going to do the job."

Niang got to work and organized a concert to raise funds for flood victims. That concert sprouted into Africulturban. At its core, the center tries to use the arts as a way to channel the frustration felt by young Senegalese. This vision has helped one of its members make history.

"When I started, my dream was to be a globe-trotter with my beret and my spray, sharing my art," says Dieynaba Sidibe, also known as Zeinixx.

Sidibe, 32, is widely celebrated as the first female graffiti artist in Senegal. She started taking art lessons at Africulturban when she was 18, and now she leads classes. "It is something like 'each one teach one,'" she says. "I came here to learn in graffiti. We didn't have this kind of opportunity. We didn't have the space and the mentors who can come and just share, like, for free."

A man stands in front of a wall with graffiti art.
/ Ricci Shryock for NPR
Ricci Shryock for NPR
Niang sees Africulturban as a place where people can learn how to fight the system.

When she is not breaking down gender stereotypes or painting eye-catching murals, Sidibe teaches others about the value of staying in Senegal. "Senegal is my country. It is my first love," she says. "For me, youth is the future. I'm young and for me, I can change many things."

Africulturban gives young people the tools to change the way they look at what their country has to offer them. Most people here believe in that mission, including 43-year-old Omar Keita.

"It's possible to do something in our country," Keita says. "It is we who can change Senegal. It's not easy, but we should do it."

Cheikh Seye, known as King Beats, is a music producer who was also trained at the center. "I work with many big artists in Senegal and I started working in the music industry in 2008," he says. "And now I am here, I work with many artists."

He is sought after by some of the biggest names in the hip-hop scene. He pulls up one music video and proudly points to the number of views on YouTube. "13 million," he says. He is successful and has no plans to leave Senegal. But he says he has a lot of childhood friends who left for Europe.

That narrative is slowly changing, says Niang. "For these young people, now they have demystified staying in Europe, they can go and come back and work here in their country," Niang says.

Back in his office, Niang's walls are covered with awards and accolades from his music career. It is a monument to his life's passion, but he pays little attention to them.

The awards are nice, but shaping the next generation and changing the system is his proudest work.

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Ayen Bior
Ayen Deng Bior is a producer at NPR's flagship evening news program, All Things Considered. She helps shape the sound of the daily shows by contributing story ideas, writing scripts and cutting tape. Her work at NPR has taken her to Warsaw, Poland, where she heard from refugees displaced by the war in Ukraine. She has spoken to people in Saint-Louis, Senegal, who are grappling with rising seas. Before NPR, Bior wore many hats at the Voice of America's English to Africa service where she worked in radio, television and digital. Bior began her career reporting on the revolution in Sudan, the developing state of affairs in South Sudan and the experiences of women behind the headlines in both countries. In her spare time, Bior loves to kayak, read and bird watch.
Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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