How Senegal's artists are changing the system with a mic and spray paint A cultural center in Senegal is creating a safe space where artists can use their platform to speak about climate change while also finding opportunities in the art and music scene.

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

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

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Babacar Niang, known as Matador, raps at a recording studio at one of Africulturban's facilities in Pikine, Senegal on April 26, 2018. Ricci Shryock for NPR hide caption

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Ricci Shryock for NPR

Babacar Niang, known as Matador, raps at a recording studio at one of Africulturban's facilities in Pikine, Senegal on April 26, 2018.

Ricci Shryock for NPR

In 2005, heavy rains flooded neighborhoods around Dakar, Senegal, forcing tens of thousands of people out of their homes.

It was the worst downpour in decades and Babacar Niang, a rapper also known as Matador, witnessed the devastation.

"People's faces read worry first, then fear," reads one line from his song, "Catastrophe."

But he couldn't just sit there and write songs about it, he wanted to do more.

In 2006, he founded Africulturban, a cultural center where young people go to create music and art.

The center feeds into a large and lively hip-hop scene that is often socially conscious.

Listen to our full report by clicking or tapping the play button above.

Mallika Seshadri contributed to this report.


Climate change creates a lot of problems. In Senegal, it's forcing people to leave for Europe. We're about to meet a man who has come up with a grassroots solution. In a neighborhood of Dakar called Pikine, sidewalk vendors sell peanuts, watermelons and chicory coffee. Horses pull rickety carts. You can buy sneakers laid out on tarps on the sidewalk. Life takes place outside on these streets, streets that can be inundated with water in heavy floods.

BABACAR NIANG: (Through interpreter) I said to myself, as an artist, I should do something about it.

SHAPIRO: This is Babacar Niang, but no one calls him that. He's a rapper who goes by Matador, and he's a legend in Senegal's hip-hop scene. He's also an activist. In 2005, when an especially bad flood hit this part of Dakar, he threw a concert to fundraise.

NIANG: (Through interpreter) So it all started with climate change.

SHAPIRO: That fundraiser grew into an organization which grew into this place, a cultural center in Pikine called Africulturban. I asked Matador about one of his best known songs, "Catastrophe," or "Catastrophe," and he starts reciting the lyrics.

NIANG: (Non-English language spoken).

SHAPIRO: "Clouds piling up from the north announce the rain to come," he says. "People's faces read worry first, then fear. With the first rains come the first wave of departures. Those who prayed for rain sure got their prayers answered."


NIANG: (Rapping in non-English language).

SHAPIRO: When you perform that, how do people respond?

NIANG: (Through interpreter) They find themselves in what I'm singing because they encounter those difficulties, too.

SHAPIRO: If "Catastrophe" describes the way climate is changing people's lives here, the song "Tukki" talks about the way young people are responding to those changes. They leave on boats for Europe.


NIANG: (Rapping in non-English language).

SHAPIRO: The song lists the countries - France, Belgium, Italy, Spain.


NIANG: (Singing) Sudan, China, Japan, Portugal (rapping in non-English language).

SHAPIRO: All these places are great to earn a living, he sings. But after you travel, come back. Senegal is still your home.

When you perform "Tukki" and you say travel is good, but it's better to come home, do people believe that also?

NIANG: (Through interpreter) Yeah, because I'm an example of that. Every time I travel, I go, I do what I have to do, and then I come back.

SHAPIRO: In the late '90s, Matador was part of a popular Senegalese hip-hop group called BMG 44.


BMG 44: (Rapping in non-English language).

SHAPIRO: They toured all over Europe. Everyone else in the group stayed there, but Matador came back to Senegal and started this organization. Now, it's a buzzing hive of artistic activity. There's breakdancing classes, rap battles. Matador points out a stage they're building in an empty lot.

NIANG: (Speaking French).

SHAPIRO: Behind us is a brightly-colored mural painted by another one of the center's stars. Dieynaba Sidibe goes by Zeinixx. Inside Africulturban, we pass a music studio and art gallery and an open-air hall where chairs are set up for an event later on. And we enter the graphic design room where we find Zeinixx herself. She's 32 and started tagging when she was just 18. At the time, she says, there were no other women in Senegal doing graffiti.

DIEYNABA SIDIBE: They had reaction like, whoa, a girl who painting graffiti.

SHAPIRO: Hundreds of cans of spray paint are sorted by color along the wall.

SIDIBE: My dream was to be a globetrotter with my beret and my spray and...

SHAPIRO: You have the beret, and you have the spray.

NIANG: Yeah, now. And yeah, traveling a lot and sharing my art.

SHAPIRO: And you now travel the world?

SIDIBE: A little bit.



SHAPIRO: And do you want to stay in Senegal, or would you like to go live in Europe?

SIDIBE: Senegal is my country, is my first love. I'll stay in Senegal.

SHAPIRO: A lot of young people do not see a future for themselves in Senegal. Why do you think you feel differently?

SIDIBE: For me, youth is the future. I am young. And for me, I can change many stuff. We travel, and we go back here. We come back. We are always trying to show them how they can stay and work and to just create, by themself, what I can do. But we are always trying.

SHAPIRO: Asking people here whether they know anyone who's left Senegal for Europe is like asking people in Hollywood whether they know anybody who works in entertainment. Like, duh.

CHEIKH SEYE: Yeah. Most of my childhood friends are not in Senegal.

SHAPIRO: Cheikh Seye, or Kingbeat, is a producer at the Africulturban music studio.

Why did you stay?

SEYE: I don't know. Maybe thanks to the music. I was trained here, and now I'm here. I work with many artists - Sumbaga Mbaye (ph), Iswe Sa (ph), Jeeba (ph), Matador.

SHAPIRO: Oh, I've heard of him.


SHAPIRO: He's only been producing for four years, and already he's working with some of the biggest names in Senegalese hip-hop. He pulls up a music video for a song he produced. It's got 13 million views.


ISS 814: (Singing in non-English language).

SHAPIRO: Matador looks on, smiling like a proud parent.

NIANG: (Through interpreter) Yeah, yeah. Fifteen years ago, I created this organization to give this generation this chance and opportunity.


ISS 814: (Singing in non-English language).

SHAPIRO: Back in the courtyard, I realized that, in our hours together, there was something I hadn't asked him about. Everybody here has a stage name - Zeinixx, Kingbeat. So how did he get the name Matador?

NIANG: I don't know. (Speaking French).

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

NIANG: (Through interpreter) When I get on stage, I become a different person.

SHAPIRO: The killer - the Matador is the killer - (speaking French). It's funny. The Matador (speaking French) - the Matador is a killer. You are saving lives. You're helping people stay here and make art and find a place for themselves. That's the opposite of a matador.

NIANG: (Through interpreter) The matador fights the bete noire - the black beast. The black beast, for us, is the system. So I'm fighting the system, but I don't fight it alone. I give young people weapons to combat the system, to combat poverty. These opportunities are their weapons.

SHAPIRO: The matador is sharpening his blade.


SHAPIRO: We've been talking about people who leave Africa for Europe, but 80% of African migration is within the continent. So Senegal is not just a departure country, it's also a destination. Tomorrow, we meet people who came here fleeing climate change in other parts of Africa.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Actually, there's no place like home. No matter what, I feel to be home.

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