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Film Features A Rapper’s African History Lesson

  • Ricci Shryock

Map of Africa
Watching Senegalese rapper Didier Awadi perform on stage at the Waga Hip-Hop Festival, Canadian filmmaker Yanick Letourneau became determined to make a documentary about hip-hop musicians and their activism in African politics.

“Awadi... he could talk about politics in a way that you could understand what was at stake,” said Letourneau.

On Awadi’s recent album, African Presidents, his raps intermingle with historic speeches from African revolutionaries such as Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah and Thomas Sankara. It was this focus on African history – mixed with a future vision of Pan-Africanism – that filmmaker Yanick Letourneau was drawn to while making his award-winning documentary, “United States of Africa: Beyond Hip Hop.”

The film follows Awadi and other hip-hop artists on tour through Dakar, Johannesburg, Paris and other destinations, as they reach out to educate concert audiences about the continent’s visionaries.

“Hip-hop must offer a constructive and objective critique of society,” Awadi said in the film.

The Senegalese rapper’s reputation, which has grown since 1989 when he first made his mark with the hip-hop group Positive Black Soul, was part of what prompted Letourneau to feature him as the film’s protagonist. “I thought it was important to take somebody that was established, that has authority,” said Letourneau. “When he says something, well it’s not just like anybody off the street.”

“These artists know that they have a responsibility,” added the filmmaker, “and they go in the regions and they talk to kids in the villages and in the cities in a way that nobody else does, and this is key.”

He said Awadi addresses this issue in the film: “he says that he did this album, African Presidents, because he wanted that album to go into the classroom, because people don’t learn about their own history.”

Letourneau said hip-hop artists play an important role in education, because they “have a way of simplifying complex issues into words that everyone can understand.”

But he added that does not mean the rappers’ breakdown is sufficient for a complete understanding of the issues at hand. “You cannot ask a musician to be everything. It’s one source of information against others.”

The film premiered at the Montreal International Documentary Festival late last year and won the Critics Choice Award. United States of Africa: Beyond Hip Hop will show at screenings in Senegal and Burkina Faso this summer.