For six months, Ali Colleen Neff, a doctoral candidate in communications at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, had worked with advisers from the African and African-American studies programs at Duke University and the Beat Making Lab at UNC to get one woman from Senegal to America. Neff wrote proposals, secured funds, organized presentations and scheduled performances, planning out two weeks of programming for a visit from Toussa Senerap, a young Senegalese rapper. But just weeks before she was ready to leave, her visa interview canceled everything.
"I had a thought or a feeling that that might happen," admits Toussa, the stage name of Astou Gueye, from her home just outside of Dakar. Immigration officials told her she'd have to make nearly $50,000 a year before they would allow her to visit America. Otherwise, why would she return?
"That's fine," she says. "I'm just going to keep doing what I do."
Toussa's determination is characteristic of her struggle in hip-hop. In Senegal, she's just one of very few women working within the genre. In the former French colony located on the western rim of Africa, that's considered a relatively minor struggle. With a 39.3 percent literacy rate and unemployment as high as 14.8 percent, Senegal relies heavily on foreign aid and debt relief. Despite a population of 12.5 million people, Senegal, according to the CIA's World Factbook, averages just .059 physicians per 1,000 citizens, compared to the United States' 2.672. The rates of hepatitis A, typhoid fever, malaria, yellow fever and meningococcal meningitis are especially high.
What's more, Senegal is a predominantly Islamic country, making Toussa's place as a female rapper that much more precarious. But she is part of a growing class within her country who are proving both creative and resilient, coupling raps in French, English and Wolof (the most widely spoken language in Senegal) to beats that nod to African drum traditions and American hip-hop stars.
Their resourcefulness hints at music's larger purpose of connectivity—something Neff realized when she first saw Toussa perform in a suburb of Dakar three years ago.
Neff spent the bulk of her doctoral candidacy focusing on the work of women like Toussa, musicians in Senegal who stand at the nexus of traditional and emerging creative forms. A native Iowan, Neff worked as a music journalist and DJ in San Francisco before venturing to the Mississippi Delta to study hip-hop and the blues. Focusing on Clarksdale, Miss., Neff traced budding regional sounds like crunk alongside more customary and established takes on the blues. She spent more than five years working in the community. That work propelled her to the Folklore Program in Chapel Hill and, ultimately, a thesis-turned-book called Let the World Listen Right: The Mississippi Delta Hip-Hop Story.
As her research developed, she recognized the subtler, more unseen influences affecting these styles.
"[There were] all kinds of women from the community really at the heart of these new movements in hip-hop," says Neff. The rapper TopNotch the Villain, one of her closest consultants there, credited his choir with offering an escape from his troubled home life; in particular, the female choir director encouraged him to improvise lyrics. Stories like that made Neff re-evaluate the guidance of mothers, teachers and sisters on what was customarily seen as male-driven hip-hop: "I had these lingering research questions about where women, especially young women, are placed when it comes to the emergence of global musical movements."
Neff also wanted to stretch the normal narrative of hip-hop's genesis beyond 1970s New York ghettos. "That's one really important story of hip-hop," she acknowledges, "but I wanted to tell a completely different story."
In 2007, while beginning her doctoral work at UNC, she designed a plan that would allow her to explore both ideas at once. Senegal loomed large as a venue.
After a summer at SCALI—the Summer Cooperative African Language Institute, at Indiana University—learning Wolof, Neff spent a year lining up funding for a trip to conduct fieldwork.
"Plenty of people have gone and researched hip-hop in Senegal. It's a trope," she explains. "I knew no one had ever worked with women griots to this extent or women hip-hop artists [there] at all, or even women praise singers and mbalax [pop] singers. They hadn't bothered."
Neff cobbled together several small grants and scheduled her first visit at Senegal—a two-month stay in the capital city of Dakar—for the summer of 2009.
"When I got off the plane, it was clear that I didn't know what I was doing. I nearly got kidnapped by a sham taxi driver who didn't want to take me to my hotel and wanted me to give him all my money instead," says Neff. After paying him $50, Neff talked the cabbie into letting her go. She arrived at her hotel, a garish resort in the French financial district. "I sat down and had a big plate of rice and fish and started to think about what the next couple months were going to be like."
Even the first night's threat didn't help her anticipate the surprise to follow. Neff planned to stay with a family in Dakar. When the father of the household picked her up the next day, the drive to his home took much longer than expected.
"From what I understood, I was staying in Dakar in a neighborhood kind of toward the outskirts, but what I didn't understand was I wasn't in the city of Dakar, I was in sort of the county of Dakar, the region of Dakar," she says. "I got in this taxi to go to my homestay and three hours later, I got out."
That confusion, however, worked in Neff's favor: She arrived in the banlieue—a poor, outer suburb—of Guédiawaye. The same month she arrived, The New York Times' Adam Nossiter had called the neighborhood a "forlorn, dun-colored slum abutting Dakar." Because of the poverty, though, many griots, shamanistic practitioners and even professional wrestlers lived nearby. Had Neff been closer to downtown, the cast of characters would've been much different.
Shortly after her arrival in Guédiawaye, Neff walked a few blocks from her homestay toward the local high school, where kids celebrated the end of the year with a talent show. They rapped and sang and danced, much like any other adolescent talent show. Amid the bustle, "there was Toussa," the only woman to step up and rap.
"She killed it," remembers Neff, "and the amazing thing was all these high school boys watching her were super enthusiastic about what she was doing. I looked at my friend who was with me and immediately said, 'I'm going to work with her.'"
When Neff returned for her major phase of research—a nearly year-and-a-half stint starting in late 2009—she moved closer to downtown, to the hipper neighborhood of Medina. She slowly established relationships with Toussa and five other women who became the focus of her ethnography. They were pop and praise singers or, like Toussa, hip-hop artists from across the city.
"I worked with those people for quite a long time before I ever broke out a recorder or a camera or a video camera," says Neff. "With Toussa, for instance, I saw her play. I saw her perform. I got to know her community. Finally, I contacted her," she says. "We took months and months of just getting to know each other and hanging out. I said, 'Teach me about your life.'"
When Neff met her, Toussa was a bright 17-year-old hoping to follow in her father's footsteps as a horticulturalist. But in the last three years, she's become a de facto advocate for equality in Senegalese culture. She organizes GOTAL Connexion, a six-to-eleven-member collective that remains the country's only all-female hip-hop crew. The women have to fight for studio time, for beats, for respect.
"It's not easy," Toussa admits. "The studios here make it very difficult for women to have access to what they need to do their art."
GOTAL has proven quite the catalyst for Toussa and her crew as they aspire toward careers in music. In the past few years, Neff has witnessed the group's first major concert, first recording, first magazine interview and first TV appearance. Since she left the country, the momentum has continued, with Toussa even making it as a finalist on Senegal's version of American Idol.
"I knew when I saw her that there was something special," remembers Neff. She says their work allows a sort of synergistic symbiosis. "It wasn't just that my relationship with her served my research project. We became partners with two different projects. Our projects amplified each other."
For Neff, that means a chance to do in-depth ethnographic work, to explore the very rich story of women in hip-hop and to translate all of it into courses, papers and presentations for undergraduates. Neff designs courses like "'Bad' Technologies: Popular Media and Cultural Studies" and "Crunkology: The Southern Hip-Hop Aesthetic." She utilizes photos, videos and recordings to help open up the stories she heard and the lives she's come to be a part of.
"It's really important when I model my presentations and my papers that I don't just dwell on flash and the coolness of what I study," she says, "but also reflect the critical nature of what I'm doing with the artists I work with."
She's currently shoring up her dissertation based on her Senegalese fieldwork, hoping to repurpose it for another book project. But analysis and context do not mean she's lost the beauty and connections she found in West Africa; now married to a Senegalese artist, Bamba Niass, Neff recently gave birth to her first child, Serene Saliou. His name, chosen after a traditional Senegalese ngenté (naming ceremony), comes from a Sufi saint dedicated to selfless charity, generosity and good work.
Neff hopes that her work will reverberate and help Toussa advance her own efforts, especially by raising funds to start a studio for women. "Women could learn to make their own beats, learn to record their own music, and that would give them the opportunity," explains Toussa.
"I tell her I'm working to try to help her get one," says Neff, translating their conversation. "Slowly, slowly, slowly, but surely, by the grace of Allah, we will be able to start a women's studio."
Until then, Toussa remains adamant: "I want to work really hard on my music," she says. "I'm just going to continue my work and one day I will have a visa. I know it."
This article appeared in print with the headline "International amplification."