By Ken Fernandez
From Louga to Paris, imprisoned Senegalese hip-hop legend Nitdoff is a symbol of freedom of expression.
The father of Senegalese gangsta rap for the past 15 years and a dogged activist, the singer has been held in prison since 24 January for “spreading fake news and making death threats”.
“No amount of anger can justify my slip of the tongue. I owe you, my listeners, respect. Using certain words implies a lack of respect for those who take the time to listen to you. I humbly apologise for my behaviour.” Those were the words posted by Nitdoff on 12 January 2023, apologising to the 250,000 followers on his Facebook account.
A few minutes earlier, with his cap screwed on his head and silver chains around his neck, the demonstrative rapper had just screamed out in anger at his country’s dysfunctions in a half-hour live video.
“Mafiosos”, “thieves”, “sons of…”, the rhymes and insults flew in Wolof and French. The exasperated artist castigated the Senegalese authorities and President Macky Sall, who was sowing doubt as to whether or not he would run for a third term.
In a tense political climate 13 months before the presidential election, this cry from the Senegalese rap icon made the rounds on the web. It reached the office of the public prosecutor, who ordered an investigation.
In the crosshairs
Six days later, on 18 January, Nitdoff was picked up by security officers from Dakar’s Sûreté Urbaine at his home in the Nord Foire district. He was charged with “spreading fake news, contempt of court and death threats”.
While in police custody, the artist took matters into his own hands. “If I have to talk about the president, I’ll do it. I’m not afraid of him. Those who support the third mandate must be prevented from causing further harm,” he said.
Placed under detention following an order on 24 January, pending trial, he has not left Dakar’s Rebeuss prison since.
“At first, we thought he would only spend a couple of weeks there,” says Shaem Diop, his manager since 2018. “Then we realised the aim was to shut him up for good.”
“Nit was in the crosshairs. He has always been targeted by politicians and I have a thousand stories of concerts where we were unfairly restricted,” adds Diop.
Show of the Year, Senegal’s biggest hip-hop event, was created in 2009 by Nitdoff and is now in its 12th edition. It’s a 10-hour concert open to novice MCs that habitually wraps up in the early hours of the morning.
On 16 December, the day before the event, which attracts some 10,000 spectators to the Iba-Mar-Diop Stadium every year, the Dakar prefect cancelled the festival for “security reasons”. Despite the support of the entire Galsen, which is the Senegalese hip-hop scene, “this politically-motivated decision did Nit a lot of harm,” Diop says.
His rise to success was one that few would have bet on in 2007. From Paris, a certain Nitdoff – “Nit” for “sensible person” and “doff” for “crazy” in Wolof – released the track Kalashnikov.
“It was an explosion on the bubbling Senegalese hip-hop scene,” says Serigne Seye, a researcher in urban culture at Cheikh-Anta-Diop University.
A Senegalese-style “j’t’emmerde” (“fuck you”) from MC Jean Gab’1 put the spotlight on this muscular rapper. Nitdoff is “not a boy from Dakar or its suburbs, he’s from Louga, a town traditionally known for its mbalax style dance,” the academic adds.
Born on 31 July 1984 in Louga in the northwest, Mor Talla Guèye, as he was then known, “became the first rapper from the region to explode”.
He began rapping with his group BMG in the 1990s. Faced with few prospects in Senegal, he moved to Paris, where his father lived, in the early 2000s, determined to release an album.
In France, the Senegalese people he knew navigated between trouble – even going to prison – and artistic endeavours. In 2006, his encounter with Senegalese producer Mao Prod (whose real name is Mao Sidibé) changed his life.
“I loved his energy,” Mao Prod says, “and we had the same references in African hip-hop – from Just Blaze to the hardcore sounds of France – and we were already making demands for Africa.”
On the road to success, the duo released the debut album M’Bede Bi (“the street” in Wolof) in 2007, for which the boy from Louga was granted the title “rap revelation of the year” back home.
He celebrated the title by taking his gold chains, Timberland boots and bandana on a tour of the Dakar suburbs and then around the country, “where his militant gangsta rap won over young people”, says researcher Seye.
“His 50 Cent style, charisma, and rumours that he had been in prison helped legitimise his ‘street cred’ and made him into the first bad boy of Senegalese rap,” he adds.
This hard-edged rapper’s reputation would only grow with his political commitments. In 2012, affected by what was going on in Senegal, he became a supporter of the popular Y’en a marre (I’m fed up) movement and decided to return to Dakar.
“Mor Talla [Nitdoff] fights against everything he finds unfair, and is prepared to take any risk,” says his producer Sidibé.
“During the demonstrations in 2012, for example, I saw him single-handedly defend a woman who had been attacked by five or six thugs. The assault aside, they were doing the cause a disservice.” Nitdoff was also quick to criticise another Senegalese rap heavyweight, Canabasse, for asking people not to go out on the streets.
Public stand with Ousmane Sonko
“His committed stances are appreciated by members of the traditionally anti-establishment hip-hop movement, and he has become a spokesman for the aspirations and struggles of Senegal’s youth,” says Seye.
What’s more, his influence extends beyond the stage, with the organisation of donations during the ndogou (breaking of the Ramadan fast) or donations to orphanages.
He continued his music activism in 2016 with a double album, Roi d’Afrique – a tribute to the continent’s heroes – which was a phenomenal success, illustrated by two sold-out concerts in 48 hours, at Dakar’s Grand Théâtre National and then at the Iba-Mar-Diop stadium.
At the same time, ambitious young politician Ousmane Sonko was making a name for himself in the Senegalese opposition.
“Even though he had never wanted to get behind a politician, Nitdoff saw his arrival as good news because they were naturally united in their fight against corruption and poverty and pushing for democracy,” says his manager Diop.
It was Sonko who contacted Nitdoff rather than the other way round. His public backing of the politician and increasing head-on attacks against the president –“Macky nous tue, Macky nous torture” [Macky’s killing us, Macky’s torturing us] in C’la Dictature [It’s a dictatorship], released in 2022 – is, for many, the real reason behind his detention.
“If you are a member of the Sonko-founded Pastef party [Parti des Patriotes Africains du Sénégal pour Léthique, le Travail et la Fraternité], you know what awaits you,” says a former member of the Y’en a Marre movement who prefers to remain anonymous.
“In our country, several hundred party sympathisers are languishing in prison alongside Nitdoff because of their political affiliation,” the ex-member adds.
Over the past few months, there has been a successive show of support for Nitdoff from rappers (Xuman, Fou Malade, Docta Wear) and fans, for whom the imprisonment of the movement’s key symbol is seen as an attack.
On 15 February, long before these turbulent months began, presidential candidate Sonko took part in a peaceful march to the tune of “Free Nitdoff!” Since then, the president’s main political opponent has been sentenced twice, had his party dissolved and went on a hunger strike to denounce his situation on 30 July before being imprisoned the following day.
Numerous supporters have followed in his footsteps to prison, including Nitdoff, whose requests for provisional release have all been rejected for eight months.
“It’s very difficult for him, but especially for his family, including his three children, with whom he can no longer communicate,” says Nitdoff’s manager.
“People have known about his loyalty and his commitment to freedom of expression for more than 15 years. He won’t change. He’s Nitdoff…”