Sandra Krampelhuber Chronicles Dakar's Urban Culture: An Interview
Sandra Krampelhuber is an Austrian filmmaker and cultural anthropologist, whose latest project is the documentary 100% Dakar – More Than Art, about the vibrant arts scene in the capital of Senegal. She chronicles rappers, fashion designers, graffiti artists, photographers, dancers and cultural directors whose creative work is making a big social and political impact on their country. The influence of hip-hop was felt in Senegal’s 2000 presidential election, when Abdoulaye Wade was elected, in part, with the help of rappers mobilizing the youth vote. After Wade went back on a promise to limit his presidential tenure, a coalition of rappers and journalists known as Y’en a Marre (without endorsing Wade, or opponent Macky Sall) once again mobilized the youth vote – resulting in Wade’s ousting in 2012 elections. Krampelhuber documented Dakar’s arts scene in the wake of all this, and her resulting 62-minute film screened at the 2015 New York African Film Festival. It showed as part of a double feature with Marcia Juzga’s 20-minute short documentary The Prophecy, chronicling photographer Fabrice Montiero’s location shoots around Senegal to raise awareness about the country’s environmental degradation. I interviewed Krampelhuber at the Film Society of Lincoln Center about 100% Dakar, and how her subjects are making a difference in Senegal.
What follows are her words, adapted from our conversation.
On the Roots of 100% Dakar
My background in filmmaking didn't take the direct path, so I didn't go to film school or anything. I'm self-taught. I studied social and cultural anthropology at the University of Vienna. So maybe that's where my interest comes from for the African diaspora, African countries and all these things I like to cover with my films. My first film actually wasn't planned as a film. It's called Queens of Sound: A Herstory of Reggae and Dancehall. It's about Jamaican female musicians in the dancehall business and reggae business. It was originally planned just to make some interviews, and then to show them at a small exhibition. But then I had so much material, a friend of mine in Austria said, "Okay, now we'll try to make a film out of it.” Then it was a film – very raw, very basic, lots of talking heads. But it was shown at many, many festivals worldwide, in New York, L.A., also in Australia. Then I was working many times also as a production manager on documentary films. In 2012, I had the idea to make this film, 100% Dakar – More than Art in Senegal, because I've been there many times before. First time in 2006, because I was interested in the hip-hop scene there, the Senegalese hip-hop culture, which has a very, very strong social context. This is always what interests me in art culture, music – when a social context is behind in a political context.
Senegal has a very popular music side that is the mbalax music – like Youssou N'Dour, for example, a very famous musician that's in mbalax music. It's the pop music of Senegal, but most of the time it does not have any social context. Hip-hop music is very, very big in Senegal, and in Dakar. There's an estimate of 2-3,000 rappers in the capital, and they are kind of the news medium also for their generation. Maybe you’ve heard about it, in 2000 they tried to get people to vote, and they succeeded. So they changed the system two times already, in 2000 and in 2012.
On Senegal’s Rappers
Many of them rap in the local language of Wolof, which is very, very important. One of them is Didier Awadi, who is in my film, from Positive Black Soul. They started in the late '80s, and already were signed by Island Records. So they were very, very big, and still are very big. But of course, it's not possible for everyone. Like everywhere else, the music business is a very tough business, and it's getting more and more difficult.
There are some hip-hop musicians who prefer to do mainly party music, and others who just want to educate with their music. Or sometimes people are doing both. So there has to be party music, and there has to be a message in the text.
Every artist is different, and I'm just talking in general now, but it's not the commercial side that's most important for them. It’s their community which comes first. It's very important for them to sing in their own language. I think it's very important, even if they don't sell that easily on the international market.
On Filming in Dakar
I went there the first time in 2006, and then I came back regularly. I just love it. It's my favorite city. I just like how people are there. The openness, the support, the generosity, and especially the trust that people I talked to gave me in making this film.
Some people in the film I knew already before, like Didier Awadi the famous hip-hop musician, or Baay Sooley, a fashion designer with his label Bull Doff. But he was also in the group with Positive Black Soul. So I knew some of them before, like Amadou Fall Ba. He's a very important cultural entrepreneur in Dakar. He is director of AfriCulturban, a big hip-hop center in the outskirts of Dakar, in Pikine. He's crazy. He's a workaholic, and he's achieving a lot. Then there are others, Selly Raby Kane, a very young fashion designer. She's one of the most creative people I personally know. Omar Victor Diop is a very fantastic photographer. He's exhibiting internationally right now, also in New York. Moona is a female rapper. There are graffiti artists – Docta and Madzoo.
What is very interesting about the graffiti scene in Dakar is I haven't seen that anywhere else. The first thing is it's not written in law that [graffiti is] illegal, and it's not written that it's legal. They have a lot of respect from the society right now. Even the policemen, when they see them, they say, "Yeah, it's cool what you're doing." Actually, it's legal without being legal. They also have in their graffitis, they spread also a message with it. Like there’s a series [by Docta], Graff et Santé, which means “Graffiti and Health”. There are many other messages and important things they tell with their graffitis. They work in whole crews there. Sometimes there are 10 people or more. One graffiti artist, Docta, he's invited also for museums. There's a huge exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum in Germany called “Making Africa”, and there are many artists who are in my film who are exhibiting there.
In Dakar, the mayor built the House for Urban Cultures. I mean, they don't have an actual house yet. But Amadou Fall Ba, the director of Africulturban promoting hip-hop culture, he's an adviser to the mayor on this House for Urban Cultures. It doesn't necessarily come with money, but at least I have the feeling that they know that those young people have real power.
On World Influence on Senegal’s Arts Scene
We are living in the digital age, so we are all influenced. We live with our internets. Selly Raby Kane says it in the film -- she studied in Paris, and then she travels sometimes to New York or London. But she lives now in Dakar, and she takes her inspiration from everywhere. Like I take my inspiration from Dakar, she takes it from Paris, New York, Dakar, wherever. So I think that the field of art and culture, it's not nations or traditions that form us as people. But it's the same fields of interest. So arts and culture can be like the new United States of arts and culture. It's a new continent, maybe. That's what I think.
Those young people, they learn so fast. I don’t' know how they do it. The good thing is that [internet access] got cheap. Everybody has access to internet now, for many years already, and this changed a lot. Because when I first came, it was in 2006. There were people who went to the telecentre for the internet, and now everybody has it at home. Facebook is very important for news, and the new stuff that's coming out. People have a lot of skills. What's very surprising – many are self-taught. It's crazy what they are achieving. Also, in producing music videos, the equipment became quite affordable. So they can shoot their own videos now, and their own films and everything.
On African Impact on Austria’s Arts Scene
Europe is very small, and it's very different. Like France is very different from Austria. Austria is very different from the UK, because Austria is very, very small. We definitely have a colonial past, but Austria always supported other countries. Austria never had its own colonies, which I'm happy about. So we didn't have this immigration. It came very late. Now many migrants are coming, of course, but it's not like in France or in the UK. So we don't have that much influence. Of course, in music, we have hip-hop, we have all sorts of music. But in art, I think it's coming, because I see it in other countries that there are big exhibitions focusing on the African continent. But in Austria, it always takes a little longer.
Sometimes [Senegalese rappers] come to Europe. I'm also organizing concerts and other stuff, and it's always a problem. Sometimes I would like to bring people over, but I don't have the money yet. It costs a lot of money to fly people in. Then the audience doesn't know them, so they might not come. Then you don't have the income from the tickets, and all this. But there are special touring programs to bring them around. Not much, but at least some have the chance to travel. I think that’s also linked with France, with Paris. So sometimes there are concerts there as well.
On the Film’s Reception
The reception has been pretty good so far. People are very surprised, which surprises me, because people at film festivals are already very open-minded people. It's not the average person on the street who goes to a film festival and watches a film. So you have a lot of open-minded people in the audience. But then still, they are sometimes surprised that so many creative things are happening in one of the urban centers of West Africa. They are surprised, and that surprises me. Because we're so brainwashed by the media. It's always the negativity that’s portrayed. So I think there should be more of this.
I'm mainly accepted by festivals who have a focus on African films. It's not easy to get in the big festivals, or in the European festivals. It's still kind of a niche product. It shouldn't be. But on the other side, you get the right audience.