January 26, 2021

I first met the Congolese rapper Alex Dende Esakanu, in December 2016 amid violent protests and a lock down in Kinshasa. Joseph Kabila, then president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, had reached the end of his term in office and cops in navy blue uniforms clutching riot batons occupied every street corner. I was writing a story about music in politics, and Alex, better known as “Lexxus Legal”, had a lot to say.

Unlike most Congolese musicians, who sing for politicians who pay their bills, he wanted to put out his own message, about independence. In his studio, in a suburb of the sprawling city, he had a giant mural of Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s first prime minister after it became independent in 1960. Alex grew up under the flamboyant despot Mobutu Sese Seko and got into rap music by listening to cassette tapes that he persuaded richer kids to bring back from America. And he became one of the nation’s megastars. Whenever I visited Kinshasa, during my time as an Africa correspondent, I would invariably look in on him. As well as being a rapper, he was a shrewd analyst of Congolese politics.

Today, Lexxus Legal is not just a musician, but also a politician, of sorts. Last time I spoke to him, he had just returned from a press conference with Martin Fayulu, who won the Congolese presidential election in 2019 then had it stolen from him. Mr Fayulu has continued to organise demonstrations to protest the election result. And Lexxus has been there with him, calling on young people to get onto the streets. He says his primary interest is still music — he has not stood for election at any point. But he explains why he feels compelled to get involved in politics. “We artists are impacted by the economic situation, which makes it impossible to feed a family. We are impacted by the crisis in health. We are impacted by the insecurity, in the east of the country,” he told me. “So to speak for artists, it is also to speak for a large part of the population.”

It’s not an unusual idea. In Uganda’s recent presidential election the main rival to ageing despot Yoweri Museveni was Bobi Wine, a rapper from the streets of Kampala. Mr Wine is a journalists’ dream. He likes to wear red berets, and styles himself as a rapper revolutionary, taking on the M7 machine (as Museveni is known in the Uganda press). He drives a Cadillac, with “Ghetto” on the number plate. But he is also “softly spoken, articulate and deadly earnest” behind the bling. And two weeks ago he may well have won the most votes in East Africa’s third biggest economy.

Across Africa, rappers are turning to politics. In Senegal, around a decade ago, a troupe of rappers known as “Y’en a Marre” (“Fed Up”) took on the president, Abdoulaye Wade, and helped contribute to his defeat in an election in which he sought an unconstitutional third term. Then, in 2012, Youssou N’Dour, a pioneer of Senegalese dance music, tried to stand for president. His candidacy was disqualified, but he later became the minister of tourism. In nearby Burkina Faso, in 2016, another rapper known as “Smockey” was at the forefront of protests that overturned the 2015 coup. Three years later, in Sudan, yet another rapper named Ayman Maw returned from America to his homeland to perform for the protesters massing against the rule of Omar al-Bashir.

Covering African politics is often a fairly depressing affair. Inspirational politicians are rare. The continent still looks back to those of the past — Lumumba or Thomas Sankara, both of whom met sticky ends at the hands of Belgium and France — because the current crop is so poor. Most Africans have grown up in countries run by middle-aged or elderly men who wear suits and fly around in private jets. Since the 1990s at least, the model for African leadership has been Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, a despot who is a compelling speaker at World Economic Forum conferences. Mr Kagame is brutal but effective at least. Many African countries put up with leaders like Mr Museveni, or worse Paul Biya, the 87-year-old in charge of Cameroon, who spends much of the year in the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva. The new president of Congo, Felix Tshisekedi, is another suit who rose to the top helped by his reputation as a calm and safe option in the eyes of foreign diplomats (in contrast to the hyperactive Mr Fayulu).

People like Bobi Wine — or indeed Lexxus — have been welcomed enthusiastically, partly because they offer something new. They aren’t an absolute break with tradition, though. There has always been a link between music and politics in Africa. In Congo, “Independence Cha Cha” was a hit in 1960, when Belgium withdrew. Later the brilliant rumba band TPOK Jazz produced songs such as “Candidat Na Biso Mobutu” (our candidate, Mobutu). In Kenyan politics, no self-respecting figure fights an election without a band singing about how great he (or she) is. Yet the surge of musicians working in opposition to incumbents is different.

What it represents is the growing importance of a young, urban electorate. In pretty much every country south of the Sahara except for South Africa, close to half the population is made up of children under the age of 18. And almost all these nations, with a few exceptions, have been urbanising fast. Under colonialism, Kinshasa and Lagos were backwater outposts of empires with metropolises in Europe. Now they are megacities in their own right. These young Africans are more globalised in outlook than ever, not least thanks to the mobile phone — which is used not only for sending money and WhatsApp messages but also for listening to music. They are also frustrated. In most of the continent, formal jobs remain scarce.

Before the rise of the internet, African leaders had control of the state media. On Congolese state TV, Mobutu’s face used to rise like the sun before the news bulletins. Nowadays, the internet means that musicians have far more control in broadcasting their message. Bobi Wine might have succeeded in turning his fan base to politics and organising them without the internet, but it would have been harder. That is why Mr Museveni forced Uganda’s telecoms companies to cut access to social media in the run-up to the election two weeks ago. If he had not, the evidence that he stole the election, such as videos of ballot boxes being stuffed, would have spread like wildfire. So too would have Mr Wine’s calls to protest.

Of course, not every politician adopting the stylings of ghetto rap is quite so eloquent as Mr Wine or Lexxus Legal. Kenya has Mike Sonko, until recently the governor or Nairobi, who owns a fleet of gold-plated Mercedes Benz and likes to dress in tracksuits with huge amounts of jewellery. He claims to be fighting the Kenyan “deep state”, but as a governor, he was probably no better than the old leaders with their Learjets. Last year, a brilliant Kenyan documentary called Softie told the story of Boniface Mwangi, an anti-corruption campaigner who stood for election in Nairobi in 2017. In the end, he lost — to Charles Njagua Kanyi, a dance musician better known as “Jaguar”. The Right Honourable Jaguar, as he now styles himself, has one major achievement as a politician: getting arrested for inciting violence against migrants.

Yet despite that, the rise of the rapper politician gives reason for hope. In places like Kenya, for the most part politicians rise to power because of corruption, not despite it. People vote for leaders they usually know full well are crooks, because they hope that at least if they get a president or an MP from their ethnic group, they’ll give jobs or stolen money to some of their kinfolk. Musicians may have money, but as Lexxus points out, they generally do not earn it by looting the state. They may come across as populists, but populism is not necessarily worse than the current political systems, which reward loyalty to corrupt leaders.

Indeed, the best reason to think rappers might offer an improvement in the quality of African leadership is that their appeal often goes beyond their ethnic or religious group. Rap music in Africa, as in the rest of the world, tends to be about hustling, escaping street life and making money. That resonates in cities where most of the population live in slums, working informal jobs for little pay. It unifies people who may speak different languages or worship different religions. Bobi Wine’s hits include songs like “Ghetto”, in which he sings that “we come to express exactly what’s on the poor man’s mind.” Lexxus Legal’s include “Chez Nous”, in which he sings about being trapped between poorly-paid work in Congo and the risk of trying to make it to Europe, only to die along the way and be washed up on a beach.

Lexxus says that it is not enough to campaign against the government — you must also have a platform for government yourself. Despite his own enormous personality, he’d like elections to be about policy, not about personality. Bobi Wine offers some of that. His manifesto denounced Uganda’s immense income inequality. He promised reforms that would go against the grain of a patrimonial system of government, such as reducing the size of Uganda’s parliament.

Bobi Wine promises revolution, but Mr Museveni came to power at the front of a literal revolution. He will not easily give it up. Uganda is yet to have a peaceful transfer of power in its post-independence history. Congo has only had one, in 2019 — but it was not to the politician who won the most support on the street. For the moment, power in much of Africa still seems to be about money, and the support of men with guns. But the rise of the rappers hints that things are changing.