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Blugolds study the power of music to influence political, social movements

| Judy Berthiaume

For centuries, artists throughout the world have used their music to entertain but also to make powerful statements about the political and social movements going on around them.


Researchers interviewed musicians during their immersion program in Senegal, a country in West Africa.

While plenty of world-renowned musicians — think U2 or Bob Dylan — are famous for championing their political and social causes, there are countless lesser-known artists also using their music to make their voices heard in countries around the globe.

Five UW-Eau Claire student researchers and two faculty members recently spent time with some of those artists in West Africa, interviewing activists who use hip-hop and rap music as a form of non-violent protest in the country of Senegal.

Dr. Dandrielle Lewis, UW-Eau Claire associate professor of mathematics, and Dr. Frank Watkins, assistant professor music, led the research-based immersion program, titled “Hip-Hop and Rap: The Not So ‘Silent’ Political Protest in Senegal.”

“Rappers, journalists and activists used music, specifically hip-hop, to spearhead a powerful political movement, which sought to hold elected politicians accountable for their actions and to speak out against the oppressive actions of the government,” Lewis says. “With their strong voices, these leaders sparked a Rebel Music movement to reach and mobilize the younger generation, placing immense pressure on Senegal’s elected officials.”

Their efforts made a difference, Lewis says.

In 2012, Abdoulaye Wade, secretary-general of the Senegalese Democratic Party, was defeated in large part because of the significant counter-protests and youth mobilization efforts, she says, noting that in Senegal more than 62 percent of the population is under the age of 25. 

The UW-Eau Claire research team aimed to determine what fundamental social freedoms are rejected by the leaders of the Rebel Music movement; how Rebel Music is used as a form of political protest against the government and what effects it has had on Senegalese people; and what societal effects of colorism are being addressed through the medium of music.

While in Africa, the students and faculty interviewed musicians, activists and community leaders in urban and rural settings.

The Blugolds’ experiences in Senegal ranged from visiting the prestigious National School of Theater and Arts in Dakar, the nation’s capital, to spending time in the small village of Toubacouta, where villagers live in huts without running water.

They visited Goree Island (House of Slaves), as well as the Bandia wildlife reserve, where they walked with lions and learned to drum.

In addition, they collaborated with Senegalese researchers to discuss skin bleaching, politics and music.

Immersing students in diverse geographic settings and experiences within Senegal gave them a better understanding of the Senegalese people and the country as a whole, Lewis says.

“I hope this immersion enhanced the students’ collegiate experience by providing them with an opportunity to embrace and learn about politics and African music and culture,” Lewis says. “I hope they learned that music is a universal language that can break barriers, build a group identity, stir strong emotions, engage audiences, cause people to take action, and allow you to connect with people from different cultures.”

The research around music and non-violent protests was fascinating, but it was sharing time and experiences with the Senegalese people that was life changing, says Cecelia Calametti, a senior political science major from Coon Rapids, Minnesota.

The Senegalese people warmly welcomed the Blugolds, and were excited to share their knowledge and culture with their American visitors, Calametti says.

“We visited a small village where the villagers performed local music and traditional dancing,” Calametti says. “Everybody from our group got up and danced with them. It was such a fun experience to be part of their culture and to feel so welcome. I was overwhelmed by how kind and open the people were. They were so happy that we wanted to talk to them and learn about their country.”

During the focus groups and interviews with hip-hop artists, rappers and other activists, the students worked hard to capture and make sense of what they were hearing, Lewis says.

However, even more impressive, she says, was their willingness to embrace new experiences.

Throughout their travels, the Blugolds rapped, sang, jammed, danced and had in-depth conversations with the Senegalese people they met along the way. They played with children, talked with village leaders and tried local foods.

The Senegalese people clearly appreciated the students’ interest in their lives, and their willingness to engage with them and their activities, Lewis says.

“After a focus group session, the women sang to us in Wolof, one language spoken in Senegal, thanked us for doing this work and said how important it is to their country for people to hear about their stories,” Lewis says. “This impromptu song was touching and captured the spirit of all the Senegalese people we met.”

The Senegalese people’s warmth and their willingness to share whatever they had with the Blugolds — even when they had very little — had a huge impact on the students and faculty, Lewis says.

“Little did we know, they would cultivate us, and our experiences with them would change our lives forever and cause us to grow,” Lewis says.

Her time in Africa has her thinking differently about how she sees the world around her, Calametti says.

“One of the most important things I learned was that however different the customs and way of living was in Senegal, or how much it challenged me, there was nothing wrong with it,” Calametti says. “I came to realize that people don’t do things the wrong way, they just do them differently.”

That shift in thinking, Lewis says, is the power of immersion programs.

The research group set out to do work that will share the stories and music of Senegalese people, with the ultimate hope it will positively change their lives, Lewis says.

While they accomplished their research goals, they also gained far more than they expected, she says.

“So much learning took place when we were not interviewing and holding focus group sessions,” Lewis says. “We learned that although the Senegalese people do not have what we are used to having, they have everything because they are rich in love, happiness and joy of life. We learned to express ourselves through music and to have conversations over meals without technology. We learned to be present in the moment. We were more appreciative of the things we are used to having at our leisure here in the U.S., such as ice in our drinks, fresh uncooked vegetables and access to toilets.”

In Senegal, she learned about a country that she previously knew little about, and gained important research and communication skills, Calametti says.

Even more importantly, she says she learned a lot about herself.

“It allowed me to step outside of my comfort zone and expand my intercultural communication skills,” says Calametti, who previously studied abroad in Spain and participated in the university’s Somali Immersion Program in the Twin Cities. “Immersing myself in other cultures helps me see how important it is to have an open mind and to be willing to learn.

“Each immersion program I have participated in at UWEC has taught me so much about who I am and my role in the global community.”

Her latest immersion has her even more determined to pursue a career in the field of international relations, Calametti says.

“It gave me more incentive to work abroad and foster relationships with communities around the world,” Calametti says.

Broadening the students’ global perspectives, their understanding of research and their thinking about their futures is among the goals of immersion programs like the one in Senegal, Lewis says.

“I hope this immersion gave students a global perspective of what research really is and what life is like outside of the Midwest,” Lewis says. “I also hope they learned to be passionate about everything they do, and to have fun doing it.”

Lewis and Watkins plan to take another group of Blugolds to Senegal in the summer of 2018, continuing their research by studying whether music can affect social change in the fight against skin bleaching.

Top photo caption: A team of Blugolds spent time in Senegal studying the influence music has in political and social movements, and meeting with faculty and other experts within the country. From left, Elijah Vanderpoel, Dr. Frank Watkins, Reed Hoffman, Professor Sene (WARC), Ellie Masias, Cecelia Calametti, Dr. Dandrielle Lewis and Caleb Nunn.