If there is an afterlife for news anchors, Walter Cronkite may well be reaching for his ear muffs and a calming celestial gin and tonic.
For five years after the celebrated US broadcaster’s death, two Senegalese hip-hop artists are taking current affairs in a brash new direction — by rapping the news.
Dakar-based musicians Xuman and Keyti deliver the week’s top domestic and global stories in verse on “Journal Tele Rappe” — JTR to the cool kids — to a television and YouTube audience of thousands.
“It’s the news like any other news, except that it’s rapping, there is humour in it. We don’t just give the news — we cover positions which are highly subjective, and the public consensus too,” says Keyti, a 41-year-old whose real name is Cheikh Sene.
Xuman, a slender, dreadlocked 40-something known in more formal circles as Makhtar Fall, came up with the idea several years ago, frustrated at having to cede the mic to newsreaders during TV and radio broadcasts.
“I wondered if it wouldn’t be a bad thing to be able to mix rap, news and education or entertainment,” he says.
The pair have years of considerable chart success between them and have been known for social and political activism spanning more than a decade.
Xuman raps in French, the official language of Senegal, while Keyti delivers his lines in Wolof, the local tongue.
They use a Senegalese producer known as No-Face Undacova for the music, with a local company called Level Studio taking care of design and production.
The show, in its second six-month season, goes out on Friday nights on the privately-owned Senegalese station 2STV and is then posted on the duo’s YouTube channel, which has almost 12,500 subscribers.
The video links also go up on JTR’s Twitter and Facebook accounts, which have several thousand followers between them.
The pair cover everything from local politics to foreign wars, and their unconventional twist on the week’s events is gaining in popularity.
A recent bulletin featuring a guest rapper called Hyde reporting from the scene on the escalating conflict in Gaza attracted 12,800 views within four days of going online.
“Salam, shalom, live from Gaza… The Jewish state has little to say on the errors ascribed to it… Netanyahu speaks to the need to restore calm. So (Israel) arms itself and the world must be silent,” Hyde told his audience, sporting a helmet and flak jacket among the ruins of a destroyed house.
– ‘Awakening the senses’ –
“Of course there will always be people who will say ‘you shouldn’t have said this or that’, but all I did was draw on the opinions of the left and the right, without necessarily giving my own opinion,” Hyde told AFP in Dakar.
Indeed, JTR’s founders do not lose much sleep over the possibility of bias creeping into their reporting.
The team “has no leash”, says Keyti. “There is nobody to slap us on the wrist, to say ‘you cannot say that’. As long as we have this freedom, we will use it.”
While the rappers use nicknames and send up much of the world they see around them, they take a more sober approach to subjects requiring a serious tone.
“We’re not journalists, we are artists first… For us, (JTR) is a work of art,” says Keyti.
Xuman prefers a halfway house, arguing that “journalist-artist” is the most appropriate way of describing the rapping news anchors.
Every week, it’s a race against the clock to produce the show, say the pair, who work on a shoestring budget, although cash from the YouTube hits has funded some studio equipment.
The fans come in many shapes and sizes, but are united in their admiration for a project they see as revitalising the staid mass media which proves a turn-off for many younger Senegalese.
“I love the concept because it combines entertainment, awakening the senses and information,” said Samba Diaite, 31, from Dakar.
Xuman and Keyti intend not to rest on their laurels and are looking ahead to a time when the project can be replicated elsewhere in west Africa.
“The next step for us… will be to expand the programme beyond Senegal,” said Keyti.