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African hip-hop artists, such as Mister X and N'dat Bouwaner, use rap as a vehicle for political expression in countries where democracy is stifled and dissenting voices are censored.Erin Conway-Smith

She's the only female rapper in Mauritania: outspoken and fearless, with the style and swagger of a francophone Nicki Minaj. But when N'dat Bouwaner goes on television or radio in her homeland, the hosts warn her that she can't talk about politics.

When she tries to mention racism or police brutality in this West African desert nation, they stop her or change the subject. The censorship is suffocating. "It's only when I'm alone on the stage or in the studio – that's when I can say whatever I want," she says. "That's when there are no limits."

Her mother and her aunts disapproved of her career choice, but rap was the sound of freedom for the 23-year-old university student. In Mauritania, and across much of Africa, hip-hop has emerged as the language of protest against injustice, oppression and corruption.

In African countries where democracy is stifled, where autocrats still reign or where society is riven by poverty and inequality, political opposition is often expressed in the voice of rap, and it is the rappers who often lead the demonstrations. They have become a form of street resistance to the power of repressive regimes.

In Burkina Faso, a hip-hop artist who calls himself Smockey (real name: Serge Bambara) was a key leader of the protest movement that toppled dictator Blaise Compaoré last year. His music is often overtly political, and he co-founded a protest group called Le Balai Citoyen (the Civic Broom) to push for democracy. This year, during a brief military coup, his recording studio was attacked and destroyed by soldiers loyal to the former dictator.

In Morocco, a dissident rapper called El Haqed or "The Enraged" (real name: Mouad Belghouat) has been a prominent leader of a pro-democracy youth movement. His hit song Stop the Silence helped spark a wave of street protests in 2011, but he was imprisoned for two years for daring to criticize the King who rules Morocco. After his release, he was jailed again in 2014 and remains banned from television and radio. The authorities have blocked roads and shut off electricity to prevent him from giving concerts.

In Angola, a rapper named MCK (real name: Katrogi Nhanga) has been a courageous protester and critic of the authoritarian regime headed by long-ruling president José Eduardo dos Santos. This year, MCK was invited to attend a rap festival in Brazil, but the authorities seized his passport and prevented him from leaving. Another rapper in the same country, Ikonoklasta (real name: Luaty Beirao), who is often featured on MCK's albums, has been detained several times by the police for criticizing politicians. He was among 17 activists arrested in June when their book club was discussing a book on non-violent resistance. Imprisoned since June, he went on a hunger strike for 36 days this year to protest his detention.

And then there's the collective of Senegalese rappers and journalists called Y'en a Marre ("We're Fed Up"), who helped mobilize the youth vote to defeat Senegal president Abdoulaye Wade in 2012 after he bid for a controversial third term in power. They campaigned door-to-door to register about 300,000 young Senegalese voters, despite the arrest of three of the group's founders. After defeating the president, they went on to help democratic movements in Burkina Faso and Congo.

Scholars have been fascinated by the rising power and political impact of young hip-hop musicians in Africa. "Rap has evolved as a kind of lingua franca for disenfranchised youth across the African continent," Rosalind Fredericks, a professor at New York University, wrote in an academic journal called Antipode.

"Central to the defeat of President Wade was the audacious mobilization of youth in Dakar, critically incited by rappers and moving to the rhythm of hip-hop through Senegal's urban landscape," Prof. Fredericks said.

"Through activating their networks in virtual, audio and urban space, rappers catapulted themselves to the centre of the political stage in not only the wave of protest leading up to the elections, but through inspiring a deeper public reflection on citizenship and democratic practice."

While its roots can be found in American rap music from the 1980s and 1990s, African hip-hop is also heavily influenced by local culture, including West Africa's griots, the traditional storytellers and travelling poets of the region. It has achieved popularity in almost every African country, and its political power has been felt in countries as far apart as Tanzania, South Africa, Ghana and Guinea.

"When hip hop arrived in Africa in the 1980s, it swept across the African continent like a tidal wave," said Msia Kibona Clark in an article in African Studies Quarterly.

In Mauritania, a desperately poor country ruled by a military regime drawn largely from the Arab-Berber minority known as the White Moors, rap has become one of the few ways to express opposition to the system. "When a rapper supports the government, he is immediately abandoned by his fans," says one of Mauritania's first rappers, 39-year-old Mister X (real name: Cheikh Diagne).

"Rap isn't just an American kind of music – it's a way for us to tell our stories and our issues," Mister X said. "It's the best way for us to send a message."

When he first discovered rap in the 1990s, he had to change into his hip-hop clothes in a local grocery store because his parents wouldn't allow it at home. The early rappers memorized their words in English, even though they didn't understand the language. Their parents thought they were "inhabited by ghosts," he said.

Today, their scene is more widely accepted, but it's not an easy life. There are no independent music labels in Mauritania, so the rappers have to do everything themselves: production, distribution, marketing and publicity. "The media avoid us, because they're owned by the White Moors," Mr. X said. "Now we understand that we'll never be on television or radio. They'll broadcast shows on camels or birds, but never on rap."

One of Mauritania's most popular rap groups, Ewlad Leblad ("Sons of the Country"), has often released music that criticizes the government for corruption and repression. One rap, released last year, called for the president to "get out." Soon after that, one of its members was arrested on drug charges that were widely seen as a frame-up. The other two members of the group fled across the border to Senegal to take refuge in a less repressive country.

"The system is bad, and the people are tired," says DJ Benza (real name: Moussa Ba), owner of a nightclub in Mauritania's capital, Nouakchott, where rappers often perform.

"Rap is the street music, and everyone can get it, so it's the easiest way to express yourself."

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