Award-winning documentary,The Revolution Won’t Be Televised, allows us to see Senegal through the lens of its 21st century social and political tribulations. In this documentary, like Gill Scott-Heron sang in 1970, the revolution was not televised, it was live, and it was spearheaded by rappers Thiat and Kilifeu of the popular ‘Keur Gui’ hip hop outfit. The revolution in question is pretty much the ‘Y’en A Marre’ movement (translates to ‘We are fed up.’) which Thiat and Kilifeu started in January 2011 because frankly, Senegalese people were fed up with Abdoulaye Wade’s eleven-year government.
For many- like me- who had no idea about the Senegalese Y’en A Marre movement, this documentary provides a perfect introduction. We see the 2012 elections unfold through the eyes of the Y’en A Marrists who mobilise the people on the streets of Dakar and in various other provinces to seek change, not through violence but by voting. As part of Senegalese popular culture, they had the power to influence opinions especially at grass-roots level and they took advantage of this power. We also see how their movement influenced the Burkinabe ‘Balais Citoyen’ movement led by musicians Sams’K Le Jah and Smockey, that swept Blaise Compaoré out of office in 2014 after 27 years.
The documentary made sure to to emphasise just how impressive this feat was, as the first radical West African political change led by artists – rappers in fact – through the use of elaborate gimmicks. The stylistic choices in this film underscore the amazing developments they document; at points, these stylistic flourishes get almost distracting, only that I found myself too lost in wonder and awe to even pick it out as a fault. I was just as amazed by the actual events as the film production wanted me to be.
The Revolution will not be televised also explores the tension between art and politics and between young radicals and old systems. “We don’t want to be politicians”, the Y’en A Marrists say, “we are a new type of Senegalese” who want more than just a change of political leadership; “we don’t want the power, we need a new system”. Crucial modulation is provided by three half-shadowed appearances from Khady Sylla, the poet, novelist and film maker from Dakar who died in 2013 while the production was in its latter stages. In each appearance, Sylla is a compelling female voice with a message for both the system and the radicals and in many ways it makes her the presiding spirit over the film.
The documentary is exceptional in the way it comes up close and personal with the Y’en a Marrists, especially Thiat and Kilifeu. It allows us very easily into the Y’en A Marre headquarters in a run-down old house in Dakar, a space for strategising, discussion as well as communal dining and Nintendo games. We see the rappers and other Y’en A Marrists in their every day lives, sleeping, arguing, loving, afraid, determined, angry, looking for spiritual solace. First hand accounts from the Y’en A Marrists which appear often in the documentary inspire us and allow us to sympathise with the revolution and this idea of ‘The New Senegalese’ who want not power, but change.
Having said that, I must mention that half way through the documentary, I began to worry that neither the Y’en A Marrists nor Thiaw digs deeper into the structural problems that mar this Senegalese democracy. They show us that the people are angry and dissatisfied but do not tell what they are angry about or what an alternative might look like. I was also disturbed by the lack of women and female voices in this revolution. Protest spaces were male-dominant spaces with often times, a female figure watching from a window. Whenever the camera pointed to the women in these male-dominant spaces I really wanted to know what roles the women were playing in West Africa’s radical future, but never found out.
Nevertheless, The Revolution Won’t be Televised is an exciting account of an exciting phenomenon in West Africa. After the film screening at the world premiere in Berlin, Thiat called Thiaw ‘a visionary modern story teller’ whose work had really complemented their musical and political desires. I agree with Heike Becker that this is truly a remarkable story told from the inside.