American Music in Dakar

The history of musical interactions between the United States and Senegal goes back hundreds of years.

Senegalese music, religious traditions and language were all influential on the development of African American culture (this was especially true in New Orleans, which is known to have had an especially high concentration of people of Senegalese ancestry during the slavery era). Echoes of this influence can still be heard in early genres like jazz and rhythm & blues as well as later styles that built on those foundations, such as rock & roll and hip-hop. So it is only fitting that over the years many artists in these traditions have felt drawn to perform in Senegal. Many of these musicians have been supported by the U.S. Department of State, which has been sending important American cultural figures to Dakar for decades.


The jazz pioneer Louis Armstrong and his band, for example, performed in Dakar in January 1961 as part of a State Department tour. Armstrong was actually so beloved in Senegal that upon his death in 1971, the Senegalese government issued a commemorative postage stamp in his honor.



In April 1966, Dakar hosted the First World Festival of Negro Arts, and among the State Department-sponsored artists participating were Alvin Ailey, Duke Ellington, and Mahalia Jackson. Ellington even wrote a composition for the occasion—he first called it “The Senegalese Suite,” but it later became known as “La Plus Belle Africaine.” (You can listen to a live 1969 performance here:


Ellington’s travels during this period also inspired to him write the album-length suite, Afro-Eurasian Eclipse (1971), which addressed the way African, European and Asian cultures were blending together to make new art forms, a subject that is obviously relevant to the Next Level program. The album includes the song “Digeridoo”, which contains a distinctly hip-hop sounding drum break!


In 1967, Randy Weston and his sextet performed at the Daniel Sorano Theatre, where the Next Level team will be performing later this month. You can listen to “African Cookbook,” one of the numbers that Weston performed, here:


And then fast-forward several decades to the 2000s, and we find Next Level’s Toni Blackman—the first hip-hop artist sponsored by the State Department—in Dakar, which she described as “hip-hop heaven.” (See
And now Toni Blackman, Lauren “DJ Chela” Harkrader , Junious “Holise” Brickhouse, and Elliot “PhillipDrummond” Gann are continuing this tradition in Dakar…teaching, collaborating, performing, and making more history.