“Experience is Everything”: Art and Inspiration in Senegal and New York

Toussa Senerap (Senegal) and Toni Blackman (U.S.) in Harlem, NYC

While Next Level aims to have an immediate impact in the communities we visit, we also hope to plant seeds that will bear fruit later. There are many ways this can happen – some planned and some spontaneous – and we try to maintain an approach that is open to both. Though Next Level residencies are meticulously organized, they are also designed to make the most of unexpected opportunities. The Next Level residency in Dhaka, Bangladesh, for example, has had a galvanizing influence on the local hip-hop scene that continues to expand across the region even now. But sometimes it is the small, personal connections that ultimately have the biggest impact.

In January of 2015, Next Level artist-educator Toni Blackman forged an unexpectedly strong bond with a group of women in Senegal, based on their common identity as hip-hop artists. These MCs found in Toni an experienced professional in their field, a peer who could provide an informed perspective on common issues that they all faced. Their musical interactions and personal connections quickly blended together into something powerful and new.

As with many Next Level experiences, their relationship was built on a practical foundation, in this case a workshop that Toni led on the craft of emceeing. “Many of them were fascinated by this idea of someone coaching them, and helping them get better,” she reflects, “almost as if it never occurred to them that someone could coach them, and they would get better as a result…I think the MCs that I worked with – the women and the men MCs – walked away with a greater understanding of emceeing as a craft. And that they’re not just rappers: that the craft is tied to a rich oral tradition.”

The trust that was built through these practical discussions of artistic technique soon led to a series of deeper conversations, especially among the women who were participating. “We had moments and breakthroughs,” says Blackman. “They just loved being able to talk about ‘woman’ issues with a woman. In hip-hop. Who understood. Who understood what it feels like to kill it, rock the crowd and come off stage and not one of the guys give you a pound. But they high five everybody else and they treat you like you’re invisible. We talked about that kind of stuff.”

“And then they came to the hotel one day,” she continues, “and they wanted to talk about love and relationships. How does a woman artist in the public eye maintain a healthy relationship? It just got so personal and so vulnerable and so casually real. So it was nice. It was refreshing. It was really refreshing. It was an experience for me as well.”

The issues they shared were often the same struggles that apply to artists anywhere in the world: “We make art because it makes us feel good,” she points out. “And so the commodification of art has blocked many artists from being artists. And the focus on the commercialization of art, it stops the creative process for people that need to create to stay sane, healthy and balanced.”

“And when I talk to MCs, I remind them that, ‘You started rapping because it was fun.’ You started rapping because it stimulated you and it inspired you. You started rapping because it made you feel good.”

“You didn’t start this to become the next Jay-Z. So now you’re quitting because you’re not the next Jay-Z? Because some corporation has told you that at twenty-eight, at at thirty, at thirty-two, you can’t rap anymore? Because you have a child and you’re married, that you can’t rap anymore? Because you have a job and a master’s degree, you can’t rap anymore? This is your culture. You don’t throw culture out like it’s an old shoe! And artistic expression is so important to the human experience.”

“And so that’s something that I talked about in Senegal with the artists, most of whom will never make any money from their art. And so how do you reconcile that? How do you set your life up, so that you can sustain yourself and still feed that creative part of you? And so that you won’t end up resenting this creative part because it never paid your bills.”

“Spiritually and emotionally, that’s really important: self-sustainablity. How are you going to eat? How are you going to take care of yourself? How are you going to survive? What if you don’t want to get married yet? Maybe you want to wait ten years. Or maybe you do want to get married and have three kids? How do you do that, and make sure that your family is sustained if your husband doesn’t make enough money for you to do your art? We talked about all of that stuff. And I think it’s a really important discussion that we need to be talking about in creative communities around the world. And so it started out with me talking about rap, but I realized it applies to art in general. And I think it’s important for women to lead the charge on that conversation. That’s my point.”

In the past, such a conversation might have made an impact in the moment, but then lived on only as a memory after Toni returned to the United States. But in the age of social media, these relationships can now continue to develop and grow organically. “The only sad part was not knowing when I would get to work with them again. That’s the kind of growth that we made happen: it demands follow up. I recorded with Toussa Senerap when I was there. I would have recorded more if we didn’t have such long days. But I would still like to go back this year.” But as it turned out, Toni didn’t need to go back to Senegal to work with Toussa again.

After coming to the United States to take part in Next Level’s Global Residency in May (see here and here), Toussa travelled on her own to New York City to record with Toni Blackman.

“It is always important to me to meet people like Toni Blackman,” Toussa later reflected. “’Experience is everything,’ as they say. It was an honor to record with her and to discover more of the world she lives in here in the States. It is more than just as an artist that as I am reflecting on this spiritual experience that I had in the Bronx. I had tears in my eyes without even knowing where they came from. The experience was so powerful, so invigorating that in remembering it I keep smiling.”