Sister Fa: African rapper with a cause

The Senegalese rapper has become one of the world's leading campaigners against female genital mutilation

A few years ago Sister Fa played a gig with Nile Rodgers at the UN general assembly. It must have been funny watching them try to rouse the delegates, skanking their way through the title track of her 2009 album Sarabah: Tales from the Flipside of Paradise. It's hard work being a rapper with a cause. You wonder if Sister Fa (real name Fatou Diatta) ever wakes up and thinks, you know, I don't really fancy talking about female genital mutilation today …

But music and politics go hand in hand if you're from Senegal. Baaba Maal is a UN youth emissary. Youssou N'Dour ran for president last year. Diatta, who moved to Berlin in 2006, is one of the world's leading campaigners against female genital mutilation. She's the subject of a new film, Sarabah, which documents her recent tour Education Sans Excision (Education without Cutting). And despite her subject matter, she's a lot of fun.

Diatta was born in Dakar in 1982. She made her first demo tape as a teenager and penetrated the city's male-dominated rap scene to work alongside politicised groups such as Positive Black Soul and Daara J. Her father, a teacher, "wanted a diplomat daughter" she says. "He was very sceptical about my choice until he listened to my tapes and decided they were formidable". (French is her second language, after her native Wolof.) "Even when I'd had some success I was expected to behave like other girls. You know, 'So what if you have a festival to play at – it's your turn to cook this weekend.' "

The vibrant world-music scene in Berlin (where she moved to live with her film-maker husband) spread her work to the diaspora community but her songs always look homeward: Soldat considers the Casamance civil war; Life AM the Aids problem; Selebou Yoon hymns a harmonious alliance between Islam and music. Her loyalty to Senegalese rap forms – samples of kora, shades of old-school hip-hop and a notable absence of bling – is a smart political move: "In Africa you can't sing about naked women, they'll censor you," she laughs. "You've got to give something that society is willing to consume."

Diatta was cut before she went to primary school ("any older and they know you'd fight them off"). Last year her Berlin band, two of whom double up as session men for Germany's X Factor-winner Alexander Knappe, attracted huge crowds as they toured schools in Senegal in an unusual move to educate boys and girls together. "I tell boys, 'when you're cut it's like we're cutting your nail. For girls, it's the whole finger'," she says.

As her music reaches a growing European audience she's asked time and again when she'll start performing in English, but for now the mother tongue is too important. "A rapper's job is to tell the truth," she says. "Hip hop started as protest music, and in Senegal it still is."

Contributor

Kate Mossman

The GuardianTramp

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