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."


Kate Mossman

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Lady Leshurr: 'The industry just doesn't know what to do with women'
The Midlands MC on morals and why the UK needs a female rap star. Interview by Kate Mossman

Kate Mossman

20, Apr, 2013 @6:00 PM

Article image
N-Dubz: 'We were naughty. We used to cause madness!'

The three members of N-Dubz have overcome tough upbringings and personal tragedy to become, says Polly Vernon, the country's most entertaining pop act

Polly Vernon

04, Sep, 2010 @11:05 PM

Article image
On my radar: Nile Rodgers

The Chic frontman, songwriter and record producer talks Ellie Bothwell through his cultural highlights, from Janelle Monáe and Man of Steel to Moby-Dick

Ellie Bothwell

06, Jul, 2013 @11:01 PM

Article image
Brits 2019: who will – and should – win every award
Can Dua Lipa have a second successful Brits year in a row, or will George Ezra dominate the biggest categories? Ahead of tonight’s ceremony, we ponder the likely winners

Ben Beaumont-Thomas and Laura Snapes

20, Feb, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Amplify Dot: 'My narrative isn't a traditional hip-hop narrative'
Rising hip-hop star Amplify Dot tells Hermione Hoby about upstaging Missy Elliott and why she still worries what her mother thinks

Hermione Hoby

12, Oct, 2013 @11:05 PM

Article image
On my radar: Big Zuu's cultural highlights
The London rapper on finding unity in gaming and music battles, and his love of home cooking

Kadish Morris

10, May, 2020 @9:30 AM

Article image
On my radar: Doc Brown’s cultural highlights
The rapper, comedian, actor and screenwriter on Slow West, Ray Celestin’s The Axeman’s Jazz, The Waters by Mick Jenkins and the magic of Wittertainment

Jessica Murray

30, Aug, 2015 @6:59 AM

Article image
On my radar: Jazzy Jeff’s cultural highlights
The DJ and producer on Jay-Z’s new album, the Philadelphia 76ers and the great taste of blue crab

Jade Cuttle

13, Aug, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
Confucius MC: ‘I’ve seen illiterate kids learn raps in 10 minutes’
The south London MC on using beats and rhymes to get children interested in words, and the problem with gentrification in his native Peckham

Kate Tempest

02, Sep, 2018 @8:30 AM

Readers suggest the 10 best second albums
Last week we brought you our 10 best second albums. Here, we present your thoughts on those albums that should have made the list

Observer readers

22, Aug, 2014 @11:31 AM