Initiatives Urban Humanities and Their Publics

Rosalind Fredericks, Assistant Professor, NYU/Gallatin

Group of students pose in front of mural of portraits on building in Senegal

senegal 2The Urban Democracy Lab interviews Rosalind Fredericks, an NYU professor, to discuss postcolonial identities in Africa, global urbanism, and the political economy of developments…
Rosalind Fredericks is an assistant professor at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University with a focus on postcolonial identities in Africa, global urbanism, and the political economy of development. Fredericks’s research has won major funding support from the Social Science Research Council, Fulbright-Hays and the National Science Foundation. She has edited two books with Mamadou Diouf: the first, Les Arts de la Citoyenneté au Sénégal: Espaces Contestés et Civilités Urbaines , about Senegalese cities, was published in July 2013; the second The Arts of Citizenship in African Cities: Infrastructures and Spaces of Belonging, about cities across Africa, will be published in December 2014. Currently, she is completing a manuscript on the cultural politics of garbage collection in Dakar titled Trash Matters: Infrastructures and Arts of Citizenship in Dakar, Senegal.  In 2014, she led a group of Gallatin students on a travel course to Dakar.
How did you get into your area of research?
I worked on what I would say now is a failed development project in east Africa as an undergraduate when I was studying abroad. The experience had a huge impact on me that absolutely shaped the way that I think about postcolonial contexts and studying development in sub-Saharan Africa. So that was the original inspiration to continue my studies in African development. I ended up focusing on urban questions because I’ve always been very concerned with urban space and the incredible dynamism and vitality that one can see in the fabric of the city. I think I purposefully started studying social movements because I think they are really the key actors and institutions that are building postcolonial cities. I wanted to take a step away from international development projects that come from the global North and are instituted in the global South and was interested in seeing those movements and those development projects that were bubbling up from the grassroots. So I ended up working with a couple of different youth movements that are helping to make the city that is my primary research location, Dakar, Senegal, more just, equitable, accessible, and more livable for its communities. The first movement is a labor movement and the second is a hip-hop movement so they’re actually quite different and I say really different things about them. But I think the unifying factor is that they’re both dynamic, very constructive, very optimistic social movements that are doing the work of a certain kind of urban development and promoting urban citizenship and democracy in Dakar.
What are the differences between domestic and international urbanism?
I think that domestic and international urbanism have a lot more to learn from each other than has been thought in decades past in urban studies and other fields that think about urbanism. I think that this bifurcation between these two parts of the globe — a sort of West versus the rest, a North versus the South division — is not only really artificial given all the deep and historical ties between the two places and their cities but it really undervalues all of the insights that can be learned in thinking about global North cities by looking at global South cities and vice versa. So I’m definitely one of these postcolonial urbanists that is trying to argue that Africa, (because that’s my site), and its cities, actually have a lot of insight to lend into urbanization processes in New York City for instance. If we think of more ordinary cities or everyday cities — or if we think about the way ordinary people go about their lives in cities, and we use cities as our rubric — then, I think we can find fruitful discussion between all of these places across the globe whether they’re North, South, Asia, Africa, Latin America, etc.
You’ve done some research around garbage in Dakar. Would you talk a bit about that?
At its base, my interest in garbage is rooted in an understanding of trash as a sort of core intersection between people and the environment in urban spaces. It is the manifestation of all sorts of systems, institutions, and issues that are really revealing for the study of development, environment, social structure, and social movements. So I use garbage, in particular, and management systems around it, as a lens into society, politics, and development questions. I think it’s a really, really juicy lens — a stinky lens — that reveals all sorts of interesting insight. Part of that is because trash isn’t just your average public service. It is a very foundational public service, like roads, like water, like electricity; but it’s one that is so loaded with negative associations around our own waste that it takes on all this cultural meaning that you won’t see in these other realms.
As a cultural and urban geographer, I’m really interested in how urban infrastructures take on theses cultural meanings, and, in particular, how these infrastructures and cultural meanings intersect with the people who work in those infrastructures — or the people who make up those infrastructures. So the book on trash is actually a book on trash labor, looking at the trash workers of Dakar, the municipal collection force. It looks at their battle over the last 30 years to not only de-stigmatize their own jobs, because they — like trash workers everywhere — have been stigmatized by working in contact with this thing called waste, that has all of these negative associations. It explores also how they have managed to wage this really savvy battle against, in a sense, neoliberal structural adjustment in the city; how they have won all sorts of concessions — including, claims to fair rights, to fair work, to fair compensations, to regular contracts not short-term, flexible labor arrangements — rooted in a cultural realm. In fact, part of what I write about in the book is how many of the garbage workers in Dakar experience and express their work — they validate their work — through thinking of it as a labor of cleaning in Islamic terms. So they think of themselves as a sort of Islamic environmental force. And they have deployed that idea of the value of their work in order to combat its stigmatization, to make all these claims on wider benefits like better protections in the workplace. And it’s worked: people in Dakar have been able to be convinced that their local trash collectors are doing this incredibly valuable service through thinking about it as an act of purity — as a noble, sanctified labor. So that’s one example into the kind of insight that you can get by looking at garbage that may be particular to that realm, to that world, that you wouldn’t get by looking at other infrastructures.
senegal 2013
You mentioned earlier that you did research on a hip-hop movement. How did you come into that?
Like the trash workers’ union movement, the hip-hop activists that I studied came to me in a certain sense. I didn’t have to look for them. They were a big enough scene exploding outwards, so I and many other people felt that we had to really reckon with what this social force was. And particularly this happened around the very contentious elections of 2012 when a fairly elected president of Senegal seemed to be turning towards a less democratic mode of governing. And since Senegal is seen as a beacon of democracy (it is the only country in west Africa that has never experienced a coup, and has long been a source of stability and a positive example of what political stability can look like in the region), a lot of people were really worried about the tensions that seemed to be bubbling up around 2012 because it seemed that maybe Senegal’s deep, well-respected democracy was at risk. Some of the most vocal people in voicing that concern and mobilizing around it were young people — in particular, young people mobilizing through and around the medium of rap and through hip-hop culture. That includes both the music and the lyrics but also hip-hop fashion, hip-hop identity, hip-hop dance, etc. — the full range of realms implicated by hip-hop.
I wanted to do some research on that and I did an ethnographic project around the elections where I talked to a bunch of rappers and their fans and other people in Dakar before, during, and after the elections. And one of the questions I wanted to ask was: why was hip-hop the medium of social change for this generation of young people who were kind of fed up with their government system? As someone coming from the United States and aware of the power but also the contradictions of that medium in the United States, I wondered: why that particular medium, in Senegal? But as I looked more closely, I found that there is this incredibly deep old legacy of not only African hip-hop but Senegalese hip-hop. Senegal is one of the forerunners of Africa’s burgeoning hip-hop scene which is enormous. And it stretches all the way back to the 90s. For a long time Senegalese rappers have been critics of the political process — they’ve spoken out about much more than what we might predict to be in rap or hip-hop music. They are especially identified with being political — it doesn’t mean some rappers aren’t just writing about their girlfriends or love stories or their city — but a huge proportion of Senegalese rap is actually directed at critiquing and shaping the political process. It’s very politicized in a very constructive way. And around the elections, hip-hop played this huge role in mobilizing youth to vote and mobilizing youth to protest when the vote was actually threatened. It played a role in mobilizing other people, including old people and women, to get involved in the political process. It got the word out about what was going on, doing that sort of research and then broadcasting it through the music, but also through actual mobilizing in public urban space. So that article that I wrote last year was really looking at how rappers and their fans — young people — engaged in this movement, were engaging in radical sorts of practices that led them to be key activists around the elections. And I think they were very much inspired by rap.
In summary, one of the key things that rap provides is a language of transgression, a language of boundary crossing, a language of rejection of the status quo, rejection of the old ideas of who is allowed to speak for the community. And because of hip-hop, young people were inspired to reject, and traverse, and transgress, which actually translated to spatial practice, which in turn, translated to political practice in the urban sphere. These massive protests that were mainly youths and were mainly mobilized by these hip-hop groups were actually able to play a big role in rejecting the reforms that the incumbent president was trying to make that people thought were threatening democracy. And, then, most importantly, they helped bring the new presidential candidate to power and kicked out the old guy. Of course the battle continues, but the rappers played an enormous role in that.
How do you think the gender imbalance prevalent in hip-hop will influence the future of politics in Dakar?
I think the fact that hip-hop is the voice of this generation can be seen as both troubling and inspiring from a gender point of view. It’s troubling in the sense that it’s a very male-dominated scene, and I think that the increasing legitimacy and political power of rap and hip-hop may mean that there aren’t that many spaces for women (who may encounter boundaries to entering the hip-hop scene) to voice their concerns and participate in urban development. On the other hand, from a more optimistic perspective, I do think women are entering those scenes. There is a whole rash of hip-hop education centers that are opening up, especially in the poor outskirts of Dakar. Rappers are founding these centers to help their local communities, and the centers — the two that I know pretty well — have projects explicitly focused on bringing women into this culture. Young women who are involved in these projects get marketable skills through hip-hop education such as DJing, dancing, and music production, or they get involved in literacy programs that are run through hip-hop education. Women are direct beneficiaries of such efforts so I can see it as potentially contributing to a generation of young women who are aching to have a voice and who traditionally have been very sidelined from public discourse. This mode of transgressing the old ideas of how older people were the only ones expected to be speaking in public dialogue could potentially help these young women emerge more. That being said, I’m very cautious about making big prescriptions because hip-hop is such a male-dominated scene and one doesn’t want to be overly optimistic.
Is it possible to develop equitably in a place with limited resources?
I think a more just urban development program in poor countries has to be led by citizens. I don’t mean that civil society should be left to its own devices to do development all by itself. I think the state plays a really key role but I do think that the dynamism and the vibrancy that we see in these civil societies, in these urban social movements in places like Dakar, have got to be the key inspiration behind new paradigms about how the city is going to be run and built. Specifically that has to be done in a very politically savvy mode that takes into account what the local context is. So in Dakar, where the state remains pretty legitimate and has pretty good capacity, I think there is a lot of potential for more fusion between state projects and civil society projects that are being inspired and mobilized by the grassroots. There is a place for international agencies to find an appropriate and responsible niche through which they can contribute to development, not by dictating what should be the outcome, but by actually listening to what people’s vision of their city actually is and helping them to accomplish those goals.
What is the most interesting thing you’ve encountered in your research?
I certainly was taken by surprise when I found out that the trash workers of Dakar conceptualize their labor in terms of its religious value. That was a really, really interesting moment for me as an ethnographer. It made me reconsider a lot of preconceived notions that I had coming to that project as a foreigner and an outsider. So that was an exciting thing to find. It shed light on the fact that the language and the systems of meanings through which people make their cities are widely variant across different places. As ethnographers and people interested in other places we have to be radically open minded in our approach to understanding what forces build cities and what are the epistemologies that motivate social action in the city, both negative and positive.
What are your future plans in terms of research?
Well, I’m definitely continuing on with the both the waste and the hip-hop research. I have one idea that I’m fleshing out at this point which would be to intensively study Dakar’s dump. I didn’t actually look at the dump in my previous research; I only looked at the workers who collect the municipal trash. I didn’t look at the vast army of informal workers — pickers — who actually live on the dump outside of the city and their way of mobilizing their labor and the burdens that they actually bear. My next project will probably be looking in particular at these informal workers in the context of the fact that the dump is supposed to be closed soon. The state of Senegal has been trying to close this big, 50-year-old, smelly dump (it’s one of the biggest, oldest informal landfills, in sub-Saharan Africa) for a long time, but there is resistance. There are a couple of thousand people who live on it and base their livelihoods on it, but , even with their resistance, it looks like the dump is going to close in the next couple of years. So I would like to follow that closure and what happens to the workers, the people living on the dump, as they are basically expropriated from this commons they’ve been using. But I also want to research the political movements that I know that they’re already waging around fair access to rights to the city, to the means to a job somewhere in the city. So that’s probably first on my agenda.