The first time I met Martial Pa'nucci at the French Institute in the Republic of Congo's crumbling capital, Brazzaville, he looked so unremarkable that I almost walked straight past him. Young, a little sheepish and very slightly built in a baseball cap, an oversized African shirt, scruffy jeans, new Nikes and with a backpack slung over his shoulders, it was hard to differentiate this 26-year-old firebrand rapper from most of the other youthful creatives and liberal arts students milling around the building.
But I wondered if Pa'nucci's everyman veneer was perhaps in part a conscious self-defence mechanism. Ever since he appeared in a BBC News dispatch in April of 2015 denouncing the repressive Congolese regime he's had to keep a low profile. He's received anonymous threats over the phone, as have those closest to him. "My girlfriend left me because she was too scared," he told me. "Artists who speak out against the regime are basically in constant danger."
Pa'nucci's first solo album had been released just before our meeting. #2015CHRONIQUES was already being widely touted as the most politically engaged Congolese hip-hop album of all time (though there wasn't a lot of prior competition for that title). Little surprise, then, that our meeting place was a hidden park bench right at the arse-end of the French Institute. This was one of the only corners of the city where Pa'nucci said he felt safe to talk openly, without the ears of the state listening in.
But there was perhaps a more symbolic aspect to Pa'nucci's unremarkable appearance that day, too. As he said to me during our long conversation, "the fire that burns in me burns in the youth right across Africa". In his anger, his disillusionment and his desire for radical change, Pa'nucci was indeed far from unique on the African continent.
However, in a Congolese context, where freedom of expression is severely and often violently suppressed, and where almost all local media falls under some kind of state ownership, Pa'nucci and his music have become a pioneering revolutionary mouthpiece for the growing number of disaffected youth in his country.
It's not an easy job, and Pa'nucci has had to wear many hats to pull it off. He had to self-fund the production of his album and call on his friends to film and edit his music videos or act as rather awkward extras in them. With most local radio stations and live music venues fearful of giving him any airtime, Pa'nucci has subsequently had to spend countless hours skulking around the city trying to sell his own CDs; he also sells a digital version over Whatsapp. But this kind of hustling is pretty much a prerequisite in Pa'nucci's line of work. "Congo is a country rich in talent," he told me, "but there's no support for the arts."
The themes that Pa'nucci covers on his debut album range from slavery on the American plantations to the contemporary exodus of African migrants bound for Europe, and he raps, in French, with an assuredly rasping and poetic lyricism throughout. But he is most impactful, and most pissed, when speaking truth to power at home in Brazzaville. In "Brazzaville Hardcore", Pa'nucci's best-known single to date, over a melodic piano riff he spits indictments such as the following:
"At over 100 years old, Brazzaville is filthy / The streets stink of faeces / Irresponsible leaders roll in and cut up / Surviving here is dying slowly /
"Brazzaville is hardcore / So we face the microphone / And we shout our freedom, our freedom / If only to make the iniquity resonate"
It's apparently hungry work being so angry all the time, and Pa'nucci and I decided we'd extend our meeting to lunch. We made our way towards the Bacongo district, best known as the home of the sapeurs, the flamboyant Congolese equivalent of the dandy, or South Africa's swenkas.
Along the way, palatial residences and expensive new Chinese construction projects are interspersed with the dilapidated shells of buildings bombed during the civil war that ravaged Brazzaville between 1997 and 1999.
Before he went solo, Pa'nucci comprised one half of a popular hip-hop double act called 2Mondes – two worlds. He explained that the name was inspired by the incongruities that we saw all around us as we walked, where the opulence of the powerful elite stood in such stark contrast to the piles of rubble and festering rubbish, and to the "misery that is everyday life for most Congolese citizens", according to Pa'nucci.
Back in early 2015, septuagenarian strongman Denis Sassou Nguesso announced his intention to change the Congolese constitution, potentially extending his authoritarian rule of this small, oil-rich nation well beyond the 30-year mark. Pa'nucci and his former 2Mondes bandmate Vhan Dombo sat down over a couple of beers with a group of their friends – fellow musicians, poets, artists and students – and decided to form an activist group to protest this proposed move. Pa'nucci and Dombo dubbed their movement "Ras-le-bol", which roughly and aptly translates to "enough is enough", and was the first of its kind in Congo.
A couple of nights after our first meeting, Pa'nucci invited me to join a Ras-le-bol gathering at a local bar called Chez Kudia. A reggae band played in the dusty courtyard and beautiful escorts in small dresses sought business from the smattering of expatriate oil workers and diplomats. Meanwhile, Pa'nucci and his fellow activists talked sit-ins and marches, and sporadically dropped freestyle slam poetry verses huddled around a long table in the corner.
Soon, empty beer bottles covered our table, and with the night at its pinnacle, Pa'nucci stood up, threw his head skyward like a wolf and began howling anti-government slogans at the top of his lungs. The venue suddenly descended into an uneasy silence, and a doorman rushed up to the table, his face wracked with fear, and told Pa'nucci to stop immediately. Pa'nucci, sweating profusely, looked at me with wide, glassy eyes and told me "dictators are nourished by the silence of the people".
At the end of October, 2015, Denis Sassou Nguesso went ahead with his plans to change the constitution, despite the biggest anti-government protests Congo has ever seen, co-coordinated by Ras-le-bol and an opposition alliance called the Republican Front for the Respect of Constitutional Order and Democratic Change (FROCAD). True to form, the protests were met by violent suppression from the state police; six members of Ras-le-bol were arrested. After tireless campaigning by Pa'nucci, the activists were eventually released three months later. Undeterred by the growing resistance to his rule, Sassou Nguesso went on to triumph at the polls in March of 2016, with 60 percent of the vote against 15 percent for his nearest challenger; Pa'nucci said the results were a "sham". International observers including the European Union and the US State Department agreed with him.
This was immediately followed by two days of gun battles between government forces and anti-government protesters in Brazzaville's southern districts, considered to be opposition strongholds, which prompted thousands to flee the capital, including Pa'nucci's former bandmate Vhan Dombo. Human rights groups including Amnesty International also claimed airstrikes were carried out by government forces in the Pool Region, and the United Nations said that there had been "reports of mass arrests and torture in detention" in that area.
At the time, Pa'nucci felt that many of his countrymen were beginning to fear a return to the Congolese Civil War of 1997 to 1999, which was instigated by Sassou Nguesso's rebel forces and left a death toll of up to 25,000. Though a tentative peace has since returned to Brazzaville again, Pa'nucci told me that the ever-present memory of previous decades of conflict continues to paralyse Congolese citizens. "Many fear even the very notion of joining a movement like Ras-le-bol," he said.
Nevertheless, Pa'nucci remains optimistic that his music can continue to "wake people up and bring about change in Congo". It's a belief that he's held since he was an angst-filled and gangly 12-year-old with a head full of NWA songs. At this young age, Pa'nucci performed his first live gig at a Brazzaville bar called Zoo, rapping about Congo's social ills in a nod to his anti-establishment American icons.
Today, Pa'nucci finds his inspiration closer to home, in movements like Y'en a Marre in Senegal and Le Balai Citoyen in Burkino Faso. Like Ras-le-bol, both movements are led by young local rappers and rely heavily on social media to help their battle cries circumnavigate repressive media landscapes and galvanise mass support for their cause. Both Y'en a Marre and Le Balai Citoyen have been pivotal in toppling outdated despots in their respective countries in the past few years.
"Music is a powerful communication tool because it travels quickly and crosses borders easily, whether physical or mental. It enables people to become aware of their situation while also giving them courage. Such was the case with slave songs in the sugar cane and cotton plantations," Pa'nucci said to me during a recent email correspondence. He added that hip-hop music in particular had become the go-to genre for the current crop of young African activists because "at its origin, it's a music of protest".
Together, social media and hip-hop have helped to create solidarity between the growing number of youthful citizen movements, activists and disaffected youth across Africa and its diaspora. The last time I spoke to Pa'nucci he was in Senegal as a guest of the International Federation of Human Rights. While in the country he was also looking to deepen relationships with the leading members of Y'en a Marre and the Senegalese hip-hop community. All of these relationships had been initiated via social media. Just before Pa'nucci left Brazzaville, bound for Senegal, he released the latest hit single from his album, "Sassoule", a play on the French expression "ca me soule" ("I'm done") and the surname of the Congolese president, whom the song's lyrics describe as follows:
"Slaughterer of Congolese / Eh, everyone knows / Drainer of public funds / Eh, everyone knows / Gravedigger of the nation / Eh, everyone knows"
Pa'nucci said that, every day since the single came out, he had received calls and messages from friends, family and fans telling him not to go back to Brazzaville because he was wanted by the state police. But at the time of writing, Pa'nucci is set on returning home at the end of September. "I'm not afraid," he said to me, "It's not like I killed someone."