"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." - Charles Mackay
Monday, July 18, 2005
The Rough Guide To
African Rap

Rappers, rebels and ragamuffins

‘The Revolution is right here in front of you,’ raps Ty, on the opening track of this collection. A musical revelation awaits listeners as they delve into our album of the kind of grooves that are rocking twenty-first century urban Africa and the Diaspora. Within Africa, rap is rampant among the youth and the not-so-youthful. Private radio and TV stations – which have burgeoned since the early 1990s – broadcast rap and reggae music for sound commercial reasons. African rappers have been signed up by international record companies and in the process introduced to wider audiences.

From South Africa, Prophets Of Da City scored some of the earliest international acclaim, with their condensed history of hip-hop filtered through the township experience. Other pioneers include Positive Black Soul from Senegal, Ghana's hip-life king Reggie Rockstone, Tata Pound from Mali, Kalamashaka from Kenya and a host of others. Now around 2000 rap outfits exist in Dakar alone. South Africa and Tanzania are other top hot spots of African hip-hop, but every country has its share of rappers. Hip-hop originally only appealed to the younger generation – which one producer described as ‘an internationalist disenfranchised nation’ – but with the use of indigenous ingredients (including beats, instruments and vocal references) even the older folk are getting behind the new music. Prophets Of Da City have referred to township mbaqanga, Positive Black Soul sample traditional instruments such as kora, tama and xalam, Rockstone reprises Afro-beat and K-Melia subvert soukous guitar licks, etc.

Just like highlife, rumba, jazz or reggae, African hip-hop is a conscious reflection of transatlantic culture, but Europe has been the launch pad for many international breakthroughs. The help and publicity provided by figureheads such as Manu Dibango have aided artists such as MC Solaar, the French rapper of West African origin. Music from the soundtrack of La Haine, the French feature film set in the immigrant quarters of Paris, also made a mark.

Probably the first people to see African hip-hop in a broader context were the rappers from Francophone Africa touring neighbouring countries from the mid-1990s onwards and working in Paris. Positive Black Soul were pioneers, but others were building up career bases, including Passi, Arsenik and other members of Bisso Na Bisso, who shook up the whole scene in 1998. Not all the tracks on this disc are strictly hip-hop, however, but the rap element is ever present.

In Africa, wordplay has always been a great source of entertainment and social commentary – the various languages (totalling around 2000) impose different rules on the common groove. In the late twentieth century, access to sophisticated recording equipment improved so much that music was democratized: African musicians no longer had to depend on working for a (possibly despotic) bandleader, who not only owned and dispensed the instruments but demanded a lifetime of loyalty. Musicians could create music by and, if necessary, for themselves. Rappers have responded to social and political issues by addressing such subjects as poverty, AIDS, famine, corruption and globalization at a time when the changing economic, political and media climate across Africa has resulted in less censorship and more freedom to be critical of people in power. Rappers have had an important say during elections in South Africa, Senegal and Kenya. For African rappers to choose this conscious approach instead of the ‘bling-bling’ materialistic stance reflects the way other music functions as a medium in their societies – from the griots (musicians by birthright) to the lambasting of a Fela or a Franco.

Love songs are also a part of rap culture, even among the more ‘hardcore’ or conscious rappers – but then boasting about adventures with the opposite sex has always been integral to any popular music. Gangsta culture is another source of inspiration, but on different levels. In Cape Town, for example, there are real gangsters killing each other and innocent bystanders, although elsewhere reference to guns and killing is often more metaphorical.

Many people believe that an essential characteristic of hip-hop culture is its tendency to represent the ‘local’ in the bigger picture. In this way, localized slang, styles of dressing and posing, and discussing very local topics, can be a way to define a position towards other youth, and within the national or international hip-hop scene.

Despite the importance of content, non-speakers of a language can still appreciate the flow of a rapper’s syllable play as if it were an instrumental track. The way language is used is crucial, for example, in Senegal, where oral literature and Western-style rap are so similar, and where the borders between talking, reciting and rapping seem to blur. Some of the artists and several tracks on this album have never been heard in the West. But rappers move across cultural divides more easily than band musicians. Their community is a more global one, and several of the artists on this disc keep one foot in Africa and the other outside.

In gathering the music and information for this disc, we owe a big shout-out to Thomas Gesthuizen, who has championed the cause of African rap for the past ten years through his website, an online radio station (Rumba-Kali) and a Non-Governmental Organization (Madunia), which works in Tanzania producing discs and videos. His projects have undoubtedly helped generate international awareness about African hip-hop, having broadcast or promoted rap from more than thirty African countries.
posted by R J Noriega at 7:45 PM | Permalink |


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