A couple of months ago, I went to Africa. I went for a lot of reasons: because I had always wanted to see that part of the world, because I’m writing a book on global hip-hop and my friend Sol (who has been several times) insisted that I couldn’t even think of writing it without going, because I’d heard African hip-hop was on fire, because I felt compelled to somehow acknowledge the AIDS epidemic there and see what a person could do about it. Because the first-ever African hip-hop summit was taking place in Johannesburg, because artists from all over the continent were coming, and last—but certainly not least for a freelancer—because a Canadian youth organization offered to foot the bill.
People often ask me what Africa was like. It was like this: I went consciously prepared to see a lot of suffering, trying my best to ignore warnings about safety (Joburg is supposed to be the murder capital of the world), with vague TV images of poverty crowding my mind. It was nothing like I thought it would be. Nothing at all.
I spent a week at the conference, going to shows, sitting in on panel discussions, and interviewing grassroots hip-hop organizations. I was staying at the same hotel as all of the artists and every night we would stay up for hours in the bar talking. They told me about the hip-hop scenes in Cameroon, Kenya, Uganda, Senegal. We talked about everyone from 50 to Kanye (his “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” had just dropped there) to Guru from Gangstarr (who was performing at the summit) to all of the local hip-hop heroes.
The day after the conference ended, we all caravanned out to the township of Soweto for their weekly outdoor block party Black Sunday. There were a couple hundred people crammed into a park in Zone 1, huddled around a sound system. A group of mothers had cooked up a huge spread of macaroni salad, roast chicken, rice. Young boys wove in and out of the crowd, chattering (shout out to Siya, Fani, Thabo, Sindi, Lindaeni!). People danced, ate, sprawled on the grass talking, played with babies.
The headliner for the day hit the stage as a pink sun set over Soweto. Pro Kid, one of the top rappers in South Africa, is from the South Western Township. As soon as he took the mic, the crowd pressed close to the front. A dozen children climbed a tree next to the stage and started shaking the braches with all their strength. Pro Kid launched into his anthem “Soweto” and hundreds joined in, letting out high-pitched whistles, and belting out the chorus. The kids that were showing me around beamed with pride and pulled on my arms to look up. Above our heads, my friend Lee Kasumba (shout out to the Queen of Joburg, editor of Y Magazine and DJ at Y Radio!) had climbed on top of giant delivery truck and was dancing up there.
When I think of African hip-hop, I think of that swelteringly hot day in Soweto. I think about a generation faced with violence, illness, extreme poverty—and coping with incredible energy. With talent, creativity, motivation.
All over Africa, artists are channeling their hunger for change into hip-hop. They’re speaking out against police repression (shout out to Krazy Native), challenging corrupt governments (shout out to Gidi Gidi Maji Maji), calling out warlords (shout out to K’naan), and protesting the use of child soldiers (shout out to Emmanuel Jal). And they are making seriously dope music while they’re at it.
Many are using independent entrepreneurialism to fund community development projects. Groups like Black Sunday, R.I.S.E., the Ugandan Hip-Hop Foundation, and Black Noise sell self-published books, self-produced CDs, and handmade clothing. They funnel the funds that they raise into arts, education, and mentorship programs for the youth coming up.
Don’t get it twisted, it’s not all about politics. There’s guys that rhyme about crime, sex, and/or partying. There are abstract, experimental, poetic guys that aren’t political at all. There are grimy street stars that lean left. There are dudes that are feeling 50 and dudes that dig Mos—plus lots of dudes that love 50 and Mos.
African hip-hop as a whole—with all its disparate sounds and styles—is currently experiencing a renaissance. It’s an exciting time, one full of hope.
Let me leave you with a quote from my friend Sol, speaking about his new TV show to the Georgia Straight newspaper in Vancouver:
“We’re trained that people in Africa are waiting to die,” he said. “But poverty is not a strip ticket to death. It’s a space where community is formed and people care about each other. They love harder, care harder, fight harder, and dance harder. They’re making songs and making babies, and everything is happening at a breakneck speed.”
For more on African Hip-Hop, check out:
Here’s my current African hip-hop play list:
Pro Kid “Soweto” (South Africa)
Proverb “My Vers’d Love” (South Africa)
Black Noise “Getcha on the Floor” (South Africa)
K’naan “Soobax” (Somalia/Canada)
Krazy Native “Wansi Wagalu” (Uganda)
Iron African “Cheers for Rap Money” (Uganda)
Gidi Gidi Maji Maji “Unbogable” (Kenya)
Positive Black Soul “Boul Fale Remix” (Senegal)
X Plastaz “Msimu Kwa Msimu” (Tanzania)
Emmanuel Jal “Gua” (Sudan/Kenya)
Mode 9 “Flawless” (Nigeria)
Randy P “Sexy Lady” (Cameroon)
Reggi Rockstone “Eye Mo De Anaa” (Ghana)
Bhubesii “Sowe-to Stylz” (South Africa)
Tumi & The Volume “People of the Light” (South Africa)