The Queen of Joburg
Listening to Proof’s “Forgive Me” and trying to get my mind around the fact that hip-hop has lost yet another rapper. My heart goes out to his family and friends, to Eminem and D12. Rest in peace Proof.
Since we all know that the mainstream media is gonna take the hip-hop violence angle and run with it (speaking of which, what’s up in Las Vegas?), I thought I might focus today on some of the positive stuff that’s going on in hip-hop.
Like in South Africa, for instance, where hip-hop is helping the country heal from apartheid, empowering a generation of youth, and fueling community development projects. All this, and making dope music.
Since I’m still learning about South African hip-hop, I thought I would enlist the help of my girl Lee Kasumba, editor of South Africa’s hip-hop book Y Magazine, DJ and producer at YFM Radio, and a contributor to MTV Africa. Here’s my convo with the Queen of Joburg.
How did you get into hip-hop?
I grew up listening to hip-hop. Truthfully I don’t know what my entry point was, but I do remember that my dad used to travel a lot and he bought me and my sisters hip-hop albums. There was always a hip-hop track that became the soundtrack to a changing point in my life.
When and how did you get involved in the media in South Africa? Well, while I was studying (BA Dramatic Arts) at Wits University, I worked on campus at the radio station on a hip-hop show. While doing my course, they changed the system and that meant I could no longer balance out my drama and music, so I then started trying to use this radio thing to get paid. I tried my luck on YFM and failed. A friend of mine then started doing traffic on that station and I sat in for her like twice and then she gave one of our worst demos to my favorite DJ and he heard it and called me in for a panel discussion and I never left. So it started as a way to pay for extra music classes and turned into this. It’s amazing.
What do you think are the main differences between South African and American hip-hop?
I think for me hip-hop—at least at its best—is reflective of society, and South Africa in terms of history and language and lifestyle has a very different [society]. You will find language differences. We have 11 official languages. So imagine the hip-hop is a mix thereof, particularly in Joburg where people speak all the languages. From what I hear in terms of mainstream hip-hop from the States, it’s not all that socio-political, but in South Africa people here and young people are very politically aware. I think it’s like there’s a huge responsibility to be that way, so that is reflected in the [music]. In the same breath, there are so many artists who just speak about rubbish. So it’s language, it’s the surroundings, it’s the fact that right now hip-hop is run by young people so what we hear is so diverse. All the elements are still live in SA. There’s a huge competition that is run nationwide by the b-boys. We also have the graff guys who are doing so well too. They are involved in the downtown area and being commissioned to make the cities prettier or to spread message. The emcees are being used a lot by government too. We have community hip-hop in areas like Soweto and Cape Town, where hip-hop is part of the community. You have old and young engaging. So yeah, in SA all elements of hip-hop are still live.
What role do you think hip-hop has played in the country recovering from apartheid?
Well, put it this way, as a young person my soundtrack to the change in SA was the Prophets of the City’s track “Never Again”—that was Mandela’s intro to the speech [when he became South Africa’s first black president]. They performed at Madiba’s inauguration [Madiba is an affection name for Mandela]. That’s a big deal. More recently it’s through the workshops that take place because apartheid left a lot of community scars. Initiatives like Black Sunday that are building academies in the heart of Soweto. Or the prison tours, or the life skills community workshops that take place. The fact that hip-hop in SA is not race-conscious—at least not with black and white—that’s helping bring young kids together. [Hip-hop] in Cape Town is trying to rectify the situation with black and colored [people of mixed race], which is a huge scar from apartheid. Hip-hop is doing its thing, allowing young kids to express themselves.
What are the biggest challenges facing SA youth?
Finding your space, and access too, though we have more access than we ever did before. There is still a lack of balance in terms of power, a lot of the information is still held back. But HIV/AIDS is real, and finances too. The further you get from Joburg, the worse it is for young people.
What artists are hot right now in SA? (American and African)
That’s hard. I mean, in terms of mainstream, I guess it’s the usual MTV type generation. People like Common, Kanye West, Busta, The Game [are popular]. African—must be K’naan for sure. He gets mad love. I’ll tell you a secret: SA radio has a whole New York vibe and they don’t really support African artists, hip-hop or otherwise, which is wack because we are part of the continent. Though the streets are feeling it, radio and advertisers aren’t at all. I hate that rubbish, but that’s changing, which is good. Luda gets love here too, cause he has been here a thousand times. But it’s hard to say who is hot really. The funniest thing though, the biggest hip-hop show ever to take place was Black August 2001—Jeru the Damaja, Talib Kweli, Black Thought and dead prez. And though we’ve had 50 Cent, Black Eyed Peas etc since, that one [concert] is still the one that everyone talks about...I like to say everyone owns their space in hip-hop and we can never really define where hip-hop is from a radio or magazine perspective, because hip-hop isn’t made in the mainstream at all.
What other African countries have thriving hip-hop scenes that North Americans should be checking for?
South Africa has probably got one of the smaller scenes, but we have the media and infrastructure to support the little [scene] we have, so as big as it is here—it’s bigger everywhere else. Kenya is ridiculous, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Angola, Senegal, even Egypt has a dope scene. And Cape Verde Islands too. Really the entire continent is a hub for hip-hop. But it came from here, so it’s not a shock at all.
I've read you say in an interview that Joburg is now what New York was in the 70s.
Well, when Kweli was here, he said it felt like that—where there are a lot of ideas and everyone wants to do something, but the technology isn’t there. When he said that I was like, “that’s so true, everyone has all these great ideas and ways of changing SA, but we aren’t fully supported technology wise, or access wise, or knowledge wise.
What are some of your fav South African hip-hop tracks?
Off the top of my head: Optical Illusion “Ghetto Beautifulness,” Mr Sewlyn “History,” Tumi and Sifiso Sudan “Once Upon A Time in Africa,” Tumi “Ask Your Mama,” Godessa “Mama Nguwe,” Mr. Devious “Still Breathing,” Tuks Senganga featuring HHP “B-Talk,” Ondaground “Wanna Battle,” HHP feat Tuks and Khuli “We Built This City,” Ngwenya feat Firstorne “The Quest, Cashless Society Hottentot Hop”…the list is endless but that’s off the top of my head…5TH Floor “Kreation,” H20 “Calling Rozanne,” Jbux “Should I Go Should I Stay,” Pro Verb “Microphone Sweet Home,” Zulu Boy’s new joint. Zubz and Tumi “Hey Gangsta”…the list goes on and on. Oh there’s also Morafe “Dula.” I am going to get in trouble for leaving something out. Oh and Trinity Crew too. Zubz “Heavy Eight” and “Handiende.”
I hear you rap yourself. Any plans for a debut album?
That’s funny, everyone thinks I am an emcee. Guess I could be, but I am a vocalist—hip-hop sung. Yes, you can expect something, no dates, no info yet. I am just finishing off writing for other people too, who have been nominated for awards, which is awesome! But you will be the first to know.
Sometimes people over here get confused about kwaaito and think it's just a hip-hop style. Can you explain the difference between kwaaito and hip-hop?
Kwaaito is more like dance music—well at least that’s what it has evolved into, because of the influence of house music. But yeah, I guess hip-hop lyrically and beat wise is a lot more diverse and kwaaito leans strongly towards dance music. That’s what I feel, but you can hear the difference. Kwaaito is in no way SA hip-hop at all…it’s sort of a genre on its own, bred in the townships and created mega stars in SA. Both are great. There are times when the lines blur—I assume that’s like with R&B and hip-hop in the States…Kwaaito is also inspired with a genre that is popular so right now a lot more Kwaaito artists lean towards hip-hop or house cause those genres are popular. It’s probably like hip-hop has all the elements alive still. Not dissing kwaaito but hip-hop caused a lot of kwaaito cats to write more.
What do you think is the biggest misconception that North Americans have about Africa?
I suppose that they are on some tip that we waiting on the States to notice us, or that we running around in skins or whateva. Or that we are ignorant and politically apathetic. That is not the case. Also that most Africans want to run away from here. Not true. But basically that [North Americans] are the saviors of African culture. What you read in a book or paper or see on the news is not what Africa is in reality.