Citizen.Speak.Amplify

Is South African Hip Hop Finding Its Voice Again?

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One of the memorable (or tragic) moments from arguably the most celebrated presidency in Africa, is that of a police commissioner raising his hands in a room packed with journalists  to demonstrate his innocence, writes GOPOLANG BOTLHOKWANE.

Jackie Selebi commanded the South African Police Service at a time when the country was enjoying a relative period of economic prosperity having made some progress in unshackling itself from the chains of apartheid. His job by any stretch was no mean feat, Selebi oversaw a police force tasked with keeping a country often nicknamed the rape and murder capital of the world and a country various reports often concluded its levels of inequality were so high,  that it was probably the most unequal in the world. There’s a line from critical rapper Immortal Technique’s 2001 song Poverty of Philosophy that best captures Selebi’s time as commissioner:“When you try to change the system from within, it’s not you who changes the system; it’s the system that will eventually change you.

The raised hands demonstrating innocence were the hands of a man who had eventually been changed by the system he once believed he could change – It would emerge later that at the height of his career as commissioner Selebi rubbed shoulders with some of the country’s most feared criminal bosses, people he was essentially tasked with policing, and it was those revelations that would pave the way for his fall.

Selebi’s stint as a commissioner would later be immortalised by Motswako rapper Mo’molemi in his contribution to DJ lemonka’s 2007 album Motswako Tape1011.  Selebi isn’t the only dent in former South African president Thabo Mbeki’s glorious legacy, Mbeki himself has often undermined what he tried to achieve with his African renaissance drive – particularly his government’s his failure to adequately address the HIV/AIDS crisis.  But Selebi’s period as commissioner is important because it was one of those rare moments when South African mainstream hip hop reared its head and flexed its social muscle. In 10111, Molemi attends to police brutality and racism with that necessary clumsiness of a radical activist – despite being banned 10111 found an audience eager for someone to address more than just parties and fashion – it was also a song that would forever alter the trajectory of Molemi’s career. Molemi’s protest didn’t change much; local hip hop remained deaf and numb post 10111, but it had a more significant impact – it dismissed the prevailing idea that speaking to power somehow paralysed careers.  Molemi like many radical voices in South African mainstream hip hop has faded to the background and given way to a more apolitical generation of rappers.

Political hip hop in South Africa has always existed on the fringes – more like a spare part than an actual component necessary for the genre to thrive, and mainstream hip hop has always found ways to pay homage and pride itself in the fact that behind its glitz is a thriving culture of critical thinking and activism. But in recent years it has almost become an honour to be apolitical and look the other way – the umbilical cord that tied hip hop to politics suffered the sharp bites of a cash obsessed generation of rappers.  

New age rappers have almost extracted what little social value or capital local hip hop had and as a result have missed an opportunity to have a greater say in important conversations and when they do attempt to be part of the conversation, it’s often riding on popular sentiment than taking an actual political stance. The silence of local rappers was deafening particularly in two important discourses, about land expropriation (which is really more about dignity than physical property) and free education. During the nationwide Fees Must Fall campaign, to urge government to reduce the price of higher education, local rappers mumbled their support for the course but were never explicit, there were no bangers or bars making the student’s case.  Equally so, South African rappers have been found wanting in their contribution to the land expropriation discourse, besides Molemi himself, whose stance to the shock of many has been rather disappointing and reactionary – and a few like Cassper Nyovest appropriating the conversation to make their records relevant, a South African rapper is yet to step to the microphone and properly put the doubts to rest.

It was hoped activist and rapper Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh would perhaps be that voice but his foray into the game seems to evoke the ugly cancer of classism, and doing the opposite of what fans are yearning for.  Fans spend more time debating whether local media has showered a virtually unknown rapper with the kind attention reserved for artists whose contributions to the culture can actually be proved because his that good, or because of his academic profile – than engaging his content and in such cases it’s often because there’s very little content to engage to begin with or the content is something that has been said before. Mpofu himself has not bettered his case, defending his raps through opinions pieces – something almost unheard of in hip hop.  

Democracy and Delusion: old problems, new solutions

Social commentary in South African mainstream hip hop took a knock, when the legendary band Teargas decided to take a break – a break that would later turn into a permanent divorce. Teargas rose to prominence by giving South Africa’s socio-economic issues both a voice and an image – it was particularly their break out hit Chance from their debut album K’shubile K’bovu that ensured they would forever have a place in local hip hop history as some of the best social philosophers to step to the mic. There has never been a lack of mainstream rappers willing to lend their music to a greater cause, but what separated Teargas from everyone was how far they went with it and how long they were able to occupy a mainstream space with socially conscious content.

The arrival of Teargas into the scene was particularly refreshing because it was in many ways antithetical to the American styled Glitz Gang, which although lacking in the kind of content that would resonate in townships corners and village drinking spots, somehow found itself being embraced by the media. Part of what local hip hop is grappling with today, particularly its identity predicament, is the legacy of the band.  Glitz Gang spent much of its existence validating a problematic and alien idea of a rapper, ironically, one of its members Maggz hailed from Saudi Western a hip hop collective that birthed the King of Kasi rap Pro (then Pro-Kid) who would later go on to set a new bar for local hip hop by rescinding his recording contract with Gallo a major label at the time to sign with an independent TS records. Bright, loud and colourful, made up of producer Sean Pages, rappers L-tido, Morale and Maggz, Glitz Gang represented the aspirations of a new middle class youth culture – but their crime as is the case with many of today’s mainstream rappers, was failing to re-imagine what those aspirations should look like.

The other factor in the death of socio-political commentary in South African mainstream hip hop is the disappearances of platforms that contributed to building an active critical hip hop culture and that were willing allow rappers to say more. The folding of the print edition of South Africa’s premier hip hop magazine HYPE was a loud reminder of just how hard many of these platforms were hit by the changing media landscape, new technology particularly the advent of social media and smartphones were celebrated as they were going to give rappers a voice – but it seems what they’ve done is to scatter rappers around with no singular voice to speak with.

But recently there’s been a steady output of material attempting to push whatever’s been stuck in hip hop’s throat – material that attempts to reconcile local hip hop with its social duty. Three recent projects by local rappers in particular stand out, Kwesta’s collaboration with Nigerian-American rapper and former Atlantic signee Wale Spirit and the visuals in the single’s music video,  Reason’s collaboration with legendary singer Sbongile Khumalo and Swizz Beatz, Azania – and the visuals of Cassper’s latest music video Kuzobalit. Although they are still a stretch from the kind blunt activism one would expect from a rapper – these projects are an important contribution, more so because by weaving the current political discourse into their art they expand conversations often trapped in academic and leftist lingo.

There was shock back in 2013, when Kwesta announced that he was parting ways with Slikour’s Buttabing Entertainment to give it a shot as an independent artist.  What seemed like an irrational move by a rookie rapper would later proved to be one of the best decisions the rapper could have ever made. Half a decade since that move Kwesta has come full circle, proving that even artistically he’s just as brave, experimenting with new sound and visuals to become one of the most awarded local rappers and best selling artists. But one puzzling thing about Kwesta has been the limits of his courage, like many of his peers he has kept quite as important conversations took place.

His recent single Spirit and the visual accompanying it seems to signal a more politically embolden Kwesta, a Kwesta that’s willing that attach a more socially relevant message to his music. In the music video under directorship of Tebogo Malope, using his township of Katlehong as a canvas, Kwesta captures both the beauty and contradictions of township South Africa. From the passionate prayers of a priest performing a baptism, in township South Africa filled with moral challenges, a baptism often means the beginning of a new life – to the bright faces of young children, the loud voices of children playing in the streets is often expression of the mood in that hood.  There are other images in the collage of scenes that succinctly capture the hood particularly its dark side like the image of a burning man which can be read as a slight reminder of the horrific xenophobic attacks that engulfed the country in 2008 – but it’s the scene of a burning apartheid flag that perhaps speaks to just how much Kwesta is willing to push the limits of his self imposed censorship and strap some meaning to his art. The subject of apartheid and colonialism isn’t embraced in mainstream South African circles, mostly because the country has moulded itself into what it is today off the idea of unity and multiracialism. Anyone poking past is seen as someone who hasn’t fully embraced these ideas which the country is built around – at different time an artist who’s reached Kwesta’s level of success wouldn’t have dared to allow such an image to accompany his music, knowing too well the consequences of such an act.    

Kwesta isn’t alone in strapping meaning to his art, former Motif rapper Reason is another artist who seems to have found his voice. Reason has never stopped insisting he’s different and arguing that he would like to create music with more ‘bone’. Having harnessed his skills as an independent in back pack studios and releasing projects that comfortably occupy a space amongst local hip hop classics – and having been given his launch pad into the mainstream by a heavy weight of critical mainstream rap Tumi Molekane via his Motif Records, Reason’s political awakening is long overdue.  

In his recent single Azania accompanied by the legendary Sibongile Khumalo and Swizzbeatz a legend in his own right, Reason is forthcoming about his intentions.

Let me remind you who I do this for, my nyaope homies at the corner stores, getting less from addiction but always ask for more/ just for a taste of them living above what’s going on, cause they don’t fit in the system that everyone belongs,  he raps

Azania is the cry of man finally reckoning with the weight of his voice and the responsibility to use it for a greater cause.  By reminding us who he does it for, Reason is admitting that he can no longer stay silent and indifferent to the plight of the marginalised – who whether conscious or not are a part of his audience. The use of the word Azania is interesting considering its connotations, considered by many as the rightful name of Southern Africa – Azania is often as a rejection of the current political system that South Africa and many of her neighbours adhere to and a rejection of the agreements that brought us to this order of things. Particularly the ANC led pre 1994 negotiations with Nationalist Party which many believe to be where the justification for much of the inequality gripping the country stems from – it also used to protest one of the country’s famous political documents the freedom charter, which many  on the country’s left believe it concedes too much.

One is then left curious to whether Reason is aware of the weight of the word or he just using it, It would not be the first time an artist has appropriate a political langue to sound good and with very little appreciation of context, in fact it’s very common in South African mainstream hip hop. In his 2008 single I am from his Rising Star album former Glitz Gang member Morale lined up a plethora of black political figures with varying ideologies to make up the chorus of the song

I’m Thabo Mbeki, I’m Steve Biko, I’m Chris Hani … I am, I am, he raps

Of course, anyone can embody the best of all these leaders. But had Morale dug deeper and appreciated the significance of each name, he would have known elder Govan Mbeki stands much better next to Biko and Hani, than his son Thabo Mbeki.

Another mainstream rapper who seems to be ready to lend his music to a greater cause –is rapper Cassper Nyovest.  Cassper isn’t afraid to wear his indifference on his chest, during local elections in 2016 the rapper twittered ‘

Ya’ll know I’m not heavily political with it but we as black kids have to vote @MYANC!!!  There is no other option!!! Dololo Alternative!!!!

The music video of his recent single Kuzobalit is a complete U-turn, so much so that it got an endorsement from South Africa’s third biggest political party the Economic Freedom Fighters in the music video Cassper imagines what it would be like when social justice ceases being just conversation but is actually practised, particularly land reform.  

The visuals are a graduation from Cassper’s 2016 War Ready visuals which were mired in controversy; there were questions around the video artistic direction. It was particularly Cassper standing on a heap of burning of books that highlighted just how much he had missed the mark in his attempt to pay homage to the fight for education and the youth Soweto uprisings of 1976.  

Whether there are cashing in on popularity of social justice or the ground is actually shifting, remains to be seen but there’s no denying that mainstream hip hop embracing social causes in South Africa is long overdue.

Gopolang Botlhokwane is a writer.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policies of The Daily Vox.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons. 

2 Comments
  1. Thabiso says

    This is a great read. Just concerned about why the feature image isn’t created to the owner. This is an image I took at Back To The city back in 2014.
    Please do the right thing.

    1. Thabiso says

      **credited

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