African rappers

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Jan 12 07:11:39 MST 2001

Le Monde diplomatique


January 2001


Rap: Africa talks back


"The strength of this music is that it pulls young people together from all
social backgrounds. It erases ethnic differences too. With rap, it's the
street talking. And now more than ever, our heads of state had better be
listening." That was the word from the rappers who came together to record
Da Hop (1), the first compilation of rap to come out of Senegal. In Africa
half of the population is between 15 and 25, and these are the sounds that
they groove to. What began in the early 1990s as a musical fashion imported
and mimed by the local bourgeoisie has now taken on a life of its own.

A good example of what this subversive social movement represents is the
Congolese group Bisso Na Bisso, headed by Passi, a Brazzavillian from
Sarcelles. It recently had an Africa-wide hit with a subversive record
called Dans la peau d'un chef ("inside the skin of a chief"). A whole range
of African pop stars, from Meiway in Ivory Coast to Koffi Olomide from
Zaire (the first African performer to fill the Paris-Bercy stadium, in
February 2000), have been lining up to do double-acts with the rappers in
the hopes of improving their chart ratings. Dakar, with more than a
thousand rap groups, is recognised as far away as the United States as a
world centre for this kind of music. But Dakar is now feeling the heat from
other big African cities, including Dar es Salaam.

In Senegal you have a population that is wild about sopi ("change" in
Wolof), and sees the election victory of president Abdoulaye Wade last
spring as a victory for the people. On the other side of Africa, the
capital of Tanzania boasts two recording studios devoted to rap and about a
hundred groups. As 27-year-old Thomas Gesthuizen, webmaster of an internet
site dedicated to African urban music (2), explains, "the local kids like
the styles, and the fact that rap doesn't need a lot of equipment". At the
start this music was restricted to circles that could afford to buy the
latest American hits. But now it has spread to all social classes, and more
and more performers are realising that their own native musical traditions
can be a powerful source of creativity.

Africa has a new generation that grew up in the wake of the La Baule summit
(1990) and the end of apartheid. As well as drawing on a repertoire that
includes 1960s Cuban music and 1970s funk and reggae, the new cross-overs
invented by this generation combine Afro-American urban culture with
African rhythms. Since the Dakar-based group Positive Black Soul hit the
international scene with their album almost 10 years ago, observers of the
African music scene have not had much to write home about. At first,
assuming that it managed to avoid being "whitened" by European record
producers, the African sound wasn't much more than a copy of Western styles
(such as Public Enemy) translated into local dialects. But it eventually
turned into something else - a seething welter of new bands that have
finally found a way of combining roots with modernity.

>From one end of the continent to the other, the new sound comes across in a
Babel-like flow of languages (Swahili, Wolof, Ashanti, Fon, Xhosa, Bamileke
and Hausa, not to mention French, Broken English and Portuguese), set
against musical arrangements that combine the traditional with the electric.

The artists of this new generation may look to the North, but their lyrics
are rooted firmly in the realities of the places where they live. Poverty,
unemployment, environmental issues, ethnic conflict, corruption, Aids etc
provide the social context all over Africa, and this is what the new music
deals with - in part fostered by the emerging force of civil society. New
words and catch-phrases are coined, and new dance steps and expressions
invented, and these are quickly taken up on the street. To such an extent
that the authorities on the island of Zanzibar (Tanzania) banned rap groups
from the radio in the run-up to the general elections last October.

As the members of a Malian group, Rage, put it, this music expresses the
aspirations and demands of the young: "OK, so we don't have inner-city
estates and ghettos like in the States. People aren't shooting each other.
But there's plenty of corruption, lack of standards, electoral malpractice
and poverty. There's no social security system for people who are really
poor. The same old people are still stuffing their bellies. Termites eating
up the state budget. And education's in a terrible state. After the age of
six or seven, kids don't even bother going to school. You wonder who's
going to be running the country 10 or 15 years from now."

Part happy, part angry

In Ivory Coast the view is shared among the "zouglou" generation - a style
of music that mixes dance and fierce lyrics. Zouglou is based on alloucou,
a rhythm of the Bete people on synthesiser chords, created by artists who
see themselves as "part happy, part angry", coming out of the suburbs of
Abidjan (particularly Adjame, Abobo and Yopougon - where several dozen
people were massacred after the contested presidential election last
October). It first became popular in the mid-1990s during the student
protests against ex-President Henri Konan-Bédié (3).

Five years later it was to the tune of this music, as well as to the famous
reggae rhythms of Ivory Coast (Alpha Blondy and Tiken Jah Fakoly, both of
whom performed at Paris-Bercy last year) that the mutineers led by General
Robert Gueï chased "Konan the Barbarian" out of the presidency. However, in
the view of Soum Bill, leader of the zouglou group, Les Salopards, "We
shouldn't get carried away with khaki hysteria. OK, everybody applauded the
soldiers, but we still need to keep talking about inequality. Under the
pretext of maintaining public order in Abidjan, the soldiers are taking it
out on the people indiscriminately. But if there are thieves and bandits
around, it's the system that should be blamed - not the people."

Post-apartheid South Africa has also seen a flowering of musical styles out
of the poorest sectors of society. In five years the country has risen to
22nd position in the world music industry, and it now employs 20,000
people. Kwaito, a musical style out of the ghettos of Durban and
Johannesburg, is an exuberant mix of lyrics ranging from the socially
conscious to the sexually explicit, to the accompaniment of an incredible
gombo (mixture) of "Western" music (Chicago house, London jungle, Jamaican
ragga etc). In eight years it has become like the sound track of South
African youth. Kwaito provides the backing for just about all advertising,
from anti-Aids campaigns to campaigns against gun-culture, and its star
performers are cultural icons for the poorest kids. "It's a music based on
the energy of the times, the energy of post-apartheid youth expressing its
freedom and excitement, because everything seems so new to them," says
Thandiswa, a member of the Bongo Maffin, one of South Africa's leading bands.

The spread of kwaito is partly explained by the fact that some of the
labels set up subsidiaries in London in the wake of the first pan-African
hits (4), and it was one of the first new-wave African sounds to woo the
Western market. But it has not lost sight of its original mission. As
Fresh, the star DJ of Johannesburg's XMF Radio, explains: "Kwaito is the
sound of the ghetto. We live in the street, we walk in the street, we know
what's good there and what's not, and although we're keen on the new South
Africa, we will never pay allegiance to power."

High-tension gigs

The expansion of this music, coming out of hard neighbourhoods such as
Umlazi, KwaMashu, Zola and Bramley, matches all the clichés of the music
business: fights between artists, tsotsi (hooligans) ending up as record
producers, cut-throat contracts, high-tension gigs with clouds of dagga
(grass) smoke wafting around... There's money to be made here. The impact
of kwaito has been such (these days artists can count on runs of up to
500,000 for a hit title) that more than a third of the music bought by
South Africans is locally produced. The creators of Rage, a South African
music webzine (5) devoted to the new urban music, argue that kwaito and
zouglou are authentic African alternatives to American rap.

The era of government-sponsored griots (popular singers and genealogists
largely from the Maghreb) is well and truly at an end. Helped by the
explosion of private radio stations (6) (Radio Nostalgie in Ivory Coast,
Sept in Senegal, YFM in South Africa, Uhuru FM in Tanzania etc) and new TV
channels (MCM Africa and LC2), these new voices for African civil society
see themselves as answerable to nobody except those who made them the
success that they are -- the people. Despite the bootlegging, and working
conditions that leave much to be desired (very few musicians' unions and no
real royalties bodies, except in English-speaking Africa), this music is
very much here to stay.

When people complain about African music going global, Thomas Gesthuizen
has a ready answer: for African rappers the fusion is clear proof that
their culture can adapt to the 21st century. It also means that their
message is becoming universal rather than local.

Louis Proyect
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