For the month of May, LRQ will be doing a profile of music from around the world. This week we will be focusing on South Africa. Click here for more info on the other countries that we will be focusing on.
How are you able to make your music reach as far and wide as possible? More importantly, how are you able to make your music reach a country where 11 languages are actively spoken? That is the problem that is often faced by artists in South Africa where the barrier of being accessible is one they face in order to get that major break in the industry.
South Africa is a country that is clouded by its dark history and fragile future, so there is plenty to discuss and hope about. What a greater medium to do this via music, better yet, Hip Hop music.
The history of South African Hip Hop can be traced back as far as the 1980s, the genre was introduced mainly through the cultural exchange between the African-Americans in the United States as well as influences from the West Indies. It was in 1990s that the musical and social movement of Hip Hop music is South Africa grew exponentially mainly in the city of Johannesburg as there were job opportunities which led to various people coming from South Africa. With music from the traditional tribes merging with that of the European sounds which led subsequently bringing about South African Hip Hop. Even, a new genre of music called Kwaito (a varient of house music), which was spawned from South African Hip Hop as it began to take route.
With the language barrier aside, there is also the issue of being able to spread the music as far as wide as possible through different mediums of communication. Of the 49 million people residing in South Africa, only 6 million of them have access to the internet. As you already know, the internet has been the main driving force in terms of allowing Hip Hop to spread all over the globe. However 41% of South Africans carry a mobile phone. Hip Hop labels have ceased the opportunity to spread the music by forming partnerships with phone operators such as MTN and Vodacom. This has led to Hip Hop Awards sponsorships and commercials with Hip Hop music, all coming about thanks to the joint collaboration with network providers.
One of the main criticisms of Hip Hop in South Africa (along with most other countries) is that there is an over reliance on the US style. America is the originator and by and large the home of the most notable and prolific Hip Hop artists, but that shouldn’t mean that other countries shouldn’t put their own stamp in terms of style when it comes to making Hip Hop beats. The flattery to the US Hip Hop is normally seen in inner cities like Johannesburg, when artists do try to move away from the US style of rapping they don’t get as much love as they ought to. This has been highlighted by the likes of El Nino who has spoken of his dissatisfaction of the way certain artists have been treated based on their style of rapping which is not to the mainstream and conventional US sound.
Of the famous South African artists that have been around, there is Ben Sharpa, Tumi, and Die Antwoord.
Ben Sharper was born in Soweto, in 1979. As a child, his father moved him to Chicago in the States to provide him with a better life away from the hardships of the Apartheid. When Ben came back to South Africa in 1993 for the first free elections, he quickly set about establishing himself as a major force in the underground Hip Hop scene, forming crews such as GroundWorks and Audio Visual. Ben’s music addressed themes of social consciousness, politics, conspiracy theories and the hustle to survive.
Ben Sharpa is considered as one of South Africa’s most accomplished lyricists. He has had the opportunity to share the stage with the likes of Immortal Technique and Black Thought of The Roots. He has also performed in the Glastonbury festival in 2007. Following that same year, Ben fell into a diabetic coma. A week later the prognosis didn’t look too promising, as he had internal bleeding, kidney failure and was breathing through a ventilator. Miraculously, he regained consciousness, in regards to his recovery, Ben has quipped:
“I have seen the other side of the Matrix”
After making a full recovery, his reflection of life has provided him with a desire to continue making his stamp in South African Hip Hop
Tumi is another artist who is seen in high regard in the Hip Hop community. Born in exile in Tanzania in 1981, he later returned to Soweto, South Africa in 1992. He was formerly known as MC Fatboy, but the name Tumi stuck. He often refers to himself as a MC/Poet for in his own words:
“cos there is a difference. Not every poet can MC and let’s face it, some MCs could do with a Shakespearean lesson or two”
Needless to say, Tumi is making the right noises as he has been nominated for a South African Music Award for Music From My Good Eye.
Below is the track People Of The Light with the beautiful voice of Pebbles
He has been a major underground icon, garnering years of producing quality music for the underground Hip Hop movement. However, he has received a stark amount of criticism for trying to go mainstream as he collaborated with the likes of Brickz and Shakira. Tumi has defended his collaborations by saying that he wanted more reach for his sounds:
“that I could achieve all I did with my own independent label, Motif. I was fine selling 3000 copies and making a good living from live shows, but now I want more reach.”
“Artists such as Bob Marley and Fela [Kuti] had developed a faithful following before everyone else caught up,” he says. “It just feels like the right time for me to come up from the fringe.”
Being underground for over a decade, slack needs to be cut for Tumi for trying to have a much broader reach. Not that he cares too much, as he has been jet setting performing with various bands in countries such as Canada, India, Norway and Australia.
A controversial Hip Hop act would be the notorious Die Antwoord (Afrikaans for ‘The Answer’), producing music what can only known as trashy music that sits within the Hip Hop genre (rap-rave is the closest you can call their music) . The group consists of Ninja who raps and Yo-Landi Vi$$er who is the lead vocalist. They normally perform in Afrikaans, Xhosa and in English. Their style is meant to take from the Zef counter- culture movement. The term ‘zef’ is Afrikaan’s for “common”. The most simple way of describing their style whould be like the ‘chav’ culture in the UK, but with positive connotations as opposed to it being seen as a derogative term. As Yo-Landi Vi$$er puts it:
“It’s associated with people who soup their cars up and rock gold and shit. Zef is, you’re poor but you’re fancy. You’re poor but you’re sexy, you’ve got style.”
For all Die Antwoord’s purpose and intent, they seem like a joke group who are making a parody of the Hip Hop movement. However, this is really who they are and they have been rewarded with a cult following and even with the collaboration of DJ Hi-Tek. To the critics, Ninja gave this response in an interview with Spin magazine:
‘People are unconscious and you have to use your art as a shock machine to wake them up. Some people are too far gone. They’ll just keep asking, “Is it real? Is it real?” That’s dwanky. That’s a word we have in South Africa, “dwanky.” It’s like lame. “Is it real?” Dwanky. You have to be futuristic and carry on. You gotta be a good guide to help people get away from dull experience.’
As mentioned above, they have a cult following which may not appease the mainstream or purist Hip Hop heads, but hey, they are making somebody happy.
The biggest publisher of Hip Hop in South Africa is Hype magazine, a very well laid out magazine which highlights what is going on in South Africa as well as Hip Hop in the States. It’s also a good look that the editor is a female! Given the fact that the US English speaking Hip Hop culture is often what South African Hip Hop tries to emulate, it is no surprise that the largest publication would be in English. It would be nice to see some major publications in the other 10 languages to reflect the variety of the Hip Hop sound in South Africa.
Hip Hop is often seen as the voice by which many South Africans are able to use in order to vent out their frustrations on the social injustice that many face today. Though there is the problem of trying to get their message across in the country, some of their artists have enjoyed international recognition. Hopefully in the next coming years we shall see South African Hip Hop infiltrating our radios