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Mzansi hip-hop: A Rap (r) evolution

2008-03-13 05:12
A decade ago Mzansi hip-hop was dead. There were only a handful of local hip-hop artists. Socio-political pioneers Prophets of Da City, grassroots Cape Flats activists Black Noise, the Godfather of SA hip-hop and one of the first MCs to use ‘vernac’ in an English flow, Amu, and Zimbabwean-born MC Mizchif were among the first emerging m’rappers back in the 90s. It was a time when Mzansi hip-hop CDs were rarely found in music stores. But in the new millennium there’s been something of a hip-hop explosion. More and more local hip-hop artists are stepping up to the mic, and the South African public is slowly starting to support them. Or are they?

Much like in the rest of Africa, Mzansi hip-hop cats have been criticised for being “US copy cats” who simply imitate what they see and hear in American bling ‘n booty rap videos. True, we have a fair share of m’rappers borrowing that hectic American twang from abo Black Thought and Talib Kweli. Take spit kicker Tumi of Tumi and the Volume, Mzansi’s finest lyricist Zubz and new funky Cape Town hip-hop kids, ETC Crew for instance. But hip-hop like other musical genres such as R&B and house all draw influences from abroad. Because of the dominance American rap has on the rest of the world, certain influences are inevitable. So, can we really blame Mzansi artists for using the U.S as a reference point? What we should really be looking at is how they put a different spin on it and make hip-hop more relevant to our lives?

Some m’rappers like Prokid, Skwatta Camp and HHP, have started their own brand of kasi hip-hop mixing English and ‘vernac’ giving Mzansi rap a completely unique style and paving the way for more and more upcoming artists to follow in their footsteps. But is hip-hop better in ‘vernac’ than in English or is there more to it than just language? Yes, we tend to identify more with those who speak our language. Especially if their rhymes are all about spreading a message to the greater masses like Soweto’s kasi boy Prokid and Cape Flats Afrikaans hip-hop veteran Jitsvinger who raps about life in the Cape Flats. These brothers are on point when it comes to matters concerning their hoods! But what about people like Skwatta Kamp who just use ‘vernac’ to fill their bars and push record sales rhyming words like “Dollar and Phola”. It’s true that there are some things we just can’t say in English but does it mean people like Zubz, Tumi, Black Noise and Ben Sharpa – who feel they can express themselves better in English – are not being true to who they are? Isn’t hip-hop ultimately about conveying what you want to say through rhyming techniques, punch lines, and wordplay regardless of what language you use? Isn’t it about self-expression?

Well, there seems to be a load of misconceptions over what hip-hop is all about. The big question that most people can’t seem to answer is what is hip-hop? The conscious cats will tell you its about freedom of expression, representing where you’re from and making a difference while the commercial artists will say hip-hop is just about the music, the rhythm, b-boying, beat-boxing and DJing. There’s a tendency to look down on Jozi cats like Skwatta Kamp and Pitch Black Afro because they sing about the good life and partying, while those who rhyme about social commentary like Zubz, Tumi, Jitsvinger and Ben Sharpa are believed to be the dopest. While no one really wants to listen to endless raps about fancy cars and parties, sometimes we all just want to relax and listen to nice beats rather than analyzing metaphors. Isn’t the commercial stuff part of hip-hop too?

Point is that there is a time and place for all elements of hip-hop. The commercial brothers and sisters who are just trying to make a living shouldn’t be seen as killing hip-hop. They’re the ones who actually pump up the parties! At the same time those who want to speak about racism, poverty, and social inequality, or those who want to share their life experiences should be given the respect they deserve. We should applaud those artists who have been at the forefront of the hip-hop movement in Mzansi, those who’ve given African languages value and prominence by using it in their rhymes, those who still make a difference even if they don’t rhyme in ‘vernac’ and finally even those who are all about battles, beat-boxing and b-boying. Hip-hop is an art form that should be enjoyed in its entirety!

-Tiisetso Tlelima

Mzansi hip-hop has been on the rise in the last few years. Emcees such as HHP, Tumi and Ben Sharpa are not only making waves here at home but have become household names in the rest of Africa. We look at the state of Mzansi hip-hop, asking where we draw our influences from, whether hip-hop is better in ‘vernac’ and more.

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