When the G8 proposed a New Deal for Africa at the Gleneagles Summit in the wake of Live 8 and mass global protest, the mainstream media, for once, shifted focus to Africa and its plights: poverty, corruption, AIDS. A series of charity concerts and public pressure seemed as if it could force world leaders to rethink their priorities for the G8 summit and try to curb the injustice plaguing many African countries. But five days later, when four disillusioned British citizens strapped bombs to themselves and detonated explosives in the London Underground, Africa and its issues once again lost their salience.
Thirteen months later, little has changed. Poverty continues to be a way of life, as corruption still poses a roadblock to political reform on the continent. Furthermore, AIDS continues to ravage citizens from Ethiopia to South Africa, as cultural customs, poor drug laws and general ignorance stymies the use of condoms and the distribution of retroviral drugs. (For example, South Africa’s health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang claimed that lemon, ginger and beetroot were sufficient enough to treat the disease.)
Though Africa’s litany of challenges may make the continent’s people seem helpless and prostrate, Africans of course have the power and influence to help themselves. Exported African hip-hop is a burgeoning example of this. From South Africa’s Tumi and the Volume to Somalia’s K’Naan and Senegal’s Daara J, African hip-hop tackles politics in an accessible manner, and Western audiences are beginning to take notice. By crafting rhymes that speak volumes about life at home, African hip-hop artists give Westerners an opportunity to learn from a local what’s really happening on the continent. Conditions are not improving, yet one rhyme at a time, awareness is spreading.
“We begin everyday by the weight of the gun. / There are no police, ambulances or firefighters. / We start riots by burning car tires. / People are looting, and everybody starts shooting,” proclaims Somali MC K’Naan on “Who’s Hardcore,” one of his vivid portrayals of life growing up in the River of Blood, a neighborhood in Mogadishu reputed to be one of the most dangerous in the world. Though K’Naan escaped Somalia for Canada (via New York, Washington and Minneapolis) in 1991, his adolescence in the River of Blood drives his message. His debut, The Dusty Foot Philosopher garnered enough success to prompt Damien Marley and Xavier Rudd to invite him to tour Europe and Australia. The Dusty Foot Philosopher, a hodgepodge of traditional Somali rhythms and dialect, Western hip-hop, rock and folk combats impressions of one of the world’s most troubled countries by emphasizing the beauty of Somalian culture and lambasting the everyday evils of Mogadishu’s streets. K’Naan is vehemently anti-gangsta, trading bling for lyrical brawn in a conscious effort to return the consciousness back to hip-hop. Yet he is a former gangsta; he lost three friends in a gun battle on the same day in Mogadishu and escaped Somalia on the last chartered flight before the war. Yet, his style avoids the tiring ghetto diatribe and turns to intellectualism, thoughtfulness and musical ingenuity-a bevy of East African melodies at hand and a conscience.
“I do this because I need to say it and because I’ve experienced it,” explains K’Naan. “There is an extreme responsibility in that, to portray the entirety of the situation: not just the difficult times, but also the enormous values of the culture as well. I try to expose that through small little things in my music, be it rhythms or poetry, to pay homage to the richness of the heritage. Somalia needs to be portrayed in its entirety, because articulating a people’s struggle requires knowledge of the people intimately. The mainstream news that I know is severely different from what is really going on the ground and how people feel about life in Mogadishu.”
While Somalia has not had a functioning government in 15 years—they are the only country in the world without one—recently the Supreme Islamic Courts Council, an Islamic militia, has taken over Mogadishu. The militia is typically portrayed by Western media as terrorists, but according to K’Naan, it has made inroads into reversing the desperation, and he has been citing it as one of Somalia’s success stories. “It is not in a warlord’s interest or nature to make peace, yet the most positive thing that has happened in Somalia is the Islamic militia. They have tried to put some structure and order into society. The country hasn’t had anything positive for 15 years, and within a month, they have secured major ports and opened trade and airports,” he says. “Yet because they are unified with Islam, there is some disparity toward Western coverage of the situation and what is really happening.” While there are no police, ambulance or firefighting services, and the River of Blood, according to K’Naan, is as bad as it was when he left, his music still stresses the positive changes in Somalia, like the return of some sense of community and togetherness, even though these are only embryonic at this point. The return of Sharia Law has cut the lawlessness, and the warlords have been driven out of Mogadishu. Even some sort of parliament, economic progress and a reformed constitution are on the table now. That’s success.
In addition, K’Naan hosts philosophical and historical discussions on his website to promote better understanding of Somalia for his listeners. “I think that people are listening and not embracing my music as only something to dance to. I recognize people are affected by the lyrics and they want to understand where I come from. I love that about my audience. Young and old, fresh or very critical people, it keeps me extremely focused on getting the message out in its truest and most honest way.”
Another African hip-hop act shares a similar approach, emphasizing the importance of spreading knowledge. “When you join entertainment with education, it becomes edutainment,” says Daara J founder Faada Freddy from his home in Senegal. “We edutain people.” Quite possibly the most successful African hip-hop crew in Europe and North America, Daara J emerged from Senegal in 1994 and became one of the first acts to tackle the delicate religious and political issues at home. Meaning “School of Life” in Wolof, Daara J mixes traditional Senegalese tribal music like Tasso, an ancient form of indigenous poetry, with modern American hip-hop, resulting in a stew that Westerners have gulped down. Built on a foundation of American hip-hop, funk and soul as well, Daara J highlights the best of both worlds. Each song is an exercise in trading rhymes between the three MCs, creating a climactic, politically potent hip-hop dialogue. To date, they have won a BBC World Music Award and earned an international distribution deal for their latest CD, Boomerang, through Wrasse Records. Yet Daara J remains politically and socially attuned to life at home regardless of where they perform, and the group has directed a brighter lens on Senegal, a country ravaged by poverty and corruption. “When we realized there is all this corruption, power, racism and misery in our culture, our goal became more than just making people feel good. Instead, we strive to provide some sort of solution to our problems with our art,” explains Freddy. “We know that whatever happens here echoes globally, so there is a necessity to spread the message internationally.” In 2000, the trio edited political speeches and encouraged the Senegalese citizenry to vote, while pointing out the corruption that has plagued the French-speaking nation since independence. “It was great. The Senegalese hip-hop scene helped the population take a stand and vote during our previous presidential election. This contributed to establishing a better democratic system, as we organized concerts to promote voting,” says Freddy. “Thanks to these actions and many others, a corrupt regime reigning in Senegal for over 30 years got overthrown. And better yet, the rest of the world took notice, illuminating our plight internationally. The music definitely spawned change.”
Along with band mates N’Dango D and Aladji Man, Freddy has proven that homegrown African hip-hop can engender social change, regardless of where it’s performed. While Senegal is more modern and developed than many of its neighbors, the country remains saddled with high unemployment, drug addiction, crime, and extreme poverty. Through hip-hop, Daara J has brought notice to these issues that most Westerners would never be aware of. “People have to learn more about Senegal and Africa as a whole to understand that there is so much misconception about this beautiful continent,” says Freddy. “Often the Western world forgets that Egypt was one of the first great civilizations, the one that inspired the world of today. We try to dissipate that ignorance and stimulate awareness through our music to teach others that Africa can support itself, and with time, breathe the fresh air the west has been enjoying for so long.”
Not nearly as poor as Senegal, South Africa is, along with Nigeria, one of Africa’s media darlings. More often than not the focus leans more toward the country’s positive changes, yet more people contract AIDS in South Africa per day than any other country in Africa and the majority of its citizenry still live in poverty. For example, Desmond Tutu, the country’s prominent Nobel Laureate, was interviewed on BBC recently and stated that South Africa has not improved as much since the end of apartheid as he had once hoped. That is the main theme articulated by MC and songwriter Tumi Molekane and his quartet, the Volume. While Molekane acknowledges the positives sprouting in South Africa, his music reveals that the positive change is only in its initial stages. For the past two years, Molekane has spent little time at home, as his new self-titled CD, released on District Six Music/Universal, and a previous live album, At the Bassline, have brought acclaim in the West, leading to a headlining slot at the Montreal Jazz Festival, three tours with K’Naan, features on Canada’s CBC (the national broadcaster) and MuchMusic—the Canadian version of MTV—and international touring supporting the Black Eyed Peas and others. “I make music to share the stories of my people with other people,” says Molekane. Traditional musical and political themes ebb and flow through Tumi and the Volume, from the power of the African matriarch to the lack of clean water. “The agenda is to affect you, to spark that light inside you to ask questions and look twice at that CNN broad stroke. I am a black man living in postapartheid South Africa. This is my everyday, interacting with a people forced to confront the delusions and misconstructions of themselves. For example, while people enjoy a hungry freedom, others chase first-world capitalism. This is my South Africa today.”
While Tumi and the Volume’s focus is on South Africa, Molekane writes about neighboring countries Tanzania and Mozambique, which face similar challenges as well. Molekane was born in exile in Tanzania, and two of his band mates come from Mozambique, both countries virtually ignored in the Western media. How the West perceives Africa and Africans permeates Molekane’s writing. In “Oslo,” a punchy hip-hop track drenched in introspection, Molekane complains about being constantly harassed at airports—most noticeably Oslo and Zurich—because like many South Africans, he is black and Muslim. “Can you believe they are doing this to me? Security. / It gets worse, they strip search. / Come on man, this is nudity / why are you harassing me over a bottle of Vaseline”.
“I feel that the rest of the world, particularly the west, adopts a caregiver stance,” Molekane says. “We are proud and strong people, who for too long have been dictated to about what was good for us. Africans are active participants in a world that still sees them as small time. You see, there are so many things South Africans are dealing with that extend beyond crime and HIV. I feel poverty is the biggest issue that I use my music to address. It robs people of their humanity in South Africa, and without that you are not even alive.”
Even though African hip-hop is still in its nascent stages in influencing the West, change is sprouting, one listener at a time. “From the streets of Dakar to Brooklyn,” as Daara J proclaimed on Boomerang, Africa is slowly receiving the mainstream attention it desperately needs. And its message can breathe fresh life into hip-hop as we know it. “I believe firmly that African hip-hop can revitalize North American hip-hop’s ideology,” proudly states Freddy. “It is up-and-coming and not saturated. Rather than talk about guns and gang banging, we deal with issues that can encourage people get back to the very essence of civilization, embracing humanity as a whole.”