You Think You Know, but You Have No Idea
If you want to get lost in the sweet harmonies of South African legends Ladysmith Black Mambazo, or the joyous singing of Beninese diva Angelique Kidjo, you’ve come to the wrong place. As the title of this album suggests, this party-ready disc is for those rough and tough nights out at the club. However, I’m willing to bet all the money I don’t have that most of the artists featured here will not be instantly recognizable to the average American hip-hop fan. Maybe that’s the point. In fact, it’s tempting to think that U.S. hip-hop enjoys an unchecked reign of supremacy all over the world, but Urban Africa Club shows that, while hip-hop is the backbone of these styles, it has mainly been used as a catalyst for these African artists to put their own marks on their countries’ respective, regional music. Nine countries in east, west, and southern Africa are represented on this compilation (excluding Canada, where K’Naan now resides by way of Somalia).
In one aspect, this disc is an aural companion to the transition period experienced by a generation of young Africans during the ‘90s. For instance, after the end of apartheid and the 1994 elections that resulted in Nelson Mandela becoming the first democratically elected president, youths in South Africa started to develop music that reflected their new reality. Years earlier, the sounds of house, disco, and U.S. hip-hop had begun streaming into the townships. These sounds soon coalesced into the now insanely popular kwaito. The songs are often rapped in a local language with sprinklings of English, and the lyrics can range from being heavily political to your run-of-the-mill ‘I see a cute girl in the club’ fare. Arthur Mofakate’s hit song “Don’t Call Me Kaffir”, which is credited with creating and legitimizing kwaito, is an example of the power that the genre can have.
So is Zola’s “Bhambatha”, the first track on the album, which takes its name from a Zulu chief who was instrumental in a 1906 rebellion of the same name. The reigning kwaito superstar’s aggressive rapping, punctuated by synths and pounding bass, serves as pretty good party music, too. Zola is so popular that he even has his own television show, Zola 7, which airs weekly on South African television.
Tanzanian rappers Professor Jay and Ferooz give us a taste of “bongo flava”, an East African mix of hip-hop and local music rapped in Swahili that also popped up in the ‘90s. Professor Jay effortlessly rides the beat on “Nikusaidiaje”, while Ferooz comes in on the hook with smooth raps over a staccato flute.
K’Naan, perhaps the only recognizable artist besides Zola, is featured with his single “Soobax”, which means “come out” in Somali. The rapper, who left Mogadishu for Canada, blends hip-hop with traditional Somali sounds (eerie ululating), drumming, and urgent lyrics about the instability caused by civil war in the country. According to him, “Somalia needs all gunmen right out the door”. Who would disagree with that? The song dropped a few years ago, but it is just as relevant today.
There are also a few Caribbean-influenced tracks. Chanted in Ghanian patois, King Ayisoba’s dancehall-like “Champion No Easy Remix” immediately brings to mind Buju Banton’s “Champion”, although Buju’s song is grittier, while Peter Miles’ “One Time”, featuring Menshan, is pure Jamaican dancehall. Although East African, they’ve obviously taken their musical cue from that famous island in the sun. Maybe they’re Beenie Man’s Ugandan cousins. It could be possible, right?
The closest thing to U.S. hip-hop here is “When My Heat Drops” by Scientific and D-Lane, and not only because it’s rapped in English. There’s the requisite boasting: “That’s why Africa / I’m number one”, and “I’m a King / I deserve a crown”. Perhaps he knows we’re on to him because Scientific makes sure to let us know that “It’s the takeover / It’s Sonny, not Hova”. There’s even the clichéd click-clack of a gun to punctuate the hook.
With the exception of a few songs, bouncy synths, heavy bass, and drum-machines abound. The beats are also relatively straightforward. American hip-hop fans that also happen to be pan-African or world hip-hop enthusiasts will be interested in this release, not to mention those who are just looking for non-traditional music from the continent. Still, it seems that it would resonate more with second generation Africans who were born abroad.
For those who had no idea, this compilation provides a glimpse into the effect that social change has had on urban music over the last decade or so in Africa.
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// Notes from the Road
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