The Sounds of Upwardly Mobile Africa

While Sub-Saharan Africa is not the first place associated with cutting edge innovation, its people have a long history of adapting, adopting, and re-imagining ideas from abroad.

Press photo from Sena Dagadu.com

Last year the world lost one of its greatest symbols of hope and liberation: Nelson Mandela. While he had been ailing for months, and South Africa watchers were not surprised to learn the news, his passing hit the world, particularly the African continent, hard. Mandela’s passing marked a turning point in the country’s development. The leader who had taken South Africa from a segregated post-colonial republic to a pluralistic democracy was gone. But what the future holds for South Africa, and the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa for that matter, is still an open question.

In 2013, much was written about the future of Africa and the potential for new technology to transform the continent once labeled “hopeless” to a major player in the global economy. Indeed, Africa has seen an explosion in mobile technology, as the continent now trails only China in the total number of mobile subscribers. And both governments and private investors are working to obliterate the infrastructure hurdles that have kept African potential bottled up. While Sub-Saharan Africa is not the first place people associate with cutting edge innovation, the people of the region have a long history of adapting, adopting, and reimagining ideas from abroad.

Musically, Sub-Saharan Africa has left an indelible stamp on the world. Indeed, it is hard to think of a genre of popular music that has not been influenced by African music. But it has never been a one-way exchange. African artists have long been noted for their ability to creatively integrate new technologies into their work, without losing their sense of African-ness. So it is no surprise that music is one place the world can hear the emerging, modern, mobile Africa.

A prominent artist who embodies the new mobile African spirit is Spoek Mathambo. A songwriter, rapper, and producer Mathambo infuses his music with sounds from around the world to create his own, unique brand of African hip-hop. He was born in 1985 in Soweto, putting young Mathambo in the heart of the apartheid nightmare. In 2010, Mathambo released his debut album Mshini Wam on British electronic label BBE records. The album received immediate acclaim and international attention, particularly for Mathambo’s unique covers, including one of Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control”.

Mathambo continues to push boundaries and re-imagine African hip-hop on his Sub-pop debut, Father Creeper, and the numerous mixtapes and soundcloud specials he puts out regularly.

Mathambo has dubbed the style of South African house music Township Tech. Cassette dubs of early Chicago house music started cropping up in Soweto cabs in the ’80s and began spreading from township to township. The music took root and served to unite groups the Apartheid government was desperate to keep divided. Over time, South African producers began producing their own style of house music; slower, more aggressive, and layered with shuffling rhythms. This music, Kwaito, has come to dominate South African popular music in the post-Apartheid era.

It is not just black South Africans who have taken to electronic music. South Africa is home to one of the strongest Electronic Dance Music scenes in the world. Beginning in Cape Town in the early-’90s. South Africa began cultivating a strong and diverse EDM culture. Artists like Krushed & Sorted helped built a strong scene which would flourish and spread over the course of the following decades and inspire similar scenes throughout the continent, with artists producing everything from uptempo rave anthems to experimental sound experiments like those heard here, from Markus Wormstorm.

One of the most interesting artists to emirge from the melange of Cape Town electronic music scenes is John Wizards. The brain-child of producer Jonathan Withers, the project began as indulgent break from Wither’s work producing commercial jingles. A chance conversation led Wither’s to meet his musical partner vocalist Emmanuel Nzaramba. Nzaramba had recently moved to Cape Town from Rwanda, hoping to start a musical career.

Inspired by Nzaramba’s voice and deep repertoire, Withers took his experimental pieces and reworked them into what proved to be one of the more exciting albums to come out of Africa in 2013. Blending acoustic and electric, black and white, tradition and technology the music of John Wizards reverberates with possibility.

But sub-Saharan music is not confined geographically. Trans-national artists like Sena Dagadu are at the fore of creating a new global, cosmopolitan African sound. Born in Ghana, Dagadu cut her teeth in Budapest, Hungary’s underground hip-hop scene. Her music, straddling musical and geographic borders, embodies the cosmopolitan, tech-forward spirit of the African diaspora.

Of course, emerging technology provides more than just groovy music to dance to. Historically, the biggest inhibitors of innovation in Africa have been limited resources and political instability; mobile technology is proving a useful tool in overcoming both. Take for example Kodjo Afate Gnikou, an inventor from Togo who constructed his own 3D printer from scrap parts.

Connected Africans use mobile phones to do everything from tracking the market price for the crops they produce to confirming the authenticity of prescription medications. Last October, Kenyan women took to the streets to demand prosecution of three rapists whose only punishment had been to cut the grass in front of the police station. The online group Justice for Liz gathered 1.3 million signatures on a petition calling for the prosecution of the rapists and collected thousands of dollars in mobile money transfers to cover the medical costs of the teenaged victim, who was raped by six men when walking home from her grandfather’s funeral.

Of course, challenges still abound for Sub-Saharan Africa, and Mandela’s dreams of pluralism and prosperity are still just dreams. But African musicians have been able to use technology to their advantage and create music which is strikingly forward looking.

While it is easy to get carried away and see technology as a panacea for the African continent, the spread of mobile technology does offer one very real promise: that Africans can profit more directly from their talents, thoughts, and efforts. This stands in stark contrast to the preceding centuries of exploitation at the hands of slavers, colonists, and despots. The sound of mobile Africa is the sound of hope.