Cultural Transformation: What is African Hip Hop?

by Perivi John Katjavivi

What is African Hip-Hop? Over the last decade the continuous expansion and growth of Hip-Hop as both
a musical genre and culture has accelerated. There is perhaps not a corner in the world the art form has
not penetrated. With that said, the African continent in no exception to this. The growing trend has also
seen the emergence of African rap stars and artists that have carved out careers for themselves not only
on a regional level but some have even gained international stardom. i.e: Somalian born K’naan.

But what then what is African Hip-hop? Does it have its own unique voice and identity? How much of its
artistry is shaped by our American cousins, and to what extent is that a good thing?

From all over the continent of Africa there has been a long ancient history of storytelling, of Griots. To
this day there is a vast amount of African history that is still passed down orally and is not written and
included in history books. These Griots and the African penchant for trance inducing drumming rituals,
were perhaps the first MCs. (See the Manding caste from Mali.)

Many of these rituals and practices travelled across the Atlantic with slaves. The story telling aspect
and elaborate rituals and dances can be found more commonly in the Bahia area of Brazil, Haiti and the
American south (most notably New Orleans). The musicality the slaves brought would later give birth
to Blues, Jazz and rock & roll – basically forming the groundwork for modern and contemporary music
today. If you listen closely to American artists like Muddy Waters and music from Baba Djan of Guinea, you can hear the intricate similarities. Most notably they all rely on minor pentatonic (5-note) scales, not
unlike distinctive blues scales.

So when the African picks up a mic and spits a 16 (bars) over a ‘hot’ beat, to what extent is he
emulating Snoop and other Americans compared to actually channeling his own ancestors and what
they initiated.

Culture is always in a state of transition. In that there is rarely a set of cultural norms that any society
can be held hostage to currently but rather we are all collectively in a state of constant growth and
integration. It will not be long until the French learn Chinese and the Japanese start wearing African
garments. Never before have we experienced this globalized existence where you can be born Jewish
and grow up to become a Muslim. The interchanging of ideas and culture is an endless proposition.

Which brings us back to rap, to Hip-Hop culture. So called one of the last musical arts of expression to
be birthed. The voice of the voiceless, the expressive shout from the ghettos of America has since taken
the world by storm resonating with kids in the slums of Kibera as much as it does with teens in South
Central. But what is unique about your voice? Fine, let the kids rap, whether white or black, American or
Zimbabwean. But the artist must perhaps find a way to explore what is it about their take on the artistry
that will make it theirs. What makes it you, but also what makes it Nigerian, or Libyan, or Gambian?

I myself want to say that I want to hear people rap over Fela Kuti songs, I want to hear the legacy of
Madiba in the tone of your voice. I want to see rappers dressed in dashikis and adorning North African
head scarfs. I want politicized, socially conscious voices who can still produce clever wordplay and
punchlines. In this day and age the bar is so high, the game so competitive that all we have is ourselves
to present to the world. Luckily as Africans we have such a rich and varied history and culture that there
is so much to draw from.

Imagine an all-star African Hip-Hop group with members in five different African nations, all rapping in
a mixture of English and their own native languages. Their outfits an array of African energies, colours,
fabrics and voices . Their music an epic soundscape that incorporates elements of High life, Soweto
township jazz, North African dance music and the haunting kind of vocals that Youssou N’dour carries,
etc… Imagine a heavy New York Boom Bap beat tying it all together.

At the end of the day when we question the authenticity of a kid in Kinshasa rapping and sounding like
Drake it must be done with the proper context. So we are familiar with the history of the art form but
also acknowledge the voice that Hip-Hop has consistently given to the voiceless. There will be many kids
across this continent that will attempt to emulate Jay-Z and Kanye. But the future or the glory of African
Hip-Hop will only come once those same kids start to add a little bit of Fela to the mix, a little bit of Biko,
a sprinkle of Mandume Ndemufayo, a measure of Lumumba or a drop of Angelique Kidjo.

Once we merge our own culture and history with the modern, it will allow us to create a rich and
relevant African identity. We are better served once we acknowledge that our identity is one that must
be inspired by the past but influenced too by the present. This is our future and if the voice behind is
one that raps, then it will sound even better.

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3 thoughts on “Cultural Transformation: What is African Hip Hop?

  1. Excellent piece. Sounding like Jigga or Drizzy is fashionable at the moment, but the closest you could get to your ideal is probably D’Banj or even M.I.

  2. Excellent piece. Sounding like Jigga or Drizzy is fashionable at the moment, but the closest you could get to your ideal is probably D’Banj or even M.I.

  3. […] African music and popular culture you may literallily pick any category and go… first up is Perivi aka Percy […]

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