When you think about places where hip-hop is a pre-eminent form, Africa is not the usual port of call. But visionaries who have watched the African hip-hop scene grow, like Toni Blackman, dubbed United States Ambassador of Hip-Hop by the U.S. Department of State, and Thomas Gesthuizen, better known as Internet African-hip-hop pioneer Juma 4, say the continent's time in the sun is now. Mixing the sounds of koras and dunduns with the cutting-edge beats of keyboards and drum machines, young Africans' new brand of hip-hop is rapidly gaining ground.
Groundbreaking African groups like Senegal's Gokh-Bi System and Tanzania's X Plastaz define an exciting contemporary sound born out of the motherland. Ghana's hip-life innovator Reggie Rockstone, Nigeria's Paybacktime Records empire, and the Nigerian-German crew Brothers Keepers/ B.A.N.T.U. have gained international notice with their recordings with artists including activist-rappers dead prez, dancehall toaster Sizzla, and pop-reggae band UB40.
This unique blend of roots music and urban grit grabbed Blackman's attention in 2001 when she was on a State Department-sponsored trip to West Africa. A critically acclaimed poet, MC, and academic, she began to work with groups in Ghana, Senegal, and South Africa. I was quite impressed with the socially conscious lyrics of the MCs in Africa and their ability to see the bigger picture on how their music can influence and make positive changes.
As musical ambassador, this lyricist extraordinaire has given workshops, seminars, pan-African roundtable discussions, and held performances. Her work has not always been easy. Music is an integral part of African society, but hip-hop was not immediately acceptable. In places like Senegal, the elders only began to embrace hip hop when it played an instrumental role in political rallies.
She praised Senegalese MCs for being politically proactive. Senegalese hip hop groups use their lyrics to empower themselves, said Blackman. They stated their discontent and disapproval of the Senegalese political leadership by highlighting the wrong doings of political officials, and prompted elders to unite with the younger generation to make a political change. While impressive lyrically, she notes that the production is not up to par. Many artists have limited access to standard equipment, and even when the right equipment is available, there are not enough trained professionals to execute quality production.
Juma, the Netherlands-born and raised editor of the popular web site Africanhiphop.com, agrees that sub-par production is one of the major roadblocks to the international popularity of African hip-hop, as is the lack of regular access to the internet and to computers with music software like Risen (a small-format drum machine program).
Juma's interest in the emerging African sound developed while visiting Tanzania in 1997. His message board called Rumba-Kali was launched in 1997 to connect the budding hip-hop communities. There was an obvious absence of information on the Web, (yet) there was this large audience seeking the African hip-hop sound.
A spurt in international interest in African hip-hop made the Web site's popularity skyrocket, forcing Juma to make the expensive transition from mere message board to a full-fledged Web publication and forum. The rewards have been worth it, he says. The site claims to attract over 10,000 unique visitors a month, and bills itself as the prime source of info on African hip-hop.
The idea for African hip-hop lovers to intensify their musical collaborations through file-sharing programs emerged from the site's lively message boards. "This will be a challenge," he says, "but I look forward to the outcome."
Blackman also sees these cross-continental alliances as the future of the genre. She has begun advocating the creation of a network between American and African rappers. American rappers believe that going to Africa is to set out on a long pilgrimage. They look at it as a difficult journey to make, she said, despite the fact that they regularly tour Europe and Japan. Moreover, American radio's infamous aversion to non-American music gives stateside acts little incentive to collaborate with their African peers.
Blackman believes that African hip-hop's commitment to conscious lyrics and political activism will help it grow and maintain its integrity. Hip-hop in Africa is positive, and has not dwindled into the commercialized material produced in America today. It will mobilize and spur progressive reactions. Her conviction in the music's redeeming power stems from her work with groups that are gaining European acclaim like Daraji, Bokh Systems and Pee Frios. Ms. Blackman, like many of us, looks forward to seeing where African hip-hop will be in another 10 years.