Words by Caron Williams
As I reflect on a year that is fast drawing to a close, I realise my disappointment at South African hip hop this year. With a number of projects already released and promises of multitudes to follow, a great deal of it sounds like hollow attempts to cash in on their proverbial 15 minutes before it runs out. Beneath pervasive auto-tune vocals, repetitive trap beats and mind numbing hooks, I find myself constantly returning to the same question – what is SA hip hop actually saying?
I hold no views that hip hop should prescribe to some antiquated formula; that every release should be a sprawling ode to so called ‘consciousness’, opening our ‘third eye’ or endless theories about the new world order (look how far that got Cape Town hip hop). On the contrary, verbose, over-articulated art that serves to prove how smart it is only alienates the very audience it claims it seeks to ‘conscientise’. As Charles Bukowski put it, “An intellectual says a simple thing in a hard way. An artist says a hard thing in a simple way.” Similarly, hip hop, great hip hop, should be able to express complex ideas in ways that even the casual hip hop listener can appreciate. Tupac captured the complexity of raging drug abuse and its proximity to the black community with “Even as a crack fiend, mama, you always was a black queen, mama.” Kanye spoke on upward mobility and systematic racism in 8 words, “Even in a Benz, you’re still a nigga”. In a single line, Pusha T paints a vivid image of institutionalized racism within America’s so called justice system with the symbol of Lady Justice, “They tipping the scale for these crackers to win,” and further emphasizes his point with brilliant wordplay, “They praying for jail but I mastered the pen.”
Having said that, and at the risk of sounding Joe Buddenesque, hip hop is meant to say something, it is meant to be our voice. The birth of this genre, and movement as a whole, was based on expression. Hip hop, like all great art, is meant to be a reflection of the times. When we look back a decade from now, what will we deduce from SA hip hop in 2017? That rappers walked into Gucci and bought it out, walked into Louis and bought it out, walked into Prada and bought it out…? Okay… *Jay Z voice* Whilst repeating lines for 2 minutes and rhyming random words as meaningless fillers on a track might suffice for others, the remainder of us that actually still care about this culture require more. I may sound like an aging purist but it’s important for us to take stock sometimes. If we’re not protective of hip hop it becomes a free-for-all. As Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Almost Famous character, Lester Bangs, jadedly reflected, “And then it just becomes an industry of cool.”
The consequence of SA hip hop being reduced to “an industry of cool” is that it becomes a caricature. A case in point is Champagne69, a local trap duo whose musical career emerged as a parody of trap artists. With no real aspirations of becoming rappers, their creative mockery of a subculture was so convincing; they’re now accepted as legitimate rising artists within the local hip hop scene. On the extreme end of the hip hop parody scale sits Die Antwoord – an offensive, culturally appropriating parodic duo that ended up getting signed to Interscope Records. With an industry increasingly being characterized by hooks such as “Bitch wait outside, let me finish what I’m doing” and “Say Sumn, say sumn, say sumn, say sumn”, and endless Travis Scott knock-offs, where do we draw the line? How do we ensure SA hip hop does not become a caricature of itself?
This is not an attack on trap music. Emtee, our very own trap king, has forged one the most poignant and honest voices within local hip hop. With fervently stirring tracks such as Mama, desperately passionate petitions for salvation such as Pray For Me and painfully candid narrations of survival and death such as Manando, Emtee’s trap renderings offer emotive, socio-economic commentary and serve as brilliant explorations into the complex psyche of many young, black South Africans. That, coupled with his acute appreciation for emotional nuance and melodic excellence, set Emtee’s artistry apart from every other trap and non-trap rapper locally. Trap is not inherently hollow; it is the medium in which he delivers his message, not an excuse to slur incoherent anthems about nothingness as we’ve witnessed with many other trap artists.
Beyond vacant trap artists, the lack of political commentary, social commentary or any kind of commentary from South Africa’s rap fraternity also invites imposters such as Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, someone who have no vested interest in hip hop culture (please don’t tell me about that boy band he was in over a decade ago), to expropriate cool in order to add pseudo-credibility to his privileged political inclinations. Hip hop is a novelty to people like Sizwe, a tool he can access for relevancy when it suits him and return to his privileged existence free from the consequences or responsibilities left to those who actually live this. I cringe each time I see mainstream SA media hail Democracy & Delusion as an exemplary thought-provoking hip hop album which offers deep insight into South Africa when it’s actually an embarrassing, self-indulgent project narrated from the comfort of his access, wealth and pseudo-intellectualism. The danger of not defining our own voice as patrons of this culture is that outsiders such as Die Antwoord and Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh will do it for us and it will be a dishonest, inaccurate representation of who we, as SA hip hop, are.
It can’t be argued that SA hip hop has offered no redeeming releases this year. Shane Eagle’s debut album, Yellow, has been hailed as a triumph in a scene starved for music that offers something to connect with and is a beautiful example of what social and political commentary can look like in SA in 2017. Hip Hop that is conscious doesn’t have to sound like Ben Sharpa’s Hegemony or some obscure underground track that no one will ever hear. “I don’t wear diamonds, diamonds killed my ancestors” is poetic, aware and potent. Stogie T’s latest single, Honey and Pain, is a beautiful reflection of reality in SA but a handful of brilliant offerings (not those other local albums I know you’re tempted to mention – just because rappers have a mean flow doesn’t mean they’re actually saying something or saying something well) aren’t enough to salvage SA hip hop.
I appreciate that hip hop serves many purposes, a big one being entertainment; but I don’t believe that entertainment means music should forfeit meaning. And I’m not saying that SA hip hop is a desolate land devoid of all meaning, but it’s starting to feel dangerously close to that. Maybe I’ve watched Brown Sugar too many times; maybe I have romantic illusions about hip hop and what it’s meant to be; maybe I’m nostalgic for an era where HHP’s Harambe, Skwatta Kamp’s Umoya and Tuks’ Monate Thaa defined an era. Perhaps I sound like a hip hop nihilist, but it feels like we’re in an inconsequential era of local rap, passing time with meaningless releases from people trying to make a quick buck, restlessly waiting for the next great era of South African hip hop to arrive.