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Hip Hope

by Harry Belafonte Khumalo / 19.02.2010

What went down this Saturday at Sandton’s Blues Room is definitely one for the books. Jabba’s celebration of what he describes as a successful ‘artist-in-bloom’ residency in Washington DC was a historically significant display of maturity and true musicianship in the SA hip hop scene. The SA industry seems to have grown up of late, and we’re getting in with the majors, on our own terms, peers with the rest of the world and best yet, we’re spitting in our own languages. And if the clientele at the Blues Room was anything to go by, then the upwardly mobile kids have bought into it. Kah-ching!

The gig was an attempt at reciprocating the love that HHP was shown in the US recently. Read all about that here. And for the folks down here, Jabba came back bearing musical gifts in the form of Unspoken Heard’s Asheru, poet, singer and MC Carolyn Malachi, drummer Biscuit Bynum, Terrence Cunningham and percussionist Jabari Exum of the Hueman Prophets. Duly, his compatriots rocked up in their various hues and numbers.

After what seemed like an eternity awaiting the main event, Jabba finally hopped on stage to assume the role of MC. The formalities didn’t last long and it was time for those gathered to witness the type of company the man kept in DC. Following a brief intro from Exum on percussion, the soulful Malachi set the tone for the evening’s entertainment. She killed it with her words, on point whether sung or spoken and was accompanied by that mellow jazz sound the band churned out all night.


While Malachi hit them on the cerebral, Cunningham who sang and was on the keys at the same time, set the women off on the emotional tip. His performance was a revival of soul music’s bygone era and, yes, the fellas were moved too. Just as you thought the energy had peaked Asheru, one of my favourite MCs took to the stage to tear shit down, opening up with the Jazz Liberators’ produced “I am Hip Hop” and ending off his explosive set with an extended version of the theme song to the Boondocks’ sitcom.

Even two power outages during the host’s performance couldn’t slow things down. Jabba held the fort down showing who is boss around this neck of the woods. The crowd was right there with him. I’m still reeling from magic of that night. The words of one MC J-Live came to mind, “who in their right mind thinks they can put a stop to hip hop?”


Mahala’s Harry Belafonte Khumalo caught up with Asheru and slung some questions at him after the show:

HBK: What were your expectations of SA and how have you been received here?

Asheru: I didn’t know what to expect before I got here. I was just happy to be coming here for the first time.  I felt completely confident in myself and the group, but I didn’t know what to expect. Being here, everyone has been so gracious and so friendly, I feel completely at home.  I’m already making plans for how to come back and perform a few more times later this year.

HBK: What drives Asheru? How and where did you grow up?

Asheru: What motivates me most is to do my best with what the Creator gave me, whether it’s with music, education, raising my family, whatever.  I grew up mostly in Washington, DC to a West Indian father (from Barbados) and a Black/Native American mother (from South Carolina).  At a very young age, I lived all over the world, San Fran, London, Brooklyn, New Mexico, Barbados, Maryland, and back to DC.

HBK: How did things go with Jabba’s visit in DC go? Would you describe the residency as a success?

Asheru: Things went very well.  We have formed a partnership and bond thru Hip Hop that will last forever.  Jabba made such an impact on the crowds that he performed in front of, people were amazed and sang along to everything.  So I would definitely say it was a success.

HBK: How was the reception by US audiences for what Jabba has to offer?

Asheru: I have so much video to show you better than I can tell you.  I was explaining to Jabba what “visceral” means…the abstract of having the feeling of what someone is saying, even if you don’t understand it literally.  The crowds got what he was saying even though he as rhyming mostly in Tswana.  That’s Hip Hop.  That’s what emcees do.

HBK: Have you heard any local music so far? What are your thoughts?

Asheru: Yes, I’ve been exposed to some other SA artists, and I like what I’ve heard so far. In fact, I just recorded a song last night with a young singer by the name of Lungi, so look out for that single very shortly (like next week).  I’m also excited to be meeting with Tumi before we leave as well.

HBK: What are your thoughts on the state of Hip Hop, are cats, generally on the right track?

Asheru: Hip Hop is gonna be everchanging, it will move with the moods and attitudes of the people, so it is on the right track.  What I’m excited about is continuing to explore Hip Hop as a global phenomenon, I’ve been all over the US, Canada, Europe and Japan, but I’m about to make it happen right here in Africa.  Not just SA, but all over the continent.

HBK: Did you always want to be teacher? What did you want to be as kid?

Asheru: Honestly, I thought I wanted to be a doctor, all the way up to college. But I did an internship with a surgeon at 15 the summer before I entered University and realized that it wasn’t for me.  I studied Anthropology in college because I wanted to be work in a museum and travel around the world studying and documenting on various cultures.  And it’s funny because that’s exactly what I’m doing now thru Hip Hop.  I’m traveling, seeing the world, and using that influence in my writing, whether it’s songs, lesson plans, curriculum guides, whatever.

HBK: What did role did Hip Hop play in life? And at what point did you decide to want to make a living out of Hip Hop? Has this been profitable?

Asheru: I have yet to make a living off of Hip Hop solely.  I think it’s important for artists to have other ventures to support your life and your art.  So primarily I receive income from my educational organizations, Guerilla Arts Ink and the H.E.L.P. program, and then Hip Hop is a secondary source.  Maybe one day that will change, but we will see…

HBK: How do you balance your two passions music and teaching?

Asheru: I balance them out of necessity, to make a living.  But it’s actually easy, because I feel that artists are natural teachers.  They can make an automatic connection with students because there is a similar interest and artists have a unique insight and perspective on the world.

HBK: What else other projects are involved with?

Asheru: We just completed the newest edition of H.E.L.P., the Hip Hop Educational Literacy Program featuring the song Keledimo by HHP and Nas .  Other than that, I am working on a new project with Jabba and the collective of DC artists called the Underground Railroad.  Look out for that very soon as well, the project is almost done.  We not only want to do performances in SA and in DC, but we want to serve as a vehicle to bring other artists and teachers here as apart of a cultural exchange to do music and education workshops during the day, and performances at night.  We will also be looking to bring SA artists  out to DC to do the same in our schools and venues.

HBK: Can you tell me more about your Peabody Award and how you felt about being honored in that way?

Asheru: That was something that came completely unexpected. It was the first time that a cartoonist or an emcee has ever won such a prestigious award (for journalism).  That just goes to show, that if you do your best work and stay on the path, you will be rewarded.  The award came for my contribution to the episode of the Boondocks featuring Martin Luther King.  The speech that he gives at the end is borrowed from a song I did called “Niggas” (on my Insomnia mixtape).  The song was actually done originally as a tribute to the poem by the Last Poets’ “Niggas are Scared of Revolution”  Aaron Mcgruder (creator of the Boondocks) heard it and chose to use it in the episode.  It was truly an honor.

HBK: Lastly can what’s up with Unspoken Heard is there a possibility of an LP with Blue in the future?
Asheru: You never know… anything can happen.  I am almost done with my solo project, and he is featured on it, but I’m not sure when we will be able to come together to knock the project out.  But time will tell…

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