Lesotho Hip Hop: From The Ground Up [Part I]by Tseliso Monaheng / 02.04.2014
What are the guidelines to writing about a movement you’ve been a part of for more than half of your life? How do you, as a writer, remain subjective in the midst of all the back-stories, the back-handedness, and inevitable backstabbing(s)? Who do you leave out, and why are those who get to stay in the picture more deserving? Which side gets the most say?
These are some of the tough questions which plague my mind every time I attempt to write about Lesotho’s rap scene.
In 1999, nothing much was happening in Maseru. Well, nothing that a 12-year-old Form A (Grade 8) student interested in kwaito music could partake in. All the musicians who performed in Maseru during that time did so at shows almost exclusively at night. My parents could never be convinced that their under-age child should be allowed to explore the nightlife; little more than a cluster of house parties, occasional stadium bashes, and mini-raves held in abandoned warehouses. I lived an earshot away from the national stadium and would lie in bed listening to the live performances while imagining what it felt like to be there in person.
It was at this point of searching for alternative outlets through which to channel my restless spirit when a very dear friend introduced me to Maseru’s small circle of rappers. With time, the circle expanded to include beat makers and emcees from other districts; Berea, Leribe, and Mafeteng (three of Lesotho’s 10 districts) featured prominently. Within a year I had either met, or was aware of, all the active hip hop heads from the various regions.
As a result, the story of Lesotho hip hop is a personal quest to situate that which I’ve always held dear but never had the opportunity to interrogate.
Fast forward to the now now, and Lesotho hip hop has been on an upward trajectory spanning the past three years. Through the support of radio stations and the publicity-heavy talent search competitions backed by telecommunications companies, a growing support base for the scene has emerged. Rappers who were just starting out 10 years ago are now permanent features on radio, television, and on outdoor billboards.
There’s also a new breed of rapper emerging; a head-strong, brash, self-assured generation more want to experiment with sounds frowned upon by the so-called “rap purists”. This cross-section of old school heads and new-age emcees has fostered a healthy collaborative spirit, though not one totally devoid of minor tiffs and major fall-outs.
In seeking to construct a narrative whereby the writer doesn’t get subsumed into the story to the point of becoming it, I reached out to a selection of key figures – from radio deejays to producers, label owners and emcees – to help in mapping the journey of Lesotho hip hop thus far.
I was especially interested in the 10 years between 2003 and 2013, the former year being the one where some key figures started to develop a following beyond the immediate hip hop crowd.
Motlalehi Leshoele (aka “Papa Zee”), was the first up and an obvious choice. As label owner of Big Bang Music Entertainment, an independent imprint based in Maseru, he’s privy to the machinations of music distribution as it applies to Lesotho, a country with no formalised recording industry to speak of. (The accordion music scene has, however, established its own independent distribution channel with artists such Mahlanya managing to sell widely, mainly due to being played in taxis and on the radio.)
In addition, Motlalehi has a long-standing history as event organiser extraordinaire, music producer, and one-time radio host. He was among the first wave of rappers to emerge from Lesotho in the early 90s.
“We had talent, we could make the music, but there was no exposure,” he tells me, looking back on those heady days. “We didn’t consider what we were doing at the time to be ‘hip hop’. There used to be a punk movement; they were infamous for their tattered threads, berets, and chains. People thought we [the rap kids] were the punks!”
He adds that even though many social and economic strides have been made in Lesotho, there are still hurdles which parallel those they were encountering back in ‘93.
“The whole world has moved forward, computers are here. That means people can [easily] make music. The Internet is here, so one is able to release their music through [that] for people to hear,” says Papa Zee, sitting on the stoep of the Bang Entertainment studios in Khubetsoana, 10 minutes’ drive north of the city centre. It’s a scorcher outside, so we decided to head indoors to talk about the formative years of rap music in Lesotho.
“However,” he continues inside the dark cool interior “…all these beautiful things that people always scream about – just go to the Internet and look at how many music videos produced on the African continent have been seen on YouTube. The day you find one with more than 50, 000 views, let me know.”
In actuality, there are plenty of videos exceeding that number of views, but his point has been made. Essentially, Lesotho’s still not equipped – and this extends to other regions of the African continent – to handle on-line music selling services as currently delivered by the West.
*Tune in next week for part II.
Here’s a taster of Lesotho’s best…
**All Images ©Tseliso Monaheng