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The State of Mzansi Hip Hop

by Tseliso Monaheng / 11.03.2014

The problem with South African hip hop is that it’s become too safe. Cutting-edge rappers are being sidelined in favour of tried-and-tested mainstays – creating a cycle of regurgitated talent that receives preferential treatment by radio stations, booking agents, and sponsors. Doubtless, the artists in the spotlight have dedicated endless hours to their craft, and the fact that their work is paying off is something to be celebrated.

The problem is that there aren’t any rappers filling the vacuum which results when the mainstream and the underground become distinct entities. In short, the exciting new shit coming out is still not getting heard by most people.

Underground, in this context, shall be used to refer to any musical outfit with no songs on regular radio rotation. In South Africa, radio still (makes the) rules. Talent exists in bundles across different regions of the country, but no one has really stepped up to directly challenge the status quo – be it through different approaches to songwriting, or a different strategy to marketing their music.

Commercial radio is partly responsible for the mainstream’s generic song format and its silence when faced with issues affecting South Africa’s working class and unemployed citizens. Corporate culture, which has been clamouring for South African hip hop’s soul over the past five years, also has a part to play in the lack of engagement with real issues. Sponsors have their own agendas, and these agendas often don’t align with sentiments which may be deemed anti-establishment, or anti-anything.

I’m not implying that hip hop’s sole purpose is to raise awareness, or that blue collar workers don’t love or support mainstream South African hip hop. Neither am I suggesting that mainstream rappers are incapable of composing socially conscious music. But rap music in South Africa has surrendered wholly to the embrace of commercial radio song structures, resulting in mostly unimaginative, cookie-cutter songs “designed” to achieve the most airplay.

That said, the scene is the healthiest it’s ever been. Some rappers are actually making a living off of their craft, while general interest from the public continues to gain momentum. People who were celebrating when Skwatta Kamp won a SAMA in the Best Hip Hop Album category ten years ago have made the transition into adulthood, and with that passage comes a grander appreciation for the music they grew up listening to. Rap shows have transcended their former status as an exclusively male dominion, while the culture and its accompanying elements – graffiti, deejaying and breakdancing – are afforded greater airtime during peak hours on South African radio and television stations.

Hip hop landed in the Cape Flats in the early 80s, reared its head during the dying years of apartheid, went through multiple identity crises and then finally settled, albeit shakily, where it is today – as the love child of kwaito music and whatever the flavour of the moment is in the pop world. Over the next few weeks we’ll be bringing you a serialised exposé on the state of Mzansi hip hop in 2014.

*Tune in next week for a feature on how Mzansi hip hop compares to the rest of the continent and the world.

Image © Tseliso Monaheng

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  1. Anonymous says:

    interesting

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  2. Enzo Slaghuis says:

    Hola Tseliso Monaheng…I am Enzo the founder of the infamous Slaghuis Movement based in DK Soweto, I share the same sentiments with you about the current state of SA Hip Hop. I have actually finished a documentary on the current state and would like to send you a copy so you can check it out. It features some of the mainstream artists, journalists & record executives. It touches on some of the pointers you have raised in your article and its clear that a lot of people feel that way about our current state and something needs to be done. Send me ur email so we can keep communicating & Im about to share this my ninja its a must read for heads in SA. Good work!! JAYEEIH!!

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  3. Motebang Matsela says:

    The truth.
    Enough said my brother couldn’t say it any better.

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  4. Daniel Phumudzo Magidi II says:

    Honestly, you’re right, i was talking this with a friend about Hip hop, their album covers and its music videos. Almost all mainstream rappers album covers are their faces, looking swagged up n stuff. Have a look at Kendrick Lamars Good Kid Maad City album cover. Its a Van, it carries a story, pictures tell a story, the songs explain the story, that’s ART. Now in SA, their album covers are pictures of their faces, their music videos are them with cars and girls, no music video is like lil waynes 6foot 7foot (the concept from the movie Inception). We need to push boundaries, experiment with the art. I’m a photographer and i’m a person who is true to the art.

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  5. Kayn li says:

    Amen, we’re getting sidelined by the capitalist upper-class because of their selfish agenda.

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  6. de-bongz says:

    Okay my bro …i understand your plight and that of other readers ;however i tend to turn a blind eye to your sorrow, the onus here upon artists/rappers who wants to crack this industry and make a living. One way of doing that is to always identify and follow leads (trends) of the makert demand which are naturally volatile and unpredictable . Now! here is the question you should toy around with: why one would remain underground whilst the platform (media and sponsors) to utilise are not so keen? whilst on the other hand your counterparts (mainstays/cheesy)are making it big. Afterall every successful rapper today started by being hard core but the industry bent them a little if not entirely so that music becomes more appropriate and appealing to every age. Tell me who wants to hear /see some boy/s swearing at me/you at the expense of my penny and comfort of my crib [rhetoric question] there are social issues that rappers could unravel to us than the usual shit, that wouldnt even make your music be aired let alone of making record deal because you are not relavent to the times.
    HHP has made it and never was he “HARD CORE” NAS and JZ and even DMX have become “cheesy” because eating cheddar is far more better than eating micro phone in soaked wet underarms for nothing.
    Sorry folks that’s my take.

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  7. Tseliso says:

    @de-bongz: this is NOT that discussion

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  8. OFFENSIVE offence says:

    The direction that Hip-Hop has taken, over the past 10 years, is very misleading. Its like it has lost its initial purpose and these kids growing up today are falling for this Shit. Radios are a driving force and now artists are now like, they are forced to change their writings and Compromise their true nature as an artist just so they could get air play…This has to change

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  9. Mjakha says:

    yooow dankie boss,we need to unite sxoxe wonke umuntu abeke umbono wakhe im sure kungenzeka umehluko coz baningi abathanda ukubeka izikhalo zabo but abakwaz

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  10. Tseliso says:

    @Offensive: it’s interesting you raise that point. It’s a view that I find is shared by people who fell in love with South African hip-hop prior to 2005 (rough estimation). They tend to hold a romantic view of how things used to be, and aren’t necessarily tuned in to what’s happening currently.

    The kwaito/hip-hop marriage, for one, is extremely impressive for me, as is the fact that more artists can feed their families off of rap music. How many people could do that ten years ago?

    I get your point, but that same argument was being used against Amu, Skwatta, et.,…ten years ago bruh!

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  11. Oldbuster says:

    Hello hip hop mzansi iam Oldbuster from pretoria I like hip hop ya mohae plz just add. To 0717661509 kakopo remaja kathatha asekathata merathatha

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  12. […] **An earlier version of this article appeared on Mahala.  […]

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  13. Umlungu Deluxe says:

    I think that SA artists should follow the example of innovative acts like Die Antwoord, who (however inappropriately some may judge them to do so) take inspiration and influence from South Africa’s rich and turbulent socio-political landscape to make new and unique music by incorporating distinctly South African sounds and issues. And most importantly, they don’t just copy what they hear from American artists to gain popularity. Those fake American accents most Mzansi rappers use irritate me to the maximum. For what?!

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  14. PrichA says:

    You are all right.

    BUT the biggest problem isn’t the artist. All the artist wants to do is make music and be successful in it. At the same time yes there is a strong yearning to do the music they love; truth of the matter is; in time the artist adapts to what he/ she is doing and starts to love it – it becomes what they want to do, it drives success, popularity and all other perks that come with a couple thousand followers.

    I’m a music production company owner; I am the executive producer and work with every artists that come into my studio including some of the “mainstays” in SA”

    The problem with SA hip hop and the same problem that plagues all other genres in SA is the medium on which they play. For example:

    TV

    Trace will only play music videos that fall within certain standards and unfortunately these standards are to the might in recourse of America. Typical American video is, cars, girls, drinks.
    This is the same for MTV Base. Channel O is easier on these dimensions. In fact the only artists that will be on trace and MTV Base without the typical American video style are the artists who already have clout (your mainstays) and already have regurgitated the American formula.

    Radio

    This is a mix of greed and consumerism. I’ll start with consumerism: this means that people consume what they like when they like and how they like it. This liking is fueled by perception which is partly made up of that American dream. You see 90% of SA entertainment is America driven so this becomes part of the consumer perception. Be it in music, movies, reality TV, sitcoms and series, even most block buster movies about SA are American. This causes the consumer to have a idealistic view of how any other country should behave in these industries.

    Okay back to this into the radio context. Where do people get most of their information; radio (and TV but radio is instant because you don’t need to wait for a TV program or anything like that). Where do the radio DJs get their info? – The American internet; from who? – most likely America (new trends, new Chris Brown song, Drake Beefing with Jay Z blah blah blah. So the same people who give us content are also consumers and sellers of western culture. in short they will also have a preference of or America as an ideal.

    On the other spectrum radio stations use music to attract listeners. The more listeners a radio station has the higher advertising rates they can charge. Advertising is how TV and radio stations make money. With this money they pay employee salaries even just as important they pay artists royalties into SAMRO which SAMRO then distributes to artists (same for TV with TV it’s mostly TV shows that bring the ratings; Generations, Reality TV on VUZU, etc. you get the picture).

    So with that said; if consumerism is pro America what type of TV show or music is going to attract consumers to a particular TV channel or radio station or radio show? – the ideal that I spoke about earlier. And if an artist is making music outside of that ideal OR too far removed from that ideal (creative and not cookie cutting) what does Mr. Ratings say – No maybe for another radio station or TV show. Trust me I’ve heard this a lot of times. I write music for successful artists and guys who are coming up. Most of the times the guys who are coming up sound better and their music is more interesting. Will it work in the club or on radio and TV? – Well if America didn’t do “Miguel – Do you like drugs/ Adorn/ any other Miguel track that was played HEAVILY in the clubs and TV and radio” would WE consumers have allowed anyone else to do that? …Enter into our lives with such a non-main stream old age sound and make us gyrate in the clubs with old school sounding music that isn’t really old school “are you mad”?

    Yes artists want to create proper and different music and stretch boundaries even in a relatively safe way BUT Mr. Record Label won’t allow it because of consumerism and how it affects all the things TV, radio, internet, clubs you name it need to make money. Ever been to a club at night and the music was …. ehrr “different” you just paid R100 to get in but you walked right out.

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  15. Deeblock says:

    The state of mzansi Hip hop?? Author what’s your debate/argument. Question: are you saying its bad OR good OR relevant.

    I strongly feel: the author has lost the plot. All I can say is SA hip hop is growing. If ya’ll want to compare old with new. Critise and still play clean/compliment (your first paragraph) I’d suggest technology should not be part of your vocabs. It’s not survival of the fittest but smartest. In short; one needs to be relvent.

    Mzansi hip hop industry has been on the rise, since the mid 90s, with crews like prophet of da city, the countries (I guess) first major hip hop group. Today, mzansi is enjoying a golden era of hip hop, celebrating the freshest and realist MCs in the country.

    @Tshepo, what exactly are your saying? Pls elaborate!! Good writing has a beginning, middle and ending; all within the same plot/energy. You contradicting yourself. Wish I could cut and chop down, each paragraph for you so you could see the contradiction.

    @Pritcha, well explained.

    R
    Deeblock

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