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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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