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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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