Rob Boffard
Rob Boffard

No politics as usual

Here’s a question for you. When was the last time you heard a political hip-hop track done by a South African artist?

I can’t speak for other genres here — try as I might, I cannot bring myself to listen to the entire ouevre of Locnville — but when it comes to hip-hop, I can quite literally count the number of these tracks on one hand. I’m talking about tracks that take a political viewpoint, that support or attack a political party or which deal with pertinent social issues.

Hip-hop artists in most other countries seem to have no problem with this. In the UK, artists like Lowkey and Verbal Terrorists are tearing the powers that be. If we start talking about the US, I could start throwing out names and not stop until Pac himself comes back from the dead — there are a lot of rappers there who are not scared about expressing their issues with the people who lead them.

But us? A country with one of the most contentious political landscapes around? Where inequality is rife, and where millions of people live in poverty? Virtually nothing. Tumbleweed. These are conditions ripe for the explosion of a thousand pissed-off rappers — hip-hop thrives where there is struggle, so by rights we should have bucketloads.

In reality? Well, there’s Mr Politician by The Federation. And Black Man by The News. And Ben Sharpa’s dabbled in it a bit I suppose, along with his buddies Rattex and Driemanskap. Tumi and the Volume have done it in a vague sort of way, and … no, that’s it. I really can’t think of anybody else.

Frankly, that’s a bit weird.

I’m not expressing surprise that rappers aren’t attacking the ANC, or the DA. I’m expressing surprise that they aren’t doing anything. It’s bizarre. It never used to be like this: we did, after all, have two fantastically on-point groups in Prophets of Da City and Black Noise. But although both of those groups are still going in some capacity, they’re both a shadow of their former selves.

Perhaps I’m asking too much here. Who am I, after all, to tell people what to rap about? And it isn’t as if we aren’t making fantastic hip-hop music anyway. I love our hip-hop scene and I (mostly) love the music that comes out of it — it makes me want to drag the rest of the world down to our little corner, point and say “Look! Look what we’re doing! Isn’t that neat?”

I don’t want Zubz to stop rapping about being a part-time lover and a full-time freak. I don’t want Explicit to change up his steez one bit. And if Last Days Fam even start thinking about making a song for the clubs, I will personally track down Landmarq and force-feed him a copy of Illmatic. I like what we’re doing. And I don’t want it to change … too much. I just think we should be doing a lot more.

Hip-hop is at its most powerful, game-changing and exciting when it’s angry. Public Enemy turned the frustration of the masses into war on wax. People like Immortal Technique — the master of seriously peeved rap music — has never sounded better than when he’s in full, spit-spraying, white-hot-angry flow against the Bush (and most recently, the Obama) administration. It works. It’s a joy to listen to, and it can bring about real change.

And what is there to get angrier about than the situation which many South Africans find themselves in? Nobody’s made a song about Manto or HIV yet, or about how the DA are a bunch of whining, liberal colonialists, or indeed, about how the ANC are a sneaky, corrupt, morally-bankrupt organisation. Where are the angry verses about lack of water, food, jobs? And now that Malema is gone, we’ve all missed a glorious opportunity. The man was a walking punch line.

Every reason that I thought of putting forward for this lack of political music just doesn’t add up. The closest I can come would be to say that perhaps our MCs don’t want to engage politically because to take a political viewpoint might, in a polarised country, alienate a large chunk of your audience. And when you’re hustling in the proto-industry that is SA rap, you really need to appeal to as many people as possible. But then again, that’s a massive generalisation. I don’t think it’s telling the full story.

Then again, perhaps I’ve missed the boat here, and that sunny, cheesy pop music from the Locnville twins is really a code for a massive, rise-up-and-overthrow-the-oppressor movement, taking place in the dusty corridors and grimy booths of high-end recording studios. I’ll report back.

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    • http://webmail.co.za @philosophboy

      You should listen to Mo’Molemi’s Track ‘Blu colla’& ‘Netefatsa ft Ras Messa,,so on pont,actually Mo’Molemi,Tuks senganga’s latest offering ‘Tshwanelo’,those are some of the local acts who tell it like it is politically,namecallin from verwoerd 2 tambo mbeli,julius Malema,presenting our political landscape & its issues through Hip Hop

    • http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/robboffard Rob Boffard

      Further to this: some friends have reminded me about Zubz’s track Get Out (subsequently subject to a hate speech accusation by the FF+) and music from Wax Lyrical in PTA, plus one or two others. Hardly widespread, but it does exist – just not to the degree it should!

    • http://www.wickedmike.com Wicked Mike

      It’s been a long running complaint of mine, “Playstation bands” ignoring the issues that should inspire them. Whatever happened to hip-hop and rock ‘n roll, as the cultural heart of revolution? Apathy destroys not only the country but music too.

      There are exceptions. For example, Southern Gypsey Queen was damn meaningful with ‘Homeland’. Jack Hammer railed against global economics with ‘G8′. And a song/spoken word that will chill you is http://www.knysnakeep.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/MENAGE-A-TROIS-Afterthought.mp3.

    • Ewok

      We’re making the noise homie:

      http://soundcloud.com/creamy-ewok-baggends/shame-on-the-game-ewok-mp3

      http://soundcloud.com/creamy-ewok-baggends/break-down-the-wall

      http://soundcloud.com/creamy-ewok-baggends/check-my-maths-mr-presidency

      I agree with you fully though. There is a decided lack of social responsibility in what is made AND what is played. There has never been a more crucial time for artists to drop the ego game and play their part.

      Check out this site for the current call to artistic arms here in Durban. Maybe you can monitor it for us, maybe 20/20 can get involved?

      I dunno, but just know that there is some underground action.

      That Wax Lyrical stuff really is quality.

    • Ewok
    • Truthbetold

      You have answered your own question, rappers are trying not to alienate anyone and also living in a populist society doesn’t help either where if you criticize the ruling party is not tolerated by its supporters who are the majority most of whom do not tolerate dissenting views. The biggest radio stations belong to the public broadcaster. There are artist who are managing to survive economically due to having close links with the ruling party therefore managing to secure high paying government and the ruling party gigs. And yes I only talking about the ruling party because they are the ruling party, there’s not much to say about the Da since they relatively small not that they are saints, oh yes most of it’s members and leaders are racist. Injalo.

    • Stephen Browne

      Looking at the last round of failures musicians helped put in power, it is no wonder they are wary of doing it again. While traditionally musicians are seen as political figures, I think their role has often been misunderstood. So often history has revealed that political movements have pressured (or threatened) popular musicians to make statements with their music.The combination of music and politics is not an exclusively good one. Also the belief that musicians are somehow qualified to make statements about social issues is somewhat misplaced. Some of them may be excellent commentators, but having spent most of my life surrounded by every sort of musician, they are not nessecarily any more clued up then the average citizen.

    • jandr0

      So, Truthbetold, you have met me – know exactly what I think – and decided I am probably a racist, just because I support much of what the DA stands for.

      How simple it must be to live in your world, where everything is subject to the absolute veracity of subjective generalisation.

      Personally, I say power to the hip-hop artists – may they utilise our precious freedom of speech to good effect. Having bought albums and listened to the emotional anger and frustration of the likes of Public Enemy and LKJ when I was young, I resonate with their feelings.

      However, being angry doesn’t automatically confer wisdom. It is easy to be angry, it takes wisdom (and hard work) to construct practical solutions.

    • Rob Boffard

      Lots of people have pointed out Mo Molemi’s stuff to me, which makes me really happy because it means there’s more stuff out there than I thought.

      @Ewok – good looks, I’ll check the joints out mate.

      @Truthbetold – You had me until the offhand comment about the DA members being racist. I think you need a hug as well, buddy.

    • Truthbetold

      @Jandro, @Rob Boffard try recalling conversations that you’ve had with your fellow whites in the absence of black people or if you can’t, next time you are at a dinner party try to notice the racist undertones in the comments, you be the judge! This I was told by whites and I said most not all. Perhaps MC’s must address the issue of racism in their songs after all.

    • Rob Boffard

      You make me very sad, mate.

      Anyway, there are some good points being made here. I haven’t asked him, but I’m going to reprint a comment from my friend Ross, who runs the African hip-hop blog 25tolyf.com (which rocks, by the way).

      “It’s just a reflection of the disconnect between todays generation and the governments – the youth don’t care about politics because the government doesn’t do anything to show that it cares about the youth. Look at the whole Occupy movement it’s all based on the same disconnect.”

      Thoughts?

    • The Creator

      I don’t think it’s a disconnection between the youth and the government (if there were such a disconnection it would mean the youth would be pissed off and they would be willing to buy songs about it). It’s the fact that most pop groups are aware that if they sing songs which the politically conscious public wants, they won’t enjoy much support from the rich people who run the publishing companies, and pop groups are in it for the money, so they are naturally pleasing the rich people.

      Also, of course, imitating existing American music is easier than inventing stuff for yourself.

      Or am I wrong? I hardly ever listen to this stuff.

    • mamparra

      Truthbetold, and listen to the conversations of black people when no whites are around and try to notice the racist undertones.

    • Rob Boffard

      @The Creator Fair point, and well put about the publishing companies. I can’t see Sony Music SA going a bundle on a grimy track attacking the ANC, or DA.

      And you should listen to this stuff more often. There’s some amazing music out there.

    • http://thoughtleader.co.za/sandilememela Sandile Memela

      thanks rob for beating me on tackling a subject that keeps me awake at night. I have been thinking about this and it is really sad.
      take the hottest songbird on the sin (sic) now, Zahara. I bought her CD and listened to it 10 times in three days. No doubt that the girl has potential: great singer, mean guitar, infectious danceable beats. But she lacks substance in terms of relevant and meaningful lyricalcontent. I was shocked when on Radio 702 Sipho Mabuse said she was ‘the thing’ now. How dare he? I mean this girl lacks intuitive connection with her political history – except for one repetetive song – her social heritage bedevilled with poverty joblessness & Aids. However, mercy to the young Zahara, she is only 23 years, I’m told.
      The problem is that you cannot be anything else at 56 years that you were not at 23. So, we have a taste of things to come from this talented songstress. I fear for the current apolotical and apathetic generation. What is a people who have no artist who play a prophetic role in society? Artists must be the voice of conscience. However, we must admit that there is no distinction between artists and politicians today. They feed off each other.
      But the problem with Zahara, for instance, is not the little girl. It is her ‘handlers’ who are preoccupied with getting the cash tills ringing. And so what after that?
      well, as for HipHop in this country, i dont have much to say for weak imitators of Americans.
      Without wise artists we a doomed nation

    • http://thoughtleader.co.za/sandilememela Sandile Memela

      @rob & truthbetold: the issue of DISCONNECTION is for real for the following:
      * the black youth has been reduced to a market. the corporate and media culture is only interested in pushing an image and agenda of consumerism. they know that they have the money.
      * the black youth is, largely, embarrassed and ashamed of its parents who are portrayed as corrupt. this is enough to make anyone want to have very little association or connection with such parents.
      * the black youth has been systematically depoliticized to measure meaning, success and achievement as having ‘everything that whites have.’
      * the black youth is alienated from itself and has splinted into various dysfunctional groups with no agenda, focus or discipline.
      i mean, i can go on and on. but we have to look at the caliber of black youth who are ‘role models’ in society today.
      of course, this is a generalization but perhaps it is time we paused and looked at why HipHop artists in this country are neither hip nor hopping because they, largely, lack a connection with their past and history and heritage.
      maybe it would be interesting to hear what a bongani madondo has to say on this. this insightful arts writer has given his life to studying and writing about hip hop. but, of course, there is not enough space for black writers who do not tow the line. perhsp this is the reason why the artists are not political. everybody can be only be somebody when they become a nobody by selling their souls for gold &…

    • DJ realROZZANO

      awe rob, i run a event called best of ekapa underground hip hop, where we feature rappers not so famous like the names you have mentioned in your peace…trust me on the underground you will hear many anti-the-shitstem tracks…one nite we had isaac mutant from mitchells plain doing “jou ma se mapoesa” big dis against the police and government in general….ten minutes later we had a crew from khayelitsha doing a moerse anti malema/zuma song…then also an artist by the name of GRIEP, a young rasta from hout bay who has an awesome song against the DA and madam devil zille…remember our “hangberg incident” so please don’t look in stores for these songs but go online, search facebook and you will be quite surprized…i can name many artists producing anti-government songs that have become anthems here in ekapa!

    • DJ realROZZANO

      another point to remember rob is RSA went from political revolution pre 1994 to the economic revolution post 1994….hip hop heads are chasing the almighty RAND, they are not interested so much in the hip hop revolutionary culture but the mindless music for the masses hip hop industry…making money business…too many rappers are influenced by the tell-lie-vision, fooled into believing that they can be the next big thing on empty tv and channel zero bra…that’s the main focus…how can they dis the industry who pays them…?

    • http://www.vegansociety.org.za Aragorn23

      Check out Soundz of the South – a bunch of radical (some of them are anarchists) hip-hop artists in the Western Cape:

      http://soundzofthesouth.blogspot.com
      http://www.facebook.com/pages/Soundz-of-the-South-SOS/288401131288

    • http://listn.to/defignition Epoch

      Why should we talk about politics when we have bigger issues, we sick in the mental, the other reason why people don’t wanna spit political rap anymore is the following: Have you ever seen a hip hop party in cape town? Filled with pretentious suburban kids who are all about the cheddar, to quote, give them an inkling of a political rap and they complain that’s not why they here, they want to be entertained and the lyrics are too heavy for a Saturday night

      The reality is our generation just don’t care for the most part, we just want to be entertained we don’t want to think. Couple that with the fact that our mass media has a tendency to pussy foot around sensitive issues you will never hear politically charged views from any rapper on the radios for fear of hate speech charges or some whinging liberal complaining about reverse racism, the music is there though…just wont ever get the exposure it deserves

      http://listn.to/defignition
      http://soundcloud.com/r-cklotla/welcome-to-pollsmoore-produced
      http://soundcloud.com/league-of-shadows/khoesunz
      http://www.reverbnation.com/linkris
      http://www.reverbnation.com/artofrawep
      http://www.reverbnation.com/projectbreakfree
      http://www.reverbnation.com/hemelbesem

    • Churchil

      i think young cats emulate what they see and hear . Black noize and Prohets were influenced by Public Enemy and Krs1 etc where today kids are influenced by little wayne . Most innititives in SA are backed by some political party nowadays so if u even try to be political you wont get any work , nowhere.

    • Rob Boffard

      @Rozzano – fair point. I know about Isaac Mutant, though I haven’t heard his stuff for a while. Will check out Griep. You’re correct about the shift to economic revolution, but that’s hardly an excuse when there are still problems!

      @Epoch – first off, what makes you think that suburban white kids aren’t entitled to hold opinions, or support good music, or just, you know, be suburban white kids? Attack them for what they believe, not for who they are. But thanks for the links (and same to Aragorn23)

    • http://pioneerunit.com Dplanet

      I would argue that every artist in the Pioneer Unit stable (and many other crews in Cape Town) talk about ‘politics’ if you take a broader definition of politics to include commenting on the social conditions in artists’ communities.

      You also didn’t mention KONFAB, who directly tackles the uncomfortable realities of a racially divided post-apartheid South Africa. His track, Swart Gevaar, being the most obvious example:
      http://buy.pioneerunit.com/track/swart-gevaar

      I would also argue that many rappers (like many people) feel that politics is some distant ideal that happens a million miles away from where they live. They don’t feel part of any system that they can effect. The struggle to survive is way more immediate than an argument about government policy. Post struggle politics has left many people feeling apathetic and disconnected from government.

      Obviously there are many rappers who want to take the commercial route with the dream of getting paid. This means avoiding ‘heavy’ subjects and sticking to more radio-friendly themes like partying and conspicuous spending. Sadly (but obviously) the media supports these artists. Multinational corporations don’t want their adverts played next to a video of some rapper telling people to smash the system or burn down McDonalds.

      At Driemanskap’s last show, Ma-B got the crowd to chant “F••k politics! F**k politicians!”, before condemning all politicians for being money-hungry liars. It was a sentiment that…

    • http://www.reverbnation.com/nombongo nombongo

      I think the music is there but it needs to surface and as long as airwaves are drenched with this “colourful” music and these confused kids we are going to have bigger problems.

    • Rob Boffard

      Here’s a question. Why is Cape Town leading the charge on this? What is it about the city that produces these songs?

    • http://iamtrompie.tumblr.com Trompie

      Wasup Rob,

      I believe you missed the point that CapCity (known as Pretoria/Tshwane) have been doing such from the likes of Ba4Za, the old The ANVILS group and a couple more… the only problem that we faced from the city is that, radio still till today, filter music from Pretoria.

      MaliQ, who is part of Ba4Za has been a political activist for a while and if you’d listen to his “I have a dream” mixtape [found here: http://soundcloud.com/trompie-1, you’ll realize that its a continuation of content from his old mixtape, Official Bootlegs vol.1. The first single, “Welcome II South Africa” [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wxbpJsRXtQ] got shut down by a couple of radio stations cuz of its content… makes you wonder if its the latter or just cuz we hail from CapCity.

      So sometimes, broaden your research to find out exactly who did what and when…

      In CapCity, we been doing it!

    • http://www.facebook.com/namasan Nama xam

      @Rob. To answer your question about why Ekapa forwards with social and politically charged content, I think its where the slave system started and to a degree still continues today. Also Sa Hip Hop was huge in Ekapa during political unrest and felt the effects as kids.
      Make way to tha land of Khoe Khoen and see that since 1510 we’ve in the struggle vocally and physically for liberation-true liberation. A luta continua – Toa Tama !Khams Ge.

    • Rob Boffard

      @Trompie So that’s Maliq, Ba4za, the Anvils (who don’t, to my knowledge, exist any more) and…

      Nope, can’t think of any more.

      My point isn’t that it doesn’t exist at all. My point is that there’s not nearly enough of it.

    • http://www.facebook.com/namaxam Nama xam

      A holistic view
      With holistic hue
      This Cape Town stew
      May keep us subdued
      Cause we have not defined ourselves.
      People steer clear
      But have no clue
      I fear
      More birth of ignorant heads
      Emotional immaturity ignorant things said
      Look toward
      For salvation by these ignorant lead
      Headed
      Heavy weighted
      But not to stand ground
      Collecting fees disagreeing loud
      But softly robbing us blind now
      But we love the wow
      As they distract the crowd
      Who came to demonstrate
      And fight substance on their plates…