This morning I found myself listening to one of my favourite rap albums of all time: Immortal Technique’s Revolutionary Volume 2. One track in particular, The 4th Branch of the Government, captured my mind. While it speaks of the racism of American media and the need of African-Americans to read, I found myself thinking of its relevance to our continent’s own struggles. One of the greatest struggles we are currently facing as African people is the struggle for identity, which is born out of the colonisation of our history. As sons and daughters of the African soil, we face a crisis of not knowing where we come from, of not understanding what it means to be an African and therefore, of failing to appreciate and contribute meaningfully towards an African Renaissance ideal.
When we speak of the African Renaissance, many people think we are speaking about a complex political philosophy. Part of the reason for this misconception is that one of the people championing this philosophy, former president Thabo Mbeki, is revered as an astute intellectual who is concerned with complex socio-economic and political questions that are far removed from the day-to-day realities of the common man on the street. However, it is my sincere belief that the African Renaissance is not merely a political programme aimed at the development of an auto-centric developmental Africa through policy; it is the quest, above all, for a mental revolution that seeks to unchain Africans from shackles of imperial devastation and mental slavery that continue to define our present existence. It is the quest for the revival and the re-awakening of an identity that was destroyed by centuries of being told that we are nothing, of being told that we are savages unworthy of occupying a dignified place in the human race. And so the African Renaissance need not only be championed through policies and economic reforms, it needs to be championed through language, sports, science and technology and through arts, because pre-colonialism, these components formed part of a progressive African identity which today, we seek to rediscover and improve.
One tool that for me speaks greatly to the African Renaissance ideal is spoken word and rap music. It is most unfortunate that Africans have not taken time to study the history of rap music, because in understanding it, we will begin to have a deeper understanding of who we are as a people and where we come from. Contrary to the popular belief that rap music was born in the US, this genre of music in fact traces its genesis right here on the African continent where almost two centuries before it exploded onto the American music scene, it was already considered as an art and way of life in many parts of West Africa. In this part of Africa, in countries like Sierra Leone, Senegal, Togo and Guinea, poets and musicians were telling stories rhythmically. They would recite poetry talking about many issues that were of relevance to them, both trivial and complex, and utilise drums so that the beat would accompany their spoken word.
When the trans-Atlantic slave trade began in 1450, the first slaves that were taken from the continent to the Americas were from West African countries. These men and women were sent to work in cotton fields and sugar plantations in South and Latin America, forced to desert a place they called home, Africa. There, they were forced to abandon everything that tied them to their roots; given slave names to replace their indigenous ones, taught to speak a different language and above all, forced to abandon cultural rituals and practices that would have united them. Slave masters feared that with unity would come strength and with strength, the affirming of Africanness and the potential of unending uprisings. Initially, the slaves were too terrified to resist, fearing punishment that they had seen being heaped on those who had dared to defy authority. But as time went by, slaves began to assert themselves through engaging in certain forms of protest: growing of dreadlocks and reviving rap. And as had been done back in Africa, they made recitations about their material conditions, their aspirations and above all, the history that they were cast out of, a history they had always carried on their backs.
When slavery was finally aborted in the Americas, particularly in the US in 1865 after the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution by all states, many freed slaves did not return to Africa. Most of them had been born in the plantations and knew no other home. But they carried with them some of the practices that were transmitted to them, practices that became a defining part of their culture. One of these was rap music and spoken word. However, it was not until the mid-1960s that rap found its way into American culture as a street art among African-American and Latino teenagers. These were children who were latter descendants of the generation of African-Americans who had been freed from slave plantations. In the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement was at its zenith and with it, the rise of radical politics by African-Americans. This type of music was used as what we call protest art: art that is used to highlight socio-economic and political realities. By the 1980s, rap music was no longer exclusively an African-American culture. White rappers were releasing albums and by the early 1990s, rap had evolved into a more sophisticated, albeit conscious form of expression, with artists such as Tupac Shakur emerging.
Understanding the history of rap helps us to understand a critical component of our own history as a people, and it is in understanding this history that we can be able to architect an identity devoid of colonial constructs. Above all, it helps us appreciate the role of the conscious arts in our struggle for emancipation. The African Renaissance is futile without this consciousness. Our struggle for economic freedom is incomplete without this identity.