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.