Saturday, April 13, 2013

Has Hip Hop Made The Mark As Malawi's Commentary Tool?

“For no man lives in the external truth, among salts and acids, but in the warm, phantasmagoric chamber of his brain, with the painted windows and the storied walls,” so says Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 – 1894) in the essay, ‘The Lantern-Bearers’, where he pays honour to the youth who, in their wistful dreams, transform their everyday frustrations into creative forms such as music and poetry.

Of course, Stevenson was referring to the youth of the mid and late 1880s, but his observation holds true even today- as modern youth continue the tradition of expressing their feelings through music. Among African youths, this frustration has often been expressed through the hip hop music genre, through the genre has all but faded in the USA, where it was extensively used as a social commentary among African Americans.

So darling was the genre to African Americans that, in 1988, American hip hop artist Chuck D famously referred to it as the ‘Black CNN’; meaning, the best way to gauge opinion about the goings-on in the ghetto, the authorities simply had to listen the hip hop music emanating from these communities.

Not surprisingly, Malawian musicians caught hip hop’s magic wand in the late 1980s, with local acts such as Taps Bandawe (between 1988 and 1989), Boyz Lazy (between 1990 and 1995), Criminal A (Alfred Makunje), and The Real Elements (the first Malawian group to record a hip hop album due to their international exposure) becoming some of the first acts to join the fray.

However, perhaps because of the prevalent conditions then, the artists did not immediately turn their lyrics into an ample commentary on poor living conditions, and poor government policies. They tasted the ground with love, and other soft issues. It could be said that the mood of mixed anguish and fear was not mirrored in their lyrics- just exultation at the many positives that decorate the land: the lakes, rivers, the beauty of love, and other feel-good themes.

“In so doing, however, the early hip hop musicians neglected the real issues despite doing well to avoid colouring their music with obscenities- which often furnished the background of the original hip hop music in the US,” says local hip hop artist, Noxious.

Noxious believes that, had the hip hop pioneers in Malawi played the role of the political critic, things would have been far much better.

However, musician Wellington Chatepa, who once served as Musicians Association of Malawi chairperson, says there is nothing wrong with the approach musicians take, “so long as they manage to put the message across”.

Local hip hop thematic lines

Chatepa, however, observes that local musicians have made the best out of genres such as hip hop by fusing them with traditional beats, thereby creating something close to the heart of Malawians.

Chatepa says experience has proved that Malawians, including those in authority, take heed of the strong as well as subtle messages conveyed through music. He says this is done to ensure that the audience is moved with something like the emotions of life- emotions variously provoked by the fusion.

He says, for instance, that it is not often the beat that drums the message across; rather, the audience gets moved when a young man labours to find the love of his life, a young woman bemoans the lost spark in their love, or when a divorced spouse lambasts her lost love, or expresses raw emotions as she sinks into irretrievable emotions- issues so close to life.

In line with Chatepa’s words, the country is full of musicians who have made names for themselves by fusing hip hop with traditional beats such as Manganje, Mganda, Tchopa, Gulewankulu Dance, Ingoma, Vimbuza, or some elements of Afro Pop, R & B, just to mention a few, and got nominations on the strength of it.

Take, for instance, the example of Tay Grin, who has more than once been among Channel O nominees for his close-to-culture beats, pointing out, yet again, that there is gold in culture.

The most outstanding feature in his beats is the unmistakable sound of the drum, which feeds well into the opinion of people who have a kin eye at history. Some of the people with a kin interest in African history and current affairs, especially University of Malawi lecturer Simbalashe Mungoshi, have always bemoaned the missing element of the drum in local music.

One of the things Mungoshi takes issues with is the way local music sounds from afar. He observes sounds of the keyboard override the voice of the musician and the drum- a tool he says was supposed to override the key board, percussions, and the guitar strings because Africans have always been known by the drum.

In deed, the drum is the epicenter of African music, and is a common feature at traditional ceremonies such as Chinamwali (initiation ceremony), rural weddings, funerals of respectable people among the Chewa, Vimbuza (spirit dance), among others.

Perhaps Tay Grin has taken heed of this message, and punctuates his songs with the heart-rending sound of the drum which, when featured in a video tape, comes with a full course of traditional dancers that expose local traditional beats to audiences far and wide.

The themes in the Nyau King’s songs range from culture exultation, war cerebrations, heritage (as in Kumalira Ngwenya), and, sometimes, self aggrandizement- a typical feature among the youth who, it seems, find relish in ‘beefing’ (mocking) others.

Then, there is Third Eye, whose genre has the characteristics of pure hip hop. The musician, using hip hop as a social commentary, addresses social issues such as violence, and promotes the respect for child rights, and real love, among others.

That is how his songs have come to be identified with the African child, as in ‘African Child’, a song that is decorated by the unmistakable voice of Jay-T. ‘Deep’ is another piece that shows how it feels when emotions have been stretched to the limit.

With Barry One, whose songs also boast of hip hop elements- although it is clear that he fuses some local elements to create a unique, but hip hop leaning touch, the themes are often love, beauty, and self-aggrandisement which comes in a positive way- touting all the resources, including the human soul, endowed in man and Malawi.

This make-merry spirit reflects itself when he sings of ‘Life Kuusumana’ (enjoying life), as waxes lyrical about all the positive things that surround man. This, in a way, represents a self-detachment from the Malawian way of singing, in which most local musicians bemoan the many social challenges besetting the nation.

This also goes for Young Kay who, though his songs come nowhere near hip hop (and tilt towards R&B) and Afro-Pop, waxes lyric about love with beats that have some traces of hip hop as they employ hip hop-style anecdotes- just like Genii Blakk also does well to retain the flow. There message is about positive consciousness.
“It does not matter how one passes the message, the point is that Malawians listen to the message,” Chatepa says.

Learning from others

In the African Studies Quarterly (Volume 13, Issue 3 | Summer 2012), Msia Kibona Clark- Assistant Professor in the Department of Pan African Studies at California State University with a research focus on African American relations, and African hip hop expressions- notes that Africa has positively used the genre as a social commentary.

Clark observes that hip hop’s origins lie in its use as a tool of self -expression and self-definition, “using the platform of hip hop to speak out on a host of social and political issues”.

Clark says, when hip hop arrived in Africa in the 1980s, it swept across the African continent like a tidal wave, becoming firmly implanted in almost every country on the continent in the early 1990s. All over Africa, in countries like Burkina Faso, Kenya, Ghana, Mali, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda, hip hop’s presence dates back to the 1980s and 1990s.

“Today, each of Africa’s metropolitan areas, has a hip hop community, a community that includes rap emcees, producers, DJs, graphic designers,musical performances, and in many cases radio stations, dancers, and fashion designers. All of these elements promote hip hop by participating in the continuation of the culture in various ways,” says Clark.

Chatepa cannot agree less: “Look, some people say that we do not have a music identity as Malawians. But the truth is that music identity does not exist; it’s the individual artists who have an identity," Chatepa says.

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