Something about hip hop/rap music is proving to be the most popular tool for African youths to organize and express collective resistance. Just last week, I wrote about the role of rap and hip hop music in Mali as a rising force of youth empowerment against perceived political injustice. This week, news reports from Angola are showing a similar trend. Rap star Luaty Beirao, aka Ikonoklasta, is helping galvanize opposition to the newly re-elected Angolan President of 33 years, Jose Eduardo dos Santos. Dissatisfaction with President Santos has been on the rise in Angola for the past several years. The majority of Angolans still live in extreme poverty (most reports estimate between 50-60%) despite Angola’s standing as the second largest oil producer and the third biggest economy in sub-Saharan Africa. The 30-year-old rapper uses his music to openly express his views and awaken young people to the power of protest. In 2011, while protests were heating up in North Africa, Ikonoklasta was busy heating up his own stage of some 3,000 fans with an exciting show where he sang out explicit language, waved anti-dos Santos flags, and rallied his audience for an anti-government protest to be held the following week. The show was also filmed and then re-posted to YouTube and spread like wildfire through the social media. Not too many of his fans showed up at the protest, but subsequent rallies and protests cropped up in the same place, and later, in other parts of the country.
Mr. Beirao keeps paying for his bold stand against the ruling party. He and a few other musicians were detained by the police from that concert in 2011. Again on June 11, 2012 Beirao was arrested by Portuguese authorities at Lisbon airport when coming from Luanda. Apparently a package of cocaine was found stashed in one of his bicycle wheels but he was soon released from custody based on strong indications that Angolan police agents had placed the drugs in his baggage to incriminate him. Another time, during a protest in March, Ikonoklasta was hit on the side of the head by police which left a scar he displays by wearing a mohawk haircut.
Ikonoklast describes his music as conscious hip hop and was drawn to music as a young adult because of the political content he heard in their lyrics. The music is not officially banned in Angola, but has been “purposely neglected” as Mr. Beirao puts it, for over 15 years. Conscious hip hop is not played on local radio or TV but its underground artists are household names and their music circulates throughout the country on pirate compilations. One of the genre’s biggest distributors are taxi drivers. Some claim that conscious hip hop/rap is far more popular than music that is promoted officially in public and private media. Social media like Facebook and YouTube also spread politicized Angolan hip hop across the continent and the world.
Some Angolan artists are also very productive outside of Angola. For example, the artist DJ Mpula, also known as Pedro Coquenão, is a kuduro artist who raps socially-conscious messages about Angola in much of his music. Kuduro, which has been around since the 1980s, is a music style that combines samples of traditional carnival music like zoucand soca from the Caribbean and semba from Angola. It weaves it into an up-tempo 4/4 electronica dance beat. Pedro’s sound is making its mark as a new kind of Angola-centric style for his inclusion of traditional Angolan rhythms, lyrics, and dances. His new album Batida, released by Soundway Records in March 2012, is a wonderful work. On this particular track, Tirei O Chapeau, the featured rapper, is none other than Ikonoklasta.
Pedro began to make his own tracks in his loft and drop them into a radio show he hosted in Portugal. The very encouraging reaction he got to his tracks gave him the idea to make a record. He sent out instrumentals to rappers in Angola and Lisbon, gave them a rough lyric theme that he thought matched the mood of the track. Before long, recordings of vocals started coming back. He took the album to producer and mixing engineer, Beat Laden, in Lisbon and finished it in 2009. Pedro told Soundcloud in a recent interview that “being half Angolan, half Portuguese gives me the chance to try to translate the countries to each other, on a small scale of course. It’s impossible now a days to live in Lisbon and not to talk about crisis. Likewise, it’s impossible to have friends and family in Luanda and not include the political and social problems that the city has.” One of my favorite tracks on this album is “Yumbala Mixtape.” I like it for the excellent blend of dance groove and serious lyric message. He denounces the general poor living conditions and corruption in Angola. But the serious topic doesn’t deter its overall objective – get up and move.
Back to the recent news articles on Angola– following its recent presidential elections, one observation by journalist Peter Wonacott jumped out at me. In his August 30th piece about youth protests, Wonacott says the moneyed elite in Angola live in swank apartment complexes such as the one called “Nova Vida” (The New Life,) while directly opposite lies a slum complex that residents call “Vida Esquecida” (The Forgotten Life.) It reminded me of something I’d heard before, but it wasn’t called “Nova Vida.” It was called “Waga 2000” and it refers to a development project of luxurious homes and apartments where the moneyed elite and businessmen congregate from all over West Africa. It too is only steps away from one of the poorest slum neighborhoods of Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. The same shocking divide between rich and poor is decried by hip hop/rap musicians in Burkina Faso today as well.
The trio includes the Burkina MCs, Art Melody and Joey Le Soldat, and Frenchman DJ Form — two rappers and a beatmaker. They claim to have become the spokesmen for the entire Burkinabe youth, students, shopkeepers, farmers and artists. They deliver the conscious hip hop with their own unique blend of electronic music, hip hop, and warba – a traditional dance of the Mossi, the largest ethnic group in the country. The two rappers protest the condition of Ouaga’s hoods, and the injustice of living day to day without any future, entrenched in poverty, corruption and violence. This track “Sak Sin Paode” (Accept What is Small) is off their brand new album, Waga 3000, named after the Ouaga 2000 development project. The vocals were recorded in Ouagadougou in just two days and their music video was reportedly shot on the fly in Ouagadougou.
African youth find hip hop/rap music an effective means of organizing and expressing collective resistance. In one way, this is not surprising at all. After all, rap in the United States and its Jamaican predecessor, toasting, has been an effective and wildly popular mode of communication among youths for decades. Right here in my own neighborhood in Alexandria, Virginia, I regularly drive down one particular street that divides the “the projects” on one side (public housing for low- and moderate-income residents) and brand new condos starting at $600,000 on the other. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that young local rappers on that very street have a rhyme or two about that. Furthermore, the roots of rap are African in a round about way because the art of storytelling and lyric improvising over a beat is quite ancient and found in many West African musical traditions. What is surprising is the significant differences between the ancient music forms that are the primary source material for hip hop/rap and contemporary hip hop/rap practiced by African youth today. In terms of musical lineage, tradition, instrumentation, and transmission, the two forms hardly seem related. Rappers don’t rhyme to traditional instruments anymore (though they may use them from time to time in their electronic mixes.) They aren’t born into a family lineage of rappers as many West Africans are, and they don’t learn the art through a process of face to face transmission from father to son, mother to daughter like the griots did and still do. Rap doesn’t have an African traditional repertoire, style, technique, and delivery that takes years of dedicated practice and sacrifice to master. Today’s African hip hop/rap artists are creating their own, new thing learning and styling themselves according to their own rules and aesthetics. They look to the West and to their own past for inspiration and direction. Similar to the back-and-forth, Circum-Atlantic love affair of the clave between West Africa and Latin America that resulted in AfroCuban, AfroBrazilian and Afro Columbian music, the love affair of the spoken word set to rhythm carries on it’s own stories in African hip hop and rap today.