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Zim hip-hop has a lot to achieve




HIP-HOP is the music of the young, right? Well, add young at heart with that statement because hip-hop is a middle-aged brother right about now.

Excuse the male-centric definition of the genre because when it set out on its storied journey, the genre was dominated by young urban males in the streets of the Bronx in New York. Of course, as it grew, many gifted female MCs have rocked the proverbial show in the form of Lil’ Kim, Queen Latifah, Da Brat and, more recently, Nicky Minaj and Cardi B.

Hip-hop is about 50 years old in the making as a sub-culture which spans several facets such as the music, the fashion, the dance, the graffiti, the language, and the sensibility. It is a way of being; an ingrained hustler’s mentality of survival or beating the streets. Well, hip-hop has in a sense “beat the streets” and gone corporate since the days of KRS 1, African Bambaata and Grand Master Flash in the late 1970s and ‘80s.

The likes of Russell Simmons, Jay Z, P. Diddy and Dr Dre are millionaires through parlaying the fame garnered through hip-hop music into global brands. Along the way, we have had the likes of fashion brands Karl Kani and FUBU representing, closely relating with and benefitting from association and promotion of the culture whose original MCs such as Run DMC popularised Adidas trainers and sneakers.

 They found a way to monetise the hustle utilising the creativity of urban youth across art disciplines. In this sense, Bulawayo has not only spawned hip-hop artistes such as POY and the late Cal_Vin, it has fashion brands Da Grapevine and Kingsville.

Hip-hop business

Hip-hop started about 50 years ago without bags of dollars from either government or corporate support. The blueprint involved developing the art form and evolving the sub-culture and gaining the critical mass over time of youthful subscribers across racial and demographic lines.

Now it is a juggernaut. According to Forbes magazine, R&B and hip-hop are music’s most consumed genre and leading the industry’s revival.

The report found cites a 2017 Goldman Sachs report which found live music, publishing and recorded songs to have made US$26 billion, US$6 billion and US$30 billion respectively. Goldman Sachs, as per Forbes, estimates that by 2030, these categories will reach US$38 billion for live music, US$12.5 billion for publishing, and the biggest gain will be seen in recorded songs at US$80 billion. What will be the percentage our local hipsters bring into the coffers?

Beating the streets, growing up hip-hop

In our youth in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, we had beat boxes, rapping and breakdancing challenges in street corners and community halls in the ghettoes. We did not know what to do with it or how far it would run.

We knew mostly one thing: it felt damn good to affect the American Negros in speech and dress code, especially after watching movies such as Beat Street and Breakin’ (both released in 1984) and not to “let the street beat you”, to quote a lyric of the seminal movie Beat Street of the day. We were in our minds these black American brothers; completing a cycle. The drum, which had journeyed from Africa through the slave ships to America, had come back again to the motherland. It was our music as much as theirs.

But I will never forget the lyric from the Beat Street sound track: “and the children in Africa don’t even eat. Flies in their faces, they are living like mice and the house even makes the ghetto look nice”. Looking back, this narrative chimed so well with the imagery of emaciated African kids during the notorious famine in Ethiopia of around the same time which prompted Michael Jackson to pen the pop anthem We Are The World, whose proceeds were donated to the effort to assist the relief efforts in that country.

So I imagine that the brothers then did not imagine that we listened avidly to their music and lived vicariously through them in their ghettoes. We romanticised and lapped up the mirage of the American dream whatever it was. But with age we know that show business is a game of smoke and mirrors and what glitters is not always gold, to use a cliché. Still, that has not stopped millions of youth wanting to be and reaching for the proverbial stars. 

Growth of a genre

Now, the music in Zimbabwe has grown in leaps and bounds since its first tentative steps with the ascendancy of A Peace of Ebony comprising Chioniso Maraire, Tony Chihota and Schwanborn back in the ‘90s.

The group, produced by Keith Farqurson, prefigured the Afrocentric grooves now dominating pop music as purveyed by the Nigerians. They were the Fugees before the Fugees, if you get my drift, and they captured the popular imagination so much that some of us were rooting for a global breakthrough…

But the world was not yet ready for them. It would need a couple more years before Zimbabwe would produce an artiste with the pedigree to get noticed internationally in the manner, for example, of Asaph (Born Takudzwa Tarukwana) who got nominated for the MTV Awards. 

There have been a number of standout acts such as Synik, Junior Brown, Maskiri, Stunner, Cal_Vin and POY. More recently, Holy Ten, TGonzi from Harare and Awa, Muse and Asaph (pictured) from Bulawayo have shown considerable hip-hop mettle.

There is a whole bunch of these artistes simmering and seething beneath the mainstream of radio plays and media platforms. Bekithemba Sibanda aka Thorne Laroq, award-winning radio DJ (Khulumani FM), TV personality, event manager (It is Bigger Than Hip-hop) and music producer says hip-hop Zimbabwe is in the best place it has ever been in decades despite critics charging that local artistes are culturally appropriating an American sub-culture. “In terms of skills, there is nothing happening anywhere in the world musically that can’t be done here locally lyrically and instrumentally.

Zimbabweans have always had their heads in the game from the early ‘90s, maybe because of the way we were raised up in terms of radio and TV. International trends are incorporated in the very fibre of our lifestyles in what some see as lack of pride in our heritage or simply growing up on the global arena in terms of entertainment and trends and the freedom to choose artistically how we want to be heard by the world.”

Cultural appropriation?

One of the critiques of urban youth music is the fact that the dominant genres rap and dancehall are Jamaican and American imports respectively. But critics miss the point about art in general and the transcendent essence of it.

Music knows and recognises no boundaries, just like literature, for example. I still hold The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as one of my all-time favourites. There will be many who will swear by Enid Blyton’s classic books about girl sleuth Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. Sibanda offers a nuanced take on the debate around local hip-hop purveyors. “Zimbabwe does not need a Zimbabwean sound, it needs a Zimbabwean story and lifestyle attached to the music if the world market is gonna take us seriously. Lyrically, in as much as we grew up in the global village, we cannot excel recycling Western lifestyles and stories. There will not be any growth and public participation until people and fans find relevance in the bars we spit.”

Finding identity

According to Sibanda, the current crop of hip-hop needs to dig deep to contend and compete globally. “They need to find themselves and tell the world the truth about themselves and stop pretending to be South Africans and Americans.

There is nothing wrong with keeping up with trends, but let’s tell the Zimbabwean story like the Americans and South Africans or Nigerians constantly tell theirs. Then, maybe then, we might just win the local hip-hop fans. Everyone knows Zimbabweans can rap, but what are they saying to the ordinary man, women and children of the world? We need to stop rapping at rappers and think of ourselves as musicians and make music for the people, not other musicians.”

A good space ?

Naboth Rimayi, a hip-hop pioneer of Da Grapevine and author however feels the genre is in a good place. “Hip-hop is in a good place. We definitely are showing the country what a force we can be. Every now and then we keep capturing the country and trending on all sorts of things. From ‘beef’ with Gze and Noble Stylez to Asaph’s MTV nomination, to Holy Ten and Enzo’s face-off that saw everybody getting involved…hip-hop is alive and is definitely taking centre stage at will. Obviously we want more consistency and not sporadic outbursts, but definitely growth is evident.

Holy Ten has the most amazing numbers on his YouTube videos and streams, showing that people are following through and his quality is evident. Asaph got an MTV Base nomination and was put in a category with the best of the best from Africa so you can see it’s evident we are on those export levels.

The collaborations with overseas and across the border artistes is evident we have something to offer, even the sound is getting more interesting, especially when you listen to artistes like Tanto Wavie with his Trap Su (Trap Sungura) you can tell a lot of thought and skills have gone into coming out with a global sound that is Zimbabwean. Luminous is doing well in Chicago with his song ‘Regular’ to the extent that they had to feature him on their Chicago top five playlist on their radio station.”

Going by the moniker  Naboth Rizla, Rimayi has come a long way organising rap battles in the city of Bulawayo which is currently been pushing the #HipHopCapital hashtag and movement in a bid to position itself as a mecca of all things hip-hop in not only Zimbabwe but also Africa as whole. But is this not too audacious a gambit? 

Laying the foundation: awards

Well, for tangible growth to be realised there has been need for structure in the fledgling sector and awards shows are integral for the growth and development thereof. The NewsHawks was invited to the Press conference in Bulawayo by organisers of the Pogues Zimbabwe Hip-Hop Awards (ZHHA) as envisioned by Aldrean “Beefy” Harrison. The purpose of the presser was to announce the opening of the submission process for the 11th edition of the awards ceremony slated for 11 December.

The awards are the brainchild of Harrison and Alexander Mutumha and they launched in 2011 ostensibly to promote and market the hip-hop genre in Zimbabwe. The ceremony is held every second week of December. They have had their fair share of controversies as is common with the genre (refer to The Source Awards at the height of gangster rap in the US). Beefy has paid the cost to be the boss of these awards to be quite frank and, of course, made several personal sacrifices to keep them alive and therefore help prop up the nascent dreams of a section of our urban youth.

The other section embraced dancehall music, which is rap’s first cousin!

The nominations will close on 1 November. The adjudication will take place from the 2nd to the 10th of November with a nominees list being announced on 12 November. 

“The Zimbabwe Hip-Hop Awards (ZHHA) are back to celebrate the 11th anniversary. The awards will happen either virtually or conventionally, depending on the state of the Covid-19 regulations at the time of production. As the leading authority on Zimbabwe hip-hop culture and Africa’s first and prestigious hip-hop awards, our mission is to use elements of popular youth culture and media to inspire, motivate and empower the music of young people by acknowledging and celebrating local artistes in their respective genres. Our headline sponsor, The Pogues Whiskey, is back on board for a second year running; their support will assist in producing a quality awards ceremony.

It is also a pleasure to announce an addition to the executive, our new head of operations Bekithemba Sibanda also known as Thorne Laroq. His input to the brand will shape, carve and unite the hip-hop industry. He has years of experience in the genre not only as an artiste, but as a promoter and a leader,” said Harrison in his statement.

Beefy revealed that a partnership with Tunecore, the world’s leading music distributor for independent artistes, was also formed earlier in the year.

“Distribution has been a major challenge for artistes across the globe. As Zim hip-hop awards, we value growth, education and success of our Zimbabwean artistes hence our partnership with Tunecore, a one-stop shop for independent artistes. By just the click of a link, an artiste’s music can be distributed in over 150 digital music stores and streaming services across 100-plus countries worldwide and get to keep 100% of their sales.”

24 categories for the awards are Best Male, Best Female, Best Collaboration, Best Hip-Hop Group, Best Producer, Best New Comer, Best Brand Supporting Local Hip-Hop, Best Album, Best Promoter, Best Diaspora, Best Radio DJ, Best Club DJ, Best Gospel, Best Dance Act, Best Underground, Best Alternative, Best Online Media, Best Journalist, Song of the Year, Video of the Year and Video Director of The Year, Best Hip-Hop Hustle, Best Hip-Hop Verse (Sweet 16 award), Hip-Hop Personality of The Year and People’s Choice.

“Hip-hop is a culture, it is a lifestyle too. The growth has been really evident over the years. Local artistes are breaking new barriers each year with new achievements. As we speak, many local hip-hop artistes have been touring, something we only used to see with other genres excluding hip-hop artistes.

We have already seen artistes like Asaph being nominated for the Mamas. International companies like Tunecore partnering Zim hip-hop awards. We have seen Holy Ten on a regional and international tour. The list goes on and on. More collaborations on the way.”

On hip-hop beefs and flexes

“Hip-hop is all about flex, artistes are all entitled to their opinions and, yes, if we’re talking hip-hop culture, all elements of it are more represented and active in Bulawayo, but it does not mean these cannot be found in Harare. Alternatively, we saw a big eruption and debate in Harare about who is the king of hip-hop and many artistes in Harare beefed about this. So at the end it’s all based on opinions, people say Bulawayo is the hip-hop capital and Harare has the kings of hip-hop, it’s all flex at the end of the day and it’s good for competition and the culture. But as Zim Hip-hop Awards, we do not look at which city you come from, we are a national brand. And we push to see hip-hop well-represented throughout Zim not just two or three cities,” said Harrison.

Monetising the hustle

Sibanda: “There are billions of dollars the world over, spinning around hip-hop music and culture worldwide. Zimbabweans themselves spend thousands of dollars every day on international products and music emulating that lifestyle. Why are we not getting a cent from that? It’s simple; no one can identify with our music enough to pay money for it.

There is no reflection of Zimbabwean lifestyle in our hip-hop like there is in Zimdancehall for instance, that’s why Zimdancehall will always fill up stadiums while hip-hop acts run to social media to beg for likes and followers. The issue is relevance. When you write and record your music, which is your target market?

Can they identify with the words you’re speaking? Entertainment is a business, we need to start thinking harder about what we are selling and to whom we are selling it to. How are we packaging our product, is it worth paying for? Until then, we will not be getting paid for hip-hop anytime soon.

We are a talented generation that grew up in the most gruesome environment and industry in the world. An artiste has to be their own producer, manager and promoter all in one. But let’s not cry about it, let’s own it and run with it that way.

Educate ourselves more and learn how to play with social media and make good music and visuals. We have talent out here, if we set up structures amongst ourselves and invest in our social capital through exchange of services we can build those structures and monetise this thing.

Rimayi: “Until rappers are celebrated as much as doctors and engineers because of the much-needed role they play, then we won’t see more or anything coming out from musicians, let alone rappers. In my book Selling Out Without Selling Out: a Musicians Guide to Airplay and Sustainability, I highlighted how a rapper from Bulawayo or Zimbabwe can get airplay, create meaningful relationships and sustain themselves through the opportunities music provides. So yes, hip-hop is monetisable through so many ways, thanks to technology and other creative ventures like blogging, podcasting, teaching different skillsets on top of the music monetisation platforms for song, video, live performances streams, and so much more. You can’t just get in the studio and rap and think you’re done. To make it, you have to do more and the more you do the better the income streams you can get into as well. I urge all that want to really make it to reas as much as they can, challenge yourself to do more and dare to be different…that way you can create your own ways of securing ‘the bag’ (more money). Technology is your friend!”

Parting shot

On a Cornell University website reporting on a hip-hop summit in 2011, Albert Conzo, a hip-hop afficiando and photographer, commented. “You love this culture so much, close your eyes — what do you see? … What other genre of music has had the impact globally that hip-hop has? It’s in the way we dress, the way we talk, the way we treat each other. If you don’t preserve it, it’s lost.” Hip-hop is grown up now, but it is still very much a young people’s game.

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