While hip-hop’s arrival and initial adoption in various sub-Saharan African countries was, for the most part, strikingly similar, subsequent adaptations reflect locally specific realities of language, social norms, colonial histories, and contemporary economic and political structures. The fact that Africans have been making hip-hop for nearly as long as Americans means that discussions of African hip-hop must take into account not only multiple and shifting national contexts but also multiple generations of hip-hoppers effecting continuous change and development. The articles included here – representing case studies from Anglophone and Francophone West Africa, East Africa, Central Africa and Southern Africa – are only the tip of the iceberg; hip-hop has taken root in countless other countries, including North African ones.
Hip-hop is generally represented as a complex of performance practices – rapping, DJing, graffiti writing and breakdancing – that developed in the South Bronx in the late 1970s and early 1980s as an aesthetically mediated youth response to the racially fraught struggles of daily life in the postindustrial US inner city. This somewhat simplified narrative, while obscuring the role of West Indian and Latino contributors and rendering hip-hop an almost mythical musical creature, has carried weight throughout hip-hop’s global spread. Despite hip-hop’s roots in social dancing, the music’s role as a conduit for social commentary, particularly in the 1980s and early 1990s, has often led scholars and practitioners to define the music as a tool for consciousness raising, as exemplified in the ‘Godfather of Hip-Hop’ Afrika Bambaataa’s addition of ‘knowledge’ to the four elements of hip-hop culture noted above. This perspective often leads to a devaluing of hip-hop music that demonstrates explicitly commercial goals or whose lyrics emphasize sex, gangsterism or conspicuous consumption rather than overt political or social messages.
Hip-hop arrived in Africa very early on in its history, carried there largely through cassettes and videos brought or sent home by African immigrant workers in North America and Europe. This meant that in most cases young people from socioeconomically privileged backgrounds became hip-hop’s point of entry into various African countries. Almost without exception, the earliest African engagements with hip-hop performance – inspired by globally circulating hip-hop films such as Beat Street – took the form of breakdancing; perhaps due to linguistic barriers, rapping came slightly later, particularly in non-Anglophone countries.
Nevertheless, African youth soon began to rap, first mimicking US lyrics in English, and eventually (usually in the 1990s) transitioning to original lyrics in local languages: Wolof in Senegal, Swahili in Kenya and Tanzania, Lingala, Kiswahili and Luba in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and so on. An exception is Luga flow in Uganda, which was performed primarily in English until the late 1990s and therefore had little impact in a country where the majority of the population did not speak this official national language. In Gabon, the lack of an indigenous lingua franca posed a problem for rappers seeking to localize the music without drawing on colonial languages; they eventually chose to use widespread urban slang over French. In other countries, we find a greater variety of ethnically specific subsets of hip-hop; Nigeria, for example, has produced Yorùbá, Igbo and Hausa scenes in addition to English-language rap. In all contexts, locally produced musical tracks followed closely behind these linguistically localized lyrics.
Hip-hop has intersected in multiple ways with indigenous African musical practices as well as with local African popular music genres. Sometimes this entails drawing on local traditional musics or instruments, while in other cases, new hip-hop-pop hybrids form; these processes vary not only from one country to the next but between regions of the same country. Often, generational differences are tied up in changing norms of hip-hop musical production. For example, the earliest Senegalese hip-hoppers favored heavily indigenized musical tracks, while hardcore rappers in the mid-1990s rejected traditional music; rappers in the 2000s, however, have begun to re-embrace traditional music while insisting on the centrality of hip-hop rhythms. In Ghana, after initial forays into hip-hop that reproduced US styles, some hip-hoppers in the 1990s combined hip-hop with highlife, a West African popular music with roots in the palmwine guitar and Cuban son popular in the early twentieth century; the resultant hiplife genre has continued to evolve into the 2010s. Zanzabari artists have incorporated elements of indigenous ngoma performance into their zenji flava. Popular genres including Angolan kuduro, Congolese busipa and South African kwaito have roots in hip-hop as well as other local musics; hip-hoppers in Botswana in turn have drawn heavily on kwaito to create the hip-hop subgenre motswako. In many cases, hip-hop beats without these local elements are understood as more ‘hardcore’ and the artists who make them sometimes draw criticism for copying US hip-hop too closely.
Hip-hop’s expansion from elite urban pockets to larger audiences coincided with the development of local recording and increasingly accessible channels of dissemination, as African media spread to encompass private, non-state-regulated channels. Although early on in hip-hop’s trajectory we see artists rising to prominence through national competitions, and despite the increasingly democratic musical production of the mid-1990s and onward, in most cases the localized popular genres that preceded hip-hop continued to dominate local music industries and media outlets. Hip-hop takes a back seat to genres including mbalax in Senegal, kwaito in South Africa, rumba and ndombolo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and more pop-oriented incarnations of bongo flava in mainland Tanzania and zenji flava in Zanzibar. This unequal access to media play has, in some instances, exacerbated existing tensions between what are understood as ‘underground’ versus ‘commercial’ varieties of hip-hop and/or popular music. Although referring largely to lyrical content and concepts of social consciousness, debates over the ‘underground’ or ‘commercial’ properties of a particular artist’s music are often tied to musical choices; for example, bongo flava artists in Tanzania describe commercialism in terms of how much a song draws on pop genres other than hip-hop, and hip-hop in Senegal is sometimes viewed as too commercial if singing and traditional music obscure a hip-hop beat.
In fact, despite widespread claims to hip-hop as a form of resistance, the music’s connection to political figures and processes varies widely within and between national scenes. In 2005 Tanzanian political parties used music to influence the elections, and hip-hop artists explicitly endorsed candidates. Hip-hop in Gabon has held strong ties to the political elite since its inception, largely due to its roots in the privileged sectors of society that produced those same political leaders. Hausa hip-hop in Nigeria has faced religious censorship; its messages therefore tend to focus more on general social change than on explicit political critique. Hip-hop played a shifting role in the 2000, 2007 and 2012 Senegalese presidential elections, in the first instance endorsing a new candidate through music and speeches, in the second, failing to push that same president out of power, and in the third, mobilizing extramusical political demonstrations to enact a shift in leadership without, in this instance, endorsing any particular candidate. In South Africa, early hip-hop took a stance against apartheid, but its political proclivities have waned in the 2000s. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, rappers have generally focused on raising awareness of social issues rather than engaging in overt political action.
Language use, musical localization and engagement with local social and political issues are not only byproducts of local music industry and state involvement in hip-hop, but are also directly related to hip-hop’s widespread use in identity building. As African countries are increasingly urbanized, music – and hip-hop in particular – provides a means for young people to place themselves in a modern, globally interconnected world while also (re)connecting to indigenous modes of performance and ethnically specific identities that are sometimes blurred in cosmopolitan contexts. Hip-hop imagery of the ghetto often comes into play here, as African youth connect their own urban contexts to US hip-hop representations of the inner city. Hip-hop provides a forum for challenging established norms of intergenerational communication in many African cultures, where youth are expected to respect their elders to a point that limits their own voices. It also mediates between ethnic and racial identities, from joint projects between Igbo and Yorùbá Nigerian rappers to Senegalese group Bideew Bou Bess’s use of Fulani music in a Wolof-dominated urban context to the use of hip-hop to mediate between black, white and ‘colored’ identities in South Africa. The white South African group Die Antwoord, which has a large following in the United States, has built its distinctive style around the figurative and literal uses of blackface in its videos and personas.
In general, however, hip-hop’s potential for youth identity construction and a break with traditional norms has been largely limited along the lines of gender, with female artists representing a minority in each hip-hop scene. Although a few female artists have risen to prominence in different countries, social constraints related to marriage and the role of women in the home often render their careers more fleeting than those of their male counterparts. The success of women in other popular genres suggests that their scarcity within hip-hop may reflect the easy reconciliation of hip-hop misogyny imported from abroad and local patriarchies that place women at a disadvantage in public forums.
Despite hip-hop’s wide reach throughout Africa, African hip-hop has not yet made a significant impact on audiences outside of the continent, with a few exceptions such as Senegal’s Positive Black Soul and Daara J Family, and South Africa’s Die Antwoord. Musics that sound more immediately ‘African,’ such as Zimbabwean chimurenga, South African isicathimiya, Congolese soukouss and West African Afrobeat, generally have proven more attractive to Western (world music) audiences. In contrast, as the entries in this volume indicate, scholarly interest in African hip-hop continues to grow. The continent’s immense diversity provides a challenge for any scholarly treatment of Africa as a whole. However, shared histories of colonization, urbanization and migration allow one to draw connections between diverse African hip-hop scenes while acknowledging the music’s local specificity.
Saucier, Khalil. 2014. ‘Continental Drift: The Politics and Poetics of African Hip Hop.’ In Sounds and the City: Popular Music, Place, and Globalization, eds. Brett Lashua et al. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 196–208.