Buried in the spilled ink about the death of Nelson Mandela last week was a mention in the Times of South African hip-hop artist HHP. His song, Harembe, explores the disconnect between the country’s born frees, who never knew apartheid, and the older generation, which fought to end it. He is joined by the Young Voices South Africa Choir, which following the general form of hip-hop, repeats the song’s only melodic phrase over and over again.
What’s wrong with this picture? Well, South Africa sort of has a musical heritage that is pretty darn rich, so to me it is disappointing that American style hip-hop should have such a foothold there. Yes, the struggle of African-Americans influenced the struggle against apartheid, so it’s a natural extension that the two cultures should cross pollinate. But when it comes to hip-hop, other forces are at work.
True, at one point hip-hop was the voice of the oppressed. Then corporations discovered there was money to be made by blowing it up, to use the industry slang, and now hip-hop reflects a multi-billion dollar industry. People (consumers) in other countries are naturally inclined to the new, and ‘America’ is a strong brand, so they get curious about hip-hop. Then some heavy marketing and promotion sweeps in and before you know it’s the only game going.
The only problem is what gets displaced. Here’s a taste of what other young voices of South Africa were doing before hip-hop:
It’s a dramatization of the Soweto uprising, from the 2003 movie Stander. Don’t watch past 2:45 or so unless you enjoy nightmares. The marching steps are the toyi toyi dance, the singing is frequently in improvised harmony, and the call and response is the famous Amandla! Awethu! (Power, to the people). For more of the soundtrack of the anti-apartheid struggle, see the wonderful movie Amandla!, with actual footage and more on how singing is part of the fabric of South African life.
I know I’m venturing past my identified mission of discussing classical music, and I risk offense through my ignorance. But for my money, however political HPP’s words might be, the harmonies and beats of his forbearers speak greater volumes.
Speaking of African music, I had the privilege of a visit to the Africa Museum outside of Brussels, shortly before it closed for a much-needed renovation. (That is, it was originally built to glorify King Leopold and his wonderful work in the Belgian Congo, but it has shed its propaganda and has long been a respectable research institution.)
Online, they have some tantalizing excerpts from their ethno-musicology collection, demonstrating the complex ur-origins of hip-hop. Click on the image below to be taken to their trove.
Maddeningly few are available to listen online. But I didn’t get past the ones from Rwanda, wondering where those singers, and their children, are now.
Here are a few shops from the Museum’s galleries. You’ll have to go elsewhere for the bust of King Leopold made from pure ivory.