Hanna’s talent laid bare on ‘The Girl in the Durag’

The young rapper has released an assured first album and is now trying to balance being a student with making her mark on the music industry.

“I would get bored of making music if I just stayed in one box. Having different influences and trying different things is what makes music interesting. That’s how you figure out your sound,” says Zimbabwe-born rapper Hanna, 22. “I don’t want to sound like everyone else.” 

Listening to her debut mixtape, The Girl in the Durag, this manifesto is made real. The album is a steady introduction to Hanna’s musicality, with themes that cover her personal life, including love and heartbreak. Its soundscape fuses multiple influences such as R&B artist Kehlani, rapper J Cole and K-pop group BTS.

A multi-instrumentalist, Hanna plays the piano, guitar and marimba. “I think having a background in playing instruments completely changes the way you view music. It makes it easier for me to understand melodies and chords. It also makes me far more melodic than some of my counterparts. 

“It also helps me in production. I do enjoy being involved in the production and it allows me to adapt to whatever music I’m making more easily,” she says. 

Photographs supplied by Africa Creative Agency.

Hanna first caught the attention of the hip-hop industry in 2018 when she uploaded rap videos to social media and was chosen to feature on Red Bull’s Lift As You Rise EP (2019). It was a big moment in her career and led her to Africa Creative Agency, a talent management company. This is also where she met Nasty C of Tall Racks Records as well as the songwriter and producer Tellaman, and gained her moniker, “the girl in the durag”, for her penchant for wearing one.

“I officially started working on the album in September 2019,” says Hanna, though some songs were crafted before then, including the heartwarming and personal Never Doubt, which she started working on in 2017. The track features close friend Luna Florentino reassuring her with, “You have the potential to be worldwide”, over a voice note that segues into a looping trumpet, under which sits a punchy 808 beat that becomes the song’s signature. 

Hanna affirms herself too, rapping, “I can make a way, I can be the greatest, I won’t fade away.” She announces herself to the industry with the song, aiming to leave her mark. 

At ease being vulnerable

There’s an emotional anchor to the mixtape, with songs like Low Key, Heaven Interlude and Okay reflecting on past relationships. Hanna isn’t afraid to be vulnerable, and it is especially in these moments that her easy-going flow, nimble at times, becomes clearly apparent. There is a deftness to her approach that echoes J Cole – who she regards as an inspiration – while having the polish of American rapper Rapsody.

Though the process of making the album was not straightforward for Hanna, the Cape Town-based rapper has carefully meshed old and new work into a neatly intersecting puzzle. “[The mixtape] is a culmination of my life experiences. The songwriting process was all over the place. There were a lot of verses that were plucked from the archives,” she admits, referring to some of the verses that were initially posted as short videos on Instagram.  

As a new artist, Hanna is not seeking out big names in the industry and prefers working with other underground artists who she understands well. “In terms of writing and features, it was always important for me to work with my friends,” she says, adding that “most of the songs were quite collaborative” and co-written with others.

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Singer, songwriter and producer Nalu, who features on Okay, speaks glowingly about her good friend and how meaningful their collaboration was. “I think Hanna and I were both going through the most in terms of our life experiences,” Nalu says. 

“We came together to write this song that gave us a safe space to be vulnerable and to be able to give our own account of our stories. We were both singing about completely different scenarios and experiences in our lives, but our stories make sense together.” 

Hanna didn’t initially intend to work with Florentino, who’s making a name for himself as a rapper and producer primarily making trap music. But she had people whispering in her ear about his talent and versatility, and he helped her finish Bad Habits, a song she struggled to complete. 

In the song, which has a high-octane instrumental component, Hanna expresses how she wants to kick the habits that could hold her back in her studies – “I need to get to my lectures”, “stop procrastinating and use my alarm more” and “I’m doing long distance with my degree”. The message is relatable to her young audience and Florentino glides on the beat, autotuning his deep and cogent voice.

Trying to manage it all

The second-year computer science and engineering student at the University of Cape Town initially pursued a degree in electrical engineering. She admits that it is difficult to find a balance between forging a path in music and her studies. 

“The best that I can do is to just manage what I can, when I can. There are times when music needs to take a back seat, there’s the time when I have to do that with school. It’s just a sacrifice on either end,” she says.

For Hanna, releasing the tape was all about timing. “Quite a few of the songs did pop up in late 2019. I ideally wanted to drop the tape that year. Thankfully I didn’t, because songs like The Girl in the Durag and Low Key wouldn’t have been on the project,” she says. 

The height of the pandemic in 2020 saw many musicians create from home and it was tough for Hanna to complete the mixtape. “Working in lockdown was very hard. We had to mix the whole project virtually over Zoom, which was torture, but we got it done.”

Thinking about what comes next, she’s outgrown wanting to work with her idols and other big names. But she mentions Elaine, Shekhinah and Tellaman as artists she would be keen to collaborate with, alongside rapper Blxckie and alternative British rapper Kojey Radical.

The Girl in the Durag’s cover art depicts Hanna sitting cross-legged inside a box-like space, the sides of which feature school desk-type doodles drawn on a blue background. There are triangles, circles, a laptop, headphones, her star sign – Scorpio – and a microphone, among other objects. Each has meaning, symbolising what makes Hanna who she is and representing the project as a whole.

Hanna lays herself bare emotionally on the mixtape, allowing listeners into her state of mind and sensibility. “I don’t know any other way to make music,” she says.  

And with her instinct to go with what comes naturally, there is a sense that, as she stares resolutely into the distance on her cover art, she’s gazing into the makings of a long future in music.

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