How to ‘keep it real’ in a cash-tainted hip-hop world

Where rap meets money, politics is often sacrificed. Cape Town has arguably produced a rap rooted in the realities of marginalised people.

At the South African Hip-Hop Summit at this year’s Back To The City hip-hop and street culture festival, a member of the audience asked why the Cape Town rapper Kanyi Mavi doesn’t get radio play on major radio stations. “She’s too real,” responded Emile YX?, a member of the country’s first ever hip-hop crew Black Noise.

The veteran rapper, breakdancer and philanthropist went on to clarify his response later on at the summit, saying: “Understand that when people talk about radio play, if what you rap is contradictory to the brand … like, if they need to sell this advert after your song, if you’re talking shit about them, they’re not going to play your song. So you can’t speak truth to power because the adverts, they’re paying the bills. Radio and TV is about advertising … it’s not about you.”

The birth of hip-hop in South Africa

South African hip-hop started in Cape Town. And, since the 1980s, Cape Town hip-hop has always been known for its socially conscious lyrics that favour the impoverished, the primary intended audience of the genre. Ill.Skillz, Kanyi Mavi and Driemanskap evoke the harsh realities faced by black people in the Mother City. Prophets of Da City and Black Noise called out the apartheid government while Godessa and the late Mr Devious paint a picture of life in the Cape Flats. If you like your rap to meet reality, Cape Town never disappoints. 

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When hip-hop spread to other parts of the country, especially Joburg, in the 1990s and early 2000s, it followed the blueprint laid down by Cape Town – the likes of Hymphatic Thabs, Cashless Society, Zubz, Tumi and The Volume and others made music less deeply rooted in social commentary. But the more money the genre generated, the less socially conscious it became. Through mainstream media, the genre’s face and intent changed. Artists and groups such as Skwatta Kamp, Jozi, Khuli Chana and the late HHP made music that was popular on radio and TV in the mid to early 2000s, laying the foundation for the current generation of rap superstars, such as Nasty C, AKA, Cassper Nyovest, Nadia Nakai and Emtee, to name a few, whose music is currently a fixture on radio and TV platforms.

Beats without politics

It’s important to note that socially conscious hip-hop music has always existed in both regions, and still continues to do so, to this day. The difference is that radio and TV have always preferred music that stays away from “controversial” issues such as politics, as Emile YX? mentions. AKA famously told United States radio personality Sway Calloway in an interview that it’s not a great idea for rappers to express their genuine feelings about the government. “If you go too far with the politics, there are political repercussions,” he said. “We do have freedom of speech, just don’t fuck with the government.”

Mainstream rappers normally keep clear of “fucking” with the government. A few exceptions include the likes of Reason, Stogie T, Shane Eagle and a few more.

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It’s also important to note that popular artists such as AKA, Cassper Nyovest, Nasty C, K.O and Riky Rick, who are currently the faces of Joburg and South African hip-hop, are all originally from outside of the City of Gold. Most artists migrate to Joburg in order to access the broadcasting platforms that are the most influential in the country. 

The music business requires an artist to be based in Joburg, which is still the only South African city with the kind of infrastructure that can support rappers’ careers and lifestyles. If a young hip-hop artist aims to become a household name or earn a decent income from their music, they need to be within reach of influential media platforms such as Metro FM, 5FM, YFM, MTV Base, the South African Broadcast Corporation (SABC), Channel O, Vuzu and so on, most of which are primarily based in Joburg. 

Radio’s power

Emile YX? acknowledges that some songs will never get on radio. He cites the group’s 1994 album A Rebirth of Mind and Hip-Hop, which he tried to sneak into radio on a few occasions. He recalls a time when Black Noise was at a radio station and they asked the station to play one of their songs. “The one song was called Who Taught You to Hate Yourself? and it featured a sample from speeches by Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela. So half the song goes: ‘Who taught you to hate yourself?’ and the second part is Nelson Mandela saying: ‘The white man.’ Within three minutes, the radio station manager came and switched it off and said that it wasn’t in the spirit of reconciliation. But just to try to put into context what we’re really up against today.”

A majority of Cape Town hip-hop artists are still facing the same barriers. Their music is only heard by a few ears. This is a pity, as the work of most Cape Town rappers reflects the lived realities of Capetonians, as they collectively create a nuanced archive of black life.

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YoungstaCPT, the most recognised Cape Town rapper of this generation, recently released his debut solo album, 3T (an abbreviation for “things take time”), which comprises 22 tracks featuring autobiography and social commentary. By telling his story, YoungstaCPT is sharing the injustices that people defined as coloured by apartheid face in contemporary South Africa, especially those located in Cape Town. He cleverly weaves in the country’s history of colonialism and apartheid in songs such as YVR (Young Van Riebeek) and VOC (Voice of the Cape). 

“I knew that the only way I was going to make people understand the situation in these ghettos like Grassy Park, Ottery and Lotus River is if I took them right back to the start … ”, says the rapper.

Last year, there was an outcry when YoungstaCPT was announced as one of the artists to perform at Afropunk in Johannesburg. According to make-up artist Muzi Zuma, at the afterparty celebrating L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate horse racing event in 2016, the rapper and his friend recorded a video of Zuma, laughing, uploaded it on social media and captioned it: “What’s this?” 

The video was reportedly removed a few moments after being uploaded. The rapper denied the claims on Twitter. “I’ve never been to Jade or the Queen’s Plate,” he tweeted. “[In] 2016 I was living in Hillbrow so I’m not sure who disrespected Muzi. It’s all love from my side, no bad energy at all.” 

5 August 2019: YoungstaCPT’s lyrics are often political with themes including the violence in Grassy Park, Ottery and Lotus River and South Africa’s colonial and apartheid history.

YoungstaCPT’s Cape Town dream

In being the first hip-hop artist to achieve so much mainstream recognition while still based in Cape Town, YoungstaCPT has achieved the unthinkable. He’s also making music that’s specific to the city and its surroundings. 

While people defined as coloured by apartheid in South Africa have been reduced to caricatures and stereotypes in mainstream media, he has been providing counter-narratives to the stereotypes through his music and his visuals, which are usually shot in neighborhoods occupied by people defined as coloured by apartheid in Cape Town.

The general trajectory for a Cape Town hip-hop artist if they are to have a lucrative career, is getting recognised abroad, especially the United Kingdom, where artists such as Black Noise, Prophets of Da City, Mavi, Ill.Skillz, Driemanskap and a few others, found satisfactory reception for their craft, while they remained unknown beyond their niche fanbases in South Africa.

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Hip-hop drove YoungstaCPT to dig deeper into history. His own research and curiosity about his people, alongside his personal experiences in his journey, are what he presents on 3T – journeying into the twinned legacies of colonisation and apartheid in the cape. Songs such as “YVR” and “V.O.C” reference colonialist Jan van Riebeeck and his Dutch East India Company, which made Cape Town a pit stop for sailors, starting the colonisation of South Africa in present-day Cape Town.

In conversation, YoungstaCPT says, “So you know, these are the kinds of things that inspired me to take the album where I took it … because I feel like that’s the root. If you want to understand why the tree bends to the left, then look down at the fucking root and see how it grows. Maybe it’s growing into stones, maybe it’s growing into the concrete. Maybe there’s a rock there that’s actually blocking it and preventing it from standing up straight. And also I knew that the only way I was going to make people understand the situation in these ghettos like Grassy Park, Ottery and Lotus River is to take them right back to the start, and if I’m wrong, go do your own research.”

He’s aware he may not always be right. “As long as we’re starting the convo,” he adds. 3T doesn’t play out like a history lesson, but rather like the thoughts of a young man trying to make sense of his surroundings and of who he is. 

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