Ts'epe - the mix of Sesotho traditional music and rap - is more than just hip-hop, the movement aims to instil pride in the people of Lesotho.
Don’t ever tell a Mosotho that they live in the 10th province of South Africa. A little like Canadians, they’re fiercely proud of their country, and refuse to be defined by their neighbours.
I’ve spent about 10 years visiting the capital Maseru for long periods at a time, and in 2012 I found myself living next to musician-designer Sechaba Masutha – perhaps better known as “Folakha” in the hip-hop movement.
He introduces me to what is called the Ts’epe movement (Ts’epe is Sesotho for “steel” or “iron”). “We are taking over the country,” he tells me. “This [movement] is not just about hip-hop; we want to make our people proud of their culture and heritage.
“We are saying it is okay to be a Mosotho. You must be proud.”
‘Instil a sense of pride’
Folakha says he believes Lesotho is often dismissed as a poor country; “Fourth World” rather than Third; a place with endemic corruption, cronyism and nepotism. “That is one of the reasons we had to instil a sense of pride in our people and we are doing this through Ts’epe,” he says. Probably the most famous Ts’epe star is, in fact, its founder Kommanda Obbs.
At the time, Folakha mentions he is shooting a music video at Obbs’s house in Seapoint, Maseru. On our way there, the streets are narrow – and even though they are tarred, it feels like we are driving on a gravel road. There are traders selling apples, bananas and sweets. The road is busy and local taxis, called “four-by-ones”, often cross over the road heading into oncoming traffic.
You can smell the weed – zolo – from outside the house: a four-roomed flat cum work-space cum recording-studio. There are posters on one wall and the old Lesotho flag from the era of military rule on the other side of the wall.
Ts’epe is playing loudly on the CD player. Folakha greets his friends with a fist bump and the call “Ts’epe”.
“These are the Lithuamajoe [the rock breakers], we are going to conscientise Basotho,” said Folakha.
Obbs is bearded with a mini-Afro and explains how, in a deep and crackling voice, Lesotho has been waiting for Ts’epe to be invented. It’s a fast-paced mix of Sesotho traditional music and rap. The words run together so quickly, they begin to blur. I understand fragments. You need to be a Mosotho from Lesotho to understand it the first time around.
Obbs compares the Ts’epe movement to the miners who go into the earth to shatter rocks in search for gold. In comparison, Lithuamajoe uses Ts’epe to create a new identity for themselves and the Basotho people through music and art. It’s a little like Motswako, made popular in South Africa by artists like Morafe, Hip Hop Pantsula and Tuks Senganga – who all rap in a mixture of Setswana and English.
Obbs’s music carries a lot of indigenous Sesotho culture and combines traditional Sesotho music genres of mangae and mokorotlo with hip-hop. In 2006, he released his first project called Complex Mind Set Volume 1. The CD Ts’epe followed in 2011.
His music asks young Basotho about their traditional values: “Sebile le itebatsa [You are choosing to ignore who you are]”, asking them to not conform to Western norms and not be embarrassed of who they are. This is Basotho pride.