The end of South African Music Week last weekend marked an important date on the hip-hop calendar, with followers of the urban art form converging in Cape Town for the event of the year.
The African Hip-Hop Indaba was staged, once again, over three days at various venues in the city, and provided a platform for MCs, DJs, b-boys and graffiti artists from across the country.
The activities included the Battle of the Year National Break-dancing Championships where a team of six b-boys were chosen to represent South Africa in the world championships to be held in Germany later this year.
Quite serendipitously the weekend also saw Amu and South African Music Award-winners Skwattah Kamp performing at the Living Music Workshop series.
The Jozi posse had been in Cape Town promoting their new album and taking part in South African Music Week events in the city. A large and devoted crowd of fans braved the month-end hustle and bustle of the Waterfront to attend the performances.
With so much activity and creative space available for different representations of the art form, perhaps what we are seeing is the South African hip-hop scene finally coming of age.
The indaba — the fruition of two decades of community activism by hip-hop collective Black Noise and their tireless spokesperson, known as Emile YX? — continues to feature the full gamut of hip-hop’s cultural weapons.
It was born out of a holiday programme called African Battle Cry for schoolchildren from depressed communities in the Cape Flats.
The first indaba was staged in 1999 when Black Noise decided to create an event with a South African identity that would give expression to all elements of hip-hop — vocal rhyming, turntablism, aerosol art and the vibrant forms of break-dancing.
This year the indaba continued its push to become a truly national event, bringing participants from communities as diverse as Mossel Bay, Oudtshoorn, Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg.
“I’m pleasantly surprised,” says Emile of the smaller towns, “by the way that people will invite you to their home and have discussions, have a cup of coffee, meet their mother and father. They work in the community, it’s exactly what we want.”
This energy is similar to the spirit that has always galvanised Black Noise’s development-minded concept of hip-hop.
For the group, who see themselves as educators and performers rather than simply musicians, hip-hop has always been a tool for education and empowerment. Most importantly, by encouraging self-knowledge and a sense of pride in African identity, hip-hop can be a way to deal with the legacy of oppression that still shapes life for many living in the shadow of Table Mountain.
A testament to their hard-working activism is the fact that Black Noise have been able to build and retain an avid grassroots following for the indaba despite little mainstream media attention until recently.
With the maturing of the scene the indaba is moving into the unenviable position of becoming the established face of an alternative art form. After two decades in the culture, Emile is quite aware of the contradictions inherent in running a production that is a grassroots happening but, also aspires to be the foremost national event of its kind.
“There is a thin line between an event being a big event and an event being a plastic event, and that is my biggest fear with Battle of the Year.
“Yes, we can sponsor the lighting rig, yet with the money for the lighting rig we could have done a whole lot of workshops ourselves. But in order for the kids to realise that they can do this, we have to take it to a level where they see artists on stage with lighting and with nice sound. Because they don’t see this. They see us on the Cape Flats lamming there, ouens walking off the stage with our brasse.”
Meanwhile, as crews from around the country arrived in the Mother City, some people wondered whether the scene may be splintering as a result of the recent media hype and corporate money that hip-hop has been receiving — especially in Jozi’s fast-moving industry.
In the face of such suggestions Emile consistently emphasises the unity of the culture.
While many participants continue to insist that hip-hop is being hijacked by the “bling-bling” fetish of mainstream American rap and its corporate agenda, it is this spirit of unity that will hopefully ensure that the indaba, and South African hip-hop in general, retains its profound ability to empower and provoke.