African hip-hop still doesn’t have an exclusive online platform

By the time the early naughties hit, I’d become an internet-dependent delinquent prowling night and day for hyperlinks to rap music websites which I’d spot on magazines and see on television shows’ end credits.

It was during these solitary digging missions that I discovered AfricasGateway – a buzzing community of like-minded heads fanatical about rap music from the African continent and beyond.

These were formative stages for my youth. Hindsight normally renders that era in HD, but there wasn’t anything hi-def nor kosher about a 56kbps Internet connection and constant tongue lashes from the folks regarding the escalating phone bill.

In 2016, data is the new phone bill.

Data – used colloquially to refer to the units of cellphone network-provided data bundles one has purchased and loaded onto their mobile phone – is the new moral compass, the Platinum card, and the social currency re-fill. Add a mobile device and you’ve got the master key to plug you into the flytaal of Digital Kidz or the lingua franca of art world glitterati.

Whichever way, it has become possible to interface with these worlds; to live vicariously via Insta feeds and Tumblr posts and pinned items on Pinterest. And that all-knowing, ominous plug called data will be the only requisite for sustenance. Yet it’s so expensive!

It’s not clear who the mandate to drive down the overall cost of the Internet lies with. The mobile networks say it lies with the government. The government says that it’s the mobile networks’ job. It’s been a long-standing battle, and like all legendary battles, comes with its own baggage of conspiracy theories. One of them puts the blame on Multichoice’s absolute horror when confronted with any disruptive technology – a plausible theory with dire consequences for the end-user.

For one, it means waiting a while longer to have bae over for a zero-buffering Netflix and chill session. Or we could all move to East Africa where data costs are said to be so affordable that they come as heavy downpours during torrential storms. True story!

The current data costs make a strong case for the emergence of a youth-led anarchist movement on Facebook, the most accessible platform this side of Google.

But a different form of organising is happening among young people online. There are groups dedicated to disseminating news about South African hip-hop and pages which post Datafilehost links to the latest Gqom songs.

All these and more are sustained by Facebook, an easy-to-access port of call from which most people navigate the Internet Of Things.

Facebook wasn’t always around.

“I’m from an area of South Africa that is very secluded in many ways,” says internet prowler of note Rushay Booysens, who was an early adopter of Africasgateway.

Speaking over Skype, he shares invaluable information about the website, which was founded by Shane Heusdens, a Dutch national who’d migrated to Cape Town from Namibia in 1989. Booysens was alerted to Africasgateway’s existence by his then-girlfriend who understood just how much he loved hip-hop and desired to connect with like-minded heads from all over the world.

It’s what still informs his world view to this day; he gets invited to give talks on hip-hop and its role in empowering his community at institutions worldwide. “When you looked at the web at that time and you [didn’t] know the specifics and the dynamics of running or hosting a website, it just [looked] like a corporation. It [didn’t] look like it could be one person doing that thing,” he says.

He drafted an e-mail introducing himself and stating his intention to get involved and sent it over to Milk (short for Milkdaddy, Heusden’s alias on the website). Milk, whom Booysens had spoken to over the phone a few years earlier, responded by inviting him over to his house in Cape Town. “He had this coloured accent,” he recalls.

“I just took a bus to Cape Town and knocked on the guy’s door,” he adds. Arriving in Cape Town, Booysens’ perception of how Milkdaddy might look was completely altered. Milk was still living with his wife at that time; she’s the one who opened the door when he knocked.

“You meet this woman with her husband and it’s a white dude, a white Dutch man [who] grew up in Namibia. It was just like ‘This is crazy!’” he says, relaying the shock of that initial meeting.

Africasgateway didn’t exist in isolation.

There was also Africanhiphop and Hip Hop Headrush, with the latter being the first website dedicated exclusively to documenting South African hip-hop and the culture around it. The site was last updated in September 2007, and has now attained an archival status in the hierarchy of internetness.

Nowadays, Africasgateway is a shadow of its former self, having succumbed to the ripple effects of a post-world where Myspace and Facebook stood tall.

“Having sites that had that control – not the control but like, where you could kind of congregate everybody – everything just kind of went flat. And so that’s when the site died. And a lot of sites around the world went the same way,” says Milk of the website’s demise.

Phiona Okumu was a contributor for Hip Hop Headrush in its heydays. She writes about urban African music for The Guardian, is part-owner of Afripop, and has recently been appointed as the Music Editor and Label/Artist Relations for Apple Music and iTunes (Sub-Saharan Africa). As one of the earlier purveyors of South African hip-hop writing, both online and in print, does she see a future for the movement online?

“I can’t imagine why not,” she responds. “South Africa has had no real definitive internet place for hip-hop to call home since the days of Hip Hop Headrush or Africasgateway.”

Okumu points out that it’s not only with hip-hop, but “with pretty much all urban music.” She recalls the days of the Rage media-owned, and says it’s strange that “no site has taken up the baton to represent South African urban youth culture in the way that Rage did.” (Rage media went under with the 2008 financial crisis).

“Today, for better or for worse, anyone with WordPress and the time can set up shop. That’s why it blows my mind that there aren’t more kids doing it,” she says after noting that the internet was a different place during the days of Rage.

Journalist Mookho Makhetha expressed an alternative view in her article entitled For the love of music: “As large as the online music blogosphere is, it is still left on the fringes of “normal” life.

Most bloggers have day jobs and do not have the resources to invest in exhaustive tales about an artist’s music. Some blogs while engaging and well-written (even better than most journalistic pieces) do not have access to the artists. That music writing is not a worthwhile pursuit, that it is something that one does in their spare time and will often play second fiddle to people’s “real” careers is precisely the problem.”

It’s important to recall a time when having anything at the tap of an app wasn’t a thing.

More importantly, to use tools available at our disposal in this day and time to document youth culture, whatever form that monstrous, problematic tome represents at any point in its evolutionary cycle.

“Many from my generation feel like there was something of a golden era that played out between 2003 and 2004. I think that now, 10 years later, the real dawn of an era is happening where for once, hip-hop is being given the same weight as kwaito was. We should be recording this,” Okumu says.

Tseliso Monaheng
Tseliso Monaheng
Photographer Tseliso Monaheng is currently writing and editing a series on South African hip hop.

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