/ 24 February 2017

For better or worse, SA rap has become all about the money

Rappers’ delight: AKA is a leader in the new struggle — for personal success and economic freedom.
Rappers’ delight: AKA is a leader in the new struggle — for personal success and economic freedom.

On his 2012 hit song I Want It All, AKA raps: “I be running in the streets like a fly Hector Pieterson/ With my Adidas on/ They say the struggle ain’t the same/ He tryna to live we tryna maintain/ But he was all about change, and I’m about change.” The last “change”, of course, refers to money.

Those lines sum up the notion that most hip-hop artists in, but not limited to, South Africa are fighting for a cause, even though most hip-hop purists don’t agree. New-school rappers are criticised by older heads for their consumerist lyrics and their obsession with popping bottles.

Whereas the group Prophets of da City were literally ducking apartheid police in the 1980s and early 1990s because of the political content of their rhymes, most modern rappers are fighting to change their economic status.

It’s the new struggle for the majority of today’s youth. They are trying to get out of the hood and live large; everything else can come after.

AKA is clear about his political party leanings — he’s a staunch ANC supporter, but not in his music. In an interview on the American radio show Sway in the Morning last year, the rapper implicitly admitted to suppressing his political views.

“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.”

Not fucking with the government has clearly kept AKA in a safe place. He was performing at ANC rallies ahead of last year’s municipalelections.

On the other hand, AKA’s rival, Cassper Nyovest, is an artist whose narrative mirrors that of the typical “hood” youth. At 26, Nyovest is a role model for his fans. He poses with his Bentleys and posts pictures of his Rolexes on social media to a legion of fans who comment on how much his success inspires them.

The rapper has achieved the almost unthinkable — he was the first South African musician to fill up both the Northgate Dome and Orlando Stadium. Both of his albums have gone platinum and he has collaborated with high-profile American rappers The Game and Talib Kweli, among other accolades.

Nyovest may not be rapping about white supremacy, patriarchy or any of the other atrocities our generation is faced with. But he is aware that as a black man he was born into a world that sets him up for failure, though he may not express it explicitly.

On Cold Hearted, a song off of his debut album Tsholofelo, Nyovest basks in his success and reflects on the challenges of his new life. “We’re fucking racism out of the country/ We’re fucking white bitches — new-age apartheid,” he raps in the second verse.

Here, Nyovest, just like AKA, is affirming the new struggle — money and personal success form the basis of the new cause our generation is fighting for. His lyric is misogynist but, in the context of a formerly impoverished black kid from Mafikeng, “fucking white women” is tantamount to success, which is also problematic.

It’s not to say that modern rappers are complacent with the status quo— artists such as Reason, Stogie T (formerly Tumi), Zubz and a few others have rapped extensively about racism and the like.

For example, Stogie T raps on the opening track of his latest self-titled album: “We in ’cause I want the land/ I need a house and the land/ Penny Sparrow needs to fuck off to France/ For being so cosy while we rant.”

But the one theme that’s common to our rap lyrics is the fight for economic freedom in a country where most black people still struggle financially. The historical references in the lyrics show that contemporary South African rappers aren’t wilfully ignorant of the situation at hand.

Blaklez, aka “Steve Biko with a mic”, raps on his single Hush: “[I’m] young black seeing money on a daily basis/ That makes me a nightmare to a racist.” This has undertones of a victory achieved against a system that keeps black people downtrodden.

Maybe most of South Africa’s new-school rappers won’t go down in history — like Prophets of da City did for their explicit anti-apartheid protest music — but they sure do provide inspiration to a generation of fellow strugglers who are chasing that guap (cash) as a form of freedom.

In the words of Nasty C: “Look at the shit that we do, and motivate yourself.”