How do you make people realize they’re in chains? For Soundz of the South (or SOS) – an anti-capitalist resistance collective from Khayelitsha, Cape Town – you give them hip hop.
That injunction dates back to hip hop’s origins in New York City. At street parties in the South Bronx in the 1970s, sound equipment was often wired up to park lampposts. Hip hop’s origins were strictly DIY and, most importantly, a direct reaction to the structural marginalization of communities and the racism of the mainstream media. SOS are carrying on that initial spirit through hip hop activism that is relevant to their own struggles.
As a collective of both activists and artists they are committed to decentralization, direct action, autonomy and self-reliance. Like anarchist thinkers Emma Goldman or Mikhail Bakunin, they believe that hierarchies corrupt and only horizontal organisation can eliminate inequality. Besides recording albums, SOS hosts regular meetings and “critical” documentary screenings, weekly slam sessions, organize protests and discussions, attend regular conferences and have set up campaigns such as “Don’t Vote! Organise!” or initiatives to save Philippi High (a school on Cape Town’s Cape Flats). They also started the Afrikan Hip Hop Caravan, an annual series of events (this is the third edition) currently taking place through the end of December.
A recent track was directly inspired by the collective’s involvement in the #FeesMustFall student protests. When I interviewed members Milliha, Anele, Khusta, Sipho and Monde, they were resolute that their music has to be political. “What hip hop should be about is hold accountable those who are in power,” says Anele. The reasons are that it’s a genre young people can relate to, and accessible because, as Milliha explains, unlike punk music, “You need a pen and paper, and the beat will come on its own.” The sentiment is that, when country’s President, Jacob Zuma’s main virtue is a charismatic dance, and bling bling, booze and bitches flood the mainstream, grassroots hip hop is the alternative media.
SOS members, who are also part of other activist organizations such as the Housing Assembly and ILRIG, understand that there’s more to social change than music. To be part of the collective, you have to be involved in regular discussions, protests, meetings, take on tasks, organize, and identify with the principles. Many times on-the-ground work comes first, which inspires ideas for songs. But Anele stresses, what hip hop does do is help listeners wake up and mobilise action. “It demystifies big issues and brings politics back to the people,” he says, or as Monde puts it, “We’re taking whatever is out there and bring it closer to those who can’t reach it.”
The Afrikan Hip Hop Caravan aims to take this kind of awareness across the continent. It was conceived by SOS, Uhuru Network, and various cultural activists in 2011. In each participating African city, there’ll be the Afrikan Hip Hop Conference, to encourage discussion about hip hop’s role in community struggles, and the Afrikan Hip Hop Concert, to give repressed, underground hip hop a platform. 2015’s edition will start in Arusha, Tanzania, and the main focus will be migration against the backdrop of the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa, the European refugee crisis, and shooting of black teenagers in the United States. Inspired by Dakar hip hop artists who got together to stop president Abdoulaye Wade from unconstitutionally seeking a third term in office, the idea is to explore the origins of certain problems, relate them to current issues and transcend borders.
SOS’s involvement in the caravan, as well as everything else they do, is self-financed. Strictly rejecting any funding from corporate brands (saying no to Red Bull for instance, Khusta tells me) to maintain autonomy, SOS decide collectively what happens to any proceeds. Nobody receives money to spend at their own discretion. Instead, Khusta explains, it goes back into the community. As a group with no set amount of members, they’re not interested in branding themselves nor registering with a label – “We don’t make songs for the radio,” says Anele.
In South Africa music has played an important role in the struggle of oppressed people. President Jacob Zuma must be aware of a rhythm’s convincing power – when it’s election time he brings mainstream DJs to the township. That’s why SOS don’t want listeners to switch off to their beats. Following Bakunin, they believe a “sweet” democracy that demands gratitude for pseudo-freedom distracts from important realities. “And that’s what we have, and that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing, to make people realise they’re in chains. They are working and creating wealth for others to enjoy,” explains Anele. Unfortunately, he continues, many anarchist comrades don’t get hip hop – “They see a lot of black power and think it’s nationalism” – but he’s convinced that there is no line between anarchism and hip hop. Hip hop is the voice of the working class.
*The Cape Town Afrikan Hip Hop Concert and Conference will take on December 12th 2015 at Moholo Live, and on December 13th at Buyel’mbo Village, Khayelitsha. If you can’t make it, watch out for Freedom Warriors Vol 3. and The Afrikan Hip Hop Caravan Collaborations from 2013 to be released soon.