“Women, for long you’ve been preached over; preserved for one purpose of giving birth,” is a line from Sistah Anela’s song “Zivume” on the compilation, Words of a Rebel Sistah. It supports her stance on the oppression of women: if something isn’t accommodating, it needs to be challenged.
Words of a Rebel Sistah was an initiative by South African anti-capitalist hip hop collective Soundz of the South (SOS) to record a CD focusing on women’s struggles and a prelude to The Rebel Sistah Cypha; a monthly, females-only platform for conscious spoken word, hip hop and live music. It started off at Moholo Live House in Khayelitsha, but now takes place at the Community House in Salt River, a suburb close to Cape Town’s city centre. The goal is to create a counter-culture; one that exemplifies a society in which women are liberated and all forms of oppression are eradicated.
Given the current political climate, this is a challenging task. In South Africa current President Jacob Zuma’s rape trial, the murder of Reeva Steenkamp (by her boyfriend Olympian Oscar Pistorius), the conviction of celebrated artist Zwelethu Mthethwa for kicking a sex worker to death or uKhozi FM radio presenter Khathide Ngobe’s recent comments insinuating that scantily-clad women are asking to be raped, are just a few incidents that speak to the state of women’s rights. Globally, US President Donald Trump’s confident misogyny doesn’t help either.
When I talked to Sounds of the South members Anela, Tsidi and Millz, who are resident MCs at the cypher, I asked if one could say they’re a feminist collective.
“We wouldn’t box ourselves,” says Anela, “but we are a pro-feminist organization. Even our SOS brothers call themselves feminists because they believe in the liberation of women.” As opposed to organizations who think that feminism is the ultimate tool for the liberation of the people, they believe that there’s more to it. “Doing away with capitalism and all forms of oppression is what will lead us forward.”
Unfortunately, one of the challenges they face in South Africa is that women often don’t realize they’re oppressed. Anela believes harmful ideals are so entrenched in everyday life, that some men think authority is a natural entitlement. The culprit? The capitalist state and its helpers: media and tradition. Because black South Africans are better off now than during Apartheid, some accuse the Rebel Sistahs of causing unnecessary trouble. With fairy-tale stories, such as Trevor Noah making it big in America, the media helps to spread the message that South Africa is doing fine; anything is possible, if only one works hard enough. Tsidi mentions the banning of protest footage on public television news as an example. “Nothing thought-provoking can be shown because there’s bound to be an outbreak.”
Entertainment channels are, however, not shy to give airtime to American agents of “bling-bling-and-bitches”, like Lil Wayne or Jay-Z. South African MCs such as AKA and Casper Nyovest are proudly following their counterparts’ lead. The Rebel Sistahs witness their impact first-hand at open mic sessions they organize in Makhaza Wetlands Park in Khayelitsha, about 30 minutes outside the city center. Tsidi remembers how they had to turn off the music because a five-year-old child was cursing and often children just head to another open mic session to avoid being censored. Anela says there was a time of hope, when kids in their community actually understood their work. “They were engaging in the topics, and you could see their style of writing was changing. It was starting to speak to the struggles they face. But two, three years later with the introduction of Nyovests and AKAs every kid wants to be like them.”
African grassroots hip hop has been hijacked, and Millz attributes this to an active decision to defuse the threat. “In our communities, your parents think you’re a gangster if you’re doing hip hop. But when hip hop originated, it had a strong purpose, to free the black child. Now the system realised it’s actually working and the only way to discredit it, is to groom those weapons and make sure they mean nothing. Because the kids are going to look up to Lil Wayne and Jay-Z.”
The Sistahs agree that idolizing mainstream hip hop culture and its normalization of misogyny is highly toxic, because it strengthens patriarchal traditions, which according to Tsidi, are internalized from a young age. Boys are given toy guns to play with and girls are taught to cook. “Therefore boys grow up with that mentality, thinking they’re superior because they can handle a big machine.” Anela adds that her mother, for instance, can’t get an inheritance. “She built our houses in the Eastern Cape with her bare hands, and the guys didn’t even know how the house came about. But because she’s a woman and can marry into another family, she can’t have the house. But what does it actually mean to get married? What if I don’t want to get married?”
Trying to challenge this internalized authority, explains Anela, becomes very hard because men say their “culture” is insulted. “Let us understand that as much as we are oppressed, men are oppressed into thinking their authority is something they are born with. How do we differentiate from what is natural and unnatural? If it was nature that men are above us, why are we challenging it? Why are our inner selves telling us that we need to challenge this? It’s not accommodating to us, so we need to challenge it.”
And that’s what the cypher is about; showing that patriarchy isn’t as unequivocally normal as society makes it out to be. By respecting each other and discussing problems in words and song, the Rebel Sistahs express the vision of the future they’d like their children to embody. Although the culture they’re surrounded by is tough to counteract, Anela remains positive about providing an alternative.
“It’s still a long way before they implement changes that would be so tight-screwed that even a screw driver can’t move them. But we have a lot of work to do. Because change is something that comes in bits and bits and bits and pieces. Ultimately there will be total change.”