South African hip-hop has become too safe. Cutting edge rappers are being sidelined in favour of tried-and-tested mainstays – creating a cycle of regurgitated talent that receives preferential treatment by radio stations, booking agents, and sponsors. Doubtless, the artists in the spotlight have dedicated endless hours to their craft, and the fact that their work is paying off is something to be celebrated.
The problem is that there aren’t any rappers filling the vacuum which results when the mainstream and the underground* become distinct entities. In short, the exciting new shit coming out is still not getting heard by most people.
In South Africa, radio still makes the rules. Talent exists in bundles across different regions of the country, but no one has really stepped up to directly challenge the state of affairs, be it through different approaches to songwriting, or a different strategy to marketing their music.
Commercial radio is partly responsible for the mainstream’s generic song format and its silences when faced with issues affecting South Africa’s working class and unemployed citizens. Corporate culture, which has been gunning for South African hip-hop’s soul over the past five years, has also got a guilty hand in the lack of engagement with real issues. Sponsors have their own agendas, and these agendas oftentimes don’t align with sentiments which may be deemed anti-anything.
I’m not implying that hip-hop’s sole purpose is to raise awareness, or that blue collar workers don’t love or support mainstream South African hip-hop. Neither am I suggesting that mainstream rappers are incapable of composing socially conscious music.
Rap music in the South Africa has surrendered wholly to the embrace of commercial radio song structures, resulting in mostly unimaginative, cookie-cutter songs achieving the most airplay.
In the same breath, the scene is the healthiest it’s ever been. Some rappers are making a living off of their craft, while general interest from the public continues to gain momentum. People who were celebrating when Skwatta Kamp won a SAMA Award under the Best Hip-Hop Album category ten years ago have made the transition into adulthood, and with that passage comes a grander appreciation for the music they grew up listening to. Rap shows have transcended their former status as an exclusively male dominion, while the culture and its accompanying elements – grafitti, deejaying and breakdancing – are afforded greater airtime during peak hours on South African radio and television stations.
Hip-hop landed in the Cape Flats in the early 80s, reared its head during the dying years of apartheid, went through multiple identity crises and then finally settled, albeit shakily, where it is today – as the love child of kwaito music and whatever the flavour of the moment is in the pop world. Over the next few weeks we’ll be bringing you an serialised exposé on the state of Mzansi hip hop in 2014.
We asked the African Hip-Hop Blog to compile a soundcloud playlist of ten top South African rap songs during the first part of 2014. Dig in and have a jam!
*Underground, in this context, shall be used to refer to any musical outfit with no songs on regular radio rotation.
**An earlier version of this article appeared on Mahala.