Swahili Cipher

African Hip Hop has been the number one hop site and radio show about hip hop culture on the continent for a few years. 

XPlastaz in 2006.

The site, which has had various incarnations over time, has included a lively forum for African hip hop heads, as well as a radio show webcast monthly in several languages with contributors from all over the world.  It is a great example of the power of the web to facilitate the coalition of a nascent global community.  It was founded by Thomas Gesthuizen, a former graduate student from the Netherlands studying aspects of hip hop in Tanzania and known to his followers followers of Africanhiphop.com as Juma4.  In the interview, we ask J4 five questions about the site, his musical influences and plans.

You are originally from Holland, but are connected to East Africa. In a post on your Facebook page it said you produced (Tanzanian hip hop group) Xplaztaz and I noticed you speak Swahili.  How did you get connected there, and how did you end up getting involved with music?

I am from Holland and grew up there but I first got to East Africa when I was young and got inspired from there to focus in my studies on East Africa. So I studied African Studies at university (Leiden) and learned to speak Swahili. I spent a few months in Tanzania to do research for my masters thesis on hip hop in Tanzania. A the time I was very critical about the gap between academics and the real world, and how researchers were sometimes exploiting their subjects, and only sharing the outcome of their work in the western world. That’s what got me to start a website sharing everything I could find about the African hip hop acts I met, starting with Positive Black Soul, Prophets of da City and groups in Tanzania.

Around the same time (mid 90s) I started promoting and distributing the albums of a couple of groups. One of the first was X Plastaz who at the time were only known in their hometown of Arusha. So when I recorded them live on minidisc and burned a cd-r, all the radio presenters there thought they were the next big thing as they had never seen local hip hop on a compact disc! After a while I became the manager of the group and we managed to get some international bookings, recording an album and doing music videos which helped to spread their fame despite the fact that everything we did was with a tiny budget and little external support. Ultimately it was their non-conforming attitude towards music and the composition of the group that made them stand out.

By the end of the 90s, my site had become a bit of a landmark for urban African music and many people used it as a resource to start exploring the local hip hop scenes in Senegal, Tanzania, South Africa etc. By 1999 Mustafa Maluka, my friend from South Africa who was studying in Amsterdam, also got involved in creating content and doing webradio, and we were joined by some other contributors on the continent and in the diaspora. Around 2005 as we were ready to take our webcast to a next level and produce radio, we decided to register a non-profit organization to support the on- and offline projects we did, that’s African hip hop foundation. In 2009 we also registered in Tanzania with the aim of setting up a community studio project in memory of Faza Nelly, the member of X-Plastaz who was sadly killed in 2006.

I’m impressed with the range of presenters that you have working with you on Africanhiphop.com.  How do you make most of your contacts for the radio show, and how do you coordinate people coming from such diverse and distant places?

Many of the people we worked with over the past years were already following the website and often also posting in the forums, and they wanted to represent their country or region on the webcast so they actually approached me asking if they can do a radio show. Fortunately these days there are enough people who have the passion, the tools (studio, internet connection) and the focus to contribute something that is bigger than just their own blog. So when we prepare a new show, there is never a lack of deejays coming through with a contribution. These days distance doesn’t really matter and language is also not a problem, though the majority of our content has been English language but we tend to communicate in French, Swahili and Portuguese as well which helps to get a pan African overview of what is going on.

How was the SKIFF festival in the Democratic Republic of the Congo?  It seems like a lot of good energy from the descriptions I’ve read.  I feel like festivals can be empowering for communities, making places that sometimes feel cut off like the center of the world.  What is the reception to the events and the festival in the Goma area?  Also what kind of events and meetings took place during the festival?

SKIFF (Salaam Kivu International Film Festival) was great. Goma has indeed been cut off from the world in many ways, first of all there’s not much of a roads infrastructure within Congo so the town is hard to reach from Kinshasa (Congo’s capital in the west). It is right on the border of Rwanda so the connection to Kigali and Kampala is actually easier. Then the ongoing insecurity in the region of eastern Congo, even though Goma and its province of north Kivu has been stable for a while now, means that few international filmmakers, musicians and visual artists have been visiting the area. So Yole!Africa has been the only organization organizing events, workshops and courses for youth in the region.

One thing SKIFF and the presence of the Yole!Africa youth center has done is to unite kids from Goma without bringing any conflict history, tribalism or stigmatizing trauma to the table; when the kids are there it’s all about the music, dance and film. And that’s a unique attitude where many of the 200 NGOs in the region like to focus on trauma.

The reception in Goma has been great, without much of a promo budget the bigger events during SKIFF reach over 6000 kids in one afternoon. SKIFF actually has an impressive program if you look at the limited funds and team available; there’s only a 56k internet connection shared between 8 computers, and three rooms where all the workshops are done. Most of the time there is no electricity so everything is powered by a noisy generator.

These days Hip Hop really is taking some interesting turns, with Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, having an unintentional viral rap hit in Uganda and many older politicians trying to align themselves with youth hip hop movements to win votes.  How do you feel about hip hop being used as a political tool for both politicians and grassroots organizations?

Hip hop has been used as a social tool almost since day one; one of the first ever hip hop records ever (Brother D – How we gonna make the black nation rise) was recorded at a youth center with kids participating and talking about how to solve problems in their hood. Hip hop as a counter culture has always been about change for the better.

The more recent obsession of politicians and NGOs with hip hop has more to do with their realization that hip hop is now the dominant pop culture. But the effect that grassroots efforts may have is not automatically replicated when you are trying a top down approach like having your established political leader do a rap song! It probably did help a few leaders to emphasize their statement of taking the youth seriously, for example when Ali Bongo (now the president of Gabon) performed on stage with local hip hop artists during Gabao hip hop 2009.

What are the future plans for Africanhiphop.com.  Are you going to get involved with more events on the continent?  Do you do meet-space events in Holland to compliment what you do on the website?  Do you feel its important to build more bridges of cultural exchange between Europe and Africa, especially in light of their economic histories, and the amount of immigration that is happening?

We have been organizing offline projects, for example we produced a documentary in 2008 which was shot by our partner organizations in Dakar and Cape Town (Redefinition: African Hip Hop), and we have our annual open air party in Amsterdam where last July we had Blitz the Ambassador and Congo Groove (Lexxus Legal, Pitcho and Fredy Massamba) performing, and some smaller events which prove that there is enough interest here for what we do. Also we did on-air radio for a while through Dutch national radio (FunX).

In the future we will be doing more projects which have a local impact while being connected to the international network, for example with African Hip Hop Tanzania and the Faza Nelly center that we want to build in Arusha (still looking for financial and material support!). And we want to grow the website to be a platform that can cater for the needs of artists to feel a part of the site.

As for building bridges of cultural exchange, the first step would be to recognize existing initiatives. There’s a lot happening in terms of exchange but the media tend to only pick it up when there is a mainstream name attached. That’s how it has been in Holland forever. In the first few years that I started promoting African hip hop I didn’t even bother focusing on Holland too much because there was little interest, only when our site got some international press people here started noticing. Over here African culture is still largely unnoticed by the mainstream though that has started to change slowly. Some of it has to do with lack of understanding and interest in African culture and on the other hand immigrant communities sometimes are not in touch with the venues and media that can lift their projects to another level.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.