In 2014, African hip-hop has graduated from the bedroom and walked into the boardroom. It’s left its cape (baggy jeans) at the door and picked up a pair of tight-fitting pants. In extreme cases, hip-hop has shed the ‘urban’ look completely and chosen shiny suits; it’s lost its assumed roots in the underground and allowed the tastes of corporate organizations to percolate it. MTN runs the Nigerian music industry; alcohol brands own South African hip-hop; Nestle sponsors rappers in Senegal.

The concept of music as service has all but disappeared. “Ngixel’i download link” is the new ‘where can I buy the CD.’ By virtue of it being a niche market, South African hip hop is feeling the pinch. Social media have tilted the fan-artist nexus acutely; people demand free music, the result of a generation which doesn’t grasp the concept of music as a service.

It seemed to make sense – and still does – that giving away music for free makes more people aware of an artist while increasing the probability of retaining die-hard followers who’ll hopefully fork out money for the album. This is a refrain pummeled as chief gospel to anyone who has an Internet connection, five minutes to spare, and an interest in ‘music trends,’ a ubiquitous term which outright dismisses the fact that things are done a bit differently in Africa.

Yes, more people see an artist through free music giveaways.

South Africa-based Cassper Nyovest had his song “Doc Shebeleza” downloaded well over two hundred thousand times when it was released earlier this year. He trended on twitter even! The second part, the one about retaining fans who will want to pay, is flawed! Cassper, or Driemanskap, or any of the artists who’ve managed to push big on-line numbers through offering free downloads may have gained visibility, but there’s yet to be evidence of an increase in music sales. Driemanskap’s ““iZulu Lelam” was, as of May 2013, the most downloaded song on the Kasimp3 portal.

The push has been to partner with big brands over an extended period of time, a practice which raises many moral questions (especially with alcoholic brands) but sustains many an artists’ livelihood.

Maftown Heights, a one-night celebration of artists who are affiliated – even tangentially – to Motswako, partnered with Flying Fish and Blackberry (and other media partners) to produce an outstanding event, all things considered.

In theory, and indeed practice, brand-artist relationships work. But the hippie in me refuses to accept the if sports people are doing it counter-argument which has been posited to me before.

One of the brands which has become vested in South African hip-hop, and hasn’t been afraid to say as much, is Miller Genuine Draft. Not only did they bring Kendrick Lamar to South Africa, but they included a broad range of mainstream South African acts as support.


But this image of smoke and mirrors dressed in sleek television shows and punted as gospel is far from an accurate depiction of the majority of artists who still struggle to record, to get their music onto the radio, and to get featured in on-line and print publications. A war of intimidation happens daily on social networks; ‘struggling’ artists force-feed their followers links to their free music. It’s all still very agrarian down there.

Jozi’s weather can get really miserable really quickly. It’s particularly bad when you’re travelling in the traffic’s direction and stuffed – along with about thirty other human beings – inside a bus whose driver has yet to learn about safe driving.

I’ve a chance to chat to Sarkodie, the Ghanaian emcee whose affiliation to Akon’s Konvict Music label snowballed his already-rising star to greater heights at home and abroad.

I arrive to a locked gate in Houghton, the suburb at which Sarkodie will be shooting a video for ‘Pon di ting with the RnB singer Banky W. Fifteen minutes and two phonecalls later, the gate opens up. Samuel Forson, Sarkodie’s manager, ushers me inside.

“Anything you need to know about Ghanaian hip-hop, let me know,” he’ll later tell me.

Sesan Onguro is exchanging a few notes with Sarkodie and Banky W. Sesan, who’s also worked with D’banj and Ice Prince, is and energetic and easy-going director who, from first impressions, is like by everyone on the set.

Video models criss-cross from one end of the room to the other, up the stairs where the make-up room is located, and around the lounge area where some of the scenes shall be shot. In two weeks’ time, a day before Christams, the video will air on Channel 0 and MTV Base – new-age pariahs/messiahs/saviours of African music.

Prior to the arrival of MTv Base in 2005, Channel 0 had a monopoly on African music programming. That it was carried across different countries over the continent opened people on either sides of the equator to sounds other than the World Music rhetoric we’d been fed henceforth. It was an exciting time; 2Face’s “African girl” was just about the biggest song on the continent.


This past December, Sarokodie concluded the last leg of his Rapperholic tour – Rapperholic being the title of his 2011 album which resulted from the (rumoured) venture with Konvict.

The terms and conditions of the relationship had always been contested. The rumours were finally allayed when Akon himself announced that Sarkodie was never signed to Konvict Music Africa, adding that the artist – affectionately known as the Number One Obidi among his devoted fans – was supposed to be their inaugural signing in Ghana. “Unfortunately we couldn’t get the deal together so the deal never closed,” he said. Regardless, Sarkodie’s profile is the highest it can ever be. His new album Sarkology has garnered him multiple awards at the Vodafone Ghana Music Awards, and he’s been nominated for a BET Best International Act: Africa award, and an MTV Africa Music Award.

He’s also been the brand ambassador  for Samsung in Ghana.

The scope of hip-hop on the African continent is broad. There’s no one definitive sound that is distinctly African. Electro-chaabi is as much African as Didier Awadi’s mbalax-influenced rap songs; or AKA’s latest forays into sampling old-school house music songs. So are Blitz the Ambassador, Baloji, Youssoupha, or any of the myriad rappers across the diaspora.

While booking agents at festivals still yearn for a version of Africa sold to them under the ‘World Music’ banner of yesteryear, African hip-hop is more interested in trying new ideas out – new ways of distributing music, sometimes with no label support.

Blitz the Ambassador has spoken about how constant rejection from labels forced him into developing an independent mindset. Close to ten years since he started rapping, Blitz is one of the most widely-travelled musicians in the diaspora (alongside the Mighty Embassy Ensemble, his fascinating four-piece live band). His album Afropolitan Dreams is a work of wonder.

Hip-hop on the continent is fascinating in that, despite there being no formalized music industry in some countries, and a non-existent hip-hop industry to speak of in others, more artists seem to be emerging, be it through independently-run blogs, or wider-reaching media such as satellite television. Besides Blitz the Ambassador, this first half of the year is likely to witness releases from Tumi Molekane (South Africa), Zone Fam (Zambia), and E.L. (Ghana).

Further Reading