The problem with mainstream hip hop

What does AKA adds to the conversation about rap music in South Africa?

AKA (Photo: Tseliso Monaheng).

When I told a friend I had just attended an album listening session by the rapper AKA, he asked: “What do you like about the guy?” He then answered his own question:  “I don’t know, I don’t get the guy; and maybe I never will.”  It felt like my friend should have added: “Is there anything of artistic value that he adds to the conversation on rap music in South Africa?” We continued driving, flouting conventional wisdom and indulging our pearls of rap wisdom. AKA stuck to the back of my mind; his significance, if any; his relevance, if any; his music – the musicality thereof, if any.

What, for instance, do I learn from listening to “Kontrol,” AKA’s chart-topping, South African house music-sampling duet with rapper Da L.E.S? Frankly, lines like ” … sip champagne/ when you order you should parlez vous Francais/ then we should take this back to my place, so whatchu say,” does not inspire much faith in his ability to pen anything different from what everyone else (read: radio-friendly rappers) is talking about. AKA does not, in short, engage me intellectually – and there lies the problem with mainstream artists.

We the music-consuming public get to interact with versions of themselves they [the artists] want exposed. Their perfectly-curated sense of self therefore cracks under public scrutiny; in searching for more substance to cling onto, we are left wanting, which then leads to accusations of overblown egos and lack of originality. The music becomes less and less a point of focus while the personality comes under intense scrutiny.

One might argue that social networks have eased barriers of entry in the fan-artist nexus. It’s become easy to pop a question to just about any public figure who’s active on either twitter or facebook and, in some instances, get a response. Moments after his listening session, I posed the question to AKA about how he handles the inevitable backlash from people who do not take kindly to his music. “I used to be that guy who thought I could fight everybody,” he said, and then added, “now, I just realise that silence is way more powerful than any response could ever be.”

AKA alludes to undergoing enormous growth in the two years since his debut album “Alter Ego,” but his periodic Twitter rants trump that claim. He recently got involved in a tweef (‘beef’ over twitter) with Cassper Nyovest, another South African emcee whose rise has been nothing short of magnificent to behold. Some quarters have interpreted this as a bad move from AKA, but he’s done it before (with L-Tido over at Facebook) and emerged a better artist.

AKA is a brilliant performer. He works the audience incredibly well regardless of whether he is solo, or performing with either Khuli Chana or Da LES (he appeared with both artists at two consecutive Cape Town International Jazz Festivals – with Khuli in 2013, and Da Les this year). He’s also a producer of note; his friend, the radio and television personality Sizwe Dlhomo, has spoken of how AKA would be holed up for hours in basement studios crafting music to what would become his debut EP 24/7/365. He did so with the production outfit IV League, a unit he’s no longer affiliated to.

With close to 265, 000 followers on twitter as of writing, AKA’s public life has become the focal point for social media-savvy South Africa. When questioned about his take on celebrity in one instance, he responded: “I’m just fucking good at what I do.”

Thinking back, the listening session I attended was an exercise in media engagement. AKA was jovial, affable. He performed for those gathered before him, alternating energetically between the stage and a coffee table to sing to his mother who was also in attendance. It was pop; it was spectacular; there was free food, an open bar, and a shattering level of product placement.

“These songs are a work in progress, you’re actually welcome to suggest changes,” he said invitingly.

As AKA readies for his album release, and with more number one singles (“Congratulate”, “Run Jozi”) to boost his (alter-) ego, the stakes have never been higher for any South African hip-hop artist. Will AKA live up to his potential greatness?

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