Is big money killing South African hip-hop?

09 October 2016 - 02:02 By Tseliso Monaheng

Legendary hop heads like Mizi Mtshali and Osmic Menoe think hip-hop should go back to its non-commercial roots

Local hip-hop, torn between commercialisation and street cred, is in the throes of an identity crisis - and disciples of the culture fear its future is murky.

Leading figures in the genre indulged in an orgy of introspection last month at a hip-hop summit at Museum Africa in Johannesburg organised by Ritual Media Group.

"The future of hip-hop is always going to be uncomfortable," said Mizi Mtshali, a member of the "future of the culture" panel at the summit. Alongside him were producers Inyambo Imenda (Nyambz) and Amukelani Tshwane - who also raps and deejays - and rapper Slikour Metane, formerly of Skwatta Kamp and now an online-magazine owner.

Mtshali's words reflected the tone of the entire discussion. There was an undercurrent of uncertainty mixed with annoyance; a feeling that the corporates have been allowed to roam freely for too long.

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The head of the Ritual Media Group, Osmic Menoe, expressed similar concerns last year at a music industry supper organised by a brand long associated with hip-hop culture. Those present - who ran the gamut of hip-hop elements from b-boys to graffiti artists - were asked what they thought about the state of the nation's hip-hop.

"I don't like it," declared Menoe. Hip-hop had lost its soul, he said.

Ten years ago, one of the most pressing concerns for rappers was how to make a living from their music. The hip-hop magazine Hype - Mtshali was editor at the time - would publish articles aimed at equipping artists with ammo when dealing with big brands that wanted to invest in counter-culture youth movements.

Nowadays the music is unstoppable, and the kids are gulping from its well of beats and rhymes. The bank accounts of artists ranging from Hip Hop Pantsula to JR to Cassper Nyovest to Riky Rick have all benefited from the injection of corporate capital, and artists such as AKA feature regularly in celebrity gossip columns.

Though a section of hip-hop seems to be living the dream, we are being fed haphazard noise thanks to dubious radio programming, self-appointed but clueless gatekeepers, and a focus on sounding as pop as possible. Major brands accustomed to trend-hopping have latched onto the culture and are binge drinking its glo up.

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What happens when the party ends?

Diliza Moabi, a filmmaker who has worked on projects ranging from the acclaimed documentary Vuma: A Music Revolution to the Sisters of Soul mini-series, reckons that hip-hop will go down the same path as kwaito.

At its height, kwaito packed stadiums with what were then A-listers - Zola, Mandoza, Brown Dash and more. As praise poured in, kwaito got carried away by its own hype. It resisted evolution, ignoring the currents of change shifting in from KwaZulu-Natal - a faster variant, more palatable to a youth market going buck-wild over house music.

At the summit last month, there was consensus that hip-hop heads need to take the culture back to the park jams, the bedroom studios, the street-corner rap cyphers and b-boy battles.

"Hip-hop ultimately is a young person's culture. They need to tell their own story," said Nyambz, speaking on the panel.

"There's a disconnect between what's going on in the streets, with the protests, and what's coming out musically. [We] need to ... actually see the power in the music, and the responsibility that comes with it, and actually be on the forefront of that awakening," he said.

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