Exclusive Interview

Over the course of roughly three decades, African hip-hop culture has evolved from being an insular fad enjoyed almost exclusively by those with access to Western culture to a continental movement that has inspired social engagement amongst its listeners. Eric S. Charry, editor of the book “Hip Hop Africa: New African Music in a Globalizing World,” was at the forefront of Africa’s hip-hop revolution in the late 1980s. He recently took the time to chat with The Africa Bazaar about the genre’s place in both contemporary African music and around the world.

Q. How did you get involved in researching and writing about African hip hop?
A. Initially, I first went there (Africa) in 1988 to research traditional music—this was in Mali, Guinea and Senegal—I was researching traditional string instrument music and drumming and then what they call modern music, which is guitar-based music.
I left in the summer of 1990 and didn’t see any indication among young people in those countries that hip-hop had made any kind of a dent in the culture. But, by the early 2000s, then I’d gone back a few times, it became clear that it was coming to be one of the more important cultural phenomenon across Africa.
So in 2003, I organized a panel at an African studies association conference, where a few people working on hip-hop had given papers. It seemed like an exciting topic, so we just decided to eventually put a book together. From that point on, I began paying closer attention.
It’s particularly interesting to me because my initial area of interest was to look at how Cuban music was imported in the ’50s and ’60s and how [musicians] in Guinea and Mali [had infused it] with their own kind of national popular music that transformed Cuban music. I knew that same process was being done with hip-hop. Hip-hop was imported—it was initially imitative and then they localized it and made it their own. I found that process really interesting—two very different kinds of music, time periods.

Q. American hip-hop began as a youth movement formed on the streets in reaction to socioeconomic pressures and subjugation experienced by those living in New York at the time in the 1970s. What are some of the similarities and differences in the way that African hip-hop formed?
A. The funny thing is that it was the exact opposite outside of the U.S. because the primary people that had access to American goods and media were those of the upper echelon of the socioeconomic scale. So in Africa, it was predominantly people that were looking to the U.S. for their cultural signals. In general, it was a more wealthier class and more educated class that had access to it and it filtered down across socioeconomic layers over the course of a decade or two and eventually was embraced by all economic strata.

Q. What do you think distinguishes African hip-hop from hip-hop created in other parts of the world?
A. Well, there’s two parts to the question. One, it’s distinguished from the U.S. and then from other non-U.S. hip-hop. In general it’s more essentially conscious, in a positive way, about its surroundings. There’s more national pride. So in the U.S. there may be local pride as far as city or neighborhood, whereas in African hip-hop you may find that also, but there’s often great nationalism and national pride and there’s also sticking to the kinds of current events that are happening right at that moment.
I’ve noticed that different countries have different feels to them. For example, Senegal is a strong political country, so they use it (hip-hop music) a lot to mobilize people to participate in elections and to get them involved, whereas in some of the other countries it may be more commercialized to the extent that it looks like an imitation of American hip-hop.
Lately, they’ve managed to draw on local traditions to come up with innovative kinds of sounds, both in terms of the music, in terms of the poetry and the linguistic aspect.

Q. How much of an influence does geography play in influencing the sounds of African hip-hop?
A. It’s crucial in Africa and the primary unit is the nation. The groundwork had been laid during the immediate post-colonial years when each nation established their own cultural entity by drawing on all the different ethnic groups within the borders and coming up with a hybrid.
Each of these ethnic countries have been involved for many decades in forging some kind of a national identity. In reference to African hip-hop, a similar process is going on in drawing on local musical instruments. Establishing some kind of local identity was initially done through language. That move from rapping in English to rapping in a local tongue was a major shift. Once that happened in the early ’90s, it kind of opened up the gates to bringing in other kinds of local influences like instruments and sampling of recording. More recently, musicians sampled recordings from their own country, which wasn’t done initially, but they immediately localized it. Ghanaians would sample Highlife recordings and Senegalese would sample mbalax or other popular music from that country.

Q How has African hip-hop evolved in the roughly 30 years it has existed?
A. I also look at hip-hop around the world and I think there are similar patterns. The first decade in the ’80s was one of just absorbing and communicating the style. The ’90s was rapping in local tongues and getting used to the idea that you can internalize it and then 2000s was more capitalizing on that and branching out to continue what they called “underground” or noncommercial [hip-hop] on one prong and the commercial face on the other prong.
And so it’s both a process of continuing to localize it by digging into local traditions on the one hand and also globalizing it by tapping into mostly American kinds of currents. So I think you find the whole spectrum of both a commercial kind of hip-hop and the kind that’s used—well, NGOs have tapped into it so they often use it as a way to attract youth and get them involved in publicizing issues like public health or education or something like that. So, I think that’s another important usage for it.

Q. How does the African hip-hop market compare to other markets? How much money do these artists pull in?
A. I don’t have figures. The African economy for hip-hop is still really in early stage. But having said that, I think each country has a few stars who are able to achieve significant commercial success and so it’s all relative. Within each African country you may have a few people at the top of their game that are making a good living, but there’s no comparison to that with European hip-hop artists or certainly with American hip-hop artists. It’s probably similar along other indicators—the economy, and relatively speaking, a few of the most well-known hip-hop artists can earn a decent living but compared to the U.S. and European economy it’s not very developed at all.
It was initially a cassette and CD market but pirated records is such a problem across Africa that it’s difficult for the artists to realize much in the way of royalties. One of the biggest problems is bootlegging of recordings. It’s mainly live performances where artist can earn money.

Q. How much of an influence does American hip-hop have on African hip-hop today?
A. I think it’s still strong. I think it’s the gold standard. I haven’t seen African MTV yet—I think it’s called MTV Base. But, I believe–I’m not sure the percentage that they give between African music and American music but I think there’s still this standard that America is where it’s at in terms of hip-hop. It’s where it started and those are the most commercially successful artists. And, it’s really hard to break out of that mindset.

Q. How do you see African hip-hop culture evolving over the next ten years?
A. As for the future, I’d just guess that it will continue to move along both the underground (less commercial, more drawing on local traditions) and commercial (high production values, US-influenced) paths.

By Carolyn Okomo

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