|© 2008 story & pics by Lee Kasumba for Africanhiphop.com
In early 2008, our African hip hop radio correspondent Lee Kasumba - also known for being South Africa's top hip hop radio presenter at YFM - travels the continent with Channel O Sprite Emcee Africa in search for the best English language rapper. Lee reports about her experiences as she travels from Ghana to Nigeria and beyond.
Upon arrival at Julius Nyerere International Airport in Dar Es Salaam, I almost expected to walk into a cypher where guys would be rhyming. In fact I even half expected the immigration officer to start rapping or at the very least say something about hip-hop, as strange as that sounds. But I couldn't be blamed, because whenever African hip-hop comes up either in terms of information available, or on compilations showcasing African hip-hop or even documentaries about African hip-hop Tanzania is definitely one of the hotspots…from the outside looking in. So I was curious what it was like from the inside. I was nervous about the language factor too as I had been warned that most people didn't rhyme in English, let alone freestyle or battle. With all that in mind coupled with my list of have-to-meet-people and their contact details, the next leg of my hip-hop adventure began…
From the airport we headed straight over to TCC Social club which was where the final battles would go down. When we got there we ordered drinks and the production team started talking about cameras and jibs and all the rest. Except for the driver who on the way back from the airport was playing an old Tupac tape (and I literally mean a tape in a tape deck), I hadn't really heard anything about hip-hop. As though they had read my mind Zavara, formerly known as Rhymson when he started out with one of Tanzania's founding hip-hop crews Kwanza Unit almost 14 years ago, made his way to the table. Kwanza Unit was a pioneering hip-hop crew in the Tanzanian hip-hop scene, hence the name Kwanza Unit which means first unit. Reuben followed soon after, he was my co-host for the Tanzanian leg of Emcee Africa and he co-hosts a hip-hop show on Clouds FM called XXL.
Then it was just like everyone was there: Lindu, who was a judge as well as the owner of Big One Productions and one of the dopest hip-hop producers in Tanzania. K-singo, who was also part of Kwanza Unit, also came through and we spoke a little about the scene in SA and people like Pro Verb, who I was quickly beginning to find was extremely popular everywhere I went. Lufunyo, 'the animal' as he is called apparently because he likes going to the bush, was also present and I could tell instantly that he was the one that'd say everything without holding back. An emcee as well as co-owner of Area 41 records, he mentioned how he had been taken out in a battle the night before. "So where did that go down, who took you out?" I was quick to ask, "you'll meet him later on, and I'll take you guys to that spot". Before we could complete that conversation Professor Jay, who was a judge and also known as the god father of Bongo Flava, made his way towards the table and the hip-hop circle was complete for the evening.
Never one to waste any time I went straight into my questions because I wanted to experience all that I had heard about the Tanzanian hip-hop scene, what it was like and hopefully go check out some of the different spots. "There isn't really a place people go to now like Coco Beach for sessions but they don't happen anymore..." Lufunyo explained, then Zavara interjected: "there's also WAPI that happens once a month that's a good place, but the event isn't on this weekend". Still persistent I asked "so Lufunyo, the battle you were talking about yesterday - where did it go down?" "at Area 41 Records, we were all just chilling, we can go there tonight - actually there will be a lot of different people there that you guys can meet who are involved in hip-hop in Tanzania. I will also try get Kalapina to come through". Lufu almost paused then looked towards Reuben and asked "it's cool if we have him on the show, because in terms of the underground and someone that people know has been fighting for hip-hop in Tanzania he must be there".
This went into an entire debate with all the parties concerned and I just soaked in what I can. Turns out that Kalapina's crew Kikosi Cha Mizinga had banned a radio station from playing their music, and there was still a court case pending. I heard stories of how Pina as he was refered to a lot had beat people up and didn't exactly have the cleanest mouth and was just a bad reflection on what Tanzania was all about. I felt a little under pressure because on one hand it was like the show should be fully representative and on the other hand I wasn't really trying to upset people, but when it came down to it, if Pina could cause such a long heated debate then meeting with him was definately worth it, so Lufu made the call for him to be at Area41.
When we arrived at Area 41 there were a host of people there already, mainly because that's where they hung out a lot. When I walked inside the gate I saw the first piece of graffiti art that I had seen since arriving in Dar. I was told that the piece was a collaborative piece between a Tanzanian hip-hop activist and graff artists Mejah and an American hip-hop activist called Sethm who had inititated the popular freestyle sessions at Coco Beach. Lufu proceeded to tell me some of the history of Area 41 Records: "It's called Area 41 because its in an area called 41 within the Kinondoni district and so we just named it after it. Also many people started having ciphers here, it's sort of like the unofficial but official hip-hop block." While Lufu was giving some history his attention was redirected towards Lenana: "this is the guy from the battle that I told you about, he is dope, he is going to take part in the competition. Professor Jay was also present and we got talking for a bit which was a huge change from him being quiet just earlier. Originally from the crew Hardblasters and now a solo artist and hugely successful, Jay told me they called him Professor Jay because he was the professor of hip-hop in Tanzania.
I was curious what he thought about Bongo Flava vs Hip-hop: "to me Bongo Flava is hip-hop, it's just localized. Lemar and Dungus who were producers at 41 Records played some music and then Jay and Lufunyo proceeded to perform and lace verses on the track. All the while that we were inside there was a new group of people who had arrived, Gaidi for one who had worked on the Black August Tanzania initiative and he emphasized how important it was that I meet with Mejah, " Mejah knows everyone and understands all the politics of the scene, 10 minutes with him will give you 10 years into hip-hop in Tanzania". So we made plans to hook up with Mejah the next day. In the corner there was a relatively quiet guy who had the attention of most of the people in the yard, upon being introduced to him I was told that it was Kalapina, the very same one that had sparked a long heated debate earlier at TCC Social Club. Truthfully though I expected him to be a lot bigger, not necessarily in size but in terms of him making his presence known, but he was the exact opposite of that, though he did draw a lot of attention even when he was silent. There were no fireworks or anything but he did seem to know and understand the culture especially from the perspective of his crew Kikosi cha Mizinga. By the time the night came to an end as we stepped into the car Lufu pointed out that Pina and Jay were talking a little further down the road - " they haven't spoken in almost two years, this is good for hip-hop here"…
We started the day off really early as we made our way to the British council at around 8:30am for the press conference and the round table. I was a little nervous because from the previous night's discussion about the language issue, with the judges, I knew that it was going to become quite a big thing, but I was also eager to get to connect with some of the heads in Tanzania. I was most especially hoping to meet with Hashim who was one of the original members and founders of Kikosi Cha Mizinga and just a dope emcee period, as well as Mejah who from what I had heard would be able to put things in perspective for me.
Reuben from Clouds FM hosted and facilitated the press conference and the round table alike. After all the speeches and introductions were made and the press conference was open to the floor, one of the first three questions were about language and then after that it felt as though everyone asked the same question about why the emcees couldn't compete in Swahili, all in different ways and angles. I couldn't even be mad about it because it just showed the pride in language and culture that the Tanzanians had. It was just a case of explaining to them that the entire show, all the interviews and music played would be in the language of the artist's choice. But when it came to the battles because it was a pan African competition and being able to battle someone meant being able to understand the person, we had to use English as the compromise language. Imagine what would happen if the Angolan emcee went head to head with the Tanzanian emcee? One would be rhyming in Swahili, the other Portuguese and the entire "dialogue" would be lost in translation. In my mind I kept thinking that hip-hop always seemed to take the wrap for what was an issue in society. I tentatively smiled because it was like I knew that whatever language was decided in each country, no one would ever be happy, and I realized that we couldn't play the role of the United Nations - all we could do is put on the best possible show.
After the press left and just the heads were left to talk, things became a lot more interesting and I felt like I gained an eye opener into the scene. Adam from Visual Lab (who have made almost every music video from Tanzania) was like the old school guy in the mix. He raised a very important point about the D.J. being non-exsistant in the scene: "we just have to go back to the basics, and that's the D.J. For every 200 or 300 emcees there are only 3 D.J's and in most cases they are like selectors and don't even know anything about vinyl. How is the industry supposed to grow?" I was pretty shocked about that but also realized that the art of D.J'ing had been lost for a huge part everywhere. He also proceeded to talk about how the b-boys and that culture was lost and the only focus was always just the emcees. Which in reality seems to be a problem around the world where the only focus is the emcee and the rest of the culture is kind of left to fend for itself. As the press conference progressed I kept on getting even more surprised about how similar situations and debates were all over when it came to hip-hop.
Someone brought up the issue of how radio was now being called hip-hop killers and how there were issues with getting music on air. Reuben was really fast at explaining this point "people have to be smart, don't bring a song that is so deep and so dark for the morning drive show and expect people to play it or want to hear it on the way to work, bring something that will work for that time, if it doesn't go on then you understand why. In all genres radio doesn't play the hardest but the most easily accessible. I mean Dunga when you make a beat you think of when its meant to be played". Reuben stated addressing it to Dunga, without any hesitation and a bit of a smile Dunga said "I know I make some soft beats sometimes but guys still want to spit venomous raps!" This was probably one of the funnier moments in the round table. Dunga also made a point later on about the state of freestyling and how some people just thought they could do it without any practice and how it was like think you could become a body builder without going to the gym. I couldn't have thought of a better analogy.
K Singo was also really vocal throughout the press conference, he took things back a bit when the issue came up about content and the responsibility of artists, he stated how as an emcee you were responsible for what you said at all times. He also spoke about how though there were all these problems in hip-hop, in general it was like a family that has its good and bad, joy and pain but at the end of the day it was all love and all hip-hop. As the press conference came to an end.I made plans with Mejah who was going to take us to one of the first graffiti pieces ever done in Dar Es Salaam, as well as taking us on a tour of Dar Es Salaam through the eyes of hip-hop. Mejah through his company Afri-roots adventures (afriroots.co.tz) had also given Dead Prez a tour of Dar Es Salaam. I was excited about that. We went our separate ways with plans to link up in two hours as we made our way to Clouds FM for an interview on Bedazzled and Reuben's hip-hop show XXL. The interview was really cool until they tried to blackmail me on air into freestyling, and we know that was not going to happen. But overall from the callers to the radio hosts, I had a pretty good feeling about the battles the next day.
When we got downstairs, we waited for Mejah who arrived in his classic old school explorer, perfect for city touring. I of course jumped straight into the front seat, because I was trying to ask as many questions and learn as much as I could from Mejah, who was one of the founders of Bang magazine but left it when it started to change vision and direction. As we drove I noticed that many of the roads were named after African Leaders and Mejah explained that the old president Nyerere had changed all the colonial names to African leaders like Samora Machel and Lumumba to mention a few. We were getting closer to Kivukani and Mnara which were landmarks in Dar Es Salaam. On the way we went past New Africa Hotel which is the hotel that Dead Prez, Ray Charles Laghstone Hugh, Geronimo Jiijaga Praat who was Gaidi's father and Tupac's god father had all stayed when they visited Tanzania.
After getting some country info, because I believe that a countries history will play a huge role into the hip-hop, I felt a little braver to ask Mejah, a relative stranger, his views about what was really happening. He broke down why people felt that Arusha was the capital of hip-hop and not Dar Es Salaam and how that was mainly because of the fact that media was so big in Dar Es Salaam and so the game wasn't as pure anymore.
With regards to Bongo Flava and whether or not it was hip-hop he didn't believe it was but that Bongo Flava had elements of hip-hop within it. He broke down how Kikosi Cha Mizinga was founded by Hashim and now Kalapina had taken over it and how almost 70% of the current members are not the same as there were when Hashim was there. "I see, and the name what does it mean?" I asked. "It means firing squad, Hashim told me that when I interviewed him a while back". Mejah's knowledge was so overwhelming, I kind of wished that I had a dictaphone so I could record all that he said, he went as far as bringing in people from Kenya like Kimya who were part of Kikosi, and how Kikosi was so big at one point that Watengwa from Arusha, Nako 2 Nako Soljahs as well as Ukoo Flani Mau Mau from Nairobi were all linked as family at some point but at the moment it didn't seem that way anymore. "To me I think Hashim was the glue that held all these people together, so when Hashim quit all these other groups, myelf included saw no need to hang with the rest of Kikosi. Not to long go someone from Kikosi beat one of the Nako 2 Nako members up and now the whole of Kikosi is not really welcome in Arusha. You know that Ukoo Flani and some guys from Arusha were nurtured by ex-black panthers in Arusha as well as the Mau Mau elders. So in terms of the foundation, Hashim and James Wamaba aka Seif who was the son of Wamba Dia Wamba, opposition leader in the DRC and one of Patrice Lumumba's followers, were the only members of Kikosi that were politically inclined. And Seif basically taught Hashim how to rhyme, Hashim taught Pinna and the rest".
I was really blown away by the fact that when the crew started there was a huge political angle and that people actually still cared about that, especially in hip-hop because you normally hear the opposite. When we arrived at Kivukani, Zavara joined us and we started to talk about the music more specifically: "what song would you say was one of the most defining in Tanzanian hip-hop scene in terms of content and it just being an anthem?" Almost at the same time both Zavara and Mejah said "Tunasonga! Tunasonga kwa risasi au farasi, maasi yanatuzonga!" Zavara continued to explain: "we are moving forward by ammunition or horse, we're suffocated by evils." Mejah further explained "basically the song is all about neo colonialism especially through so called globalization. One line goes 'wanatutega akili, wapate kuchuma mali kwenye bega la mswahili' which means 'tame our intellect, so they can reap wealth from the shoulder of the Swahili people"…" So who did the track and was it ever released?" I asked. "Well it was Hashim and Kalapina, that was in 2002 that it was released to radio. But when Hashim left, Kalapina put it on the Kikosi album Kufa au Kupona which means life or death. That was in 2006".
After the camera crew had gotten all the shots that they needed we made our way to the final a monument called Askari Monument, then to a basketball court in East Upanga where we saw one of Mejah's graff pieces that he and his crew Wachata had done. He proceeded to explain to me that the crew got their name after the word Chata which is what graffiti is referred to in Tanzania. Really glad that we were now getting into another aspect of the hip-hop culture , I continued to probe about the history of graffiti in Tanzania. "Well," Mejah replied, "Chata is from the word Charter that was introduced by the stowaway young Tanzanians in the early 1980's who went on ships to become seamen, then when they returned from the stories that they told young people started to write with charcoal on the wall and that refers to chata. So in Swahili a person who does chata i.e graffitti is Mchata and in plural Wachata. That's how we got the name first to have a name that everyone would understand, second to honour the founders of the art and third to localize it but still carry the message." Mejah went into the reasons why graffiti wasn't so big in Tanzania being because of the cost of spray cans. We later made our way to an art gallery where we saw one of the biggest pieces that Mejah had done called Mawazo which means thoughts. "So where do you get the money or spray cans", I asked, "well there is an American graff artist called Kool Koor who was here and we have done some work together, also he sends spray cans so that's how we keep the art going."
Right next door to the art gallery was YMCA and Zavara started to tell me more the story of Kwanza Unit. "We used to hang out there at the YMCA, I remember while we were recording our album we made a pact that non of us would die before we release our project" he paused then continued "but Adili Kumbuka aka Nigga One said that we never know when you are going to die…Three months later he died in a car crash about 200 metres from here… Many members of Kwanza Unit have been traveling a lot but we are talking of maybe doing a project, I am not sure what will happen."
As we parted ways with Mejah before going to meet with Lindu, one of the judges, I was blown away that I had learnt so much about Tanzanian politics and all that because of hip-hop as well, a part of me wished that I could have taken everyone with me on the ride to talk with Mejah and Zavara.
We arrived at Big One Productions to meet with Lindu who was the third judge for Channel O Emcee Africa. Last night we had hung out with Professor Jay and Lufunyo at Area 41. Upon arrival Lindu was recording an artist called Kurasa which means Page. After the brief introductions and Kurasa realized that I was based in South Africa he blurted out "I like Proverb, I like what he is doing, also Prokid. Tumi is a great emcee, one of my favourites - you should tell him to drop something in Swahili, because he was born in Tanzania." Though I had known Tumi was born in Tanzania I never really knew many people who were really aware of that, it was pretty refreshing. While talking to Lindu he told how he started being a producer. "I used to be an emcee and wanted beats that I could rhyme to so I started making beats, that's what happened." His story was very similar to most producers that I knew. Lindu also spoke how he had started in Australia and how Big One Productions is actually a bigger collective, how they had opened for Pep Love and Bone, Thugs and Harmony as well. After listening to a couple his beats that were the perfect soundtrack to a day filled with history I made my way to the hotel, to take in all that I heard and learnt and to get myself ready for tomorrow.
From what I heard from Lufu there was a huge number of people expected and I kept thinking to myself: what do I say when I get on stage- 'Hallo?' no not cool, ' What's up?' not cool enough maybe I could try my newly learnt Swahili ' Mzuka' or "Mambo vipi?" …Guess I would have to wait to see what tomorrow would bring.
Nothing in the world could have prepared me for what I would experience at TCC Social Club. There were hundreds of people that came through. The whole vibe was electric and anyone who was there knew they were part of history. About four women stepped out to try their luck which was refreshing because that is hardly ever the case. During the intervals, the crowd was treated to legendary moments like when Fid Q and Professor Jay had a freestyle 'pass the mic' session. Godzilla was also a crowd favourite, he killed his freestyles and must have gone on for 15 minutes non stop, people literally started to jump over their chairs to hear him. The sad thing was that because he wasn't game to freestyle in English he couldn't take part in the competition. The judges were entertaining too, Lufu was the no nonsense lets be serious judge, and Lindu the peace keeper but the purist while Professor Jay was looking for killer lines.
Out of all the emcees that came through only 8 made it through – Abbas who had a ten year record in the game in Tanzania. Phoenix, Adili who wasn't going to take part but his freestyle during one of the intervals was so dope we had to beg him to take part, Rage, Randal, X-wray, God Emcee and Neville. The Battles were entertaining, I mean who could forget God Emcee who said he was iller than Nas who was from the QB. He started out as a crowd favourite then started repeating the lines "you know what I think you look like Beyonce…you know what you look good to me, you know what you like like a girl to me, you know what I think I will seduce you…" That was what we went through in the battle between him and Abbas needless to say Abbas took that battle. Down to the final battle between Rage who had pretty much come out of no where and remained his composure and Abbas who at that point was a crowd favourite. But at the end of the night it was Rage who took it. Making him the official second title holder for Channel O Sprite Emcee Africa.
Some Background On Rage
His Real Name: Douglas Luke Ntetema
His Emcee Name: "Rage is just Rage, when I started I had a lot of rage in me, hence the name and content of my lyrics. It developed as I evolved and is now an abbreviation for Rhyming with Anguish, Generating Excellency or Revolt Against Government Entities".
In Hip-hop: "My current crew is called BMP. The label is our own called Big Man Productionz, the "z" is important! I'm a producer/emcee on the label/crew with Sammy Blaze (emcee), Ehks B (emcee) and MVA (emcee/producer). Because we're an independent group, we all have executive roles. I am the President/CO CEO, Sammy Blaze is the CEO, and Ehks B is the manager. We started in 2004 without a mixer, trying to get our music PROPPA! We kept on grindin' making beats and songs whenever we could. We have a few tracks out like "Mzuka" by Ehks B featuring myself, "Wachawi Hao" by BMP, which has a video that also get some airtime. The oldest song on air was produced in 2004 by D Money of Downtown Records called "These Days", which was my first mainstream studio recording. We also produce videos, Ehks B is the producer/editor and Sammy Blaze is the director. The company is called Burning Entertainment, and we're working on organizing events/shows, documentaries, movies and our own magazine, we still got a lot of grinding to do. Apart from BMP, I rep another crew called Proppa Productions, an independent crew and also the first crew I joined in 2003, about a year or two after I started rhyming. We mainly produce grime music, an Urban UK Genre, in Tottenham, London. I've been away for a while, but I'm keeping it PROPPA!
Started Rhyming: I started in round 2001/2, but I got serious when I joined Proppa Productions in 2003.
Favourite Emcee: I have many favorite emcees, the consistent ones like Nas, KRS 1, Immortal Technique, Styles P, Common, Castro Saint (of Proppa P) and many more. The thing i like most about these emcees, is the ability to stay conscious and lyrically on point although there's so much hype surrounding their names. I don't have one favorite emcee cause so many keep bringing the necessary goods to the mic.
Favourite Track at the Moment: Surviving The Times by Nas, it shows part of the journey I've been through so far and what the future probably holds for me or any emcee with talent trying to get paid.
Who he would like his first battle to be against: I don't know, they're all good enough to make it this far. I can't say, bring 'em on!
If he makes the finals who he would like it to be against: Like the previous answer, if I make it that far I'll thank God, but whatever country holds it down that day, is who I wanna battle! I wish everyone all the best."
Final Word From the Judges
Professer Jay On...
.....Rage's strengths: "he has got rhymes, thinking so fast and he has punch lines and he has no dirty words"
....Rage's weakness: HIS weakness is sometimes you don't hear what he is saying and he looks a little bit shy and he has a weakness of stage performance, I mean he is not showing exactly what he is saying
....Rage's Strengths: " he can keep cool in a battle and I think that is very important"
....Rage's Weakness: "he has to work harder on his delivery"
....Rage's Strengths: "Rage showed that he could study his opponents before a battle, so he is very strategic. He flows on beat, understood the art of rhyming and didn't curse a lot so he is in control of his words"
...Rage's Weakness: "he lacked clever punch lines. He needed to be much clearer in getting his point across. He didn't have a battle stance, as in his body language was weak. In battles you use your hands, facial expressions, its all part of what you communicate"
That's how we wrapped things up in Tanzania. Next stop Naija, to see how they hold it down.