On elitism, materialism and the slow death of Zimbabwean Rap

By Sasha Shingai Nhara

I remember listening to Wutang’s CREAM and thinking, there’s no way that’s actually true. There’s
no way “ Cash Rules Everything Around Me” is an actual thing in the realworld but it seems I was
sorely mistaken. Zimbabwean Hip hop in the last 8 or 9 years has lost most of its soul and it’s Spirit.
It’s a broken spectral echo of its former self , projecting false images that the scene’s alive and
well because there’s more people contibuting but while it seems more vibrant, the truth is it’s
bigger but worse for it and I blame it on CREAM.

Don’t get me wrong I get it, sex and opulence sell, they move digits. This has always been clear and
I’m not labouring under the delusion that rap hasn’t always had it’s materialist and elitist element
but the DIY aesthetic and respect for true skill and talent seemed to always be the bigger part of it,
until now. I think the initial break happened circa late 2007 with the rising popularity of Soulja Boi
or was it Lil Jon’s crunk movement? It could’ve been an earlier point that I wasn’t aware of, I can’t
truly say but whatever it was it had a bad influence on the Hip hop movement in Zimbabwe.

I remember back in 05 – 06 when was a kid in Bulawayo just starting to figure things (read Life) out
for myself. The Hip Hop scene in Bulawayo was small , intimate and real. And cats came out to
sessions and supported the movement. Everybody contributing did so from a genuine need to create
and belong. It wasn’t about egos. I was 15, 16 years old at the time looking up to cats like Thought
Eclectic, Tswa , Aero5ol and Prince Far Eye. I’d go for these poetry slams with my homies Tumelo
and Mxolisi . We were tryna form a crew at the time; just writing and consuming large amounts of
golden era and underground rap , freestyling and cyphering. We were starving and we’d get up and
go spit some weak and corny ass shit , but it was genuine and hungry and raw and about the art. And
the thing I remember most was these skilled established cats never let their ego get in the way.
Never once did Thought or Tswa or any of these Gs go , “naaah, that verse is wack, just stop. Stop
wasting our time. “ Nah. I remember this time I had like one dope line in the whole verse and homies
kinda latched on to that one line like “YOOOOO, that’s ill” . It felt good to a 15 year old trying to
make good art. It pushed me to write, to articulate my vision. To learn. It made me want to become a
better emcee. A better writer.
It with these memories and is in this spirit that I find certain aspects of the scene today particularly
despicable . Firstly, the notion that every hip hoppa moved to contribute and create art for and in
the culture must subscribe to a strict code dictated by very specific, “successful” and/or
knowledgeable individuals and sacrifice authenticity and their dignity in the process. Secondly, that
the mode by which one creates and contributes matters in the contextualization of the final offering.
I must ask this for it vexes me: How did Zimbabwean rap become so money oriented and elitist?
When did unbridled creative expression and authenticity become anathemas and when did the
culture in general become so avaricious? I ask this because, while I can accept that many approach
Hip hop from a merely business perspective with rap being a means to a possibly comfortable and
perhaps luxurious end; it is and surely must not be the only way to approach the culture at large
and rap as an art form specifically.
Allow me to posit that the origin of the problem is in the alienation of rap from a broader Hip hop
cultural context. That is to say, while it is assuredly Hip Hop to rap, rapping isn’t exclusively Hip hop.
In much of the aforementioned article, McPotar refers to rap and rappers as “The industry”. This is
something that I find problematic from multiple perspectives. Firstly, as a Hip Hoppa and emcee, the
idea that rapping is merely a business, a part of an industrial complex presents a few hurdles. If rap is merely an industry and success within it is dictated by “pushing numbers” then the majority of
contributors to this, the most monumentally popular of The Elements are better off not taking part
at all. This is if one accepts the idea that cash is better than kudos. Or that cash is better than self
actualization. It leads down the rabbit hole to “who is more successful, Talib Kweli or Jay Z?
Pharoahe Monch or Kanye West? Rapsody or Nicki Minaj? Stunner or Munetsi? Madlib or Mike
Will? Anozi Xndr or PhD?”
What decides success? Who decides what is worth more; critical acclaim or financial recompense,
the streets or the radio, Heads or the Man? From the broad perspective of a complete living,
growing and evolving culture the comparisons are ludicrous.
Secondly, from the perspective of a fan of Hip hop music, I have a problem with the idea that I am at
the mercy of increasingly coercive methods to acquire my listenership. That is to say that, I would
like to think that the artists are creating something authentic; that their music is something uniquely
theirs and that my appreciation of their artefact is due to the process of authentic human
connection rather than due to the cold algorithmic calculations of ACME Brand Marketing 101. This
is not to say that all forms of branding and brand consciousness are bad but I believe there needs to
be an authenticity in how one presents themselves and their work.
My major issue is with approaching Hip hop from a purely pecuniary mindset because the Art
suffers when one caters only to popular opinion and the dominant aesthetic. That is to say, when
people make art to assuage populist sentimentality rather than their own original creative impulse,
something is terribly wrong with the culture.
To an avowed fanatic of DIY, free culture and the creative commons such as me, the idea that where
or how a product was made matters in how the artefact is accepted by the public is heart breaking.
Such elitism in Hip hop, while being a mainstay since rap went pop, is extremely disconcerting in an
environment as economically and socio-politically oppressive as Zimbabwe. I’d even go so far as to
posit that that the reason ZimDancehall is a bigger movement than Zim Hip hop is because
Dancehall has remained an avowedly inclusive, DIY and classless movement.
The fact that one recorded a record in a high end, “state of the art” studio shouldn’t make their art
a particularly better artefact than one recorded in a bedroom or basement with cheap equipment
and or pirated software. Isn’t DIY in Hip hop as conceptually and aesthetically acceptable now as it
was in the 70s, 80s or 90s? Is the voice of the regular nappy headed man on the street now less
valid than that of a businessman with a “good education who does consultancy for large coporations
…”?
The problem with elitism is that it so blatantly goes against the grain of collective consciousness and
collective experience. Most people aren’t the upper and middle class progeny of wealthy
government officials and affluent business people. Most people aren’t hustlers making millions and
driving expensive cars although they might aspire to that. Most people [at least those I know
personally] can’t afford the high prices for legal versions of Protools, Abelson or FL Studio which, for
the record, all retail for more than $300 because most people don’t have regular paying jobs or
disposable income. However, most people want to express themselves and they want to share their
expression. So it is, in my opinion, highly offensive to want to declare that an artefact deserves less
respect because it was produced in the most barebones DIY way available to the person at the time.

While it may be popular opinion in “the industry” that success is predicated on radio and television
play , and the opinions of fickle and oftentimes ill informed personalities; and perhaps while “the
industry” feel like their idols… make fun of their quality, the types of studios they record in and of
course their cracked FL Studio. Hip Hoppas are comfortable makin enduring art for their small but
loyal audiences. They’re cool with their cracked FL Studio, their bedroom, basement and boyskhaya
recording studios and the “spaceship raps” of gifted emcees… In fact , if you ask any of the gods
walkin these dusty streets if they’d quit graffin, Deejayin , emceein [rapping for you Industry types]
or makin beats because it wasn’t makin money; they’d probably laugh at you and walk away shaking
their head at such foolishness.
I know I would, but maybe that’s just me.

That’s my 2 cents for now. Peace.

Sasha Shingai Nhara is a Zimbabwean multidisciplinary artist, writer, producer of electronic music and aspiring publisher of speculative fiction- this article was contributed via Baseline Thoughts

 

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