Crossing Borders: The Rise of Hip Hop in Africa


From producer/director Yanick Letourneau comes the feature documentary, United States of Africa: Beyond Hip Hop. Released in Canada, the USA, and South Africa, the film follows rapper Didier Awadi as he tours 40 countries, outlining the tragic defeats of various African leaders who were thwarted in their progressive aims, often by Western powers. This documentary gives us a picture of the past and hope for the future, all through the lens of music and politics. More than any genre except folk, rap has fused those two things; this is a stirring example of that fusion and the power it can have.

In celebration of the film that EVERYONE must go and see, we have chronicled the rise of hip hop as a genre in Africa today:

Historical Origins

Hip hop in Africa traces its origin back to the 1980s. South Africa had its own musicians. The likes of Yvonne Chaka Chaka, the magnificent Miriam Makeba and Chico Chikaya. East Africa had taarab music. West African music was alive with the afro-Jazz scene thanks to one legendary guitarist and saxophonist (Fela Kuti, anyone?). The Congolese music scene was vibrant in African so much so that lingala music was synonymous with African music. Franco, T.P.O.K Jazz, Mbilia Bel, Tshala Muana among other Congolese musicians boasted of a fan base that crossed continental boundaries.

Premier Senegalese rapper MC Solaar who emerged in the 80s and has enjoyed much success in France

However, as the 1980s wore on, word and beats of people such as DJ Kool Herc, Rakim, Grandmasterflash and the Furious Five and other early hip hop acts hit the African airwaves. It was evident that the wind of change was blowing across Africa. It was time to dance to a different beat – the beat of hip hop.

If we consider the 1980s to be the infant years of hip hop in Africa, then the 1990s were its childhood and adolescence combined in one. Many African countries began to embrace and identify with the hip hop culture. From Johannesburg through Kinshasa, over to Dakar and stretching through Kampala into Nairobi, hip hop was fast becoming the music of the youth. rhyming.

One of the reasons why hip hop music had a strong influence in Africa was the message in the music.

Before hip hop, it was the in-thing to sing about love and romance. These are things that were not out of context, but not so appropriate for a people who were languishing in poverty and corruption.

It is for this reason that Africans could relate to most of the lyrics in hip hop music. Hip hop music was also seen as a sign of hope of escaping from poverty. Young Africans looked at the lifestyles of most American rappers who had grown up in poverty but were living lives of opulence thanks to rap music.

Today Congolese rapper Didjak Munya uses the power of hip hop to show kids how rap can end violence.

African Hip Hop Today

A breakthrough for African hip hop came in the mid 1990s when a television channel dedicated to African music was launched. Channel O became the first TV station not only in Africa, but in the world, to focus on African music in general and African hip hop in particular. The growing up was complete. It was now time for the maturation of hip hop in Africa.

Wyclef Jean at the MTV African Music Awards (MAMA)

Gone are the days when hip hop music was sidelined to a select few hours of radio. Nowadays, every hour on many radio stations in Africa is hip hop hour. Every African country has countless hip hop acts, recording studios and TV programs.

Indeed, there have been significant milestones that show that hip hop in Africa has finally matured and is here to stay.The MTV Africa Music Awards (MAMA) has become the stage on which African hip hop artists from all over the continent congregate to strut their stuff.
There are also numerous magazines in Africa that focus on the hip hop scenes of those countries. Such magazines include I Speak Hip Hop and HYPE from South Africa and Hip Hop World Magazine and Blast and Bubbles of Nigeria.

To show how mature African hip hop has become, it is now commonplace for established American hip hop labels to sign African hip hop artists. In 2011, two time MAMA artist of the year, D’banj, had his ‘Mohits’ records signed by Kanye West’s ‘GOOD Music’. Wizkid, 2Face Idibia (best male duo, 2010 MAMA) and P-Square (best group, 2010 MAMA) of Nigeria have also been signed to Akon’s ‘Konvict Muzik’ label. Recently, there were rumors that new Kenyan hip hop act Camp Mulla was set to be signed by Lil Wayne’s ‘Young Money’ records but neither party has confirmed nor denounced these rumors.

Nigerian artist D’banj with Kanye West and producer L.A. Reid

Somalian artist K’naan

When talking of hip hop in Africa, one can be forgiven for not mentioning Somalia. After all, the country has not had a stable government since the early 1990s. It is war-torn and is home to some of the wildest pirates anywhere in the world. On top of that, the rebels who rule Somalia with an iron fist are staunch and extremist Muslims. Well, despite such a seemingly hostile place for the growth of hip hop, one of the most famous hip hop artists at the moment was born and brought up in Somalia. Keinan Abdi Warsame, better known as K’naan, is one of Africa’s proudest contributions to hip hop. K’naan won the 2010 Juno Awards for Artiste of the Year and Songwriter of the Year. The song ‘Waving Flag’ off his album ‘Troubadour’ was chosen to be the theme song for the FIFA 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the biggest soccer festival in the world.

These signings and developments show that indeed, the African hip hop scene is on its way to the Promised Land, if not already there.

Rapper J. Cole sampled Guinean classic band Ballet et ses Balladins

By these signings, mainstream American hip hop artists are showing to the world that African hip hop is as good as American hip hop and that there are albums to be sold and money to be made from African hip hop.

Lately, there has also been a trend of mainstream American hip hop artists sampling beats from African music. One of the earliest examples of this was in the song ‘How Come’ by Wyclef Jean, Canibus and Youssou N’dour. The song sampled beats from Senegalese music. J. Cole’s track ‘Can’t Get Enough’ is also sampled from an old African song. The song is ‘Paulette’ by one of the most successful music acts in Guinea’s golden era of music called Balla et ses Balladins.

Nigerian hip-hop/soul artist Nneka

‘Hearbeat’, a song by Nigerian singer Nneka has been sampled by Rita Ora in her song ‘R.I.P’. Some analysts have also drawn similarities between some American hip hop album covers with album covers from old African bands. The most prominent of these is the similarity between Black Eyed Peas’ ‘Elephunk’ album with that of ‘Heads’, a 1972 album released by Ghanaian band Osibisa.

Ghanaian entertainer Sarkodie

Governments are also recognizing the presence of hip hop in their countries. In 2005, then Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa rewarded local rappers Professor Jay and Ferooz for their song ‘Starehe’ by giving each of them a Mercedes Benz and cash. The song contains lyrics about HIV and AIDS prevention. In neighboring Uganda, president Yoweri Museveni once released a rap song in an effort to improve his ratings among the youth.

Kenyan group Camp Mulla

There are also award ceremonies in many African countries that are aimed at rewarding various hip hop acts and songs in those countries. Some of these awards are low budget organized by local radio stations. Others are big events that are sponsored by multinational companies. In Kenya, they have the Kisima Awards; in Tanzania, there are the annual Kilimanjaro Awards; in Gabon, there is the famous Gabao Hip Hop Awards. There is the SAHHA (South African Hip Hop Awards) in South Africa and the Ghana Hip Hop Awards in Ghana, just to mention a few.

With rising acts such as Wizkid, Camp Mulla, Ice Prince, Nneka, Mokobe and Sarkodie, the future looks bright for African hip hop and the world should brace itself.