Why did hip hop stop being socially conscious?

Simamkele Matuntuta

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Since the controversy surrounding Cape Town hip hop outfit Dookoom’s song “Larney Jou Poes”, it’s made me wonder when last we heard a truly socially conscious rap song. The single is from the group’s latest EP A Gangster Called Big Times and the video of the song depicts farm workers taking control of the farm they work […]

Since the controversy surrounding Cape Town hip hop outfit Dookoom’s song “Larney Jou Poes”, it’s made me wonder when last we heard a truly socially conscious rap song. The single is from the group’s latest EP A Gangster Called Big Times and the video of the song depicts farm workers taking control of the farm they work on and vandalising the property, while the lyrics encourage violence against the “white oppressor” and taking from white people what they took throughout colonialism. Some of the lyrics go as follows: “Bra, remember, you came here in 1652/ You a skollie too/ You were fokken sentenced with a convict crew/ You robbed and screwed the natives/ Now who’s the savage?”. 

AfriForum laid a complaint of hate speech and against the group with the South African Human Rights Commission.

While some may argue that hip hop has advanced, some believe that the more mainstream it has got, the more meaningless it has become.

When hip hop was socially conscious

When hip hop started in South Africa, it was youth rebellion, fighting apartheid and censorship. I believe hip hop was at its most powerful then, when South African struggles such as class, corruption, violence, gender, poverty, racism, sexism and inequality were dominant.

According to Adam Haupt, a hip hop activist, quoted in JSTOR publication in 2003, hip hop is a useful tool for engaging critically and creatively with the realities of marginalised subjects.

Cape Town crew Prophets Of Da City (POC), formed in 1988, were one of the first groups to tackle such issues in their music. The first album of the eight-member crew, called Our World, was released in 1990 and arguably became the first South African hip hop record.

Most of the songs on their third album Age Of Truth, which came out in 1993, were banned by the SABC due to their political lyrics. “Understand Where I’m Coming From” is one of the songs that was banned. It talks about hardships faced in daily life and their opening line was: “Why should I fight for a country’s glory, when it ignores me?/ Besides, the township’s already a war zone/ so why complain and moan?”

Hip hop now

Some rap artists have continued to be “controversial”. In 2008 Zambian-born, Johannesburg-based hip hop artist Zubz’s song “Get Out” was banned by the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa after the Freedom Front Plus (FF+) lodged a complaint about the continuous screening of the song on SABC. The lyrics of the song go as follows: “Get out or we will kill, tell my people fight,” with machine gun sounds in the background. It continues with “I’ll blind you with heat quick and I’m gonna get this panga to your neck. Now it’s time to turn the tables.” The song was banned because the FF+ believes that the song incited imminent violence and was the advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.

The following year, Cape Town spaza rapper Rattex released an album titled Bread and Butter, which featured a song called “The Government” featuring Ben Sharpa, a South African rapper who also makes music that addresses themes of social consciousness, politics, conspiracy theories and the hustle to survive. The song is about how government has failed the people by making promises they don’t keep. In the chorus he says, “Kuyode kube nini sihleli sinivotela ni promisa ngoku s’khokhela? kwanina niyasjikela. Sibek’iingxaki zethu nenze ngathi niyas’mamela, nifik’epalamente iingxaki zethu niyaz’khahlela.”

There is a part where he raps ”U-government sies, uyasiqhela basithembis’izulu when it’s time so bavotela,” which loosely translates: “until when will we vote for you while you make promises that you do not keep? We tell you our problems and you pretend to be listening but when you get to parliament you bash them. Government promises us the world when it’s time for voting”. Six years later, the song is still relevant.

This music is thought-provoking, informative and encourages people to look at what is going on around them and, perhaps, do something about it. Most of today’s hip hop seems to be solely driven by commercial intentions and is filled with lyrics promoting sex, drugs, money, and cars.

An example of this is the popular “Izass” by Durban trio DreamTeam. The song is about women’s buttocks: “Izass Izass Izass like it/ stop before I hit that/ I said stop before I hit that/ She ain’t got a face but I like it for that izass.”

Even though rivalries and settling the score lyrically, has been the DNA of hip hop, it now tends to take the centre stage. An example would be the feud between AKA and Cassper Nyovest. The beef made headlines and it did not only stop at the two rappers arguing on Twitter, it went as far as Cassper creating a diss song directed towards AKA titled “Phuma Kim” with a line like: “I told my story and made a fortune—AKA’s favourite rapper I guess I made it to Forbes’ list.”  

But who says hip hop has to be a social consciousness tool?

Hip hop star Reason says people put a lot of pressure on hip hop artists. “Yes it gets flashy, shiny, disrespectful, a little too excited and irresponsible, but it is a reflection of who we are as artists. [We are] in positions where we are young and, for most of us, money is coming in fast, the glamour and popularity is coming in fast and our personalities also come out a bit more because we can afford to do anything,” says Reason.

Proverb, who’s been in the industry since 1999, agrees, adding that no one dictates to other genres what to do or say. “Hip-hop, like any other art form, is a creative platform with no rules, restrictions or limitations. It’s the prerogative of the artists to decide what they prefer to do with it or use it for,” he added.

Hip hop artists are influential and they can do something more meaningful with that power, Dookoom had people listening, talking and taking note. Artists can create a balance by making music for the party and music for the voiceless who need an influential person to be their voice.

Follow me on Twitter: @Simamkele_M