Why motswako is the biggest South African hip hop movement

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About three weeks ago (November 7), motswako rapper Cassper Nyovest announced that his debut album Tsholofelo had gone gold (20 000 copies sold) after just three months on the market. The rapper, who first appeared on HHP songs “Wamo Tseba Mtho?” (2009) and “Padapa” (2012), has seen a rapid rise.  He is the latest star […]

Cassper Nyovest’s Tsholofelo album recently sold gold. Image by Zukisa Mambumbu.

About three weeks ago (November 7), motswako rapper Cassper Nyovest announced that his debut album Tsholofelo had gone gold (20 000 copies sold) after just three months on the market. The rapper, who first appeared on HHP songs “Wamo Tseba Mtho?” (2009) and “Padapa” (2012), has seen a rapid rise.  He is the latest star in the constellation that is motswako, a hip hop sub-genre pioneered by Mafikeng (in the North West province) rappers, including groups Morafe and Baphixile, and HHP. Motswakolista (as motswako rappers are sometimes called) Khuli Chana calls the genre “a mixture and a blend”. “Motswako is what Jabba (HHP) calls Tsw-English – Setswana mixed with English. And that’s how we speak back home [North West Province],” he said in a 2013 interview with SABC’s Expresso. Motswako has grown to become the biggest music movement in local hip hop.


Motswako albums sell

South African hip hop albums generally don’t move a lot of units, but motswako rappers sell records. Khuli Chana’s Lost in Time (2012) was certified gold earlier this year. Tuks Senganga’s MC Prayer (2006) went gold after four months of release. HHP’s YBA2NW (2005) and Acceptance Speech (2007), both sold gold. You know what they say about numbers – they don’t lie. No motswako artist has managed to beat  Pitch Black Afro’s Styling Gel (2004) and Skwatta Kamp’s Mkhukhu Funkshen (2003), which both reached platinum, but, then again, no hip hop artist has. And motswako sells better than many household name rappers, those who you’d expect to sell big, like AKA, L-Tido, Tumi, ProVerb and more. Yes, a couple of other hip hop albums, Zakwe’s 2011 self-titled album, which sold gold, comes to mind. However not one defined movement such as motswako, spaza (a Cape Town hip hop sub genre that blends Xhosa and township slang) or kasi rap has collectively managed to sell consistently.



Motswako has mass appeal

You don’t have to be a purist or hip hop head to love this sub-genre. Motswako connects to the masses because of its catchy hooks, danceable beats, flexible flows that work for all types of beats, from boom bap to trap to house and kwaito. Khuli described his music as a “happy pill”. “I make music that makes people feel good,” he told US news and entertainment site Huffington Post earlier this year. It appeals to even those who, like me, don’t understand the Tswana language. “I’ve done more gigs in KZN [Kwazulu Natal] than I have in Mafikeng. And the kinda love affair I have with KZN is the realest because they don’t [understand] a single word, but they feel the music,” Khuli Chana told DJ Lab in his interview with Gagasi FM in 2013.


The MotswakOriginator, Khuli Chana has been repping motswako hard since his days with Morafe. Image by Andiswa Mkosi.


Motswako has crossed borders. Yes several SA rap artists have travelled abroad but motswako rappers are the first hip hop artists to ever collaborate with respected international artists of Nas and Talib Kweli’s caliber. Jabba has not only performed in the US, he’s collaborated with Nas as well as Talib Kweli and Asheru. On the continent, he has worked with Nigeria’s Naeto C,  local afro-jazz legend Jimmy Dludlu among others. Khuli, who recorded “Sleep Walker” (2013) with local rock group The Parlotones as part of 5FM’s Mash Lab series, won an African Muzik Magazine Award (AFRIMMA) for Best Male Southern Africa in June in Texas, US.


When Khuli scooped the coveted Album of the Year award in 2013 at the SAMAs for Lost in Time, it was a first for hip hop. It was a notable achievement because the SAMAs have a history of misrepresenting and not acknowledging hip hop. Remember when kwaito group TKZee’s Zwai Bala won Best Rap Song for a sung gospel song in 2001.  Or when the Best Hip Hop Album category was replaced by the bizarrely-named Best Street Urban Album in 2012? Jabba is also a recipient of several SAMAs. And Cassper is next – just watch. In short, motswako has managed to break into the mainstream music scene, drawing in non hip hop fans, while other sub genres of hip hop remain in the fridges.


Motswako rappers get endorsement deals

Khuli Chana recently appeared on a KFC ad that uses his song “Mnatebawen” for their campaign. HHP has rolled with the likes of Dickies, Stimoroll and Status Deodorant. One of the biggest hip hop endorsement deals has to be mobile phone network VodaCom using rapper JR’s Jabba-assisted “Make the Circle Bigger” hit for their 2010 world cup campaign. Cassper Nyovest endorses REDDS cider (saw the video of the “Doc Shebeleza” remix?). He also scored a deal with DSTV for their #FeelEveryMovment campaign a few months ago. Hey, the brother even turned down a BMW endorsement earlier this year! Big-name brand endorsements have proven to be the only way for South African rappers to earn a decent income. Not that non-motswako rappers don’t get endorsed but, aggregated, as a collective unit, motswako cats scoop the most of such deals.


Motswakolistas are united

Motswako’s success is often attributed to unity – motswako cats put each other on. Khuli put Notshi on the map when he remixed the young rapper’s “Tswa Daar”, which became a massive hit. He also put rising trio Hash One and up-and-coming rapper KT on “Wannabeez”. HHP took Cassper under his wing and put him on the mainstream’s radar. HHP has blessed JR and Mo Molemi with guest verses. Mostwako artists also host the annual Maftown Heights festival, which has  grown remarkably from 800 attendees in 2010 to about 4500 in subsequent years.

Hip hop purists may sneer at mostwako but motswako cats keep it coming hape le hape.


I tweet as @SabzaMk