The Question of Language in Contemporary African Hip-Hop: Locating Valsero, 2Face and eLDee

Rene Nyah Yong

hiphop

Although hip-hop historians cite 1978 as its birthday, hip-hop’s roots can well be referred to the African continent. Music had long been part and parcel of the religion and culture of the African people. It had always been used as an accompaniment in everyday life, as Mbiti puts it: “Wherever the African… is, there is his religion; he carries it to the fields and where he is sowing or harvesting new crops, he takes it with him…”  Slavery only abetted in bridging this cultural heritage across the ocean. David D recognises this cultural shift and revels in the power of lyricism in African folklore: “West Africa is where most brothas and sistas within the USA can trace their ancestry. Here there was a concept called Nommo. This was the belief that there was magical power in words. It was believed that words actualized life and gave man mastery over things”

The fact that many African languages are rhythmic and tonal languages only goes a long way to establish the melodic pattern that African music carries and this has been the form and style that jazz, blues and the Negro spirituals obtained. This has led to a list of genres of African popular music, some of which are: Afrobeat, Benga, Bongo Flava, Sakara, Zemba, Hiplife, just to name a few. In line with the question of language, so to say, in the 20th century, the ethnomusicologist Arthur Morris Jones described African music as being functional in nature and its shared rhythmic principles constitute one main system.

 

Language in Today’s African Hip-hop

Being a human capacity for using complex systems to communicate thoughts and emotions, language is very unique because it has most of the properties of productivity and displacement, and most especially because it relies entirely on social-cultural convention and construction. David D reinforces the claim that the power of words plays a great deal in the core of rap. To him, rap is so powerful because of its lyrical nature and the power of words (what he calls Nommo) – words whose roots are traced in West Africa.  He says:

Africans believed that no medicine or potion would be effective unless accompanied by words. The belief in Nommo was so powerful that all work had to be accompanied by speech. Even warfare was preceded by a verbal battle. Nommo had productive powers. West Africans believed all living things rested upon the word. 

Bearing this in mind, African hip-hop has taken a rapid turn in language form— from what might have been the romantic style to songs whose lyrics are radically speaking, satirically informing and metaphorically appealing. Worthy of note at this juncture is the fact that the content and form of these contemporary hip-hop artists is formed and informed by the socio-political and economic environment in which they find themselves. Historically, several factors have influenced the music of Africa. This music has been costumed by language, the environment, a variety of cultures, politics, and population movement, all of which are intermingled. By and large, saying that environmental determinism is one of the major raison d’être why these postmodernist African hip-hop artists are radical and satirical in their language cannot be underrated. They are socio-economically and politically alienated. Becky Blanchard relates to such youthful alienation and justifies why rap and hip-hop music is violently and radically expressed.

If rap music appears to be excessively violent when compared to country-western or popular rock, it is because rap stems from a culture that has been seeped in the fight against political, social, and economic oppression…Violence in rap is not an affective agent that threatens to harm America’s youth; rather, it is the outcry of an already-existing problem from youth whose worldviews have been shaped by experiencing deep economic inequalities divided largely along racial lines.

To Blanchard, the ideology that surrounds such music is grounded by the socio-economic and political events that have culminated to breed meaning and form to it. As such, these artists are, according to Bate Besong in an interview with Pierre Fandio, “…saddled with numerous problems that include the personal, the social, the economic and the political.” For this reason, these hip-hop artists have engaged in the business of alternative literature; that which seeks remedies for their socio-political phenomena. Besong describes this type of art in the following words:

The alternative literature that we write, with apologies to no one, is people-oriented, and this entails a dialectical approach of looking at society from the materialistic angle, and unearthing the contradictions which bring about discrimination, injustice exploitation and marginalisation in {the African} society…we question those in authority. We know that under a dictatorship, a nation dies…

 

In Cameroon, the language of hip-hop has been rechristened as what is referred today as ‘rap mboa.’ Rap mboa is a mixture of English and French (Camfranglais) known to have been popularized by Koppo, (as well as others before him) in his track ‘Si tu vois ma go’ (If you see my girl). This has provided the Cameroonian hip-hop artists with a new identity and uniqueness in the rap industry. To better comprehend this, we get details from an Interview by Amber Murrey with Cameroonian Rap-Reggae Artist, Soumalek:

Le rap mboa means African rap. From the beginning, my rhythm was ‘hard core’ rap, this was when I was still performing with Core Supreme. As I developed, I wanted to get away from the American style and develop more of a Cameroonian genre – what we call the ‘rap mboa’. It is a rap genre adapted with local techniques: The sounds of the forest, tam-tams, the ndjimbé, the guitar. We use our languages: Pidgin, different patwas and Camfranglais…We sing for everyone. We sing for the young. We sing for the party, we sing to deliver messages, we sing to provide solutions to problems that we see, we sing to encourage the youth. To valorize women, children, to promise peace, to provide advice, particularly to those who practice corruption. We sing for women; for the mother of humanity. It is not to provoke, but it is also the law of show business. We try to give messages that would make God proud…

Valsero (Cameroon) and 2Face Idibia and eLDee (Nigeria) are, in my opinion, insightful and I take this platform to declare their music as alternative literature— that which has ‘apologies to no one.’ Their language is culturally inclined as it relates to their audience: Camfranglais, Pidgin English, Igbo or Yoruba respectively. These artists’ microphones speak of bravery and truth in a plethora of ways but most especially, they expose the politics and socio-economic sectors which I am very much interested in.

Politically Speaking

Cameroonian hip-pop is politically engaged and rhetorically speaks for the people. It is considered as the mouthpiece of the masses. Its vulgar figurative language serves as a therapeutic weapon to expose the societal ills that contribute to the decay of the nation. In the same Besongian line of thought, Eustace Palmer in ‘Social Comment in the West African Novel’, considers these alternative African social artist as not only being instructive but also corrective. To him, “…the African writer’s/(artist’s) role has therefore changed slightly from being merely educational to being corrective. Several are making use of their unique privilege to point out their countries’ ills and suggest alternative lines of conduct.” (219) this is exactly what ‘le rap mboa’ portrays as Soumalek has clearly expressed in his interview – “to provide solutions to problems that we see”. In most parts of Africa, music has generally been used by the new generation as a tool to deride the political maladjustments that prevail in their societies. In a thesis titled The Role of Rap/Hip Hop Music in the Meaning and Maintenance of Identity in South African Youth, Dror Cohen supports this claim as he contends: “Music was also often used in the past to creatively object to the racial inequalities that were enforced in South Africa. However a large majority of youth music in South Africa began receding from protest politics as its defining feature after apartheid.” (25) To Cohen, rap/hip-hop is a valuable tool for the youth of South Africa to portray their cultural identity and, as a platform for political struggle.

This is exactly the visionary standpoint that Valsero maintains in his music. In one of his songs, titled ‘Lettre au President’, Valsero, from the French speaking part of Cameroon confidently takes the bold step with an aggressive microphone to address the President in his letter. His infuriated letter reminds the President of being on the throne for three decades already. Valsero reminds him of his promises of “les grandes ambitions”— promises that had never and do not seem to yield any fruits for the youth, the “theoretical” leaders of tomorrow. Valsero is desperately in need of answers. He poses a handful of rhetorical questions— why, after a long period as a student, doesn’t he have a job? Why are things not going on well with the youth? Why is there an excessive rate of brain-drain in Cameroon? Why is a 16 year-old-girl selling drugs? Why are young people’s future and dreams deferred? He openly blames the President for the ills that prevail in Cameroon “Presi, le Cameroun va mal…le responsible c’est toi”. (Presi, Cameroon is erroneous…you are responsible.) For all his worries and questions, which he still gets no answer, he advises the President to retire and give way to another person who has a better vision and a declared objective for the nation and for the youth as he boldly puts it: “Presi.., arrête ça …” (‘Presi, stop this). As if to ignore the cry of these destitute youth, the president vehemently gives a deaf ear to them. But Valsero composes a second letter to him titled “Réponds”. He questions the president’s silence to the problems of the youth and yearns for their own chance and dialogue with him: “Tu as eu ta chance, donne nous la notre” (You have had your chance, give us ours). His engagement on the problems of the youth in Cameroon is well renowned in another title ‘Ce pays tue les Jeunes’. He lambasts the old white-haired political figures that hold tight to the system and never give way to the qualified youth to partake in nation building. In ‘La Corruption’, Valsero metaphorically relates corruption in Cameroon to an apocalyptic end; metaphorically considering it as a cankerworm to the economy, and with such a system, only one thing is certain— doom, end time and decay. In his depiction of a society on the brink of suicide, Valsero has created a deeply disturbing picture of the foibles of a decadent political system in Cameroon as he proposes the need for power change, expert governance and socio-political reforms that design a favorable nation for its growing and ambitious youth.

Socially Speaking

2Face Idibia is considered worldwide as one of the leading hip-hop artists and entertainers in the contemporary African music scene. Coming from grass to grace, his songs are socially appealing; identifying himself with the downtrodden and the have-nots; speaking for them and taking their bullets. His release of the song ‘Man Unkind’ springs the necessity to raise awareness on the menace of fake and sub-standard drug products in Nigeria. The issues he raises in this song are rampant in almost all parts of Africa as fake and sub-standard medicines are sold in pharmacies, streets, and buses. Being a social critic, 2Face’s song provides a fundamental rhetorical question: “what type of world is this where man is so unkind to man.” As he laments the death of his very good friend, who dies from consuming fake drugs he, in intrepidly evokes the need for a change of mentality from such shameful and reprehensible practices. He penetratingly christens such perpetrators as “silent murderers, children killers, grave diggers, innocent people snipers, mass murderers, soul robbers, dream shatterers, heartless brother or sister, inconsiderate bagger” who kill just to make a Naira. His song ends with a profound message for these perpetrators: “Think about it.” Ultimately, he is providing them with another chance to change their ways by stopping these malevolent practices and to safe mankind.

eLDee has also stepped onto the contemporary African music scene with a socially conscious muse, speaking for the youth, the future of the nation and about the social structure of the rich/poor binary opposition that has constantly divided and redefined the African landscape with nations where the rich get richer and the poor permanently get poorer. eLDee is inspired by Nelson Mandela and he quotes him, saying: “There can be no keener revelation of a society than the way it treats its children” . In his song “One Day”, he takes Martin Lurther’s spirit of an aspiring and fruitful future for the African youth. eLDee opens his song with this vital quotation: “I have a dream that one day the children of this great nation will look forward to a much brighter future; one day we will fully utilize the resources of this great nation to its full potential…I have a dream.

He intensely critiques the Nigerian rulers who have betrayed their citizens: the same guys (politicians), bearing “the same lies, same breed and same greed,” who kill those who dare ask questions. Very interesting is the question of lack of electricity, health and education that eLDee raises in this song: “cos if light no dey, generator must sell, and if you get gen, you must buy fuel, and to buy fuel no be small matter…now how small child supposed to fight sickness; if for hospital drugs no dey…now our education don di fall short, all skilled worker just want to comot.” The Niger Delta produces millions of barrels of oil a day and is known worldwide as the oil power of Africa; the country has a satellite; yet, its citizens still live on generators, with no electricity, no good healthcare, no food to eat, no common accommodation and poor wages for its skilled workers, that is why they prefer to migrate to Europe and America for greener pastures. He openly says in “I go yarn” that he does not care but to speak his mind; to let the politicians be aware of their roles as leaders and not as corrupt rulers. In his Yoruba language and in a very lyrical figurative style, he laments: “O ma shey, O ma shey! O ma shey, O ma shey! ilu ta gbe ta tin gbadun tele ; lawa d’ eni to toro je” Translated as: “It’s a pity, It’s a pity. The country that once basked in abundance, now we are beggars”

According to this artist, the Nigerian system is not sustainable. However, he believes that: “One day … one day, e go better for naija, money go circulate, light go dey,” and most importantly, the basic amenities will be available and there will be no reason to ‘comot naija’ (emigrate from Nigeria); and he wishes that this hopeful ‘one day’ were to be today.

For such change to take place, the afore mentioned contemporary artists propose the necessity to say NO to the corrupt system, as well as the urgent commencement of mind changing and constructive thinking in Africa, and this is where their music comes in as a weapon of change.

 

Sources

Blanchard, Becky. The Social Significance of Rap and Hip-hop Culture. EDGE (Ethics of Developent in a Global Environment) Available at http://www.stanford.edu/class/e297c/poverty_prejudice/mediarace/socialsignificance.htm July 26, 1999. (Assessed on 19/03/2013)

Cohen, Dror “The role of Rap/Hip-hop Music in the Meaning and Maintenance of Identity in South African Youth” Master thesis: University of Witswatersrand, Johannesberg, June, 2008. Available at http://wiredspace.wits.ac.za/bitstream/handle/10539/6628/The_role_of_rap_-_Final_Edit__2__BB.pdf?sequence=1 (Assessed on 19/03/2013)

Davey D. “Why Is Rap So Powerful”. Davey D’s Hip-Hop Corner. http://www.daveyd.com/whyrapispowerart.html. 20/03/2013.

Jones, Arthur Morris. Studies in African Music. 2 vols. London: New York, 1978.

Palmer, Eustace. “Social Comment in the West African Novel”: Studies in the Novel. 4.2 (1972: Summer) P. 218

Pierre Fandio. Anglophone Cameroon Literature at Crossroads: An Interview with Dr. Bate Besong: Research Group on Africa and Diaspora Imaginary/GRIAD, University of Buea, Cameroon; In Africultures No 60, September, 2004. Available at  http://www.africultures.com/index.asp?menu=revue_login&no=3510&gauche=1 (Accessed on Feb. 20, 2013) »

http://politicsinspires.org/2012/10/le-rap-mboa-conversations-on-cameroonian-rap-and-politics/ Posted on October 2, 2012 by Amber Murrey(Accessed on Feb. 10, 2013)

 

Rene Nyah Yong holds a B.A (Hons) in English/Linguistics and an M.A (Hons) in African Literature from the University of Buea, Cameroon, and is now pursuing an M.A degree in English, Literature and Culture at Freie Universität, Berlin, Germany

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One response to “The Question of Language in Contemporary African Hip-Hop: Locating Valsero, 2Face and eLDee

  1. Spot on with this write-up, I honestly believe this site needs much more attention.
    I’ll probably be back again to see more, thanks for the advice!

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