Last year, the Cameroonian hip-hop scene took a major step in consolidating its place in the African hip-hop world with MuMak’s release of Jovi’s self-produced debut album, H.I.V (Humanity Is Vanishing). Before Jovi’s emergence, no solo Cameroonian hip-hop act, especially one rapping predominantly in pidgin (Cameroonian Creole), had penetrated the global hip-hop world, or had any shown his kind of promise.
H.I.V is a colorful addition, not only to a budding local hip-hop scene but to the contemporary Cameroonian music scene as a whole; it is the long awaited arrival of a self-assured emcee very conscious of his abilities, the vacuum in the genre, his audience’s expectations, and the right dose of hustle to assert his place amongst the likes of Les Nubians and X-Maleya as a flag-bearer on stages across the globe.
Jovi emerges almost three decades after the first Run DMC, Rakim and MC Solaar tapes began making rounds, mostly amongst teens in fenced houses, in Cameroon’s urban centers. Since then, the swagger, vogue, language and sounds of that sonic phenomenon from the Bronx has woven itself into the fabric of the Cameroonian youth experience. In fact, Jovi is of a generation that grew up imbibing a gumbo of sounds from all four corners of the Afro diaspora in addition to the salad that was the local scene.
Actually, when Wild Style (1983), featuring New York teens (including hip-hop pioneers Fab Five Freddy and DJ Grandmaster Flash) dislocating their joints to electronic drumbeats, found its way to the few living rooms it did find its way into, all it took were a few pair of eyes for their Cameroonian counterparts to join the global breakdancing craze.
In mid-eighties Cameroon, it was not an unusual sight to see teens with sharp fades beatboxing during lunch breaks or break-dancing along sidewalks in Yaounde, Douala and Bamenda. Who did not dream of carrying their own boom box?
Hip-hop’s landing was immediately impactful as evidenced in the rapidity with which it found its way into the speech and mores of a nascent Cameroonian teen culture; however, the genre’s journey to find its voice in an already congested musical scene would take a lot longer. For at least two decades, it would play fifth fiddle to Soukous, Makossa (in all its apparitions), Bikutsi, and Bend-skin.
Thus H.I.V’s release, at the zenith of neighboring Nigeria’s Afropop resurgence, is timely but far from accidental. In a way, the Jovi’s of Anglophone Africa can be said to be drinking from the fountain of P-Square’s success—musical offshoots of what has been called hiplife (Ghanaian in origin); a West African blend of R&B sensibilities, rap and occasional hints of Rock Steady. But where some have attempted to copy P-Square’s silky delivery, auto-tune notwithstanding, Jovi for one lets others do the singing.
Nonetheless, a close listening of the album not only reveals a rapper of great potential with a fluid delivery, a producer with a sharp ear, but also an album constructed to cover the range of sounds that animate hip-hop today. H.I.V is a hodgepodge of chopped down influences from the US dirty South, a Kanyesque approach to sound quality, and gems of original beats that would bop heads from Dakar to Tokyo.
From the album’s first track, ‘Don 4 Kwat’, which is also its first single, listeners are swept into the fantastic world of Jovi, and in a way into the mindset of the artist’s generation:
Yo! Ask petit dem for kwat
I dey for here for helep
Early morning time
I dey veranda wit cheleps
Bring me cold shack
Openam wit teeth
When I drink drunk
Show me any wall for piss
If an emcee’s first verse is supposed to reflect their persona and outlook [the monologue in the opening of Dead Prez’s ‘Let’s Get Free’ (2000) comes to mind], then Jovi’s introduction in ‘Don 4 Kwat’ to the world does not miss the beat in that regard.
The album also demonstrates that far from stunting creativity, recent digital technological innovations—to the chagrin of its analog detractors—has not only democratized creativity but offers an opportunity for kids in countries lacking the marketing and A& R infrastructure to dream, and with the right hustle, deliver an album that can hold its own alongside others in the global movement that is hip-hop. After all, all one needs is internet connection, and YouTube and iTunes are just a click away.
In ‘Achombo House’, another standout track with a playful and unmistakably Cameroonian element, featuring Krotal—an emcee of high standing in his own right—Jovi’s microphone skills, complimented by a cerebral sound reminiscent of a RZA production, is almost flawless when he spits:
Yi go tell you
Bo, Jovi no normal
Turn back na inside H3 Hummer
Man dey 4 here for njoka
Any day na peteh
Flow too tight
Dem other flows don wepe
I don di hustle since
You fit ask na Egbe
Boy dem hustle Ngola
Na 4 hustle the pepper
Layered with beats and samples of varying influences, for a debut, H.I.V is perhaps the most complete hip-hop album to hit the contemporary Cameroonian hip-hop market. Not only that, in the process of introducing himself to the listening world, the artist pays tribute to Eko Roosevelt in track 8, ‘Bush Faller’, and to Tabu Ley Rochereau in track 4, ‘Pitie’, projecting himself as one very conscious of the post-independence canon. For that reason alone, he deserves credit.
But then again, he should be reprimanded for wasting an opportunity, as afforded by ‘Bush Faller’, to address a trend, flight, which has characterized his and a previous generation with the depth that it deserved. Instead with Eko Roosevelt wailing “Attends Moi” in the background, Jovi unleashes a verse bemoaning his girlfriend’s looming departure with a crispness others rapping in pidgin (BAHOOD Records come to mind) could learn from, but besides, that is distracted by his penchant for self-adulation. The rapper brags:
Ah, my chap fine
I no go lie
My chap fine
I di ever lick ground
When I say my chap fine
I know say thing dem hard
But for her I keep trying
I say girl you won’t leave
If you are in your right mind
We just like Jay-Z and Beyonce
She dey for my back like I be Moses
Then as the song progresses, Eko still singing away, the song takes a different turn, and Jovi’s presence soon begins to fade in the shadow of the giant’s vocals. Besides this and a few minor shortcomings, H.I.V is an impressive debut. With tracks like ‘Man Pass Man’ and ‘Haters Coffin’ among other solid tracks, the emcee has established a standard for future rappers.
Eventually, the concept of keeping it real takes different postures in the hip-hop context; it could mean relaying ones reality as it is, or a mere rendition of fantasies removed from ones circumstances. After a thorough listening of H.I.V, one cannot help but wonder if all the weed, sex, money and expensive cars are a figment of Jovi’s imagination or part of his reality. Either way, welcome to the fantastic world of le Monstre.
Kangsen Feka Wakai is a Boston based writer and freelance journalist.