The capacity of Africa's rising stars to beat Americans at their own game has not escaped US hip-hop megastars.
These days if you want to get away from US hip-hop’s big bling, Moët overflow and embrace of all things ghetto, Africa is not the place to go. The continent’s burgeoning music industry is churning out images of champagne bucket-laden yachts, fair-skinned girls in bikinis and the entire range of mixed messages that has made black American music so notorious.
The capacity of Africans to beat Americans at their own game has not escaped the attention of US hip-hop’s megastars. Rick Ross, the prison officer turned rap phenomenon, recently filmed a video for his “Hold me back” single in Lagos. Realising that the ghettos of New Orleans – shocking as they are – seem pretty sterile compared with the likes of Makoko in Lagos, he put out six minutes of heaving crowds, filthy streets, and powerful poverty to accompany his record about, on one interpretation, triumph over adversity.
Nigerians were not impressed. “I hated the song because of the way he portrayed Nigeria as a hungry nation, a nation of war,” said Soso Soberekon, a Nigerian producer. “I didn’t like the fact that he had the licence to shoot in Nigeria. Right now we are trying to repair the image of Nigeria and someone else is passing the wrong message out.”
Twitter was a-flutter with similar messages, reflecting the battle over who dictates the image of the new Africa. This battle tends to go only one way. Nobody is complaining about the gorgeous single “Losing you” released by US R&B singer Solange this week, with its quirky video shot in Cape Town’s spring sunlight. Twitter loves it. The message seems to be that Africans don’t mind Americans lifting the imagery of their cities to sell records, so long as it doesn’t glorify their filth.
But there is a bigger picture to the new-found familiarity between gazillion-record-selling black American artists with Africa. It is a historical circularity that I find tragic and beautiful at the same time. Slaves from West Africa took their stringed melodies, polyrhythmics and oral traditions to plantations in the new world, in the US this musical heritage provided the foundation for jazz, the blues, gospel and eventually hip-hop and R&B.
These genres – and especially hip-hop – made the reverse journey in force. Now no self-respecting African country is without a homemade, distinctive hip-hop scene. And although African hip-hop celebrates excess just like its American counterpart, it is often conscious, too. In many countries African rappers have become the engine of social and political movements.
Take Angolan rapper Luaty Beirao, aka Ikonoklasta, who used his music to mobilise opposition against the 33-year rule of José Eduardo dos Santos during elections last month. Or Mali, which has been rocked by a military coup and virtual partition of the country by Islamists who have captured the north, where rap collective les Sofas de la république has provided the sounds and symbols of a nation’s defiance.
But if Africa created black America, black America created hip-hop, and American hip-hop created African hip-hop, what is really interesting is that now African hip-hop is recreating America. Rick Ross, Solange, or her big sister Beyoncé – who launched her latest album with dance moves by Mozambican kwaito dance group Tofo Tofo – are early adopters of a new phase in the Africa-America cultural market.
Kanye West’s latest signing was D’Banj – whose Nigerian influences are all over his massive hit Oliver Twist – and you can now hear rapping in Ghanaian language Twi in London’s Selfridges thanks to the constant airplay of Ghanaian rapper Sarkodie. The biggest beneficiary of Lady Gaga’s success has been Akon – the Senegalese artist who signed her to his label just before her rise to mega-stardom – making him seriously, seriously rich. And it’s not only the US either – the UK hip-hop scene is dominated by West Africans, from rappers Tinie Tempah, Dizzee Rascal and Tinchy Stryder, to the managers, A&R and general behind-the-scenes operators.
Ironically the gap between rich – including the music mogul rich – and poor is itself fuelling the growth of hip-hop in Africa. Just like the role it has played among America’s black underclass, in Africa hip-hop is simultaneously the music of aspiration and discontent. And this continent has both of those moods in spades.