From the “Universal Zulu Nation” to Cassper Nyovest – Some Hip Hop history you should know

Critics say that Hip Hop doesn’t speak to the unique experiences of the South African majority. Kwaito, they might say, is more authentic, and our creative talents should focus their efforts there. Rap has always been a voice for the oppressed, and many people don’t know that South African history plays a significant role in the ongoing evolution of Hip Hop.

Afrika Bambaataa (1970s)

Afrika Bambaataa, aka “The Godfather” and the “Amen Ra of Hip Hop Kulture”, in 2004

It is generally accepted that a block party in the South Bronx in 1973, held by DJ Kool Herc, was a pivotal moment for Hip Hop – it was there that Kool Herc emceed over breaks, a move that came to define the new genre. Afrika Bambaataa, however, was instrumental in taking this innovation to a wider audience, and is regarded as Hip Hop royalty by enthusiasts.

Chief Bhambatha

Bambaataa was a conscious artist from the outset, and took his name from a Zulu Chief, Bhambatha, who stood against British Imperialism in the early 1900s. After a visit to the Mother Continent, and inspired by the 1964 movie, Zulu, he decided to form a creative collective that included break-dancers, graffiti artists, DJs and emcees – and called the group the Universal Zulu Nation. The Zulu Nation was known for its political activism, the socially-minded content of its lyrics, and the challenging of white power.

Hip Hop Against Apartheid (1980s)

Given the activism of Bambaataa, it is no surprise that in 1985 he collaborated with other artists (including Run-DMC) on the anti-apartheid album, Sun City. Later, in 1990, he was named as one of Life magazine’s “Most Important Americans of the 20th Century”, and further involved himself in dismantling apartheid through the “Hip Hop Artists Against Apartheid” initiative. Not stopping there, the legend also helped organise a major concert for the ANC in honour of Nelson Mandela being released from prison. His track, Ndodemnyama (Free South Africa), helped raise over $30 000 for the ANC.

The 2011 revision of the Universal Zulu Nation logo

…Meanwhile in SA…

As early as 1986, SA rapper, Senyaka, was destroying the “Hip Hop is a commercial import” argument by spitting home-grown rhymes, and his track, Jabulani MC, was a sign of things to come. By 1989, conscious rappers Prophets of Da City (banned by the SABC for their political lyrics) and Black Noise were turning the Cape Town underground scene upside down. Even at this stage, the spread of Hip Hop was unstoppable, and Katlehong in Jozi became a new breeding ground, producing Karamo (rapping in vernac) and 2Black 2Strong.

Cassper Nyovest Fills up the Dome

Fast forward to today, we have notable artists like Cassper Nyovest and HHP bridging the gap between Hip Hop and Kwaito. Both are adherents of Motswako, and Nyovest’s Doc Shebeleza references the Kwaito legend of the same name. The heavy bassline and infectious lyrics saw the single downloaded over 200 000 times, and it quickly reached the number 1 spot on the 5FM Top 40. Later, Nyovest achieved what people said couldn’t be done and became the first South African to sell out the Dome.

Given the early relationship between Hip Hop and SA history, and the current adaptation of the genre to the local context, it’s undeniable that Hip Hop was always destined for greatness on South African shores.

If you feel inspired to catch Nyovest showing pretenders how it’s done, catch Cassper Nyovest: Fill up the Dome on Showmax (trailer below).

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