There is no denying that hip-hop in African languages is breaking down socio-cultural barriers and uniting East Africans from its Tanzanian base, Birgit Quade and Lydia Martin (with additional information from Ogova Ondego) write.
Bongo Flava, the music that combines rap, hip-hop, R&B and traditional Tanzanian beats, is danced to across the 100-million strong Kiswahili-speaking East African nations of Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda.
Although most groups use Kiswahili, groups like X-Plastaz or Mr Ebbo create Bongo Flava in Maa “the language of the Maasai” while Gangwe Mobb create their own language “rap katuni” from street slang and street attitude.
Save for the African languages (mainly Kiswahili) in which it is delivered, this music serving that targets young urban adults (up to 35 years) is American rap in style, instrumentation, rhythms, hip-hop culture, fashion, and attitude.
Bongo Flava, which could loosely be defined as music of the FM radio generation as it evolved during the era of political and media pluralism in the 1990s and has been popularised by a multiplicity of FM radio stations in Tanzania, is increasingly becoming music without political boundaries as it is beamed across political borders to Nairobi, Kampala and Dar es Salaam.
Musician Crazy GK (Gwamaka Mujuni Kaihula) says the popularity of Bongo Flava lies in artists who are focused on writing and performing songs society can relate to: politics, identity, HIV/AIDS, and poverty. It is seen as the most effective way of expressing these feelings and realities.
A means of expression on a micro level to a macro audience, Bongo Flava has quickly become East Africa’s top selling music style though it is difficult to tell how big it is in terms of revenue to Tanzania’s coffers as there is no centralised access to this sort of information. Most artists, producers, and distributors work independently in a sector whose business is informal.
While TID (one of the most successful Bongo Flava artists) can sell in excess of 200,000 units in Tanzania alone, the number of artists coming up and releasing tracks is increasing all the time while special radio and television music channels (Clouds FM, Radio One, Radio 5 and Radio Free Africa) are dedicated to this kind of music flavour.
TID’s first album, Sauti ya Dhahabu, was released in 2002 and went on to sell 350,000 copies across Africa excluding Tanzania. His mix of R&B and Caribbean tunes made the album a club favourite, especially the tracks Siamini and Kweli. His latest album, Burudani, features collaborations with Kenya’s Necessary Noize, and Mercy Myra, and Uganda’s Klear Kut.
T.I.D has worked with leading East African producers, Kenyans Tedd Josiah and Homeboyz, Ugandan Steve Jean, and Tanzanian P Funk; he has toured the region and also performed in the UK and the USA.
Observers contend that East Africa Radio and East Africa Television have played a crucial part on the success of Bongo Flava broadcasting in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda.
The link of radio, television and increasingly the Internet sets the production standards for today’s music industry, presenting artists with broader audiences and opportunities for cross-border collaboration that creates new styles, trends and supports the cross-border popularity of artists.
Jay Moe, Solo Thang, Crazy GK, TID, Man Dojo, Domo Kaya, Afande Sele, Mr Paul, Dudu Baya, Mr Nice, Juma Nature, Professor Jay, Daz Nundaz, Mangwea, Wachuja Nafaka, and Wagosi are in this context among the hottest rappers to look out for. They are famous across the East African region.
Juma Nature (Juma Kassim Ally), who has collaborated with artists from Kenya and Uganda in about 20 songs, says he is exploring ways of collaborating with Kenyan urbanative performers CMB Prezzo, Necessary Noize, and Redsan as with Ugandan raga star Jose Chameleon (Joseph Mayanja).
Mr Nice, perhaps the most popular Tanzanian Bongo artist in Kenya, has also collaborated with Chameleon.
The style of Jay Moe, who released his first album, Ndio Mama, in 2002 and second recording, Mawazo Ya Jay Moe, in 2004, takes inspiration from American rap and hip-hop with a proud nod to his homeland and African identity.
He has collaborated with famous Kenyan artists like Necessary Noize’s Nazizi Hirji and popular Tanzanian artists including Solo Thang, Crazy GK, Jahffarai, Lady Lu, Mwana FA and TID. Tension, off Necessary Noize’s Necessary Noize II, features Jay Moe.
Moe, who has toured Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, says, “In Tanzania mainland most shows are organised by radio shows, there are no festivals, only performances in clubs. Collaboration gives me the opportunity to attract people throughout East Africa.”
Moe works with leading Bongo producers like P Funk and Active Audio Records of Dar es Salaam.
Crazy GK has been releasing singles since 1995. In 2002, he released his first album Nitakupa Nini Mama? which includes tracks of established Bongo Flava artists like Pauline Zongo, TID, AY and Mwanafalsafa.
GK’s latest album, Nitakufaje? was released in 2004 together with the launch of the newly formed East Coast Team. Their joint video, Ama Zangu, Ama Zao (featuring Kiswahili R&B crooner, Lady JayDee) is very provocative because of the military-like camouflage suits the crew wear and that almost saw the Tanzanian authorities ban it.
Crazy GK has worked with producers like Master Jay, GMC and the record label Smooth Vibes.
His hip-hop style combines rap and elements from traditional music like Taarab. He is now the front man of the so-called East Coast Team, a collection of young Bongo Flava artists.
“We formed the East Coast Team because it is important to exchange ideas, to be creative and to perform together,” he says. “It also gives us more independence and establishes new contacts.”
However, critics point out that it is almost nonsensical for bongo artists to mimic US gangsta rappers by dividing themselves alongside “East Coast” and “West Coast” teams when Tanzania has only one coast along the Indian Ocean.
However the artists say they often divide themselves up according to suburbs, like Juma Nature being from Temeke suburb and Crazy GK and the East Coast Team being from Upanga suburb of Dar es Salaam.
It’s a way of making music that differs from what else is out there but it also helps in the business side ” pooling finances and resources” and becoming stronger as a result.
But Nature blames the mass media for coming up with fictional feuds and labels like “East Coast” and “West Coast”.
“There is no beef between me and the so-called East Coast crew that Crazy GK, AY and O Ten are said to belong to. Newspapers come up with such imaginary rivalry to sell more copies,” he says.
After the privatisation and liberalisation of the media in Tanzania in the late 1980s, several radio stations, production, promotion, and record label companies emerged in Tanzania and Kiswahili hip-hop stormed the East African market from the beginning of the 1990s.
Influenced by music videos from international stars like Eminem, Tanzanian artists applied rapping to their own social situation, produced unique sounds and styles, creating music genres they baptised Bongo Flava. They wanted to show that there was no need to rap to American music and the media picked up on this.
Bongo Flava transports the ideas of this generation and reflects their attitude towards their creativity and lives as well as their identity. The songs are often original and full of humour, tackling daily life issues, talking about personal experiences, and always with a message. Clouds FM, launched in 1999 as the fourth station in Tanzania, played a role in this.
Ruge Mutahaba, General Manager of Clouds FM, says the station targeted young audience right from the beginning.
“We wanted to do something different. It was a kind of revolution, a radio station just playing music all the time. We wanted to create the need for music,” Mutahaba says.
Clouds FM is part of Clouds Entertainment that also comprises Smooth Vibes and Prime Time Promotions. While Clouds Entertainment combines production, promotion, distribution and event management, Prime Time Promotions organises promotional events for their musicians, dance competitions, and star search contests across Tanzania and in Nairobi, Kenya. Artists on contract are said to be benefiting immensely from this system that controls production, promotion and airplay.
And it is on this line that Mutahaba explains that future projects of Clouds Entertainment include TV entertainment and video production.
U+I Entertainment follows a similar concept like Clouds Entertainment: audio & video production, promotion, and event management under one roof. The company has 20 employees and is linked to IPP Media Group which includes several major companies engaged in television, radio broadcasting, publishing, and printing (ITV, East Africa Television, Radio One, Sky FM, East Africa Radio).
U+I Entertainment has good business relations not only in Kenya and Uganda, but also in the UK. TID is currently on contract with U+I Entertainment and has benefited from this with perfornance tours in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and the UK.
It is believed that the concentration of music business (production, promotion, distribution and management) in conglomerations like U+I Entertainment and Clouds Entertainment affects music production both negatively and positively.
The positive side is that these groups and businesses have the resources and skills to keep standards high, artists on contract with them have access to these resources and skills, as well as opportunities to work and produce across music genres, with different artists and styles. This means that they are not limited to one category of music.
It also means that access to the music is made easier for people through avenues like the TV, radio, events, and coverage in newspapers.
With sister companies across the region that increases audience numbers through the media and performances, the concentration of such organisations also means there is the potential for these groups and networks to work together in lobbying for laws and policies that protect artists and music industry against piracy and exploitation.
But this concentration also means that artists who wish to work independently have a harder time accessing audiences. They would have to have the capital, resources and support to produce, promote and distribute their albums.
In this way it could get to the point that these groups and companies are dictating the music styles and genres that are being produced and heard, a prospect that would appear to be creating uniform and monotonous art.
Getting an album heard is still dependent on good networking and relationships between DJs, presenters and the independent artists.
Mjusi Kafiri of the Zanzibar-based Zenji Kijiwe group not only blames Tanzania mainland radio stations, producers and presenters of apathy to Zenj Flava (Zanzibari Bongo Flava) but also blames business people for not investing in Zanzibari music.
“Why is Zenj Flava not being played on Tanzanian mainland radio stations?” he poses, adding that Zanzibari artists are grossly disadvantaged as the Indian Ocean archipelago has only one music-recording studio and one producer whose productions all sound the same. “We need more studios and producers in Zanzibar for our music not to sound monotonously uniform.”
Like many other artists, Nature takes issue with DJs and radio presenters over the mixed fortunes of Bongo Flava artists.
“As more than 90 percent of radio presenters and DJs double up as managers and promoters of music, it gets really hard for these people to broadcast the music of the artists they do not manage or are not associated with,” he says.
Independent artists like Jay Moe, Solo Thang and Crazy GK say the competition between them and their counterparts under contract is high.
Moe says, “I want to work independently, I do not want to be depend on a manager to get my music played on the radio. In Dar es Salaam most managers are also radio presenters. They are very influential.”
Moe, Thang and GK with the newly launched East Coast Team cover the costs for the production themselves.
However not all is lost as there is a good choice of studios like Bongo Records, MJ Productions, FM Productions and Active Audio Records offering high quality productions for independent artists who pay promoters to do promotion and merchandising for them.
Felician Muta of FM Productions sees potential in the video market as, he says, videos are the major means for promotion. He has been on the music scene for more than a decade and knows the business, having successfully got Mad Ice under contract.
He says it is important for artists to produce music clips and videos for distribution and broadcasting across East Africa and even more so internationally.
Besides collaborating with other big guys and radio airplay, how else is this “Bigger Picture helping Bongo Flava artistes?
The ethos behind hip-hop is that it should not be limited by language, culture, or geography. The increasing collaborations with East Africans show that this is possible for Tanzanian rap and hip hop artists to cross over language, culture, and geographical barriers.
Bongo Flava is exciting and positive and shows an empowered and proud face to the continent; young Africans commenting on their own situation using their own language, music style, and attitude and not limiting themselves to the safe, exportable traditional music and dance styles.
Hip hop has always been seen as way of pushing for change and the bigger picture is allowing the thoughts and words of the youth to be heard and to be out there for discussion.
East African rappers have the opportunity to go “global” and are beginning to attract international audiences, the latest being through compilations like Bongo Flava: Swahili Rap from Tanzania by the German label, Out Here Records, and the Rough Guide to African Rap by Rough Guides.
Tanzanian rappers are ready for lift-off.