Throwback: Cape Town, segregation and hip-hop (2014)

FonZo at Boogie Boutique. Image: Sabelo Mkhabela

First published on Africa Is A Country, as part of Tseliso Monaheng’s South African Hip-Hop 2014 series. Be sure to check the series out, here.

For a city that is largely thought of as the birthplace of South African hip hop, Cape Town could be further than it currently is in terms of the culture’s ability to support the lifestyles of its practitioners. From the outside looking in, the city is a hip hop haven: home to one of the first South African hip hop crews, Prophets of the City; home to the b-boy and the b-girl; and the home of graffiti. It’s where deejays still carry vinyl and turntables instead of just Macbooks and hard drives; where only your skill will earn you respect!

Alas, being here is a slightly different experience.

The Cape Town hip hop scene remains exactly that: a scene as opposed to an industry where substantial amounts of money are exchanged within — and between — artists and big-name brands. In an interview he did with Cape Town hip hop site Heavywordz earlier this year, producer Hipe said: “I’ve experienced the Jo’burg scene. They are very business-oriented. They work. They have offices set up in buildings. Back here in Cape Town, we chill in our rooms. Finance is not that big in Cape Town. There’s no market for us to get our shit to TV where the money is.”

The liaison of brands and artists — which has proven to be the only way to earn decent income in SA hip hop — could be better (or at least present). Cape Town artists could be more visible nationally than they currently are.

“When we were starting [out] as Ill Skillz and Driemanskap, we were a force in the SA hip hop industry as a whole,” said Uno July of the duo Ill Skillz during an open discussion at the Red Bull Studios in Cape Town. “But now all you see is Jo’burg artists on TV and it just goes to show that as Cape Town artists, the problem is within ourselves as well,” he continued. One may argue that except the likes of Ill Skillz, Kanyi, Jitsvinger, Jack Parow (and recently PHFAT and Christian Tiger School), Cape Town hip hop doesn’t travel beyond the borders of The Mother City.

This was once reiterated by Rashid Kay, a Johannesburg-based hip hop activist who is also part of the organising team behind the Back to the City street culture festival, and the South African Hip Hop Awards. “In Jo’burg, the only Cape Town hip hop we know is Driemanskap, Kanyi and Ill Skillz,” he said. The merits of the statement are debatable, but he had a point.

Ill Skillz. Image: Andiswa Mkosi

Afternoon park jams are one of the biggest avenues hip hop exists in, in Cape Town. Hip hop heads will never run out of places to go to in order to experience the culture in its rawest form: beats, rhymes, and the omnipresent rap cipher.

Boom bap beats and honest, raw lyricism remain the core focus of Cape Town emcees and producers. The likes of Ill Skillz, Driemanskap, Kanyi, Jitsvinger, DNA (Deurie Naai Alliance, producer Arsenic & rapper Youngsta) among others are examples that come to mind. Fonzo, EJay, BoolZ and a few others level things off with their 808-heavy, trap-influenced production choice while PHFAT and DOOKOOM pimp their soundscape with electronic elements.

Image: Andiswa Mkosi

“Real” hip hop heads have a condescending attitude towards, as they call it, “commercial” hip hop. The converse is true, and it’s not unique to Cape Town.

Racial segregation owes to South Africa’s Apartheid past which keeps rearing its grey moustache-covered face. As a result of apartheid, black and brown people — the latter group referred to, colloquially, as ‘coloureds’ –found themselves in different locations and seem to have accepted that they are indeed different. They could be. I don’t know.

When done right, hip hop reflects the reality of its demographic. I expect to find a majority of black hip hop heads when I go to a hip hop session in Khayelitsha and a majority of coloured heads when I go to one in Mitchell’s Plain, because that is where the apartheid government strategically placed blacks and coloureds.

I have experienced the issue of race through Bush Radio’s late-night hip hop show Headwarmaz which I co-host with Andiswa Mkosi and Macingo Dyofile. We have failed to completely please any one race ever since taking over the reins. My co-hosts and I have had complaints about how the show has changed. One particular caller sometime last year complained that there was too much Xhosa hip hop on Headwarmaz these days. “How come I don’t hear the likes of Hemel Bessem anymore?” he asked. Judging from his accent, he was coloured, and strangely enough, Hemel Bessem had been one of the artists who frequented (and still frequents) our playlist.

On the other hand, the typical Headwarmaz listener — who is stereotypically black — shows no interest to Afrikaans hip hop. This may be a finicky observation, but the tweets and the Facebook posts are usually scarce when we are hosting an Afrikaans artist or playing an Afrikaans song, unless of course that artist is DOOKOOM because seriously: who the fuck can ignore Isaac Mutant’s vulgar and straight-to-your-face lyricism supported by Human Waste’s painful synths?!

Headwarmaz airs on Bush Radio. Image: Andiswa Mkosi

While still known as The Show in the 90s, it “mainly focused on music and light-hearted topics to entertain the mostly youthful and Afrikaans-speaking audience,” says one-time host Wanda “1Kind” Mxosana in an interview I did with him early this year. He elaborates: “In 2007, after a range of criticism, the show had to adopt a new mandate. The Xhosa-speaking hip hop community felt neglected by the radio as there was no show where they could showcase their music.”

Respected selectah DJ Big Dre who used to host Headwarmaz at one point agrees that racial segregation exists but points out that it’s not hatred. “It’s [just] that each sees their form or style of hip hop as the overlooked and underrated.” Commenting on how the show ran during his time, the DJ who was also part of the iconic rap Cape Town outfit Writers Block says they didn’t play the racial game. “Anything that was of a good standard got played because we were building the movement,” he said.

My personal analysis is that it’s very difficult for Spaza (hip hop done mostly in Xhosa) and Afrikaans hip hop to organically co-exist.

Since being put in charge of hosting Headwarmaz in 2013, our goal has been for the show to be representative of Cape Town hip hop by trying to play and promote a bit of everything, from Spaza to Afrikaans hip hop, to electronic, to “commercial”, to boom bap and everything in-between. I can safely say we are the only hip hop radio show where you’ll hear Driemanskap, Hemel Bessem, PHFat, AKA, Hymphatic Thabs, Drake and Immortal technique back to back because we don’t believe one sub genre of hip hop is better than the next, our personal tastes aside.

However, the blatant bias of our listeners has made it hard to gauge our success in achieving that objective as we are also aware it’s not an easy feat to achieve.

For the interactive version of this story, go here.

Headwarmaz episodes are archived on SoundCloud every week.