Tanzanian Hip-Hop: A Primer
Those beats! One of the biggest musical change that occurs during the period of Tanzanian music covered by “Live From Bongoland” is the introduction of hip-hop. Starting from a small-scale, DIY underground, hip-hop style and music localized, transitioning from English into Swahili, and then forming the basis for the massively popular genre of bongo flava. Few know this history better than J4, who runs Africanhiphop.com, and has been intimately involved with the Tanzanian rap scene for almost two decades. He took time off from his website to give us this brief tour through some of the style’s essential tracks.
Saleh J, “Now That We Found Love”
Shortly after release in 1992, the tape Swahili Rap: Ice Ice Baby was available all over Tanzania, thanks to a thriving music pirates’ distribution network. Saleh J had been rapping since the late ’80s, and at some point he started translating American rap and house tracks into Swahili. He was not an integral part of the Dar es Salaam hip-hop scene, and some of its pioneers would argue that he was not a hip-hop artist but “just a rapper.” Still, he won an important talent show and his album was a landmark in the history of Tanzanian hip-hop, and thus bongo flava. Next to Heavy D’s “Now That We Found Love,” he also reinterpreted Naughty by Nature’s “OPP” into “Omba Pure Penzi” (ask for pure love), a song about the danger of HIV, and then there was ‘Ice Ice Baby” in Swahili. Shortly Saleh J was sent to live in United Arab Emirates by his family, who didn’t approve of his musical career. He never recorded new music again.
2 Proud, “Ni Wapi Tunakwenda”
Ni Mimi, the first cassette released by rapper 2 Proud, was a big hit in Tanzania when it came out in the mid-’90s. His socially conscious and often openly critical lyrics about politics and the status quo paved the way for others to do the same. By the time his third album was released, his fame had reached beyond hip-hop audiences and into rural areas without FM radio reception. He changed his name to Mr. II and later to Sugu. A few years ago, after the release of his 10th album, he chose to go into politics and got a seat in parliament for the Chadema opposition party; he’s still there today. This rare video from 1996 shows him on stage performing a song from his first album at a cultural event in Dar es Salaam. The instrumental is typical of the first years of Tanzanian rap: sparse drum programming accompanied by a thin keyboard.
Kwanza Unit, “Msafiri”
All throughout the ’90s, Kwanza Unit was one of the most important groups on the Tanzanian hip-hop scene. Their first album came in 1993 and was poorly distributed, but the songs were widely heard through the newly opened commercial radio stations (commercial radio began in 1994). Kwanza Unit was also bigger than just the core group, as several artists were affiliated with the group and would perform with them. “Msafiri” was a cover of a Tanzanian classic by that name by Congolese-born singer King Kiki, and it was one of the first Tanzanian hip-hop tracks to sample a local song rather than a foreign one. Kwanza Unit were invited to perform in Zanzibar around 1998 and the local television station TVZ shot a video for the song which was played locally but never got distributed on the mainland: The first time the band saw this was three years ago when I digitized it from an old VHS!
Hard Blasters, “Chemsha Bongo”
Hard Blasters were among the first wave of Tanzanian rappers, starting to release music as early as 1993. Their album Funga Kazi, released around the turn of the century, was hugely successful among a diverse crowd that included both the very young and old audiences. Musically it was a stepping stone towards the more inclusive sound that came to define bongo flava. The track “Chemsha Bongo” features Professor (or Profesa) Jay, who soon embarked on a successful solo career that would make him one of the most influential bongo flava artists.
X Plastaz, “Msimu Kwa Msimu”
Arusha, a city in northern Tanzania, had been the home to a thriving hip-hop scene ever since the ’90s, with a unique sound that was more hardcore than the more pop-oriented material coming out of Dar es Salaam. X Plastaz were the most successful group to come out of Arusha, and were able to record an album abroad, perform in Europe, Brazil and Gabon and have their music played by the likes of the late, legendary BBC DJ John Peel. They introduced a new element to Tanzanian hip-hop by merging traditional Maasai vocal music into their songs, as one of the band members was a Maasai tribesman. “Msimu Kwa Msimu” was on their first album, Maasai Hip-Hop.
Juma Nature, “Hili Game”
Like Professor Jay, Juma Nature took his brand of Tanzanian hip-hop and molded it into something new. On his first album he already showcased a blueprint of the bongo flava sound that developed between 2001 and 2005. In particular his trademark chorus vocals as heard on “Hili Game” were copied by a whole generation of artists (for their own part, they were were inspired by an X Plastaz song, “Halleluya”).
Dully Sykes, “Historia ya Kweli” / “Julieta”
The son of a famous Tanzanian musician, Dully Sykes scored his first hits in 2001, both of which are captured in this a cappella recorded at Uhuru Radio during a show hosted by Sebastian Maganga. Combining his sung vocals with beats that were sonically related to the hip-hop sounds of the era and including influences from dancehall, zouk and other styles, Dully was among the artists to develop what would become the most popular variety of bongo flava. His lyrics are also a good example of the emphasis on funny stories and light-hearted topics that came to define the new genre, and which caused some of the hip-hop community to turn their backs on it. In Arusha, several artists even recorded anti-bongo flava songs, but that did not have much effect on the popularity of the genre.
In 2014, Diamond Platnumz is without a doubt the most successful Tanzanian artist, having achieved popularity across East Africa, the Tanzanian and Kenyan diaspora and beyond: He was even nominated for a MTV Africa Award this year. He’s also a prime example of how quickly bongo flava stars can rise, in 2010, when this single came out, nobody knew his name, but four years down the line he’s Dar’s biggest pop star, charging five figures for his shows, and double the price for concerts abroad. His extraordinary vocal talent played a role in achieving this success but, as is the case with all successful Tanzanian hip-hop and bongo flava artists, his lyrics have made him the crowd’s favorite.
Fid Q featuring Yvonne Mwale, “Sihitaji Marafiki”
While for the past 10-plus years the commercial variety of bongo flava has ruled the charts, the socially conscious Tanzanian hip-hop as developed by the likes of 2 Proud, Kwanza Unit or X Plastaz has never died. Artists have often continued recording and performing away from the commercial circuit, and artists have come to rely on their own network to distribute new music and create music videos. One of the few artists who achieved major popularity while staying close to the original strain of hip-hop is Fid Q, who keeps attracting large crowds across the country. He’s also nurturing new hip-hop talent and bringing them to light via the Web and television (link: http://cheusidawa.tv/category/shows/fidstyle/)