African hip hop is coming of age before our eyes. As this inevitable genre began to sweep the continent, many feared—myself included—that it might represent an escalation in the Americanization of Africa, and thus a further abandoning of rich indigenous traditions. But time is telling a different story. Not only are newer acts finding fascinating ways to interweave the past into their futuristic sounds, but lyrically, many of these artists are as fascinated with understanding and discovering the ways and lives of their ancestors as was the prior generation of African music stars. The music changes, but the deepest messages remain constant.
Afrolution is a UK-based website (www.afrolution.com), CD label, and web TV offering with videos, interviews and more, all focused on the ongoing wave of young musical acts emerging from the continent. The songs on Afrolution’s second compilation are impressive in their depth, variety, ingenuity and energy. Along with another fine new African hip hop compilation—Yes We Can, Songs About Leaving Africa—Afrolution, Vol 2 tells the story of a continent-wide music movement that is in its own way as exciting as the brilliant array of hybrid acts that first put African pop on the global map in the second half of the 20th century.
African hip hop showed early promise in the urban centers of Senegal, Tanzania and South Africa. But on this compilation, only Sister Fa represents Senegal, and there’s nothing from Tanzania at all. Tumi and the Volume—who combine hip hop with rock, funk and other styles in their live band presentation—and Ben Sharpa—a super-skilled rapper with killer flow and plenty of sharp edges—represent South Africa well. Sharpa’s subtly polyrhythmic electronic backing tracks showcase his slyly arresting question-and-answer rap on “Hegemony”—among a handful of powerful English-language performances here. South Africa has the advantages of advanced economic development and a distinguished history of reinventing American music genres.
The real surprises here come from places like Togo, Uganda, Burkina Faso, DRC, Malawi, and Kenya. Aura (United Artists For African Rap) are a collective of 17 artists from 10 countries. Their buoyant, drama-filled track “Bienvenue a Poto Poto” kicks off the set with spirit and panache, putting a focus on issues affecting children. Be sure to check out the song’s terrific video (more at www.aurahiphop.com) in which the rappers and singers appear as characters in an African market. “She Smiles Easy,” by Kenya’s Goreala, with help from her countryman Projekt and Algerian DJ BoulaOne, mixes rapping, layers of singing, and a sweet guitar line in a light, friendly funk-soul milieu. “Taxi Brousse” by Burkina Faso’s Yeleen (Bambara for “light”) is another standout that seamlessly blends kora and folkloric guitar riffs with electronica and superb singing from poet MC Mawndoé.
On the darker side, “My People” by a Europe-based Cameroonian trio called Negrissim, sets stern, heavy rapping in a fascinating stoundscape of processed sounds that incorporates echoes of the past, like horns that seem sampled from much older African pop. The songs deals with a “quest to find the drum and the sacred word of their ancestors.” Lopango Ya Banga’s track “Mpo Na Kongo” similarly weaves strains of Congo music into its heavy beat. The group is 8 Congolese artists based in Germany, and their band’s name translates as “house of the ancestors.” “Mudzionetsetsa” a number in Chichewa by Malawi’s Biriwiri also references older sounds in swinging, strummy guitar accompaniment, apparently sampled from late Malawian musician Stonard Lungu.
There is much to unpack in these 16 tracks, and the links to interviews, videos and more music available online are well worth exploring. The set ends with a playful reggae anthem to “Mr. Mandela” described as “a hell of a fella.” It’s played by Trenton and Free Radical, a young band led by one of Afrolution’s founders. Nice to know that these folks are not only connoisseurs and boosters of the new African pop, but also artists themselves. Afrolution ayé!