Hip Hop Memories of Africa
Rap/hip hop, an African American product, has similarities with the ancient African oral tradition of praise poems (izibongo), where either the king, warriors, parents or age mates praise an individual for his achievements or historical events that occurred in his lifetime.
Praise poems are called izibongo in the land of amaZulu and the person who calls out the king's praises is called imbongi. They are taught in school because they are archives about people, their land and language.
It will be interesting to know what praise poems are called in other African countries. Yoruba filmmakers always have scenes where parents recite their children's traditional praises.
Princess UMkabayi, known as UMkabayi ka Jama, has praise poems that chronicle how she sacrificed her life as a woman to get her father to re-marry when her mother died, leaving behind UMkabayi and her twin sister Mama. The kingdom had no heir because King Jama had always baffled the nation for having one wife, their mum.
UMkabayi ka Jama grew up and convinced a woman called Mthaniya to marry her father and become the queen. When Mthaniya agreed, UMkabayi then told her father what she had done. King Jama could never refuse his twin daughter anything.
Mthaniya and King Jama got married and had a son he named Senzangakhona. It is actually a full sentence which means: ‘We did the right thing.’
We, is UMkabayi and her twin sister Mama, for finding their father a wife, who gave amaZulu an heir. Senzangakhona later had a son with Nandi, known in history as King Shaka.
The following lines come from some of UMkabayi ka Jama’s praise poems.
Elidl’umuntu limyenga ngendaba.
The important word here is ‘iqili’ which is an intelligent person who weighs the situation and tailors it to her advantage. The third line refers to how Mkabayi ka Jama was a master in conversation, making people comfortable not knowing that she used what she heard to further her schemes.
Rappers and Self Adulation
Rappers in the year of the lord 2015 are not princesses like Mkabayi ka Jama, but architects of their own destiny. They garnish themselves with more identification marks. They have stage names and one or two sentences that elongate them.
The difference between ancient praise poems and rap, is that rappers define themselves, what occupies their thoughts at a particular time, their neighbourhoods, the police, being black in the U.S., women, how they see themselves in the industry, rival musicians or haters.
Rappers The New Royalty
We monitor rap/hip hop because rappers are the new aristocrats. Call them rap-stocrats. I use rap/hip hop interchangeably because that is how the industry packages the music.
Rap-stocrats grace magazine covers that used to be photo galleries of blue blood families such as the British monarchy, models, fragrance millionaires, heiresses, movies and soccer stars.
What rappers wear and how they wear it is copied by young people globally, from Cape Town to Cairo. Most young people all over the world keep tabs on rap, either as fans that pack the Rogers Centre in Toronto, MTS Centre in Winnipeg or the Staples Center in Los Angeles, when rappers are performing. Some also have aspirations of being the next Kendrick Lamar or ‘Prince Charles’.
Rappers’ kids are the new media darlings and appear in designer Pampers with their famous mums in front row seats in Milan or New York fashion shows.
We cannot ignore them. It is breaking news when celebrity rappers adopt vegan diets. We envy their fleet of European cars.
Rappers And Ego
Africa also has rappers but the African connection is how rap is ‘played out.’ We tend to concentrate on how certain rappers hold the mic (microphone), forgetting that there are brains behind the lyrics. There is a creative process where somebody wrote down words, recorded them or gave them to somebody to record.
Way back when on street corners, lyrics were spontaneous, off the cuff, but it is a different ball game once they are taped, with or without permission. That is when the issue of copyright comes into play.
The African connection is in the criticism that rappers have a big ego that spills on to their music, and sometimes create bad blood among bloods, when accusations of ‘dissing’ fly around.
Africa and Importance of Lineage
Rappers in North America might be criticized for praising themselves, but it is not a problem in Africa because children are born to be larger than life. They don’t have two names such as Peter Ford, but a whole paragraph to define who they are.
It begins where their umbilical cord is buried. Traditionally in Africa, before the land was stolen, after giving birth to a bouncing baby boy or girl, the umbilical cord was buried behind the house.
This helped the child later on in life when he/she is asked: “Where is your umbilical cord buried?” Basically, where do you come from? For example, you might live and work in New York but your umbilical cord could be in Georgia or Texas.
All this information is included in who the child is. Parents still heap praises upon their kids at an early age, despite outside cultures that have nibbled away African customs and traditions. Children are born into families or surnames called izibongo, in the land called Kwa-Zulu.
There are sub-surnames, izithakazelo, that are attached to the main surname. These sub-surnames are used to bring up children, to make them belong to the broader family: grandparents, aunts and uncles. Children smile when they hear them because they see the love in adults' eyes when they say the sub-surnames (izithakazelo).
Children also pick up their importance when their dads use them tenderly, to address their mothers. Husbands respect their wives’ families. That is why married women never lose their surnames. They were never Mrs. Smith or Mrs. Khoza. The culture (isiZulu), traditionally puts the prefix ma-, before the woman’s name.
Ma-Dlamini if her parents’ surname is Dlamini.
Ma-Cele if her parents’ surname is Cele.
Ma-Khumalo if her parents’ surname is Khumalo.
These few examples have their own sub-surnames that bring a smile on women’s faces when their husbands use them. Children realise the importance of the family lineage, and use it to identify themselves when they grow up.
Rappers And Self Definition
That is Africa. Rappers don’t talk about sub-surnames because they are Americans. They created rap on American soil, forced by certain historical, political and economic reality.
Stage or street names supersede names on their birth certificates. What they did in school or in sports adds a line to how they define themselves. Something bad or good they did somewhere in their lives creeps into the lyrics.
They rap about where they are in the U.S. of A, who they are, who they wish to be and dismiss any mis-conceptions about who they are. How they say it might rile some people, and give rap/hip hop a bad name.
Love it or hate it. It is oral tradition.