By Sydney Chuka
Photo credits: Fusion Multimedia
As a teenager, I had a friend who introduced me to Hip Hop music videos. Back in the day, no one had satellite TV in Malawi and the only music videos were on VHS cassettes. It was the only way we saw what life was like for young people elsewhere. For the first time I came across artists like: Ghostface Killah, RZA, Capadonna, Rakim, Guru, Craig Mack, DAS EFX, and Busta Rhymes just to mention a few. It was music at a scale I had not envisioned prior. My point is this: we breathed American music in the 90s. The entire music selection at birthday parties comprised of songs by American artists. When Snoop Dogg released “Gin & Juice”, it went viral amongst Malawi’s youth as if Snoop himself had come for concert at Njamba Park. I bet that not one of the American Hip Hop record labels at the time even had a marketing budget for Africa. In hindsight, they did not need marketing in Africa, the music came over through some cultural osmosis. American music, not just Hip Hop, dominated the airwaves and youth culture of Africa. We understood that Hip Hop was American.
As I looked forward to the Hip Hop Christmas Collective, I knew the work of some of the artists namely KBG, Suffix and Faith Mussa but was absolutely oblivious to the works of Sho Baraka, MAG44, Mista Gray, Khetwayo, Liwu and Cozizwa. The weather did not look too promising either, rain clouds hovered above the Capital City. Like most events in Malawi, the fans are either there or they are simply not. The message from Malawian fans is always loud and clear. It is also unpredictable; worse yet for a free show where people can flake out at last minute at no financial cost to them.
When I turned into the Gateway Mall Complex, there were small groups of young folk scattered all over the car park. The stage was still being set. The rain clouds were still eminent. There were no Police officers around but there were private security men and women dressed in black t-shirts. This was comforting. My Psychology lecturer, Dr. Eric Benjamin, used to say that whenever he saw Police officers; it meant one of two things: something had gone down or something was about to go down. Clearly, nothing had happened here or was going to happen here. This was assuring.
Whilst I waited for the show to begin, I came across some five young men with whom I shared an interesting conversation. Their names are Terence Mataya (18), Mphatso Banda (19), Joseph Mwaibasa (17), Hope Goliath (19) and Austin Lwanda (24). They are aspiring artists in their individual capacities. They collectively emphasized that they believe music plays a unique role in bringing together young people in a spirit of love. When asked about the challenges they faced as young men in Malawi; they expressed that “the future of their generation is at stake”. Most of their anxieties are about the education system in which an individual’s field of study is determined by chance and not by choice. Austin, a tall young man with frizzled hair, had aspired to be a medical doctor but was enrolled in an Agriculture undergraduate programme instead. They all said that they were interested in studying abroad as they felt that the academic programmes in more developed countries challenged students more to be at the forefront of developing new knowledge and technologies. The collective dream for their generation was that more young people remained in some form of formal education until they reached an age of economic productivity. Not all students in primary school get to enroll in a secondary school or a tertiary education institution of some form or another. They also hope that the youth of Malawi would have more avenues to be civically active without necessary engaging into the throes of politics. When asked what that avenue could be, they could not immediately think of an answer. Talking to the young chaps made me realise why I first listened to Hip Hop; it remains the voice of the voiceless.
Whilst I was having this engaging conversation, the first act, Mervyn Speaks, came on stage and I totally missed it as I was a distance away. Then the speakers started thumping. Liwu was on stage, his fans were rapping along to his songs Ndiwachifundo. Cozizwa soon joined him for a song. At around 2:30 pm, it started to look more like a concert as more and more people flooded towards the stage. Khetwayo was next. He opened with a Christmas special before he sung Eternal Life amongst his other hits. Mista Gray followed and had his fans on their feet with Chimwana Chosamba. KBG opened his set with Jah Rule. Suffix accompanied him on a song, their styles did not lyrically sync Ieaving me to ask the whereabouts of his usual partner, S.A.M.U.E.L. I have seen KBG and S.A.M.U.E.L perform together before and their duo is electric (I met S.A.M.U.E.L after the show and he mentioned that he would be performing in the Blantyre show the next day). In all fairness, KBG and S.A.M.U.E.L are not natural solo artists. I compare them to another famous Hip Hop duo MOBB DEEP; Prodigy needed Havoc and vice versa. Given that the show was live, ESCOM earthed it with a blackout from 3:27 pm to about 4 pm. At 3:45 pm, people were still flooding in. The original programme did include a planned intermission but the spontaneous intermission was appreciated by the attendants as they got a chance to mingle and jingle.
The second half kicked off with Suffix who closed his set with the song Mkazi wa kumwamba, a well-known collaboration with Faith Mussa. The audience which appeared not to know Suffix’s latest songs, were thrilled to hear this familiar song that speaks against tribalism in romantic relationship in Malawi. The fans sung along. Faith Mussa, a meticulous guitarist and psychedelic musician opened with his latest hit Mdidi. I asked myself why he was placed on the line-up of a Hip Hop Collective since he is not a Hip Hop artist. The answer eventually came in a unique blend of a Hip Hop bass track, his amazing guitar chord surgery skills and his soothing voice. Listening to the perplexing but delightful deluge of melodies that only Faith could envision, he connected with the Hip Hop fans. The reaction of the fans was one of utter disbelief. I tipped my sombrero to him for bearing it on the line of very distinct and different genres. Then Sean Kampondeni came on stage. I thought he would give us his usual Barack Obama styled speech but when I saw DJ Kali get on deck I knew that the gloves were coming off. After watching that performance, I declare by the power vested in me by the State of Hip Hop that Sean Kampondeni will from now on be referred to in this newsletter simply as “Sean”. The man needs no introduction. Sean has dropped many verses over the years; but this time around he really dropped a verse and what a verse it was. He did his own hook too. It was that good. He then got all Barack Obama on us when he introduced MAG44.
MAG44, is a Zambian MC, whose name evokes memories of sounds a .44 Magnum cartridge. I haven’t spoken to him to find out where his got the inspiration for his artist name but I think I have a fairly good idea. Here is the thing about MAG44; he is a regular guy. There is no fanfare about his appearance. He got on stage dressed in black t-shirt, denim shorts, black sneakers and his only jewelry were wedding band and wristwatch. And then he opens his mouth. Your ears flinch. His voice hits you like a 44 Magnum coming straight at you from the barrel of a revolver. I would describe MAG44 as a lyrical unapologetic, in message and in delivery. His beats have different influences, he brings in a little of the famous Zambian pop rhythm that is characteristic of artists such as K’Millan, some elements of the Congo’s Kwasa Kwasa, and some Euro dance beats before smashing them altogether to produce his own fusion of Hip Hop. MAG44 was able to connect with people in his native Nyanja. Watching MAG44 and Sho on stage together, I understood why they get along musically and personally. Neither one of them is soft on hard issues. The two of them share more than a stage, they share a vision. Sho is very witty, his remarks in between songs were clearly polarizing but you had to be quick to grasp what he meant. His first song was Kobe Bryant on ‘em was an ode to a recently retired basketball superstar and he had the audience shooting hoops. For a first time listener to Sho’s music, seeing his energy on stage made me understand what he had said the previous day in the press briefing, he does not do this for the money which may not be great but for the chance to learn about other people. He just learned how to rock a car park in Malawi. The reality of young people in Atlanta and in Lilongwe are quite different. Yet the message carried in the songs is relatable to both crowds. Sho put in as much effort on a stage in the car park of Gateway Mall as he would have done in Madison Square Garden. You have to respect him for that. He didn’t give us a half show. The crowd eventually ran for cover as raindrops started to fall. It was not a disaster, it was a blessing. For die-hard fans like me, it was pure bliss to dance in the rain. We were sad that the show was coming to an end; so we savoured every second before the turntable would come to a chilling halt.
I got drenched but most importantly, I was refreshed that Hip Hop is no longer American. Hip Hop is now truly universal. Its future and ability to connect people rests not only in the money it brings, the attention it gets in the media, the ratings of reality shows of former Hip Hop artists; but rather in the message that it carries. For young people like Terence, Joseph, Austin, Mphatso and Hope; Hip Hop is that art-form that will keep them from falling into the many pitfalls that suppress the vitality of young people in our country. I remember someone saying that Hip Hop started with young people who had nothing talking about having everything. Hip Hop has always been aspirational. We accept that it has taken some violent turns in the past, but the intrinsic dream of the music lives on. Observing how the audience was glued to the stage throughout the performances, I realised the power of music to unite people across cultures, religious divides, tribal lines, political ideologies, age groups and socioeconomic strata. The princes and princesses of Lilongwe’s Bel Air and the princes and princesses of Lilongwe’s ghettos waved their hands in the air, from side to side, to the sound of Hip Hop as one people.
This article has been written in the spirit of #malotoathu.