Ali Diallo could have been one of the 40 Under-Forty dynamic achievers TNJ celebrates this month had he been living in the United States instead of his native Burkina Faso. Not yet 30, the theater actor, music producer and film director used his own money five years ago to launch Africa’s biggest annual hip-hop gathering, the Ouagadougou International Hip Hop Culture Festival, or Ouaga Hip Hop. His organization, Umané Culture, has been producing and promoting music shows at home and abroad since 1997.
I knew nothing about hip-hop in Africa until I began to research this issue’s “Africa Focus” column. When I found out about Ouaga Hip Hop, I asked three of the hippest hip-hop generationers I know—one was born in Africa and each of the other two has a parent who was born there—what they knew. Like me, nothing. None of us had heard of Stay Calm, Basic Soul, Otentic, Smokey or PBS Radikal. In the United States, sadly, our discourse on hip-hop’s global reach is far more likely to mention Japan, India and Russia—our rappers even sample Indian music—than any country in Africa. Not so in Africa. At Ouaga Hip Hop 4, they even showed the Nick Broomfield film, Biggie and Tupac.
That’s just the child paying homage to the parent, you may retort. Of course African rap gets its inspiration from American hip-hop. But that’s only as far as rhythm, clothes, graffiti and body gestures are concerned, says Muriel Placet-Kouassi, a specialist in 20th century Francophone literature and culture. Complete with its own recording studios, African rap has a distinct sound—it incorporates traditional musical instruments and tends to combine rap, ragga, reggae, soul and local sounds, she says. And there’s no gansgta rap. Rather, rooted in the ancestral tradition of the griot, who tells stories and recounts history over music, African rap carries political and social messages about corrupt government, poverty, the environment, unemployment and AIDS. It pays tribute to those who are considered symbols of political, economic and social uplift : the late Thomas Sankara (Burkina Faso) and Patrice Lumumba (Democratic Republic of Congo), for example.
We know that an African heart beats strong in the music of Black America, Latin America and the Caribbean (see Emily Bond’s story on page 48). But an African-diaspora heart beats strong in the music of Africa, too. It didn’t begin with hip-hop. James Brown made his way into the music of the late Fela Ransom Kuti, but by then Afro-Cuban music had already left its mark on Congolese music, and jazz had seeped into the music of South Africa’s townships.
Ever since President Bush declared it so in 2003, June has been Black Music Month, recognizing the pioneers of the music and celebrating the ways it has helped shape this country’s society and reflect its character. There’s much more to celebrate about our music. It’s a boomerang, whipping and cutting and shimmying across oceans and back.
By Rosalind McLymont