Words by Mass Dosage
Life in a Hip-Hop Ghetto
Welcome to Grahamstown, a "city" with a population of a couple of hundred thousand, over half of whom are unemployed. Step into a world where Hip-Hop leads a very impoverished existence, as do most of the townspeople. A place where the only graffiti is done by out of town graf heads stopping through during the annual arts festival. Where b-boying is practically unheard of. Where the number of Hip-Hop DJ's on and off the airwaves can be counted on one hand with fingers left over. Where MC's strive to make themselves heard by rhyming over other MC's' instrumentals.
Yet, in spite of all the obstacles, Hip-Hop struggles on, defying the laws of not so natural selection. I spent the past four years living in this town and witnessed a radio station with not one Hip-Hop DJ go on to deliver the above mentioned handful. Quite an achievement when one considers the lack of access to technical resources - can you imagine a town where you know the exact location of every single turntable, pitch-control CD player and mixing desk at any given moment? Not enough to go around is the only way to describe the situation.
The same is true for the upstart MC's. Of Hip-Hop's 4 chambers, MC'ing is the healthiest in this Hip-Hop ghetto. Mad talent exists in the streets of the location and the corridors of the University. Getting these skills publicised is another matter altogether. One humble recording studio and no record labels or talent scouts a successful artist do not make. The only outlets for MC's are the University radio station and the occasional party with a microphone. At Grahamstown's first strictly Hip-Hop party the one available mic had to be shared by more MC's than a public telephone. The words of the Fugees rang true that night - "too many MC's, not enough mic's". In this case it was the lack of mic's, and not the overabundance of MC's, that was the problem.
Graffiti and b-boying are the two facets of Hip-Hop that are sorely unpracticed. The problem is that there is no-one to learn from, no-one to give advice, guidance and mentoring. Even if heads were interested in headspinning and the art of using nozzles, where would they start? Workshops and resources - but from whom? Who would sponsor a graffiti workshop in a place where most would-be practitioners could never afford the price of an arsenal of cans? And where does breakdancing get one in a township club culture of bobbing your body mindlessly to monotonous kwaito beats?
As despondent as all this made me, it was with a heavy heart that I left the Hip-Hop ghetto of Grahamstown for good. Positive signs of change were appearing. Demo CD's with original beats were being recorded. The Hip-Hop party I threw as my final DJ performance in the town filled the club to capacity and more, something I would have thought impossible four years ago. I am now an outsider to this Hip-Hop ghetto, thousands of kilometres away and unable to do much to help. What I can, I do - that's why this article was written - to make people realise that Hip-Hop is desperately straining to stay alive in a number of isolated towns in South Africa. And I can guarantee that similar Hip-Hop ghettos with similar situations exist worldwide, from Tanzania to Russia.
So, to all the heads out there who live in thriving Hip-Hop metropolises - do what ever you can to spread Hip-Hop beyond your regional boundaries. Reach out to these isolated islands of Hip-Hop by touring, giving workshops, sharing resources and so on. Someone has to throw over a life rope - the risk of Hip-Hop dying out completely in these ghettos is all too real.