Once commonly perceived as a lower form of art, the same music vibrates through the streets of America, where it has become a multi-million dollar industry. For those that had any doubts, Hip-Hop culture is definitely worldwide. "We love Hip-Hop," says aspiring rapper Prince, a native of Liberia, who just finished a freestyle in English that most definitely would require parental advisory. Unfortunately, his parents were sacrificed in war, forcing him to a life in the streets of Abidjan. "I used to live in a big house in Liberia, where I would look at American videos all the time. That's how I learned to rap."
While Hip-Hop is still in its early stages in West Africa, it has become more popular and marketable than ever in the United States. This has led to a feeling that the artists' popularity depends more on their potential to turn out mainstream sounds than their ability to display unique, creative, and so-called "true" skills. As a result, the rich are getting richer and the underground MC is staying there. This situation has left many Hip-Hop heads longing for the days of the disco beats and B-Boys. Maybe a look at the purer products of overseas Hip-Hop could bring back a much-needed emphasis on creativity. And where better to look than the place that gave birth to much of the music that is popular in America today? The place that to many black people is known as The MotherLand.
"American music is black," says MC Claver, a well known DJ/rapper in Abidjan as he sits in his apartment with partners, Ivorian rappers Power Gby ZrÍ, a.k.a. Bony, and Shahin. "If you look back in the day, the blues, rock and roll, that music came from blacks. When there was slavery and they were working on the field, they were singing and creating these music forms. When you say 'drum machine,' you're talking about the 'drum'. Where is the drum from? The drum is from Africa. The first beat, boom-boom-boom-boom, it comes from Africa. And the beat, this is the base for all the music."
The fact that Hip-Hop is just starting to come around in Africa and other places overseas could benefit many underground Hip-Hop artists in America looking to make money through their art without sacrificing their identities. Foreign countries have yet to reach the commercial stage of Hip-Hop's development and there is no real concept of what the "mainstream" sound is. They simply love American Hip-Hop.
If Abidjan is the Paris of West Africa, Accra, Ghana is its New York. An English-speaking city, its people are accustomed to the western world and the influence of Hip-Hop is vivid in their fashions and music. "I think American artists have a better chance to succeed here than Ghanaian artists," says Adongo Forasta, an enthusiastic Hip-Hop fan from Accra on his way to the beach, where many Ghanaian Hip-Hop artists are celebrating the emancipation of their country. "Public Enemy performed here in '93 or '94 and made big money. But you don't need to have people promote your stuff here; it's easy to do it yourself. If you're American and you perform, the people will love you."
An important element of similarity that the African people see in their Hip-Hop and in American Hip-Hop is that the music reflects the experiences of the artists that produce it. "In our lyrics, we talk about the same thing that rappers talk about in America - our life and experiences," says Claver. "A lot of rappers talk about politics - you might hear people talking about the situation with the President, like 'Yo, explain why your politics are corrupt.' Some people talk about the drugs, we have some of the same problems you have in New York. It's true that in Africa, some rappers rap about material things, nice cars, Mercedes', BMWs, nice clothes, the women, things like that. We need that in Hip-Hop too. We need people who get conscientious, people who talk about politics, we also need people who just want to enjoy themselves and make party music."
Since American blacks are the originators of the popular Hip-Hop sounds heard all over the world today, it is only natural that foreign rappers see similarities between their Hip-Hop and American Hip-Hop. But because of their different experiences and values, many foreign artists still view some issues in American Hip-Hop as problematic. "When you are a rapper, you have to be real," says Claver. "OK, its good to talk about nice cars, but if you then take a cab and the subway to go home, that's wack. Because on your CD and in your video, we see you in a big house, with gold, women, and cars...but at night you take the subway home, that's not real. If you make a record and you make money, and then you buy your car, and in your lyrics you talk about your cars, it's cool because that's your experience. For me, it makes a difference when you talk about what you have and what you don't have. You can tell people in your lyrics that you have a dream to have nice cars and to drive with nice women, so that when people listen, they will say, 'oh, it is a dream,' you know, 'but the reality is not like this.' Another thing is in the lyrics - a lot of rappers are negative. Black people in the United States [talk a lot] about crime and guns. There came a point where some people here didn't even want to listen to rap anymore because for them, rap became too violent and negative."
Experiences are not always positive. But many of the African rappers talk about these negative experiences as a means to produce something positive. Instead of glorifying their lifestyle, they send the message to their listeners that this is not a good way to live. "In my group, RAS, we talk about our culture," says Bony, having most of his thoughts translated through his partner Claver, who speaks more fluent English. "We made a song about the street kids, for example. Some kids, who come from families with money, we talk about their attitudes. Some of our songs are against people with money who don't know how to act. We talk about how we try to survive, how we try to get something good for ourselves. Back when I was younger, we would fight all the time. There were no weapons back then, so we would use knives and cut people. We try to tell the people that this life is not interesting. We have to change the people, we have to change ourselves, not to have muscle just to fight, but to have muscle and try to work. To get money and try to have a family.
"In America, there [used to be] a message in the music with artists like Public Enemy and KRS-1. But today, rappers are more negative. They talk about crime, sex, their cars and the business is more about money." Claver continues "We don't have the infrastructure - we don't have a lot of radio stations and television resources to promote our music. People don't have the money to buy CD players. A tape is basically the best thing an African can get. The industry people thieve and steal from the artists, because they don't have any control. But with progress, the artist will start to open his mind. The people are trying to make music in a professional way, so now people are starting to try make money with their music. They're trying to make good music and to sign their own contracts. But it's not like the United States where you can make maybe one record and not have to do anything and have money for a long time. To make that kind of money here is very difficult."