The current Hip-Hop movement in West Africa is similar to that in the United States when groups like Public Enemy, Poor Righteous Teachers, Arrested Development, and X-Clan were at their heights. This may simply be because African Hip-Hop is at an earlier stage in its development, or it may be because their values are different to those of American rappers. Even in up-tempo party tunes such as popular Ghanaian artist Reggie Rockstone's "Keep Your Eyes on the Road," there is a clear message in lyrics as he mixes the traditional braggadocio style of rhyming with political and cultural messages.
While there are some Hip-Hop songs that are simply party songs and nothing more, rapping with a message is common in Africa. These songs are meant not only to educate and empower the black people, but are also meant to entertain the listener and hopefully to gain recognition for the people of Africa. The African continent is made up of many small, impoverished countries. To simply call The Ivory Coast and Ghana "poor" in comparison to the United States would be a severe understatement. As a result, very few artists are able to reach personal success through their music, let alone help the industry gain the recognition it needs. Because of financial difficulties, many of the people of West Africa don't even have access to the few media resources that are responsible for spreading the Hip-Hop sounds that can be heard in Africa today. "The kids with TVs try to emulate American culture," says Kouakou Ouattara, who at 17, is one of the youngest of the street kids to display his work at the art exhibition. "Most of us don't really listen to Hip-Hop much because we don't have radios and TVs."
Rockstone is one of the few West African artists that have been able to reach success by signing with a West African label (Kassa Records). RAS and Positive Black Soul are some of the other popular Hip-Hop artists from West Africa, but in order to reach success, they had to sign with European labels. The restrictions on African rappers are similar to those of underground rappers in America who can't make it on the radio. While some Hip-Hop artists in America may feel that the problem has more to do with politics and the demand for mainstream sounds, there is no doubt that it also has to do with the fact that many struggling inner city artists simply can't afford the things necessary to showcase their skills, and they don't know the right people. As a result, many will say that some of the best rappers are among the widely unrecognized underground talent base. According to this argument, Africa may very well be the underground of international Hip-Hop.
"I think in order to be a successful rapper, like RAS, you have to go and sign in Europe. If you sign there and you get a CD, you get promoted well" says Claver. "But to this day, the people who live in the US or Europe don't seem interested in taking African Hip-Hop and selling it. They don't have trust and confidence in it, so they don't want to invest in it. But if one of the groups who made a good deal crossed over successfully, they're going to come to Africa and try to find artists because they'll have that confidence. But for that, we have to have connections. This guy has to go somewhere like New York and make a joint product with, for example, Wu-Tang. Then, they'll say, 'Damn, this is African rap! Look how they rap, they're good, man. I don't understand what they're saying but they can flow!'
Some skeptics of Hip-Hop music in America say that while the music is more popular than ever, the talent is watered down and the most talented rappers and producers get the least recognition because the '90s has placed a value on recycling old music rather than introducing new sounds. These skeptics might find relief in the African values of emceeing. "A real MC is an MC who can rap over any beat - African or American," says Bony. "Even if you don't understand what he says, you know that he has a feel for the music. He is someone who is versatile. We are African so we have to try to rap over African music because Hip-Hop is an expression of our culture."
Versatility, originality, creativity, and a positive attitude are some of the most valued traits in African music, and these values have naturally leaked into their concepts of Hip-Hop. "A good rapper has to be able to perform and write well" says Claver. "He also has to have a good attitude. To achieve peace and unity doesn't mean to play the bad boy, it means to give love. We have to love each other. Nowadays, we see so much war - so many young people fight with guns. We got war, Rwanda, Somalia, kids, 15 years old, they give them weapons to go to war. This is not good."
Claver pauses, takes a drink, and continues.
"For me, by definition, a good MC is someone who makes his own, good, lyrics. If you write, you have to be intelligent, conscientious...the words you use and how you say them will make somebody say 'wow, he said that very well' no matter what the language." There are many different ways to look at an MC, but whether American people can learn to accept foreign Hip-Hop, especially when it is rapped in foreign languages, remains to be seen.
Although artists such as Rockstone perform in both English and his native tongue, Twi, many African rappers feel they should not have to rap in English in order to be noticed and recognized as talented artists. "Now, it is true that back when Hip-Hop started, they rapped in English," says Claver. "So in Africa, everybody said, 'Oh, that sounds good, let's go rap in English.' But they had to understand, look, if you rap in English, who's going to buy your CD? Because if an American came and rapped with you in English, you're dead because your English is not good enough. So try to rap in your language. You speak French, try to rap in French. You speak Bede or Nouchi, try to rap in Bede or Nouchi. This is how we have to develop our own Hip-Hop, so we can become original. Because one thing that is important in Hip-Hop is that there are no rules. There is nothing that says, this is the way that everybody has to rap and make music. No. It's like a tree, and you have a lot of branches on that tree. You can come with your own new style, and say this is my style."
As the African rappers seek to solidify their identity in the world of Hip-Hop, they blame part of their slow development on the misconceptions that American people have of their mother continent. Instead of focusing on how American Hip-Hop has influenced African Hip-Hop, they wonder why the focus shouldn't be on the reverse, that is, the African influence on American art forms. Bony's face finally changes from its normally sleepy-eyed look to show a slight touch of irritation as he talks about this issue. "The only difference is that the US is known all over the world," he says. "They have the ability to promote. They say today that Hip-Hop is worldwide - it is because of the ability to make videos, movies, records, and sell them all over the world."
As he pauses, Claver takes the baton and runs with it. "When we listen to the first rappers like Grandmaster Flash, it reminds us of something that we incorporate into rap in Africa - the 'Griot.' This is the guy who plays the drum and talks, telling a story."
Bony elaborates, "Maybe somewhere along the line, when the slaves went over to America, they took this type of talk to Jamaica. The first DJ then left Jamaica to come to the Bronx and Yelloman was the first rapper. He talked rhythmically over reggae beats. That was back in the '70s. And the businessmen promoted it and helped it become what it is today. When blacks came to the United States, their culture was African, but with time, wars, suffering, and slavery, this music and culture took another path in its evolution. It was also influenced by the white culture, because there was a desire to play the piano or violin, so this type of music influenced the black community as well. But the reason why today we don't see this real African music is because it metamorphosed, it changed with the American black people."