It is a Friday night in June 2004 in Masasani, Dar es Salaam, and the crowd that has turned up for the launch of the new club is waiting patiently. There have been rumours that some of the famous Bongo Flava rappers are going to perform tonight. It is a club not different from any other in the world. Entrance and drinks are expensive. The boys are cool wearing the latest fashion; the girls are stylish, sexy and look like models. Much later, when Jay Moe and Suka appear on stage, the audience welcomes them enthusiastically. The same week there was a huge open-air event in the city with Juma Nature as one of the main acts, many of his fans turned up. It is a free event, the audience is very different from the crowd in the Masasani club. City kids with little money and a less optimistic future, but the music appeals to them in the same way. Bongo Flava artists are big stars in town.
Bongo Flava, or Swahili hip-hop, is the name for the music that has been coming out of the streets of Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania since the early 1990s. Bongo Flava is not one style, it is a mix of rap, hip-hop, and R&B but these labels do not do it justice because it is rap, hip-hop and R&B Tanzanian style: a big melting pot of tastes, history, culture and identity. Bongo Flava is about the street, ‘bongo’means brain in Kiswahili but it is also slang for Dar es Salaam the unofficial heart of the country. Most of the artists in this scene are from or based in Dar es Salaam. The ‘flava’they create is varied and cutting edge, unique to the city and its people.
Tanzania has undergone significant political and economic changes over the last two decades. After the strict socialist era of President Nyerere in the late 1980s, the country opened up its economy to outside markets and liberated the media. With the establishment of commercial TV and radio stations, production companies, promoters and distributors, Tanzanians soon had increased access to national and international music. What had been previously available only on imported cassettes for a privileged few, was now available to all. Hip-hop started in 1979 in the ghettos of New York with ‘Rappers Delight’by the Sugar Hill Gang and quickly became a global phenomenon. Tanzanians pounced on the unique medium of expression that is hip hop. « Hip-hop became so big because it is so easy to express yourself by rapping international hip-hop artists showed us how to do it music videos from stars like Eminem had a great influence, » Mike Tee says, himself a successful and popular artist in Tanzania. In Africa, the first large hip-hop scene emerged in South Africa, but soon West African countries – particularly Senegal – started rapping and established their own unique style, which became very popular in the region and in Europe. There is some suggestion that hip-hop has its root in the oral tradition of Africa, wordplay has always been a great source of entertainment and social commentary, and are said to have originated from the speech song tradition Tasu of the Griot culture in West Africa. Young Tanzanians, inspired by the US hip-hop form and culture, used rap to express themselves and their own social situation but mixing this with the unique sounds and styles of Tanzania: this became known as Bongo Flava. The music expresses the ideas of this generation and reflects their attitude towards their creativity and lives as well as their Swahili identity. President Nyerere introduced the policy of self-reliance and promoted national culture and language. « One language, one nation, » he is often cited as saying, and this is what these young artists are promoting. Nyerere’s vision lives on. Tanzania’s hip-hop artists are proud of their country and language and express this by using Kiswahili, which is the lingua franca for most East Africans.
Swahili hip-hop stormed the East African market from the mid-1990s. Saleh J released the first Tanzanian album Swahili Rap. Ice Ice Baby in 1991. He combined American rap songs with his own ideas. He talked about the ‘real’situation (‘Hali Halisi’), addressing directly the social, political and cultural issues of the youth. Most significantly he sang in Kiswahili. Other albums and artists followed: Mabishoo (1993) by Contish, Mambo ya Mjini (1994) by Hardblasters, Tucheze (1994) by Kwanza Unit, Ni Mimi (1995) by Mr II, and Msela (1995) by The Clouds. Their song ‘Msela’was one of the first Kiswahili rap tracks to hit the Tanzanian charts. Today, more than ten years later, Bongo Flava is a success story. In Tanzania’s bustling music industry, Bongo Flava is big business with immense influence on the music scene throughout East Africa and has become the region’s top selling music style and it continues to grow in popularity. TID’s album Sauti ya Dhahabu (2002) sold over 200,000 copies in Tanzania alone. Other big Tanzanian stars like Crazy GK, AY, Professor Jay, Juma Nature, Dully Sykes, Sista P are also top-selling figures.
The hip-hop artists mix freely different music styles – contemporary and traditional – specific to Tanzania and the East African region. Besides music styles like rap, R&B, reggae and ragamuffin they include elements of Hindi beats, the Swahili coastal style of taarab, Caribbean style, rumba, salsa, or house. The current trend seems to be going towards melody, rather than straight rap. Man Dojo and Domo Kaya, new in the hip-hop scene, introduced a style which is softer, less rap, more song, and instrumentation, primarily acoustic guitar and write intelligent lyrics, poetry, imaginative tales, and create street « slanguistics ». Bongo Flava lyrics are sung in Kiswahili peppered with words and phrases in English. The songs are original and full of humour, talking about daily issues, sharing personal experiences, and always conveying a clear message for their audience. They cover topics faced by continent and the world: poverty, unemployment, ambition, success, HIV/ Aids and education, and explores emotions we can all relate to such as love, jealousy and loneliness. Many of the artists feel a responsibility to the youth, using their fame and creativity to raise issues and inform their audiences. For example, Mwanafalsafa sings about Aids and religion. In 2003, he was voted best hip-hop artist with his song about Aids ‘Alikufa Kwa Ngoma’at the Kili Music Awards, Dar es Salaam. Jay Moe’s first album Ndio Mama is a homage to his mother who died early in his life. Solo Thang’s recent songs are about love and his life as a musician. His songs ‘Kilio Changu'(‘I’m Crying’) or ‘Hutafa Hutaumbika'(‘Nobody is Perfect’) are very personal. Lady Jay Dee sings on her latest album Moto about friendship, betrayal, rejected love, and the relationship between men and women. Compared with US hip-hop, the lyrical content of Bongo Flava, influenced by the political and social background of Tanzania, is less destructive, racist and misogynist, less interested in parties and sex, and has a stronger social attitude and spiritual aspect. It is less the voice of a racial or social minority, but of a young urban generation in general. Many rappers are from a middle-class background with good school and academic education. However, hip-hop was not easily accepted. « It wasn’t easy for me to be in the game (Hiphop), as parents at first never accepted but by proving to them Hiphop is not as bad as people believe and I can make it, everything else went just fine. » Solo Thang reflects on his early career. The older generation became very supportive once they had realised that Bonga Flava is not an American version of ‘gangsta’and ‘bling-bling’but constructive criticism, social discussion and commentary.
Tanzanian hip-hop artists are organised as communities or crews. The scene in Dar is small, everyone knows everyone, so there is a lot of collaboration and exchanging of ideas and styles; an exciting and dynamic place to be and the centre of the country’s hip hop scene. Most of the hip-hop artists grew up in the same neighbourhood, such as Upanga, a middle-class suburb in East Dar es Salaam, or poorer Temeke, went to the same school and still live in the same area. They call it their ‘ghetto’. Rappers from Upanga and Temeke often compete in lyrical contests. The hip-hop artists consider themselves as solo performers, but often perform or tour as a team, or invite each other to feature on a track. These communities work closely together throughout the whole process: from songwriting to recording to performing. Many album releases, like Mike Tee’s latest Je Utanipenda?, are a selection of tracks featuring various artists. This is not only economically very effective but is most of all artistically exciting and advantageous. Hip-hop is inter-action, collaboration and exchange. A similar approach followed by artists in the independent music scenes in America and Europe, where musicians in pop, folk, country and blues collaborate in order to have better access to finances and facilities, to perform and record together. It provides a platform where also inexperienced, but talented musicians are supported and get their chance. Bongo Flava hits will often be remixed, featuring another rapper and are aimed at a specific audience, the club scene for example. A group of seven hip-hop artists recently formed the East Coast Team to collaborate as a crew. Working as a team enables artists to retain their independence and creatively control their careers, music, production, promotion and merchandising. « Collaborating as a crew is very helpful for our careers. Promotion is very difficult, you have to ring radio presenters and DJs and be nice to them so they play you on the radio, » Crazy GK says. Other rappers follow similar concepts such as the family VIP around Solo Thang, or collaborate with other musicians like Jay Moe and the Kenyan rappers Necessary Noize. Jay says, « I want to work independently, I do not want to depend on a manager to get my music played on the radio. In Dar es Salaam most managers are also radio presenters. They are very influential. »
DJs and radio presenters have great control over who tops the music charts and in this way, Radio stations and regional TV have an enormous impact on the success of Bongo Flava artists. From early on, one such radio station – Clouds FM has had a major influence. This private radio station was launched in 1999, being the fourth station operating in Tanzania at that time. Ruge Mutahaba, General Manager at Clouds FM, said that the station was from the beginning aimed at a young audience. « We wanted to do something different. It was a kind of revolution: a radio station just playing music all the time. We wanted to create the need for music. » Clouds FM are business-oriented and successful following the marketing strategies of the international music industry. The song is seen as a product that must meet customer needs and make profit. Today, Clouds FM is the most popular radio station in Dar. It employs 65 people, four times as many as in 1999. Clouds FM radio is part of Clouds Entertainment which also includes Smooth Vibes and Prime Time Promotions. In this way, Clouds Entertainment combines production, promotion, distribution and event management. Smooth Vibes has currently 20 artists under contract, Prime Time Promotions organises promotional events for their musicians, dance competitions and star search contests throughout East Africa. Their artists (on contract) benefit enormously from a system that provides production, promotion and airplay. This means that Clouds FM and its sister companies work to promote their artists on contract leaving those working independently out in the cold. A concentration of the music business, as it is currently in Tanzania, gives artists who are on contract easier access to facilities and finances. Artists who work independently will have to work harder to get the promotion they need. In many ways it is the old story of trying to find a balance between creative independence and economic success.
To stay an independent artist is a major issue, especially for some top artists and those who have been in business for some time. The East Coast Team, Jay Moe and Solo Thang for example cover the costs for the production and promotion themselves. There is a good choice of studios offering high quality production, and ways of getting a track or album promoted and heard by listeners. One song will cost between $100-200 to produce, a compilation will be around $1,300. In this way, the copyright and distribution remains with the artist, and they are able to make their own choice on how to keep their creative independence, as well as a more overall control of their career. Solo Thang made his first album with Bongo Records, which was enough to launch his career successfully. But as his popularity grew he was not getting the level of promotion and support from Bongo Records he wanted so he decided to do the second album on his own. This involved a lot of work doing promotion, merchandising, distribution and touring the country.
Piracy and losses are a common problem in many developing countries. In 1997, the Tanzanian government made a move to tackle the issue and introduced a copyright law but according to people in the industry breaches are hardly ever prosecuted. Christine Mosha of U+I Entertainment who has worked in the business for many years both in Africa and the US thinks that in Africa piracy is still not regarded as illegal and is widely accepted. In Tanzania, an artist’s fan base does not consider the financial losses suffered from piracy. « And it’s hard to build such a mentality, » Christine said. Of course, in Tanzania, where the GDP per capita is just $600 (World Bank estimation, 2003) despite the fact that income has increased due to recent banking reforms, solid macroeconomic policies and continued donor assistance, many people do not have the money to buy a cassette or CD ($1.20 or $6-7, respectively), whereas copying a CD or cassette is easily done and will cost less than half the retail price. The only effective means against piracy so far are branding tapes and CDs with holograms, and exposing the shops and the people who sell pirated music. As such, it is difficult for the artists to make a living from selling their music alone.
As the opportunity to make a good profit on producing albums is slim most artists make their money from live performances and dance competitions, and their fans love it. For an average live performance a well-known artist can earn between $300-400. In Dar es Salaam, performances take place in clubs like Diamond Jubilee, Coco Beach, California Dreamer and Bilicanas. Similarly attractive are cultural concerts, festivals, and dance competitions in clubs and schools often sponsored by local companies, radio or TV stations. Artists perform regularly in Arusha, Moshi, Dodoma, and now elsewhere around East Africa. Only a few have gone further afield.
Another crucial factor apart from live performances is media presence. Next to radio, TV has an increasing influence on the music business throughout the region. The popularity of a song or album depends more and more on its appearance on screen. East African Television, Channel 5 and ITV feature music videos with the latest top international and regional top charts. Recently, MTV Network Europe has announced the launch of MTV Africa which will, on the one hand, bring great opportunities for musicians to be heard and seen by a large audience. On the other, it will also make it more difficult for unknown musicians to enter the market, get an audience and play the game. MTV Africa will show both international as well as African music. It will be broadcasted via satellite for 24-hours in English. MTV estimates to attract more than 1.3 million households in the sub-Saharan region. In East Africa where Bongo Flava is top selling, MTV Africa is likely to pick up on this success. The programme hiplife will feature the latest music of the African hip-hop scene. Bongo Flava, which is broadcasted already widely in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, will gain an even broader audience. This link of radio, television and not to forget the Internet sets in many ways the production standards for today’s music industry. Many rappers feel that it is important not only to record high-quality tapes and CDs, to tour and perform but also to go audio-visual. Videos and music clips sell and are today an important part of promotion. Musicians are facing new challenges. Production costs are significantly higher than that of recordings and currently there are only a few film production companies experienced in music business. Artistically and creatively, music clips demand different skills and means of expression from the rappers than recordings and live performances. Here, the East Coast Team has lately been very successful with their video Ama Zangu, Ama Zao which caused a lot of reaction and much publicity because of its provocative content. But there are not only music videos; last year a film directed by George Otiene Tyson won much acclaim. Girlfriend, a story about the life of musicians and actors in Tanzania, starred some top hip-hop artists like Lady Jay Dee, Crazy GK, AY, Juma Nature, Inspecta Haroun, Mike Tee and Jay Moe. Tyson wanted to attract viewers by starring popular musicians and media stars. The film sold more than 100,000 video copies. For the Bongo Flava stars it means that they can extend their careers and become successful in music and film too. George Otiene Tyson is about to release his latest film Dilemma, which is according to him about modern life and African cultures, again starring well-known Tanzanian musicians including Lady Jay Dee, Ray C, and the East Cost Team.
Collaboration, networking and the future of hip-hop are topics of industry events in East Africa. In October, the second hip-hop summit took place in Uganda. In December, a similar event will be held in Dar es Salaam organised by Sugu, a rapper who is also internationally well-known. Both events intend to bring artists, industry professionals, investors and sponsors together to create a platform for hip-hop. Beyond East Africa, Bongo Flava rappers have the opportunity to go ‘global’. They are beginning to attract international audiences, most recently through tours by artists like Mr II, TID, and X Plastaz, and through compilations: Bongo Flava. Swahili Rap from Tanzania on Out Here Records (Germany) and the Rough Guide to African Rap by Rough Guides (UK). In the beginning of November, an audiovisual production on East African hip-hop received major acknowledgement outside the African continent. Filmed in 1999, the documentary Hali Halisi – Rap As An Alternative Medium in Tanzania by Madunia has won an award for Best Short Documentary at the fourth H2O (Hip Hop Odyssey) Film Festival which took place in New York. Another documentary, Bongo Flava. HipHop-Kultur in Tansania by Anna Roche and Gabriel Hacke is currently making its way into the German and hopefully international cinemas. The film follows different Bongo Flava rappers and looks at hip-hop as a global phenomenon. In April 2005, Unesco, in co-operation with The International Music Council and The African Marketplace are commemorating the 30th anniversary of hip-hop by holding the first annual World Hip-Hop Summit. With its professional music industry, skilled artists, and universal product, Bongo Flava is on the same level as popular music in many other countries; you better watch out because the big stars of Bongo Flava are coming your way.
Among the hottest rappers to look out for are: Afande Sele, AY, Crazy GK and the East Cost Team, Daz Nundaz, Dully Sykes, Gangwe Mobb, Inspecta Haroun, Jay Moe, Juma Nature, Lady Jay Dee, LWP Majitu, Man Dojo & Domo Kaya, Mike Tee, Mr. Ebbo, Mr. Nice, Mwanafalsafa, Mr. II aka Sugu, Professor Jay, Ray C, Sista P, Solo Thang, TID, X-Plastaz, ZayBi.
In Europe, there is currently no easy access to Bongo Flava and East African hip-hop and R&B. Interesting to look at are the following websites: www.africanhiphop.com, www.darhotwire.com, www.channel5.co.tz, www.musicuganda.com, www.c4africa.com, www.artmatters.info.
///Article N° : 5728