The popular music scene has changed in Tanzania. Congolese rhumba, which was dominant for many years, is no longer so. Below are extracts from a paper presented at the Society for Ethnomusicology on October 27, 2001 about Tanzanians’ new taste in popular music.
On Sunday afternoons, rappers and fans gather at the FM Club in Kinondoni which offers young rap artists, or MCs as they are called in Tanzania, an opportunity to practice their skills in front of an audience and a chance for local youth to enjoy an afternoon of free music. MC, which stands for master of ceremonies, was first used in the New York City hip hop community in the late 1970s to refer to people who commented on or introduced selections made by the deejay spinning records….. partially because the term for rap artists in Kiswahili, msanii wa kufokafoka, is too long to say and partially because MC has an exotic American sound to it that legitimizes the Tanzanian artists. Usually full of young men and a few women between 15 and 30 years of age, the audience and rappers dress in Tommy Hilfiger shirts, Sean John pants sagging several inches below the waist line, Yankees hats turned artistically to the side, and various boots and sneakers cleaned to an unbelievable shine considering the dirt and dust of the streets outside. The open-air club is small, with towering speakers in the middle of the room, a caged deejay spinning records in front, and a stage lined with microphones and instruments of FM Academia, the band who use the venue at night.
Anyone can perform at the club. Most artists use American sounding names, such as Bad Hardcore, Mack D, and Underground Souls. On stage, musicians dance and rap, generally acting as if they are in an American hip hop video, flailing their arms and hands, raising their fists in the air, and bouncing below the waist. The rap itself varies from those who cannot find the rhythm, to those who can carry the song well but lack performance skills. For most of the musicians on stage, there is anger in their voices, something not heard in regular conversation with them. For these musicians, the music acts as an outlet for emotions that they have little way to express in everyday life.
“BE MORE PROFESSIONAL”
One afternoon in November of last year, Taji Liundi, the host of the show and a local radio deejay, stopped a rap group in the middle of their song and told them to leave the stage. He walked to the microphone and, with a stern stare, lectured the audience about the art of rapping and the need to be more professional. He explained the construction of a rap song, with a main verse and chorus, and then asked, “Where was the chorus on that last song?” The crowd did not respond since they knew there was no chorus. Liundi then went into problems with stage performance and musicians who are prone to just stand on the stage and rap. Finally, he made fun of the American style of dress that the Tanzanian artists wore, and told them to find their own look. The room was silent. It was as if every one of the audience members’ mothers walked in the room and scolded them; no one dared move. The assistant announcer finally broke the silence and called the next MC to the stage. Who would be brave enough to walk up on stage after that? All eyes turned and followed a young man in his early twenties named Rap Nature as he stood and walked steadily to the stage. He wore a Yankees hat with a cut off brim and baggy pants, already breaking one of Liundi’s requests to find a unique look. Unlike other MCs, however, he walked to the stage alone, making the unfolding scene even more dramatic.
The crowd sat impatiently waiting for the song to begin. There was such hope that Rap Nature would be able to break the shame of the other MCs and fulfil the expectations of the shows’ sponsors. Rap Nature climbed on the stage and remained calm, waiting for the first track to start. With his head bowed, eyes closed, he listened for the opening beat. A minute passed and the crowd was leaning in to hear what would happen. The pool players in the back held their cues to their sides and studied the stage; people at the bar for a moment held their drinks away from their lips for fear of missing the opening of the song; and the promoters sat to the side of the stage calmly waiting. The song began and Rap Nature launched into his rap. The lyrics were brilliant-exploring the struggle of youth living in poverty with little chance for escape-and the chorus that followed was just what Liundi requested. For the first time that day, the audience erupted in excitement. There were people standing, pumping their fists, and cheering. They were all listening to Rap Nature preach about life and the hardships of living in Dar es Salaam. The crowd loved what they heard, but Rap Nature did not end there. He clenched his chest with his hand to highlight the pain in his heart over seeing his friends fall ill to sickness; he fell to the floor to show the desperation he suffered at being a poor, urban Tanzanian; and he closed his eyes to illustrate his connection to the lyrics he rapped. It was Tanzanian performance and rap at its best.
The scene that unfolded at FM Club that Sunday afternoon was a common example of social expectations expressed to shape peoples actions, habits, or beliefs. Rap Nature, in walking to the stage after Liundi’s comments, knew he had to follow the guidelines given to him or he would be removed from the stage, just as several other MCs were that day. The show was as much about enjoying and performing rap music as it was about educating up coming rap artists about what is proper and necessary for them within the rap community. The more experienced rappers and deejays dictated their expectations of style, performance practice, and song construction to the crowd of listeners and participants. These expectations pull both listeners and participants together to form a cohesive unit. In other words, through identifying the dos and the don’ts for upcoming rap artists, the Tanzanian hip hop community strengthened its own identity, the result of which was the music itself.
Expectations expressed through conversations, songs, radio shows, newspaper articles, and concerts are the most direct means of creating a group identity within the Tanzanian hip hop community. Through verbal and written commentary, young and upcoming members of the Tanzanian rap community learn what it is to be a rapper or a rap fan, a citizen of a poor urban city, and a social and political activist. The music is the culmination of this knowledge, learned by artists, deejays, fans, and others through the teachings of the already established generation of hip hoppers.
The idea of expectations came from Tanzanian youths’ discussion of hip hop. The Kiswahili word for expectation is tarajia or tegemea and, though these words are used infrequently in daily conversations, people expressed themselves through statements that showed what was expected of the community and its members. In discussing a rap artist, for instance, people would say, “anahitaji kufanya hivi (he needs to do this),” or “anahitaji kucheza kama hivi (he needs to dance more like this),” or “anahitaji kubadalisha sauti yake (he has to change his sound).” The more I talked to people, the more I realized that there was a vision of the Tanzanian hip hop community.
THE OLDER GENERATION
The older generation, or those that began to rap in the early 1990s, are generally responsible for teaching expectations to upcoming rappers. This generation, referred to as wazee or elders even though they are thirty years old or younger, has a very strong voice in the local music community. Veteran musicians, such as Dolasoul and Mr II, are often sought after for advice by younger musicians. Deejays, such as Sebastian Maganga and Taji Liundi, direct peoples’ likes and dislikes through radio commentary, play lists, and the concerts they host. In a profound way, the older generation guides the younger artists in a manner reminiscent of the government’s relation to the people of Tanzania. Since the country’s independence in 1961, leaders in the Tanzanian government have acted as father figures to the country, guiding people to act and think according to their direction. The first president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, was even called Baba wa Taifa or Father of the Nation. This paternalism has trickled into the rap community, though, obviously, on a much smaller scale.
Expectations are a direct and open means of solidifying group identity. In creating group identity, people can set standards subtly, perhaps through gestures, dress, actions, or conversation. The older artists, deejays, and fans, however, are very direct about their views of what the Tanzanian hip hop community should be. The elders are ‘watchdogs’ and father figures at the same time, teaching the younger artists what is expected ofthem. There is nothing subtle about it…..
Despite its widespread use, people apply expectation to two areas of rapping: the song itself and the delivery (flow) of the song. Other aspects of the rap life are important, such as dress, attitude, and performance ability, yet these are secondary to the crux of what it is to be a rapper in Tanzania. The rap song, for instance, must have a number of elements: It should be sung mainly in Kiswahili; contain no cursing; have a social or political message; and make logical sense. The flow of a song should not imitate another rapper, it should be interesting, and follow the rhythm in the music. Rappers that break this mold are publicly mocked, either on radio, in conversations or in concerts. For instance, the audience at FM Club concerts would often begin talking to their neighbour about the problems in a song being performed that they did not like and even make disagreeable noises that were borderline heckling. Though Liundi gives himself a lot of credit for hindering the use of cursing, other rappers, fans, and even the general society have discouraged its use in Tanzanian hip hop. The rap community usually ignores artists that curse in English, such as the Tanzanian rapper Hakim, and no one, to my knowledge, has rapped a song in Kiswahili with vulgar lyrics (although one group had their song pulled from radio because some people thought the content too strong). Yet, as Liundi points out, the rap community is very direct about discouraging any type of vulgarity in rap music because it is too powerful and a distraction from the message in the song.
MEANINGFUL AND SOCIALLY USEFUL LYRICS
The most important element of a rap song- what is expected most of an artist- is meaningful and socially useful lyrics. A rap song has to contain a coherent message that informs listeners about an injustice, social or economic problem, or some other element affecting modem Tanzanian society…..A song is only as good as the meaning and the logic of the lyrics. . Speaking about sensitive topics and doing so openly is rare in Tanzanian culture, but Mr. II does this while creating a tight rap song. Considering that “Chini ya Miaka Kumi na Nane” (Under 18 years old) became well known all over Tanzania, there is no doubt that Mr. II was able to produce a powerful lyrical message appropriate for Tanzanian hip hop. Other artists have done the same, such as the Daznundaz who sang “Maji ya Shingo (Up to One’s Neck),” relating how difficult it is to make a living in a Dar es Salaam ghetto and John Mjema who tells about corruption in the political system of the country in the song “Mimi Sio Mwizi (I Am Not a Thief).” In each of these songs, and hundreds others like them, the social and political message to the people of Tanzania is strong. The youth, even those who feel most marginalized either because of lack of education or their social status, are given a sense of legitimacy through rapping and are able to present their viewpoints to the public.
The flow or delivery of a rap song is the second area where the wazee establish expectations. Any rap artist, regardless of lyrical content, has to be able to deliver his song in an original style while remaining in rhythm. Rappers who copy the styles of other MCs in Tanzania are heavily criticized.
Rhyming well and on the right beat is also crucial. Despite the old stereotype that Africans have inherent rhythmic abilities, numerous up coming MCs in Tanzania have a difficult time at making their lyrics ‘flow’ over music. New artists practice at home or school with other MCs and occasionally get a chance to sit in at a radio station on the weekend and practice their rapping, with a deejay spinning instrumental tracks.
Expectations exist for several reasons: To destroy images of rappers and youth as hooligans (wahuni); to legitimize rap music as a positive and useful art form to all Tanzanians; and to make the music socially beneficial for the local audience. Those that control the expectations in the music scene have a lot invested in its continuation as a viable art form among the local community. There was a time when elders, business people, and others considered the music offensive and unacceptable for Tanzania society. These people were certainly prejudiced by the American hip hop videos they saw on television with mostly semi-nude women, scenes of violence, and vulgar language. But, older generation hip hop artists knew that the art form could be constructive and, if made so, would become acceptable in urban Tanzania culture……
Because of the effectiveness of expectations, songs such as “Mimi Sio Mwizi” by John Mjema, became national hits in the country among all age groups. These songs spoke messages that could be identified by everyone, making the genre just that, a genre, not a determinate of listening audience. Expectations as controlled by the rap community created a larger market for Tanzanian rap music, much larger than if rappers adopted the methods of their American counterparts.
While expectations are a powerful means for enforcing group identify, individualism still exists within the rap community. Expectations set up the parameters, but each rapper or audience member experiments within these parameters. Further, there are areas where, ironically, few expectations are placed on the rap artists. For instance, many young artists drink and use drugs and are without the direct criticism of the rap community (though these practices are frowned upon). Nonetheless, the expectations that do exist and are an attempt to solidify and strengthen the local community. And, as most artists told me, setting up these expectations keeps the music ‘real.’ By keeping it real, the rap community makes sure the music reflects their world views and social ideologies, while educating the public at the same time.