We are the culture via our roles as rappers, radio hosts, executives, editors, DJs, VJs and hip hop heads
Words: Nomaliqhwa Hadebe | Illustrations: Zinhle Sithebe
In our roles as rappers, radio hosts, executives, editors, DJs, VJs and patrons – it's women who are the custodians of the culture and who have helped hip hop in South Africa be more than just an imported passing fad.
Hip hop offers a space for reflection, ambition and comfort. It's competitive, raw, badass and nasty. And it can also be melancholic and emblematic, speaking to and for you. Simply put, hip hop belongs to women. And with Castle Lite bringing the first-ever all female line-up to Africa with the #HIPHOPHERSTORY concert, it's an opportune time to reflect on women's impact, starting with the trailblazers who will be on that stage.
Because for a genre that is shaped by many women's hands, the optics that currently represent hip hop still don't show the full picture. The way women are made to feel valueless within the scene, seen only as accessories to men's success is fraudulent. Women are the custodians of hip hop culture in South Africa right now, and it's about time we said it out loud.
There's a popular tag about Cape Town hip hop being excluded from the greater narrative, and you wouldn't be completely off if you bought into it. Similarly the women doing the work haven't fully received the props that they deserve, which has resulted in a massive oversight of the important conversations and themes that female MCs continue to bring to the forefront. Today, we are privy to rappers like Andy Mkosi and Dope Saint Jude using their narratives to make music that speaks to how race, gender, sexuality and class impact their lives. Legitimising their intersected identities within the bigger scope of the hip hop narrative and allowing that representation to cross over far and wide. Like with the project that was Andy Mksosi's intimate Bedroom Tour, it added an incredibly personal and immersive feel to the way we experience the genre. Demonstrating the different dimensions of what hip hop in South Africa is and can be – even to communities it's been previously known to subjugate.
As in the case of rap supergroup and South African Hip Hop Hall of Famers Godessa. In our narrow perspective we forget to pay homage to these true OGs: three women out of Cape Town who charged forward in their role as pioneers of a mainstream movement at a time when the genre needed a buy in from women and the nation as a whole. Kwaito was at its prime as the urban culture, and reverberated with the South African experience in a way that hip hop did not. Yet Godessa's impact cemented hip hop's place in South African popular culture and ensured that it was more than an imported passing fad. They did that.
Godessa's presence was especially important at a time when the types of conversations we had about marginalised groups weren't as mainstream and as nuanced as they are now. Even while faced with the expectation that's still prevalent to this day – that women must compete with one another for limited seats at the table – they came through as three women of colour from Cape Town. In love with how rap gave them the ability to shape and control, Shame, EJ and Burni disproved the myth that women are each other's opponents by design. They also gave us bop on bops while providing one of South African hip hop's biggest lessons: if this thing is going to survive the early days it's going to have to be through the power of collectives. A call that was heeded nationwide by groups like Skwatta Kamp, Jozi, Teargas and more.
A significant scene in the Roxanne Shante biopic comes at the end when a little boy named Nassir desperately seeks out Roxanne to help him with his rhymes – alluding to a whole Nas needing to know that Roxanne thought he had the ability to one day be a good rapper.
It's worth considering that the reluctance to include women in the conversation may be hinged on an aversion to "women's issues". Perhaps it's the disinclination to rhymes that centre experiences that are not tailored for male consumption that fuels the myth that the quality of rap suffers when women pick up the mic.
But have you noticed how many women's nods a track needs for it to truly take off? In South Africa, one of the greatest examples of the power of women's co-sign is Lee Kasumba. It is her love of hip hop that has led to a career as one of the most prolific personalities in entertainment on the continent, and who has launched rap careers locally and throughout Africa. As a DJ and producer at YFM she created a space for South African hip hop to go mainstream, and then working as the Head of Channel O she now ensures that some of our faves stand a chance at being play-listed. Alongside this her work at Big Brother allows hip hop to leverage a wider audience. Then it is her being part of judging panels for BET Awards, Hype Magazine Awards and the South African Music Awards that has made it so that there are legitimate dreams to chase within the sorority.
Lee Kasumba's flexibility as a creative and conviction that not only does her opinion matter, but that it is important, has helped propel the growth of hip hop across the continent. It's her identity as a Ugandan woman living in South Africa shapes what she envisions and it remains important that she see her visions through because of how far her reach extends to. It's important she makes the career leaps giving her access to more resources and connections, like with the UN projects she is a part of as well as her charity that links African youth together through hip hop, Harambe. In doing so she has created more opportunities for many, broadening the scope and widening the cannon.
Passing the baton on to artists like Moozlie, who as a MTV VJ gave the nod that affected how viewers perceived things, it was her interviews and reporting that made the rest of the country aware of happenings in spaces like Braamfontein and the rap stars and fashions that emerged from those scenes. Her face helped brands integrate themselves into the local scene on a much bigger scale, while her presence as an MC at events brought people to clubs so that DJs could play the songs that in turn made them an integral part of the culture. Not surprising then that as a rapper Moozlie has released material in relatively quick succession that's challenged her male adversaries. Another game-changing move has been starting her own label to ensure that the deals suit her best interest as the artist she wants to be. This is beyond the question of inclusivity, it's a challenge for the crown.
Sure, there's no denying how women are part of hip hop's aesthetics: the booty-shaking, the bottle girls, girls getting sprayed with Champagne, faces on the flyers, bodies doing on campus promotions... That's hip hop too, but so is consistency.
And since the 'Amantombazane' remix, released a good four years ago, Nadia Nakai has consistently delivered. Her rap persona has consistently been the unrelenting foul mouthed rapper, unafraid of courting the crass and challenging whomever for the number one spot. On features she's upfront about her intentions, she isn't there to sing a hook or twerk in the background; she's there to kill that sh*t. Improving her pen game so that each verse is better than the last, Nadia knows that she won't be afforded the opportunity to be lazy or that the predominantly-male industry is waiting for her to be.
If how good she looks is going to grab your attention first then so be it; Nadia uses the agency of her body as a part of her brand and has no qualms tapping into that. Having been featured on some of the biggest and most commercially viable songs Nadia has become an ambassador of the new school and proves how our female rappers may be the hardest working of any of the main players today.
It's this visibility that has created a space for women writers, DJs, rappers and fans to claim ownership in a hyper-masculine space. A power that has given women the room to decide how they want to enjoy what comes from it, as well as the power to out problematic figures from performances while making a point of promoting inclusivity. It's the female buying power that indicates the taste levels in hip hop: the images women aspire to – be it overt sex appeal or boss bitch looks – the fashion we find appealing, and that is empowering. Women need know that we have that power.
We see this online in spaces like Twitter, which has become the first real go-to when one wants to see how well a project is doing. It's the women with the many followers, often brought on by teams as conversation drivers, tweeting out their opinions because their influence is the deciding factor over whether or not a hit will bang. It's the influencers who get asked to promote the big shows and yes it's the mention of Nicole Nyaba and Sophie Ndaba that make a line memorable, downloadable and dare I say, bearable. It's the memes, gifs, Instagram captions, snapchat videos. It's the girls, girls, girls, girls...
At the intersection of hip hop and identity politics women have found that they can create their own spaces that hip hop can live and breathe in. Pussy Party, founded by Phatstoki and Rosie Parade at Kitcheners where women and femmes dominate the space, learn to be DJs and ultimately feel safe enough to enjoy hip hop in the way they want.
What is most inspiring is that we have a new generation of women working their way towards being Lee Kasumbas in their own right. That we can listen to Loot Love on a prime weekend slot on Metro FM and be reassured that our voices matter. Knowing that the idea of collaboration isn't discouraged, that there's room for all of us to eat and still have healthy competition. Knowing that women have the clout to achieve on the same scale as figures who previously took up all the space. It's about acknowledging that hip hop is ours enough for it to be something we feel entitled to enough to hand over.