A watershed moment in the relationship between Tanzanian Hip Hop and Pop/R&B came in 2015 with the release of Fid Q’s Bongo Hip Hop. The song, along with being a brilliant, furious reminder of all that is good about Kiswahili rap, was also a subtle disavowal. There had not been up until that point a major mainstream differentiation between to the two main strains of Bongo Flava. Both rap and pop held an equal claim to the name, and with the term so popular across East Africa, neither was looking to cede ground. The whole premise of another hit song a few years earlier, Muziki Gani by Diamond and Ney, was a tongue in cheek argument about which aspect of Bongo Flava is superior, the emcee or singer. But with Bongo Hip Hop Fid Q fully decouples Tanzanian rap from the pop behemoth it helped create. And in pained, yet defiant tones and an old school beat reaffirms his loyalty to the smaller, more pioneering genre he helped solidify, while evaluating its increasing displacement on a music scene thriving beyond all expectation.
There can be little doubt that Hip Hop is the place where Tanzanian pop music first found footing. During the 1980s, with the music scene dominated by instrument and production heavy jazz infused soukous music from Congo and West Africa the nature of Hip Hop must be a breath of fresh air. Artists and bands popular at that time such as Franco, TPOK Jazz and Les Wanyika, were virtuosos; they inspired admiration, brought joy but were ultimately inimitable. The brand of DIY self-esteem running through many of the earliest efforts of Tanzanian Hip Hop at that same time suggests a scene that had been awaiting a musical outlet that was more democratic and cathartic. Unlike many places, Hip Hop in Tanzania was adopted not as counter-culture, or anything anti-establishment, but as a dance crazy nation’s quick route to musical fulfilment and self-expression.
It’s no surprise then that some of the first efforts, such Blast Nuff by Hard Blasters were painfully derivative. Foreboded a short-lived industry of American knockoffs. But the genre soon changed, and thrived, on the back of an important, if obvious, innovation. Kiswahili Lyrics.
Vowel heavy, humor-driven and image laden, Kiswahili is a language built for rhymed delivery. The next wave of Hip Hop artists such as Hasheem Dogo, Mr II and Kwanza Unit all used Kiswahili lyrics. The songs were not hits in the classic sense, a tune like Hasheem Dogo’s Saa za Kazi, while good, didn’t travel well. But the collaborative and independent spirit of the genre lead to further experiments and refinement, and eventually the establishment of the first studios catering to youth-oriented music such as Mawingu studios, under DJ Bonnie Luv in 1994, whose Msela, coming that same year, bought Hip Hop fully into the mainstream by marrying sleek production, fast rhymes and catchy melodies in one of the earliest iterations of what over the next decade would come to be known as Bongo Flava. In perhaps a shot at the bigger, touring bands. The more traditional, instrument-based music considered worthy recognition at the time one of the rhymes says, Bongo natumia ubongo…nawala sina hamu yakupanda denge….I’m in Dar, I use my brain and have no need to get on an airplane. But get on airplane was exactly what Bongo Flava was about to do.
Fast forward to the early 2000s and such music was a staple on radio and on television. Clouds FM, founded in 1999 in response to the growing demand for youthful Hip Hop music was growing from strength to strength. East Africa television established in 2002 became the first free to air channel catering almost wholly to music videos. The confluence of Hip Hop talent channelled through these mediums was almost too numerous to count; around the same time saw the emergence of AY and Mwana FA through their East Coast Army collective. A thriving rap scene in Mwanza threw up a certain Fid Q. Almost two decades after Hard Blasters, one their members, Professor Jay was enjoying massive cross-border success with Nikusadiaje . While one of Bonnie’s Luv’s protégés, Pfunk, discovered Juma Nature through his own imprint Bongo Music culminating in a classic hit, Hakuna Kulala, that brought Bongo Flava to Africa wide attention. Hip hop peaked as must listen to genre with the success of his TMK crew, that was for a time the most popular group in Tanzania. And the crest in a cumulative wave of talent through this period that ingrained the industry with a self-assurance that was key to everything that came later.
The trouble for Hip Hop perhaps started with media consumption splintering into ever more avenues. Up until the middle 2000s, artists had used their music as a means of collective expression. The joy of Hip Hop came from being played within a group, on the radio or on tv and laughing and commiserating with some of the lyrics. But with the coming of downloads and music mobile phones name recognition and brand loyalty became crucial to the acquiring and consumption of music. The pop singers, those like Alikiba, whose early songs were reliant on features, quickly recalibrated, reinventing themselves in costly videos. While Hip Hop, on the whole, has failed to fully adjust.
Thus the struggle of Hip Hop in contemporary Tanzania is so often the struggle of artists still trying to fully individualize themselves from one another, and step away from a collectiveness that had once been their biggest strength. It is no longer enough now to be part of a scene or crew, and paramount for an artist to be available, to self-promote and court their own attention. For some, such as Ney wa Mitego, this has meant going after contemporaries in songs such as Salaam Zao, others such as AY and Mwana FA , this has led to regular collaborations with Bongo Flava artists in songs such as Zigo and Dume Suluari, while Roma and Kala have taken the social critique route with songs such as Nchi ya Ahadi.
Fid Q himself is undecided, veering from old school with Bongo Hip Hip to something distinctly Bongo Flava in Roho. But with such a reputation he can afford to be. For others such as Stamina, Godzilla, Young Killah, Izzo Bizness the same sort of indecision and desire to experiment has found fan loyalty hard to come by in face of mainstream Bongo Flava’s more streamlined product.
Nevertheless, the legacy of Tanzanian rap is assured. All of the big artists such as Diamond, Ali Kiba, Rayvanny, Rich Mavoko, Barnaba grew up taking for granted that music in Kiswahili could be popular and never doubting the Dar-es-salaam aesthetic, never feeling that somehow their country was not camera ready. And neither did anybody else. To a large extent Tanzania’s entire cultural assurance, the confidence driving its music to Continental heights, was brought on the back of Hip Hop. On the pioneering spirit of those early musicians who acted upon and lived on their passion and the producers who supported them. Without whom there would surely be no Bongo Flava at all.
Featured Image Credit: Djwanga.com