Arguably, it would be correct to point out Jean Grae as Africa’s most accomplished export to the bastion of hip hop. Born in South Africa as Tsidi Ibrahim, her budding talent germinated and flourished in the rap mecca of New York city where she was raised. This daughter of South African jazz musician Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand) didn’t hone her skills in the elite Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Performing Arts in Manhattan where she majored in vocal performance; her sublime lyrical skills have been cultivated by experience and talent that sought creative expression from 1996 until now.
Jean Grae’s rapping ability is such that she is NOT your quintessential female emcee but a rhyming veteran that can spit rings around most of the contemporary male rappers today. If she is not the best femcee there is, she’s within spitting distance of that title. Watch Jean Grae here.
The notion of the African femcee is inextricably linked to the equally important but totally separate concept of the African woman. The world has changed dramatically since the days of Queen Latifah and MC Lyte and the femcee is on rap’s endangered species list. However this dearth of capable female rappers or universally acknowledged femcees in the mold of Latifah et al was further impacted by the decline in the commercial viability of rap music in the United States in 2005. By 2006 no rap albums were among the top ten sellers in 2006.
This same period coincided with the rapid development of indigenous African hip hop since the same disaffection with the lyrical content and uber materialistic philosophy of hip hop spread through African suburbs and ghettos like it was a pathogen designed by the Umbrella Corp and codenamed the ‘souljahboykillmenow-X1’ . Forget Milla Jovovich, rap needed an intervention-a queen bee to beam down from the mother ship to the Motherland. If only…
‘L’art pour l’art’ or Art for arts sake works pretty well if you are French or living in one of the so called socialist paradises of Europe. In reality, in Africa time is money, studio sessions/money, beat makers/money, producer/money, even the power supply is a constant variables that has an effect on your ability to climb to the top of the food chain. So if the odds are that daunting for the guys, what about the ladies? This is where the concept of the African woman rears it’s pretty little head. Neal Postman wrote in his book ‘Amusing ourselves to death’ his belief : that the attention span of humans is decreasing as modern technology, especially television, increases.
The African woman is almost always historically ignored anyway and her dreams, hopes and aspirations are a mystery not only to her sons and fathers and lovers but also to the world itself. Her tale is spun by others as part of a universal tale of feminine dis-empowerment that only manages to capture the attention of a few while to the majority, it’s just so much ‘White noise‘ (pun intended).
It was Dr Claudette Carr who said the beauty of Blitz the Ambassador is that he breaks down a mostly inaccessible debate on African development through hip hop. The discussion veered towards the referencing of the IMF (International Monetary Fund) in his rhymes and it was enlightening to note that the IMF is more likely to be keynoted by South Americans, Latin Americans and people from other places, the organization’s shadowy imprint is an existential fact of their daily life. If we hold it to be true that the sum total of a man is his experience minus his vanity then where do we place the sum total of the female experience and by extension the African woman’s experience? Because only by acknowledging its worth then can one’s attention be caught, the artistic goals fulfilled and cash registers ultimately ring.
Africa’s next top femcee has to battle against entrenched institutional bias and mind blowing B.S. in order to get a foothold in a very male dominated industry, but she is battling in an arena that is sympathetic to the skills she brings to the table. K’Naan, Blitz, Sarkodie, Nneka and M.I. are not all there is or should be to this global conversation surrounding the signs and times of hip-hopdom, Africa has an embarrassment of riches to offer in terms of topical variety and ability.
Sebastian Mordak is a American writer/musician/film maker currently living in Botswana on a Fulbright- MTVU Fellowship, he unearthed a lot of jewels in his search discovering and charting the new creative frontiers in rap music around the world. Discovering the next blessed purveyors of thought and the spoken word able to hold the world captive, one of such pearls is Mandisa Mabuthoe from Gaborone, Botswana whose ‘Ribbons to Bind My Hair‘ is reproduced below. Read, ponder and imagine if Africa’s Next Top Femcee was to put pen to paper – surely she would produce words and emotions such as these:
Ribbons to Bind My Hair
I’m not so twisted anymore
I’m looking for ribbons to bind my hair
I cant be the fairest of them all
I cant be so loose like Cinderella
I am not going to sugarcoat the witch hunt
I am not waiting to be rescued
I think I’m waiting to be born
But these days its not so twisted anymore
Because the villains and the princesses
They all get paid the same
The poets and the Princes
They all sound the same
Dreamy and twisted and far away from pleasure
Reckless and rebellious and far away from home
Looking for complicated ribbons and strings
to bind my tongue
but these days I’m not so twisted like a robe
I cant be too soft and thick
My skins gone thin against the bone
But I’m not so shackled anymore
And its not so hard to walk away
Not to forbidden things I don’t regret
Not to broken promises and biscuits and fairy tales
I wont forget
Rays of light untie the ribbons that bind my feet
Red ribbons to lace up my tattered boots
Pink ribbons to hide all the purple hues
So no one knows Ive been abused
Orange ribbons the slippery kind
So as not to confine my wings the day
[I’m ready to find]the day
I’m ready to fly