Gabriel Rasenyai is a Botswana artist with as many names as he has persona’s. Most of the time he goes by the name Quaint, but is also known as The Faceless Artist and Spirit Strength the Savvy Savage. When he is not working as an IT specialist at the University of Botswana, he seamlessly transitions between disseminating socially conscious messages in his poetry and hip-hop, and burying other emcees in mountains of perfectly crafted insults as one of the country’s most promising battle rappers. But above all, whatever he is calling himself at the time, he seems set on a singular mission—to bring back the spontaneity, purity and competition of old school hip hop.
Quaint is leading this revival in a number of ways. During my time here in Gaborone, I have seen my fair share of rap cyphers—spontaneous group freestyles—but Quaint claims that they were far more frequent when he was emerging into the hip-hop scene ten years ago. To bring that back, Quaint has organized fortnightly cyphers in different spots around town. The goal of the project is to get young people appreciating the power of an underground where voices can converge and address social issues while emcees can hone their skills.
And it works. At the first edition of Quaint’s “Wordsmith & Wesson City Cyphers,” I saw both familiar faces and bright young emergent stars on the scene, using their turn around the cypher to subvert political authority, shine light on their society’s shortcomings and bare souls that are not happy with the state of things. A tight-knit community of hip-hop activists fostered by the creative spirit of cyphers has always been a crucial foundation of hip-hop around the world. It breeds a unified feeling of belonging to something exclusive in its adoption of the streets with a disproportionately large effect on society and the youth. Quaint sees this camaraderie missing and is taking active steps to re-engage and revitalize it.
But there is another part of hip-hop that takes up most of Quaint’s time these days. I first met Quaint at a small, nondescript venue in Main Mall, appropriately named The Room. He was pacing on the balcony, preparing for a rap battle—the first one I had witnessed in Gaborone—against the formidable dEEnyc. In the months prior to that night in March, Quaint had started cutting his teeth in the more established South African rap battle scene, spearheaded by a national league called Scrambles 4 Money. His skills, honed down south, showed through as Quaint effortlessly dominated the battle round after round.
Like much of modern hip-hop, rap battling has roots in griot storytelling traditions in West Africa and the transatlantic slave trade. More recently, the practice of using wordplay and social critique to insult an opponent can be traced back to picong in 19th century Trinidadian calypso and toasting in Jamaica. It then made its way to New York City in the late 1970’s, and in the decade since, traveled back to Africa and around the world, where it has taken the form of national and regional battle rap competitions.
Quaint sees this facet of hip-hop conspicuously missing from his home country of Botswana and so has worked with the Botswana Hip-Hop Association to bring back its importance. With the introduction of Botswana’s first rap and dance battle leagues—the Warzone and the Drop, respectively—Quaint and the Association have revived interest in a practice that is at the root of the braggadocio and competition found in hip-hop. At these nascent stages of Botswana battle rap, Quaint has preferred to not participate in the Warzone competition and instead to first work on nurturing the scene so new talent can develop.
As Quaint sees it, battle rap is not just about “merking” your rival and being the best at using words, metaphor and rhyme to leave your opponent speechless. To him, it is also a crucial form of creative expression and a productive outlet for frustration, anger and dissatisfaction. This dynamic was clear at the Warzone in early September, as the participants often used obscure social and political references to leave their opponents in the dust. To an outside eye or ear, the profanity and lack of political correctness can be off-putting. But look and listen a little more deeply and you will see youth expression and grassroots community building at its best.
So check out the video, following Quaint as he tries to bring the best of the old school to life and unites different generations of emcees through battle rap and parking-lot cyphers, featuring pioneering legends and new-breed whippersnappers alike. Stay tuned for more extensive footage of The Drop and The Warzone on my Vimeo page in the weeks to come.
Written by Sebastian Modak, Fulbright MTVU Scholar currently in Botswana.