Sounds of the South: the Hip Hop Caravan

by Jan 21, 2013Magazine

Sounds of the South (SOS) is a cultural movement based in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township that uses hip hop to fight against oppression They talked to Amandla! about their new project, the Afrikan Hip Hop Caravan, an educational and musical exploration that will take SOS to six African cities in February and March, traveling from the collective’s South African base to the 2013 World Social Forum in Tunisia.

Since hip hop was born on the streets of the Bronx in New York City in the 1970s, it has grown into both a global cultural movement and a billion-dollar industry.

Hip hop is more than just its iconic “four elements” – rapping, DJing, breakdancing and graffiti – it’s a way of communicating, a lifestyle, it’s fashion and art, a mode of self-expression that has captured the imagination of people around the world, particularly marginalised youth .Hip hop has gone through numerous shifts in style and content from its emergence as dance music, through the rap battles that display of MCs virtuosity on the mic and pride in the often hardscrabble neighbourhoods they come from, and expanded outwards into brilliant documentaries of urban streets blighted by drugs, poverty and systemic neglect, and gangsta posturing celebrating the criminal underdogs who reign over them.

In the late 1980s, a generation of hip hop artists emerged who were committed to radical politics and a critique of institutional racism and the marginalisation of black youth in American society. Acts like Public Enemy, KRS-1 and others presented music one could listen to for enjoyment but which also carried a highly loaded political message of eloquent rage at a system which excluded and dispossessed black youth.

This era, was later overshadowed by the better-selling controversy of gangsta rap, left its mark half a world away on the Cape Flats, inspiring a generation of artists such as Brasse Van die Kaap and Black Noise who used this new youth culture to speak to their own realities in the ghettos of Cape Town. Sounds of the South continues this tradition in the sprawling township of Khayelitsha

For SOS, music and street art are both an arena of struggle and a tool employed to describe their environment and create an emergent political consciousness among poor and working class youth. SOS attempts to use hip hop to both speak to the aspirations of poor and working class youth, and to wrest the music from the clutches of a nihilistic materialism which ignores the lived realities of South Africa’s youth in the ghettos of neo-apartheid and capitalist exploitation. For the Khayelitsha collective, art and music are strictly political and music – as it did for the original generation of political MCs and street reporters – draws deeply and directly on the experiences and struggles of South Africa’s working class.

There is a rich tradition of political art and music in this country, stretching from the jazz of the likes of Abdullah Ibrahim to such legends as Miriam Makeba. SOS attempts to wage struggle in the arena of culture by forming a radical political culture capable of building new movements and strengthening existing ones like the PYM (Progressive Youth Movement) in Khayelitsha. They hold regular film screenings, slams, graffiti – always centred around the working class challenging an order which exploits and dehumanises it. Hip hop is a method of speaking to people ignored by an exclusionary, alienated and increasingly distant political and popular culture.

‘Hip Hop is our (SOS) reality’, says SOS That’s why their vision is one of a truly liberated society. ‘Hip Hop is toyi toyi-ing’, they say, meaning it is a form of resistance.

‘It’s not just a song and dance. There are a lot of progressive people in our community but they need to be brought together so we can devise means of resisting the dominant culture.’

It’s way of trying to build a counter culture to the drugs and alcohol that plague a lot of youth in the ghetto. Passivity won’t lead to change, ‘so we go out onto the streets, and demand basic services, fight unemployment…’

As a global phenomenon, hip hop has been hijacked by elitist ideas, consumerism and a vapid bling-bling culture. The currently dominant artists in the game like Lil’ Wayne, Rick Ross and Drake sell escapist fantasy that loves money, hates women, and plays out its storylines in a world of expensive cars and gangster postures far removed from the truth of life on the streets. Many artists invent back stories to sell themselves, trying to secure their authenticity by pretending to have had expansive criminal careers.

The African Hip Hop Caravan aims to return hip hop to its roots in politicised reality. Fifteen members of multiple artistic collectives will attempt a mammoth odyssey from Cape Town to Tunis, an ambitious undertaking they believe they have both the political will and the organisational skills to achieve.

It’s a truly pan-Africanist project which aims to unify the experiences of activists across Africa’s many borders. The project gains added urgency in the wake of last year’s uprisings and revolutions in North Africa.

Live performances in both working class areas and city centres are planned, to make sure the caravans musicians and street artists interact with the poor and working people who are engaged in daily social struggles. At the core of the planned events lies a set of egalitarian principles in which people participate on a strictly equal basis. SOS sees no division between artists and audience. The music will instead serve as a means of creating discussion.

The Caravan hopes to connect with other working class hip hop heads from overseas, including veteran radical acts like Dead Prez and the Co up, in order to both share lessons from their own experience in Cape Town and learn from such hip hop veterans.

The whole journey will be recorded in the form of a book and a mixtape to provide evidence of the potential of hip hop as a means of struggle.

‘It’s about recovering the roots of the music and the movement. If we can trace our roots, we can speak against domination, oppression and exploitation. And in that way, we will all carry the education of the new generation.’

If we are to realise the dream of a truly liberated South African and world, we need to find a lan guage which speaks across borders and the divisions created by capitalist society. Hip hop and music in general is such a language, it’s a way of creating a vibrant and critical political element in popular culture and speaking to poor and working class youth in their own language. Such a vision is contained in the musical vision of the original gener al of political MCs and South Africa’s own rich history of music as part of the struggle.

SOS needs your help! We invite Amandla readers to assist us in building strong organic links amongst communities of activists and artists. A successful caravan is our vision. We need technical equipment, coordination, administration, finances and accommodation for the visiting artists from around the world. In addition, we are looking for artists, activists and scholars who are interested in participating in the symposia or performances in the different cities. If you want to get involved, contact and see Facebook @ Afrikan Hiphop Caravan.

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