Live from Zimbabwe
by Mikal “The Hired Gun” Lee
(Edited by Magee)
When I was asked by Nomadic Wax and Magamba to be one of the headline performers for a week-long festival in Harare, Zimbabwe, they didn’t have to ask me twice. I was excited not only for the chance to check for some fresh new artists, but to actually visit the continent of Africa for the first time. My bag was packed before I hung up the phone. The only thing I knew about Zimbabwean hip hop was the groundbreaking group Zimbabwe Legit. I had collaborated with one of the group’s members, Akim Funk Buddha, now a staple to the New York City underground hip hop community. Nomadic Wax had also helped me pair up with his partner, and younger brother, Dumi Right for other collaborations as well. Zimbabwe Legit, which debuted in 1992, is probably the single most recognized hip hop group of all time that came from Zim (signed to Hollywood Basic, DJ Shadow got his first break doing a b-side remix for them), as they were one of the first African hip hop groups from any country to sign a major label deal in the United States. But besides them, the Zimbabwe hip hop scene was a complete mystery to me.
Upon my arrival to Harare, I was picked up at the airport by Comrade Fatso, along with Lena Jackson the cinematographer from Nomadic Wax who was there to document the event. We weaved through the streets of Harare under the cover of night, going from the outer township areas into a bustling metropolis. With a population of about 2 million, Harare is roughly the size of Brooklyn. Contrary to what the rest of the world might think, Harare is modern, bustling and busy. Cars whiz past on the wide, tree-lined avenues, and the shopping malls are filled with people.
Hip hop is not something new to Zimbabwe, although one could say it’s been overlooked. The country, formerly known as Rhodesia, actually has all the ingredients for a thriving hip hop culture: a history of social and civil unrest, a large underprivileged class, and a rich heritage of art and music. Unfortunately, much of the country’s talent has not had the platform to get the shine it deserves. Enter the Shoko International Spoken Word and Hip Hop Festival. The festival is the brainchild of two of Zim’s most recognized artists: Comrade Fatso & Outspoken the Humble Neophyte. Both of these artists are also the co-founders of the Magamba Cultural Activist Network, a non-profit organization dedicated to youth development and the arts in Harare. Magamba is responsible for Mashoko, the monthly open mic series that had laid the groundwork for the festival, the first of its kind in Zimbabwe.
Both artists are known for their live stage shows and outspoken political stances. Comrade Fatso and his band, Chabvondoka, released the album “House of Hunger” in 2008 which was praised internationally but banned by the Zimbabwean authorities because of its political critiques. The image of Fatso probably isn’t what most think of first when they think African; a native of the country, he’s Caucasian with a mohawk and an Afro-British accent. His partner-in-crime Outspoken is a tall, soft spoken African with dreads, Fu Manchu mustache. Both have a deep love for their country. The two are unique amongst many other Zimbabwean artists as they have been able to tour sporadically in Europe and the United States (Nomadic Wax co-organized their first US tour. Check the tour video.), putting them at the vanguard of their country’s hip hop and spoken word movement. Nomadic Wax put together this nice little documentary short entitled ‘H-Town Hip Hop’ on Out, Fatso, and other independent Zimbabwean artists.
With some international touring under their belts, Fatso and Out started work on the Shoko Festival in part to re-introduce the world to hip hop from Zimbabwe, and to further open the space for fellow Zim artists to advance. “Hip hop in Zimbabwe has long been suppressed due to its socially critical nature,” Fatso told me. ”Power fears art that is defiant. But we’ve been building this movement now for years with Magamba and have seen the growth of a new generation of spoken word and hip hop artists and activists committed to social change. Through putting on Zim’s leading spoken word and hip hop event, the monthly Mashoko, as well as launching the Shoko Festival, I believe we have created spaces for rebellious, cutting edge art to thrive, grow and demand space!”
It is no wonder the tag line for Magamba is “Our Word Is Our Weapon.” To fully understand the mission of not only the festival, but of many Zimbabwean artists, you first have to understand the realities faced by Zimbabweans. Government repression and isolation from the world press has left a country filled with young voices aching to be heard. Graff writers Phar-I and Sphinx shared their experiences of being hunted by cops because authorities thought their tags were those of rival political parties. Sphinx actually claimed this potentially deadly misunderstanding pushed his art to a new level as it forced him to paint full pieces, as opposed to simple tags, in order to to make sure paranoid policemen would never mistake his murals as rival campaign slogans. The Shoko Festival itself is designed to help build the community of artists in Zim in the face of challenges like these.
Shoko means ‘word’ in Shona. It is the country’s first spoken word and hip hop festival, and in a country like Zimbabwe, just the fact that an event like this was allowed to take place at all is a big deal. On day one of the festival, I got to hop into my first Zimbabwean cipher, which happened to be in the parking lot of the legendary Book Cafe (which since the late ‘90’s has been a flashpoint for individuals to exercise free expression in a political landscape marred by oppression).
From jump, I could see that Harare was full of hungry emcees, and this was not the first freestyle cipher to be held on the asphalt of the Book Cafe’s parking lot. Reminiscent of the now famous Washington and Union Square park ciphers in New York City, I watched as emcees traded multilingual punchlines, (one of the standouts, Cheetah, remarked he wouldn’t be done till he had Rihanna speaking Shona) and metaphors over the amazing beat-boxing from a Bulawayo-based artist named Aero5.ol.
As the circle grew, Aero5.ol would trade off production duties to spit his own rawness. The excitement in the cipher was infectious. For these young emcees, every stage and cipher was an opportunity to represent. Unassuming in his small pea-green cap, Aero5.ol described Zimbabwean hip hop with these words: “the spoken word scene was birthed in part by our interaction with movements based in Harare, Uhuru, Magamba and The Book Cafe. People started to organize spoken word/hip hop events and movements like Initiative Arts and the Kingdom of Cyphers, and then [cypher] heads grew from that. I think hip hop in this time must be a tool for organizing community. One of its greatest strengths is its ability to empower, activate and inform segments of society that would otherwise remain powerless and misinformed.”
Zimbabwe is the sleeping giant on a continent that has seen its share of recognition in the global hip hop market (it was only four years ago, that Senegal was ranked as the #3 hip hop market in the world behind the U.S. and France – see the film ‘Democracy in Dakar’…). Zimbabwean emcee Upmost further explained, “I think Zimbabwean hip hop has been around since the early 90′s. In fact when hip hop in the States was in its ‘Golden Era’ [1994-96], the underground movement here was just as good in terms of content. But at that time, it did not have the privilege of being exposed to a larger audience as the radio station [there is only one station in Zimbabwe that plays urban music] was flooded with US and Europe chart music.” Out of that fog emerged crews like Dialectric Blue, a live hip hop mix that combines serious content, old fashion fun and razor sharp tongues. Upmost continues, “This generation of emcees and DJs were part of the economic exodus that robbed the country of lots of skilled people. Crews like Black Foot Tribe, Zimbabwe Legit, Katalyzim, and Hardcore all ended up spreading out into the diaspora without really documenting the history before they left—leaving the next generation to become the new foundation.”
The granite of this new foundation is now the Shoko Festival. For the first time, emcees, b-boys (Zimbabwe’s B-boy team, House of Stonez, represented Zim in last year’s B-Boy World Championship), and graff heads in Zimbabwe have a central place to congregate and a platform to get their voices heard on a larger level. And with Nomadic Wax documenting everything, the performances can be broadcasted to the rest of the world as well. You can watch all the concerts and workshops held at the 2011 Shoko Festival here and the documentary on the festival itself here.
Everyone from across the country had come out for Shoko. Production crew Ill Immigrantz, consisting of beat makers OP and Cheeko, actually transported their studio, complete with a sixteen track mixing board, to the festival in the hopes of recording as many of the heads over their production as possible. Cheeko pulled me aside and asked me to “follow him” into the Alliance Française building, one of the venues for the festival. Op and Cheeko had set up their portable studio in a 5th floor classroom. The mic booth had been created from spare tables, chairs and cushions. A communal and entrepreneurial approach, the room was quickly full of emcees
One of the crews who has taken up that mantle to get the word out is King Kraal Republic. Formed in 2010, the group is made up of Trevor Ncube (film-maker), Tswarelo Mothobe (Poet/Artistic Facilitator) and Naboth ‘RIZLA’ Rimayi (freelance journalist). Hailing from its second city Bulawayo (also considered Zimbabwe’s artistic capitol), the crew has been one of the few broadcast beacons for Zimbabwe. The crew boasts collective connections with other local heavyweights Ill Immigrantz and POY, as well as putting out “Da Grape Vine” (check it out here), an online news source for all things African hip hop with a heavy focus on Zimbabwe and South Africa. Rizla echoed some of Upmost’s sentiments: “I personally feel Zimbabwean hip hop is on it’s way to becoming the force that a lot of people knew it to be 10 years back. The artists are slowly taking it upon themselves to make sure that they bring out their best products by all means necessary.” Watch King Kraal Republic’s Shoko Festival performance here.
P.O.Y. (an acronym that stands for Proud of You) is another local artist who combines a lyricist’s flow and a hustler’s spirit with the swag of the States but none of the gangster posturing. The optimism of his name also reflected the sentiments he had for his community of artists in Zim, “Hip hop is going places in Zimbabwe because it is getting bigger and better as more artists are emerging and the people are getting to understand the hip hop more.”
Crews like Ghetto Youth Project, featuring Biko and his partner Shadow, are Harare’s answer to Public Enemy and the X-Clan. On the second night of the main stage shows, they emerged in all black, with berets reminiscent of a Young Huey Newton spitting with the ferocity of H. Rap Brown in both English and Shona (Watch their set here). Their music focuses on the reclaiming of self, community and making no apologies in their criticism of the systems that their people have been under. Biko in particular is an emcee whose brash stance and melodic flow made him stand out on the Shoko stage as one of Zim’s brightest and most interesting stars. In the earlier cipher, he was the first and one of the few to switch from English to Shona. A veteran in the scene in Zim, he also hosted the Shoko Poetry Slam that would happen the following day. The biggest thing you walk away from when you hear the artists from Zimbabwe is the diversity in their styles, and the emphasis on lyricism. More than one person commented on the emcees ability to spit not only in two languages but also the dexterity of their flows.
In Harare, there are two pillars that hold down the art community: the Book Cafe and the Mannenberg. On the second level of the local shopping plaza, and set right across from one another separated by a balcony, these two rooms have been the lone spaces where freedom of expression are practiced openly, maybe in the whole country. The second night of the festival featured The Slam Poetry Express at The Mannenberg. Local legends such Xapa and Biko stood alongside worldwide poets such as Tim Mwaura from Kenya and Mischael-Sarim of Germany. Save for the various languages, you would have thought you were sitting in the famed Nuyorican Poetry Cafe if your eyes were closed. While she ultimately didn’t win, it was clear Xapa was the local favorite and most popular with the crowd. With waist length dreads and flowing garb, she looked every bit the image of a high priestess that her regal words conjured. Kilobyte, Aero5.ol, Blaq Pearl, and Flo Child also participated in the competition. The subjects ranged from love, peace, hope, and on to some of the harsher realities of life in Zimbabwe over the past few years. The words and message were oftentimes heavy even if the energy and mood were light. You can watch the entire Slam in two parts here – Part 1 and Part 2 - and decide for yourself who you think should have won first prize. One of my favorite poems was the hip hop odyssey piece “The Sayer” by local underground staple Synik. Watch him kill it here.
The last two nights of the festival brought everyone to Alliance Française and the King Pinn Main Stage, named for a famous and tragically slain emcee. In addition to myself, Akala from the UK, Tumi & The Volume out of South Africa and Andreattah Chuma from Botswana were headliners (Watch the full sets here: Akala, Tumi & The Volume, my set, and Andreattah Chuma). I closed my set with a poem that is a riff off Allen Ginsberg poem “Howl.” Akala, whom I’d befriended early on in the trip, rocked Shoko with the help of Fatso’s band and his own DJ, DJ Surgeon (who is actually a practicing surgeon in Great Britain). A ridiculous emcee, historian and educator, his music and message combine with skills that are undeniable (Watch his Shoko Festival lecture here). He easily pushed the crowd to dizzying heights with a flow that clocked in at Twista-speed levels at certain points. In stark contrast, award winning Botswana-based poet Andreattah Chuma held it down with poise and eloquence (Watch her Shoko Festival lecture here).
The Monkey Nutz, a group that also featured Synik, played the role of hometown heroes alongside Upmost, Fatso, POY, and others. As much as this was an international festival, the show belonged to them. Monkey Nutz showed their artistic range with hard electronic rhythms from a MacBook Pro, then switching straight to old school flavor with guest spots from Aero5.ol beat boxing and Synik killing the mic. Comrade Fatso, UpMost, and Outspoken showed exactly why they’d been at the forefront of Zimbabwe’s hip hop community the past several years with full-on bands, polished stage shows, and a crowd that knew all the words to their music. One of my favorite sets was actually from early on in the night when a young emcee going by the name of T.Shoc, despite a short set, ripped the stage with some very political and heartfelt songs. Watch here.
The finale, truly was the best for last. Tumi & the Volume, the seminal hip hop band from South Africa brought Shoko to its feet and knees at the same time. As an emcee, Tumi is a combination of skill, voice, and poet. His band has the chops for any groove. The hour plus set had all of the boom bap head nod, hard rock bop, and fight the power energy that you’d expect from one of the most traveled and well known bands on the continent. As representatives from South Africa, the group also provided a glimpse of what could be on the horizon for Zim, a uniquely African hip hop group who is steadily gaining international respect, who called the country just to the south of Zim home.
After the sweat drenching set by Tumi, the 2011 Shoko Festival closed out in true hip hop fashion with a cipher. As the headliners, performers and some of the local heads came to the stage, I realized the love had truly come full circle. Harare, and Zim as a whole, truly has a hip hop community, one filled with amazing talent and people dedicated to growing together. Reflecting back on the experience, it seemed to me that over the four days, Zimbabwe got a glimpse into its own artistic future. It is a community of artists who are ready to be seen, heard, and now cannot be denied. Even still, there is more work to be done. Throughout the festival, I spoke with many artists who felt that there needed to be more access provided to the outer township areas and not just Harare proper.
As a community, Zimbabwe still faces the challenges of building a commercial infrastructure to get the music and artists both seen and heard. It was evident though that Zim is brimming with optimism, talent, and determination to be recognized on the continent, and in the world as a leader of this global cultural movement that we now consider “Hip Hop.” All in all, Zimbabwe’s first Spoken Word & Hip Hop Festival has set a new bar for the local arts scene, and for similar festivals elsewhere. Magamba’s Shoko Festival has only just begun the conversation regarding where Zimbabwe’s hip hop community goes next.
Preparations for the 2012 festival began almost immediately after the close of the first. The upcoming 2012 festival’s theme is “Take Over the Town.” Magamba is looking to take the appropriate next steps by more formally connecting with the outer townships around Harare, as well as representing all aspects of the culture as a whole. Building on the success of the 2011 festival, and revitalizing the roots of its own history, Magamba is primed to blow with its second annual Shoko Festival. There is no question that in Zim, words – and for that matter music – are truly the weapon of choice.
Watch all the workshops, lectures, and performances from the 2011 Shoko Festival here.
Watch the official documentary on the Festival itself here.
Watch this documentary short on the Magamba and their work with youth in Zim here.
Watch this short documentary on hip hop in general in Harare, and catch a lot of freestyle footage here.