Tino Foy had once published an article right here on PoiseSocial where he explored the relevance of culture in Cameroonian rap music. He briefly examined how it influences the lyrical composition of the music of every rap era. I have written on conscious music before and so has Tino, each one of us examining its relevance, importance and the public acceptance of that type of music.
Today, I want to be able to make us look at the intellectual side of rap music and to what extent it is part of the zeitgeist of today’s most visible Cameroonian rappers.
I have written extensively about the origin of rap on this platform, always focusing on its origin as a socio-political movement. My last article where I questioned Mboko as a movement is one of such articles.
I’ve explained that it started in the South Bronx neighbourhood of New York in the mid-70s. I’ve also explained how, Afrika Bambaataa, one of the very first rappers, formed what was called ‘The Zulu Nation’; a group of his neighbourhood kids that would meet regularly to do rap battles and perform at local shows, the aim being to keep the children away from drugs and gangs.
Rap music initially was mostly about EDUCATING young black people about their history and their present and how they could move out of their predicament. Thus, the music of many pioneer rappers were heavily political. Groups like Public Enemy and rapper, Melle Mel, directly confronted the establishment in their lyrics while later on in the 90s, West Coast rappers painted the plight of black people in lyrics that were heavy in drug and crime.
So rap music was gritty, hard, political, and until somewhere along the line it became materialistic. Unfortunately, it is this materialism that is embodied by most rappers of our day and age.
In 2014, I met a rather well-known rapper, whom I will not name, at a barbecue. It wasn’t long before our conversation gravitated towards rap. As we started talking, I began to realise that she had very little hip-hop culture. She knew nothing of how the movement started nor of eponymous groups and rappers of the late 80s and even early 90s like KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane, Mobb Deep or Das Efx. When she told me later that the “time of Valsero and Krotal had passed” and that she was about champagne and living the good life, I understood where she was coming from. I just could not take her seriously as a rapper after that.
I am not saying all rappers should be political. I am saying that, in my humblest of opinions, to be in the game, at some point, you have to be a teacher and a scholar. You have to be smart. You have to be able to make people go to google and research some stuff. You have to be able to push the boundaries of knowledge. And the best way to that is by imputing worthy cultural references in your lyrics.
In my last article on Tenor, I explained what an Iambic Pentameter is. Do you know who I first heard that from? – Tupac Shakur. He explained it in an interview.
Do you know Rick Ross? Not Rick Ross the rapper. The original Rick Ross. A drug dealer who reportedly made $300 million net profit in 1984. He was, however, a small cog in a large wheel. It was the height of the cold war and the CIA wanted to fight the communist regimes in South America notably in Guatemala where they sponsored the CONTRA rebels.
The American Congress did not want to fund another war. Not after the failure of the Vietnam War. So the CIA (with the backing of President Reagan) helped South American cocaine sellers to bring in cocaine and helped them sell it to Rick Ross. Rick Ross sold the high-end powder to rich white people; politicians and businessmen. While the residue from cocaine (called ‘crack’ cocaine) was sold in the inner cities where there were black neighbourhoods.
The same neighbourhoods where AfriKa Bambaataa (remember him?) and the Zulu Nation were trying to keep young black kids off drugs.
The effects of crack cocaine in black neighbourhoods were many; families broken up by drug abuse, mass incarceration of black people, and a high rate of HIV in young black men (the most infected group in the U.S till today).
It was 4 lines from a Jay Z song that made me know all these. You may know it. The song is called “Blue Magic.”
“Blame Reagan for making me into a monster
Blame Oliver North and Iran-Contra
I ran contraband that they sponsored
Before this rhyming stuff we was in concert”
(Notice the wordplay in the word ‘concert’)
I googled ‘Iran-Contra’ and I ended up spending one hour reading everything on the war on drugs in the 80s and early 90s from Rick Ross to Reaganomics to Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel.
That’s why this line from Jovi; “je suis en mode Kadji Beer, Il a fallu du temps” really made me happy.
The cultural reference there would take you through one of the most memorable TV adverts in Cameroon to one of the most astute businessmen this country has known, to how Jovi compares his growth and success to patience, like that taken to brew Kadji beer and by extension the same patience it took Gilbert Kadji to become a billionaire. If we document our history and culture correctly, 10 years from now a child who is 10 years old today should be able to google those particular Jovi lyrics and be able to see articles, videos, podcasts explaining the ins and outs of that particular song. But to come back to intellect…
It’s hard to find rappers in Cameroon today that challenge our intellect. Maybe it’s the culture generally. Maybe they have an audience that does not want to be challenged, I don’t know. But we are moving towards an area where rappers are more and more fixated on enthralling their audience with catchy punchlines and nothing else. The essence of their music leaves no space for tickling the intellect.
I remain stoic in the belief that rap culture should always at the very least maintain that part where it challenges its audience to push the boundaries of its intellect. And with the internet, it is even easier for this audience to find explanations. It is literally at their fingertips.
I feel, unfortunately, that too many rappers of our time do not really have a rap culture. They know the music but they do not understand it beyond the superficial part that creates an audience for them. Perhaps it’s also because they too are not well-read and therefore cannot give us anything beyond what they already know.
Kool G Rap, one of the most celebrated rap lyricist said: “You are only entertained to the level of your intelligence.” He could not have said it better.
– Wandji Wilfred.