2012 was a year in a pivotal era in African music, and just music in general. It was a time marking a great shift in the mentality of musicians across the world. They had finally come to terms with the fact that the big dogs that they were had very little bark against the piracy and large scale copyright infringement that had started plaguing the music industry since Sean Parker introduced the world to Napster in 2002.
Musicians understood that they either had to embrace technology, or get obliterated by it. For the struggling African musical composer, the technological boom of the early to late 2000s was manna from heaven. The price of personal computers was falling, and bootlegged music production software like Fruity Loops were widely available.
Students in their dorm rooms started trying their hand at these software programmes, and began compos
ing beats. In Buea, music acts like Dr. Kapt, Fluri Boyz, Sango Edi, and Denzyl (now Ambe) were born from these experimentations. This snowballed into eventually into the neo-urban music that eventually took off in 2013 when Stanley Enow loudly announced its arrival with “Hein Père” and which we live in today. Everything changed after that.
By 2014, TRACE Africa, the music channel, had become largely popular. Smartphones and 4G were not in the common man’s vocabulary quite yet, and so to have your song featured on the channel was to be sure to have a large audience across Francophone Africa watching you. Competition was minimal, many people were still trying to refine their sound and so if you released a musical project that was of a decent quality and had good visuals, you were almost sure to have your song featured in their lineup. Today, you will have to work 5 times as hard to get that opportunity. In the meantime, the popularity of TRACE has waned as falling data costs and greater access to smartphones has pushed many musicians to rely on their personal digital channels and social media to build their own communities and market to them directly. Having a video on TRACE Africa today is still considered prestigious but certainly does not hold the sway it once did.
And what about the audience? Those born from the early 80s to the mid 90s will gladly tell you about how channels like MCM and Channel O greatly shaped their musical ear. These two channels were for a long time what this generation was exposed to in terms of musical import. And these two channels put rap and RnB on heavy rotation; and the influence of this was very, very heavy on this group of young Africans. And so when the people of this generation thought about music, rap and RnB were often the very first musical genre they thought of. No doubt they wanted to look as cool as their idols; LL Cool J, Nas, DMX, Mc Solaar, Kool Shen etc
And so some rap acts from the early 2000s like Zomloa Familia, XLM Squad, VBH and Big Bizzy showed a heavy influence from American hip hop. Their mannerism, dressing, accent, and rap style, and especially their sound was heavily reminiscent of that.
Meanwhile hip-hop acts like Krotal and Ak Sang Grave who started out with that typical American style branched out to incorporate a more traditional Cameroonian sonority to their rap sound. Krotal in particular helped shape and popularize this sound. It can be heard in songs like Jamais, Vert Rouge, Koppo‘s Hommage à Foe, Bantou Posi‘s “Jameyi” and even in Jahmissa‘ “K-meroun kel image.”
For a short while, these two worlds co-existed, but things eventually gravitated towards the Krotal sound; and Camfranglais rap, made popular by Koppo also greatly helped shape and define what could be called the Cameroonian rap sound and identity.
This was between 2004 and 2010. Cameroonian rap could be said to be doing well especially given the difficult creative environment the country was giving these rappers. Rap-focused programmes grew on popular media channels. Canal 2 had its programmes headed by Tony Nobody. On STV, Tito Valery helped to push the genre. On FM105 in Douala, Nabil Fongod was also doing his part. A soft drink company organized rap and RnB competitions on TV. The urban music industry did it’s best to thrive and survive in the era of piracy and strong competition from Coupé Decalé from Ivory Coast.
It was tough, very tough. But the urban music industry that was driven by rap and RnB (remember Franky P?) was able to hold its head above water thanks to the 80s and early 90s kids who had grown up on hip hop and RnB via Channel O and MCM. They provided a strong audience on which rap could count on. They consumed rap music, both imported and homemade. They knew quality rap music and could look at Cameroonian rappers and could easily identify quality over noise.
And it was this crowd that provided the first audience and the driving force for an unknown emcee who had just returned home from India
In the midst of all the turbulence that the 2010s spelled for music worldwide with falling album sales and decreased revenue for music labels, Jovi released H.I.V. For the first time, Anglophone Cameroonians discovered a high quality and full musical project by one of its own. In a single project, Ndukong Godlove delivered style, quality and memorable songs that immediately gained him a wide and sweeping fanbase. He followed up with 2 EPs (Kankwe Vol 1 and Kankwe Vol 2.) that culminated in what many consider to be his magnum opus, the album “Mboko God.” This series of projects won over skeptics, gained him new fans, made advocates of existing fans, and sowed the seeds of a cult following.
More EPs followed and two more albums towed along. Jovi has been deified, musically. The Mboko God has created and defined a style and musical identity whose waves he rides almost exclusively. His fanbase has characteristics that none of his peers have; a loud, devoted, and cult-like inner core, a quiet and dedicated middle core, and an outer skin made of casual fans and social media F.O.M.O-driven fans.
This, his position as his own producer, and exclusive ownership to his music and masters gives Jovi the ability to afford certain luxuries that only very famous musicians like Beyoncé can afford; – dropping a musical project without prior notice and sitting back to watch the fans and the blogs do the promotion for him.
Here we are after all.
Ask anyone, fan or not, why this is so and they will tell you it because he is Jovi, the Mboko God. His musical catalogue screams that.
What people don’t always talk about is that Jovi benefited quite gratuitously from first mover advantage. Jovi came in with a solid musical project at a time when the 80s generation was in their 20s and still heavily invested in rap music and was able to build a fanbase off of them almost immediately. The age of information technology was also beneficial to him. Word of mouth spread rapidly via social media, and just two years after his first album we were introduced to 3G internet and smartphones were becoming ubiquitous. By the time his second album and the subsequent EPs like ‘Raps to Riches‘ were released, access to the internet and information technology were drastically improved and a wider fanbase was created via easier access to his work on music download sites like Bandcamp. Today mobile money payments have made that even more accessible.
This gave Jovi a second luxury: Not play by the rules and having to adapt to the new and trending sounds in the market – notably Afrobeats and Afroppo, but sticking to doing rap music and crafting his own rap sound that went with it. Jovi’s Mboko sound isn’t unlike Krotal’s sound. There is the underlying America-exported rap sound, on top of which is layered a Cameroonian touch; but which sounds strongly hip hop and not Afro-anything, regardless.
Every rapper who enjoys Jovi’s level of popularity today has had to adapt. Ko-C is a hit machine. But all his hit songs have had to divert from the path of that pure rap sonority that is still heavily present in Jovi’s music to make something that is more appealing to what the market now enjoys.
One of the things that TRACEAfrica did was help popularise and push more urban acts towards a more Afro-centric pop sound. And the success of Afrobeats urban sound in Nigeria that grew out of its own long experimentation with Western urban music led many up and coming acts to embrace this musical identity that was a fusion of western pop and RnB sound and their own traditional music.
Mink’s is an amazing rapper. Whilst songs like ‘Le gars là est laid’ was widely popular thanks to the music that accompanied the lyrical delivery – music that already had strong elements of this new Afro/western fusion, and was in line with the market. His other songs like ‘Mbita Kola,’ ‘Tu fais ça comment?,’ and ‘Maillot Jaune’ that show the expanse of Mink’s skills as a gifted emcee had sporadic acclaim and everyone went back to asking him for the next hit song. Tenor’s biggest successes also rode on that more afro music dance sound.
Jovi’s most popular song today is “Cash” for that exact same reason.
Even Stanley Enow who proclaimed high and mighty at the 2013 MTV awards that he is not anything but a rapper, and turned down Salatiel for a feature on Fap Kolo, was the first to throw the towel and start dancing in the music videos.
Even when you look at Nigeria, you see how gifted rappers like Olamide, Falz and more recently, Blaqbonez have had to switch over to a more Afrobeats sound that can club plays, unlike a lot of rap music which is something you just listen and vibe to.
It is Jovi’s double, M.I who still comparatively enjoy the same type of fame and fanbase. Just like Jovi, he released strong musical projects in the late 2000s and the early 2010s. He did a lot of collaboration inside out of Nigeria and was able to build a pan-African fanbase that continue hold him in high esteem and support his musical projects.
His peers from the late 2000s like Ice Prince, Ikechukwu, and Naeto C have all but fallen off.
And the same phenomenon is seen almost all over Africa. That rap music that becomes popular is accompanied by a danceable track that has a Afropop sound. South African presents some exception as newly-minted rappers like Nasty C do rap music (as unadulterated as it can be) and enjoys great success. But then again, South Africa has always been apart as far as urban music is concerned and its ecosystem has it’s own peculiarities that have, for the most part, kept it away from the rest of other sub-Saharan African countries.
Cameroon has many young rappers that are doing rap music on the spectrum of what Jovi is doing. Although the ambition might not necessarily be to have national prominence and recognition, it is still important for an artist to have a viable fanbase, and even more financially viable to be able to book shows.
But can the likes of Young Holiday, Blueprint Hakeem, Sojip, Teddy Doherty, Zayox, Inna Money, and even Mic Monsta be able to keep their heads above water if they do not go the Afropop sound route? The evidence seems to speak in a language that is not in their favour.
The market has shifted interest. Rap music in Cameroon and its corresponding audience is not what it used to be. The market is so fragmented and YouTube is opening us to so much music that the most popular American rappers of this day like Migos don’t get airplay in our clubs, bars and radio stations like they used to. What rap is played in the club today is rap from the golden era of hip hop, between 1997 and 2007.
Even Cameroon’s biggest rap rendezvous the DOMAF (previously the Douala Hip Hop Festival) has been suffering seriously. The once-popular annual rendezvous has been on oxygen these past years. Didier Toko, its promoter has been pushing despite the odds and with almost no backing from corporate sponsors.
The fate of all these entities seem to be together in more ways than we can imagine and anyone who is getting into rap music in Cameroon and wants to do rap ‘pure’ rap music will have to take some serious time to consider their move and to draw a strategy that has a plan B,C,D and E
Jovi is no doubt the last of an almost extinct breed. He is a lone dinosaur roaming the earth after a rain of meteorites has burned every other one of his peers to ashes. He is a still a crowd puller. His set at the 2019 DOMAF was the most popular and .oat commented, no thanks to that unpopular incident with Pascal.
How many Cameroonian rappers who have not gone the Afropop road can do that?
Almost nobody else. No doubt nobody else.
– Wandji Wilfred
Pictures by Ndukong