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Bongo Flava: From dusty start to fame and empowerment

25th March 2012
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  Tanzanian hip hop artists are riding a wave of popularity while drawing attention to politics and HIV/Aids
Mr II.

Trendsetters: Afrika Bambaataa, godfather of US hip hop, and Tanzanian rapper turned politician, Mr II. Emerging from New York city in the late 1970’s, hip hop has become a global phenomenon and a creative means of escaping poverty while also commenting on it.

Hip hop, in its American guise, first came to Tanzania in the late 1980s. However, Tanzanians immediately recognised its roots in the long-standing oral traditions of Africa. Tanzanian youths who studied or had family abroad imported American hip hop, and soon the culture spread in the cities. Today, Tanzanian hip hop integrates the old tradition of Swahili poets - who composed verses to express joy and grievance, as well as charting the everyday - with the modern American style.

At first, Swahili lyrics were put to the tune and rhythm of American beats, such as Saleh J’s successful hit - "Ice Ice Baby - King of Swahili Rap". The tunes and beats soon became localised and influenced not just by the US hip-hop but also reggae, ragamuffin, Hindi beats, Taarab and Ngoma. In turn, the lyrics began to reflect Tanzania’s local and national issues.

This new, localised form of hip hop became known as ‘Bongo Flava’. The word bongo comes from the word ubongo, meaning brain or intelligence. However, it is also slang for Dar es Salaam, where this genre originated, hinting at the need for brains to live in the city. ‘Bongo Flava’ then can be seen as the flavour of Dar es Salaam or the brain. Today, ‘Bongo Flava’ is the most popular music style among young people in Tanzania.

Where the MC’s challenge the MPs

This section of the population is often left out of the political discourse relevant to their everyday lives. And young artists have started using this genre of music to express their opinions on political matters.

One of the earliest as well as the most popular artists to use rap as social commentary is '2 Proud', also known as 'Mr II', or, more recently, Sugu. In the popular song “Hali Halisi” (‘the real situation’), Mr II is explicit in his criticism of Tanzania’s political class. “As years go by I am tired of patriotism, I see the same faces, the same leaders,” he raps, before finishing by calling many Tanzanian politicians liars. In another popular song, “nimesimama” (‘I have just stood up’), he asks “why he should return to the village while his member of parliament relaxes in town with a prostitute”.

Mr II vocalises a frustration about Tanzanian politics with which many Tanzanians identify. In 2010, Mr II was sworn-in as the Member of Parliament for Dodoma. He defeated his rival - from the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party - by a considerable number of votes. It is too early to tell whether Mr II will be an MP who speaks as honestly as he did in his lyrics, or will fall foul of his own criticisms of politics and politicians. Either way, as a figure revered by many young people in Tanzania, he may prove hugely influential

Another well-known Tanzanian artist whose music centres on social messages is Professor Jay. A popular song throughout Tanzania is "Ndiyo Mzee" (‘Yes Sir’). In this song, Professor Jay takes on the character of a politician speaking to his citizens, with the lyrics satirising the often unobtainable promises he believes Tanzanian politicans make. The first thing he promises to do is “abolish poverty” , before then going on to say “students will do their practicals on the moon”, “there will be as much medicine in hospitals as sand” and “pipes will deliver water and milk to the entire country”. He concludes, “I will make Tanzanians happy, I am accepted, am I not?” to which the citizens enthusiastically applaud and reply “Ndiyo Mzee” (‘yes sir’).

Professor Jay and Mr II have used ‘Bongo Flava’ as a medium to speak out against politicians. However, political parties have also recognised the large audience to which ‘Bongo Flava’ communicates. They have often hired ‘Bongo Flava’ artists to perform at political events and praise their party, such as the hip-hop group Kwanza Unit, which has been paid to perform at past CCM events.

While the overwhelming win for Mr II as an MP highlights how ‘Bongo Flava’ can involve young people in politics, does the use of ‘Bongo Flava’ to promote political parties weaken its status as an authentic medium through which the political status quo can be criticised?

Bongo Flava – ‘Keeping it Real’

Still, social issues are regularly addressed by many Bongo Flava MCs and feature prominently in their lyrics. In Tanzania, as in other parts of East Africa, there is a culture of silence regarding sex-related issues. But increasingly artists are using Bongo Falva to raise awareness on this topic. A striking example is that of HIV/Aids which, given the prevalance rate of almost 3 percent among 15-24 year olds, is unsurprisingly becoming a target for musicians.

One of the most popular AIDS-focused songs is “Alikufa kwa Ngoma” (‘he died of AIDS’) by the artist Mwanafalsafa. This song is a narrative, telling the story of a man who battled the disease on his own through fear of prejudice. The man, Mwanafalsafa raps, was “a very good follower of the morals but he died of HIV/Aids , look at his entire life, you won’t spot any mistake of his, days are passing we don’t see his weakness, why the lab tests reads, he died of HIV/Aids ”.

Mwanafalsafa concludes with a powerful message: “Let’s believe they are our fellows, and don’t let them hide themselves from stigma”. The message for the young is clear - HIV/Aids could affect anyone and we should be avoid stigmatising suffers.

Many Tanzanian artists are proud to be ‘keeping it real’, speaking the truth and giving an honest insight into the circumstances and conditions of their society. ‘Bongo Flava’ can be seen as an empowering medium through which young people can express their views on the issues which affect and matter most to them. This practice is continued through community workshops and NGOs such as, ISHI ('to live') and Support for International Change, who actively use rap to promote discussion on these topics.

More than entertainment

Bongo Flava is more than just entertainment. It is, like many art forms, a means through which political hopes and grievances can be expressed.

The youths who make and consume Bongo Flava are often disenfranchised from socioeconomic and political commentaries, yet, as with many other countries in Africa, are rapidly becoming the numerically dominant group in the population.

While Bongo Flava retains its popularity and political message, its power to influence seems only set to rise. And while few would argue with the genre's progressive and didactic line on HIV/Aids, politicians will do well to remember there is a new, exuberant and youthful watch dog ready to voice and spread the concerns of the Tanzanian youth.

Craig Halliday is a practising artist with a Masters degree in African Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies. He has a particular interest in popular culture and contemporary art, with a special interest in East Africa.

SOURCE: GUARDIAN ON SUNDAY
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