The Utilization of Hip-Hop Culture by African Youth to Confront Globalization

Babaluku, Lugaflow pioneer, member of Uganda’s legendary Bataka Squad, and founder of the Bavubuka Foundation. Photo credit: Katie Dervin.

Globalization has had a profound impact on Africa and has further exacerbated some of the social issues that resulted from the legacy of colonialism on the continent. Traditional kinship systems, for example, have been distorted as western modes of living have permeated the continent and discouraged indigenous Africans from practicing traditional ways of living. Another example is the post-colonial drive by many African countries to industrialize following the Cold War, though this only led to overcrowded cities without the infrastructure to support growing populations.

Globalization, however, has also brought new ideas to the continent that have been beneficial. The adoption and utilization of hip-hop music and culture by African youth has been used to respond to the social disparities that exist due to globalization and resist governments and foreign institutions that continue to exploit Africans. In Ghana, Tanzania, and Uganda, hip-hop has developed as a platform for youth to express themselves and the harm that globalization has brought the continent, while at the same time, these artists are benefitting from the increased visibility offered due to globalization. In order to truly understand contemporary African and the effects of globalization, it is absolutely necessary to consider the role African hip-hop plays in youth culture.

Despite the best efforts of Africans to remain autonomous and a part of the global economy, the legacy of colonialism combined with present-day globalization has kept Africa in a precarious position. As mentioned previously, shortsighted attempts to industrialize despite not having the proper infrastructure to do so has contributed to Africa being in a position where there are not sufficient roads, railroads, electricity, etc. In focusing on industrialization, the agricultural sector has also been ignored, worsening the situation. This all helped lead to Africa’s current economic state, as the majority of the continent’s population is severely impoverished, in debt, disease rates are still high, and educational opportunities are limited for many, especially for those in rural areas. The continent has failed to reach most of the Millennium Development Goals outlined in September of 2000 and is still struggling due to its dependency on foreign aid and structural adjustment agreements which do not foster the growth and building of capacity that is needed. These structural adjustment programs come with four requirements: 1.) termination of food subsidies that keep prices affordable for an impoverished population, 2.) devaluation of national currencies, 3.) trimming of government bureaucracies, and 4.) privatization of state-owned corporations (Gordon & Gordon 196). The combination of these four elements help keep African states in a position where they are dependent on the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, as they hinder economic development within the country.

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B-boys in Jinja, Uganda. Photo credit: Gilbert Daniels.

To combat these issues, African youth have divested their faith from big man leaders who wield unchecked authority and accumulate wealth while the majority of the population remains in poverty. Youth in countries across the continent have instead chosen to utilize hip-hop as a means of critiquing globalization while asserting personal agency. It is interesting that, while hip-hop in Africa is being used to critique globalization, it is also a product of globalization. Exposure to hip-hop culture occurred concurrently with “the intense expansion of foreign-derived modes of socioeconomic development” (Ntarangwi 4). It is also of note that hip-hop culture in Africa developed similarly to how hip-hop culture originally developed in the Bronx, New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s. While hip-hop has taken different forms in different countries, a commonality linking the hip-hop cultures that have emerged in Ghana, Tanzania, and Uganda has been the presence of social critique in the music.  

Hip-hop arrived in much of Africa by the mid-1980s, and by the mid-1990s it had gone through a localization process. Artists in Ghana and Tanzania among other places stopped rapping in English, the language of the colonizer, in favor of their indigenous languages, and artists also began incorporating local sounds into the music (Clark 25). This emergence of hip-hop and rejection of the colonial language coincided with the transformation of the economies in Ghana and Tanzania, as both countries implemented structural adjustment and World Bank programs (24). These programs forced an imposition of neoliberal policies that had a negative effect on the economies of Ghana and Tanzania and created the conditions that allowed for the emergence of socially conscious hip-hop.

Hip-hop “provided youth with an opportunity to address the problems they were seeing around them” (Clark 27). For example, the Ghanaian hip-hop artist A Plus has released albums with titles such as Freedom of Speech and Letter to Parliament, and his song “Osono Ate Ahwe” addresses the election of President John Atta Mills in 2008. “The song criticizes President Mills, saying that since his regime the prices for commodities have gone up and the value of the Ghanaian cedi has gone down. A Plus also comments on the greed that exists in the government, and corruption in the political process” (30). By confronting issues such as politics in his music, A Plus is using hip-hop as a platform to critique those in positions of authority and it is an attempt to reclaim some sort of power from a government that seems to be hoarding as much power as possible.

Sarkodie is another Ghanaian artist who has used hip-hop as a means of social critique. In his song “Borga,” Sarkodie discusses Ghanaians who live abroad, and he critiques their embrace of Western values. He raps, “A lot of these borga are not truthful/You would have known life in the West is ugly/You are a tailor in Ghana and you make money/You have food to eat, at the very least, you have somewhere to sleep/You saved money to get a visa/You want to travel to America just to suffer/Advice doesn’t change a man unless he experiences it” (31). This song, which is originally in Twi, is a glaring critique of the way globalization has caused some Ghanaians to abandon their homelands in favor of the West, which is viewed as superior and more prosperous.

Tanzanian hip-hop artists have also used the genre as a platform for social commentary. The artist Sugu rose to fame at the outset of the 2000s for his critiques of government in his music. In his song “Hali Halisi,” for example, he raps, “We have hard lives, even the president knows/And still we have smiles for every situation/This is the real situation/Everyday it’s us and the police, the police and us” (32). Sugu took his critiques a step further by actually running for political office to try to change all the negatives that he pointed out in his music. In 2010, Sugu became the first hip-hop artist to be elected to a political office, as he was elected as the parliamentary representative of Mbeya in southern Tanzania (32). Other artists such as Profesa Jay and Rage Prophetional have also made names for themselves by centering social commentary in their music.

Corp Zak, a Lugaflow emcee and member of the Bavubuka Foundation, performing in Jinja, Uganda. Photo credit: Gilbert Daniels.

Uganda is another country that has developed a hip-hop scene that is a platform for social critique, though it has taken a different trajectory than Ghana and Tanzania. The dispersal of American hip-hop culture due to globalization flooded Uganda just like much of the rest of Africa in the 1980s and 1990s, but unlike in Ghana and Tanzania, there was no localization process initially. Instead, American hip-hop artists were looked to as role models and were emulated in Uganda rather than Ugandans finding their own voice through the medium of hip-hop (Ntarangwi 23).

Uganda also differs from Ghana and Tanzania because it was not the effect of structural adjustment programs that provided the content for social critique used by hip-hop artists. In Uganda, the social critique stemmed from the destruction caused by ruthless dictator Idi Amin and the desire to create a new Ugandan identity in the aftermath. There was also the desire to reject the British colonial education and uplift traditional Ugandan culture. The catalysts for this cultural revival movement were known as the Bataka Squad, which consisted of Babaluku and Krazy Native. In the late-1990s, Bataka Squad started what they called the Luga Flow Revolution, as they began rapping in their native Luganda and incorporating local issues into their songs (25). In 2005, Babaluku went on to found the Bavubuka Foundation, “an indigenous hip-hop organization that uses music and the arts to reconnect young leaders to their authentic indigenous expression and develop their understanding of the value of their culture and heritage” (Arcus Center). Through his foundation, Babaluku has continued to voice his critiques of Uganda’s government while also working to provide a means of resisting the effects of globalization.

While hip-hop has been used to resist the effects of globalization, it is also important to understand that hip-hop in Africa has benefited from globalization. Globalization has allowed for increased visibility for African hip-hop artists. For example, privatization which has forcibly occurred due to the implementation of structural adjustment programs has allowed for the emergence of numerous independent radio stations in Ghana and Tanzania (Clark 27). In the mid-1990s, televisions also became commonplace, creating a local outlet for hip-hop music.

Globalization has not only allowed for greater visibility within one’s own country, but also internationally. Bataka Squad, for instance, was the subject of a 2007 documentary directed by the American film direct Brett Mazurek titled Diamonds in the Rough: A Ugandan Hip-Hop Revolution (Diamonds in the Rough). African hip-hop artists are also utilizing the internet to to grow their international presence. Social media has allowed artists to cultivate a global following and become known outside of Africa. This increased visibility allows these artists to project their social commentary to an even larger audience and increase awareness on issues that affect Africa that the rest of the world does not know about.

In all three of the countries that have been discussed, hip-hop has been a mechanism to formulate a new African identity in the post-independence, post-Cold War world. The effects of globalization–structural adjustment programs, weak democracies, high unemployment, etc.–have created conditions where youth have lost faith in their governments and taken power into their own hands through music. The three countries discussed are by no means the only ones where hip-hop has become a prominent part of youth culture and a means of social critique. Senegal, Kenya, South Africa, and Nigeria also have vibrant hip-hop scenes, and nearly all metropolitan areas in Africa have some sort of hip-hop scene (Clark 23).Youth in Sierra Leone have also utilized hip-hop as a means of reestablishing their identity in a post-war space (Shepler 630).

In order to understand contemporary Africa and, in particular, youth culture in contemporary Africa, one cannot ignore the role hip-hop plays in the formation of identity and as a tool to resist the negatives of globalization. African hip-hop has become a powerful weapon that has empowered many youth and created an environment where colonial mindsets are rejected and indigenous ones are celebrated.

Works Cited

Clark, Msia Kibona. “Hip Hop as Social Commentary in Accra and Dar Es Salaam.” African Studies Quarterly 13.3 (2012): 23-46. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 1 June 2016.

Diamonds in the Rough: A Ugandan Hip-Hop Revolution. Dir. Brett Mazurek. Perf. Abramz, Michael Franti, and Babaluku. Imdb.com. IMDb, n.d. Web.

Gordon, April A., and Donald L. Gordon. Understanding Contemporary Africa: Understanding to the States & Regions of the Contemporary World. Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2007. Print.

Ntarangwi, Mwenda. East African Hip Hop: Youth Culture and Globalization. Urbana: U of Illinois, 2009. Print.

Shepler, Susan. “Youth Music and Politics in Post-war Sierra Leone.” The Journal of Modern African Studies 48.4 (2010): 627-42. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 1 June 2016.

Taiwo, Olufemi. How Colonialism Preempted Modernity in Africa. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2010. Print.

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