Payback Is a Motherland

How African hip hop "gives back" to two continents

"I have a friend from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who says she knew that song," says M.anifest. "Another black American dude knew it from his grandma. He was like, 'I never thought someone would incorporate that into hip hop.'"

M.anifest has something in common with other African rappers in Minnesota: He hasn't heard of most of them. On the day of our interview, I drive over to the Como neighborhood house of Kenyan-reared producer DJ Xpektt, 26, who is listening to many of the same songs, making many of the same points, and sitting in front of his own computer embankment in a basement studio. He hasn't heard of M.anifest, either.

"Kenyans probably didn't know anything about other African rappers until two or three years ago," he says, his short dreadlocks swaying as he turns. On the screen, Xpektt is playing a video by K'Naan shot in Nairobi, where most Somali refugees flee before moving onward to North America.

The largest immigrant bloc in local hip hop, East Africans tend to stick to themselves, a Swahili-speaking network connecting dozens of local artists across Kenyan, Ugandan, and Tanzanian communities. "There's a very big division between East Africans and West Africans," says Xpektt, who has promoted shows to bridge the gap. "And many of these guys rarely get to see African hip-hop artists performing live. They never get to expose themselves."

Everyone knows about Akon, for instance, the national Top-40 R&B sensation from Senegal. Yet few have heard of prominent local hip-hop community activists such as Liberian-born spoken-word artist E.G. Bailey (of KMOJ-FM, 89.9), or rapper Toki Wright, who conducted a hip-hop workshop with Tutsi and Hutu youth in Rwanda last winter. Other cultural barriers keep Somalis out of the local East African mix. "I have yet to be invited to a Somali party," says Tanzanian producer Kwame Marriot.

According to Mogadishu-born disc jockey and videographer Liban DJ, live Somali hip hop has all but dried up. "We had a party four weeks ago and the show lasted 25 minutes," he says. "There were fights, and we couldn't control the violence." The catch-22 for Somalis might be that the Muslim audience tends to keep clear of venues serving alcohol, thus avoiding clubs with a permanent security staff. "You've only had one Somali show at First Avenue, and there were like 40 people," Liban says. (In any case, K'Naan has yet to play here.)

The exceptions to Swahili exclusivity seem to be Liberian rappers, English-speaking West Africans who have begun moving freely between camps. "I'm African first, before I'm anything," says Monrovian-born vocalist Blade Brown. "I don't get off into tribalism and that stuff. There's enough of that over there."

Nairobi-born 19-year-old Baraka echoes the sentiment when he shows up at Xpektt's studio. Xpektt throws on a track, and the young rapper performs his song "The Streets of Africa," spitting fierce verses in both English and Sheng—the Kenyan mixture of Swahili and English that hip hop helped make popular. ("My mom can't even understand what we're saying," says Xpektt.)

Catching his breath afterward, Baraka says he recently went back to Nairobi for the first time since he left as a kid. "It woke me up," he says. "It helped me a lot as a man. I want my music to have a purpose. Africa needs help. I just want to give it to them."

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