Payback Is a Motherland

How African hip hop "gives back" to two continents

Hip hop is as American as apple pie, as African as fufu. Never mind whether the verb "hip" comes from the Wolof xippi ("to open one's eyes"), as John Leland suggests in his 2004 book Hip: The History (HarperCollins). Descendants of West African slaves in America were hipping themselves to their own Africanness all through the years that hip-hop culture was taking shape.

Yet the Bronx DJ who coined the phrase "hip hop" came to the words unconsciously. "Motherfucker was drunk over some Olde English '800' and high on marijuana," says Love Bug Starski, speaking on his cell phone from a New Jersey area code. "If I knew what it would turn out to be, don't you think I'd copyright it?"

Starski says he began rapping "hip, hop, hippy to the hippy hop-bop" as a nursery rhyme for party people. He wound up employing the nonsensical alliteration "hip hop" in the West African tradition of call and response—again, unconsciously. "Me and Kid Cowboy from the Furious Styles used to say it together," he says. "I'd say the 'hip,' he'd say the 'hop.' And then he stopped doing it, and I kept doing it."

From hip hop's other west coast: Daara J members Aladji Man, Faada Freddy, and N'Dango D
Wrasse Records
From hip hop's other west coast: Daara J members Aladji Man, Faada Freddy, and N'Dango D

Taking up Starski's phrase, Afrika Bambaata began applying the term to the street culture flowering around him in the Bronx, and it caught on. By 1982 "hip hop" referred to DJ techniques, b-boy dancing, graffiti, fashion, and rapping—an activity with its own roots in Senegambian tradition.

"Tassou still exists in Senegal," says West African hip-hopper Faada Freddy, speaking on his own cell in Dakar. "That's an ancient form of rap music."

Freddy, whose Senegalese rap trio Daara J performs for free in Loring Park on Monday, is a foremost advocate for the theory that, by finding embrace in Africa, hip hop has "come home." Collaborating freely (the crew recently recorded with Malian legend Salif Keita) and inflecting their tassou with dancehall toasts and R&B melodies, Daara J's sales pitch nevertheless relies on their association with the oldest of old schools.

"The storytellers used songs to say, 'This is how we should act,'" says Freddy. "It was a way for them to remind us that socially, politically, we have to be involved. Back then there were no TVs, no Internet neither. The only way for people to communicate was through the griots. Pop music was a way to know what was going on in the countryside."

These days, rap music has become a way for African immigrants, including thousands of Minnesotans, to connect with their home countries. No longer just black America's CNN, hip hop is a griot for a black planet.

Which is why I'm surprised to learn that Freddy, who grew up speaking Wolof, has never heard of the theory that "hip" originated from xippi. At the mention of this, the expert rhetorician nearly leaps through the phone.

"And xeupp [pronounced 'hop'] means 'to pour something,'" he says. "When you're just full of something, you pour it. Like when you're full of emotion, you give it to the people."

Most African rappers hesitate to claim hip hop for Africa. "It's a good story," says Ghanaian-born M.anifest, smiling in a way that suggests he thinks Faada Freddy is full of something, all right (though he admires Daara J's live show). "Plus they named their CD Boomerang. Very smart marketing."

The wide-eyed 24-year-old born Kwame Tsikata is among the dozens of African-born MCs recording in the Twin Cities. He wears a yellow soccer jersey from back home, and plays random African rap favorites on his computer, sitting in his neat south Minneapolis home studio. To M.anifest, hip hop's more recent associations with Africa overwhelm the deeper historical ones. "Listen to this," he says, playing Canada-based Somali sensation K'Naan, who sounds like a soulful Eminem; Senegal's Positive Black Soul, who cover Savannah mambo kings Orchestra Baobab; South Africa's house-influenced TKZ; and fellow Ghanaian Reggie Rocksone, who raps over samples of rare '70s highlife records, in a fusion known as hip-life.

"Before Reggie, I had no clue there was African rap at all," says M.anifest. (See "Africa's Ultimate Beats and Breaks" for a beginner's guide to African hip hop.)

Over in Ghana, the popularity of American groups Das EFX and Naughty by Nature coincided with the nation's move toward formal democracy in the early '90s. "Hip hop happened unwittingly there," says M.anifest. "The music isn't necessarily political. It's a movement because of where it comes from."

Expressing himself in a gentle Accra accent, M.anifest explains how he grew up speaking English, Ghana's national language. Having moved to the Twin Cities six years ago to study economics at Macalester, he sounds more American on his deeply funky, jazz-chopping rap tracks, which he's brought to local stages for about a year. (Listen to his music at Citypages.com, or visit his Myspace page, www.myspace.com/manifestations.)

In the spirit of Starski, however, M.anifest revives a bit of melodic childhood gibberish in another of his native tongues: Twi (pronounced almost like "tree"). The title chorus of "Che Che Kule" is meaningless, he says. As with Anansi stories—the folk tales of the spider god that permeate Caribbean culture and provide the main characters for Neil Gaiman's latest novel—the tune of "Che Che Kule" crossed the Atlantic, surviving the Middle Passage.

"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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