Let's get one thing clear: Africa is a continent made up of 54 sovereign states, more than one billion people, and upwards of 3,000 languages. If we had more room, we'd dedicate a blog to every African country where hip hop plays a role. Here's a condensed introduction to the wide world of African hip hop, spanning from Tanzania in the east, to South Africa, to Senegal in the west.
Hip hop as we know it now spread to the African continent in the early '80s, shortly after American hip hop took shape. Though it's true that many African rappers have been heavily influenced by Western styles, it's important to look at Africa's role in shaping hip hop as a whole. According to an All Africa article from 2007, "Rapping in African music and culture is a tradition that was carried to the new world in the 1400s." In the end, the early African musical traditions borrowed by the New World made their way back to Africa in the form of modern day hip hop and quickly spread amongst African youths.
Today, African hip hop styles range from American-inspired beats and rhymes, to bongo flava and kwaito, to the satirical hip hop of groups like Die Antwoord and FOKN Bois, and to the politically and socially conscious rhymes of Positive Black Soul and Black Noise. For our list, we tried to encompass a wide range of styles from various countries to bring you a small sample of the continent's best hip hop.
15. "Put It Down" by Sasha featuring Dama Do Bling
Yetunde Alaba, otherwise known as Sasha, rose to the top of the Nigerian hip hop scene in 2001, after being chosen as runner up in a talent competition. Apparently, Sasha dubbed herself the "first lady of Nigerian hip hop" and, though we don't feel entitled to authorize her claim, she's certainly a prominent member of the hip hop community, having performed with Boyz II Men, Ja Rule, and Akon, among others. "Put it Down" is an upbeat track sung/rapped in four different languages, featuing Dama Do Bling from Mozambique. The lyrics aren't particularly noteworthy, but the music video certainly is.
14. "Sinzia" by Nameless
Okay, so Nameless might be more pop than hip hop, but this song is so sexy, we couldn't leave it off. How can you beat lyrics like "I wish I could be your saliva" and "If only I could be your body lotion?" This is romance at its finest, people.
Nameless, aka David Mathenge, got his start in 1999 and went on to win Artist of the Year, Best Male, and Listener's Choice at the MTV Africa Music Awards in 2009. He's like the sweeter-sounding Shaggy of the Kenyan R&B world, complete with similar hip hop undertones.
13. "Kaffir" by Arthur Mafokate
It's not an African hip hop playlist without kwaito, a South African variant of house music. Kwaito took shape in the 1990s, evolving out of disco, hip hop, R&B, and dance music. "Kaffir" was one of the first and most popular kwaito songs, written by Arthur Mafokate in response to political liberation in South Africa. In it, Mafokate and a female singer repeat "Don't call me a kaffir" over a simple synthesizer riff and drum beat, reminiscent of "What is Love?" by Haddaway. The word "kaffir" was once a neutral term for South African blacks but became a highly offensive slur during Apartheid.
12. "Illuminati" by Sarkodie
Sarkodie is a rapper from Tena, Ghana who won BET's Best International Act in 2012 and is considered a leader of the Ghanian Azonto genre. He's released four albums including this year's Sarcology, on which "Illuminati" can be found. It's hard to go wrong when your music video features a sexy belly dancer, a hawk, a bag of money, diamonds and unidentified white pills. Around the two-minute mark, Sarkodie shows off his speed rapping skills. It's clear that Sarkodie is heavily influenced by Western hip-hop, but he keeps his music grounded in his home country by rapping in Twi, his native language.
11. "Nikusaidiaje" by Professor Jay ft. Ferooz
Professor Jay was a pioneer of Tanzania's Bongo Flava genre, which combines politically and socially conscious lyrics sung in English and Swahili with bouncy, reggae-influenced hip hop beats. Bongo Flava has its roots in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania's capital city, but has become increasingly popular across East Africa.
"Nikusaidiaje" is rapped in Swahili, but the ridiculous flute-driven beat combined with Jay's unfaltering flow keep listeners of all language backgrounds captivated.[page]
10. "BRKN LNGWJZ" - FOKN Bois
Ghana's FOKN Bois, consisting of M3NSA and Wanlov, are masters of boundary pushing, satire, and not giving a fuck. But they're not just out to screw around -- their lyrics are often as politically and socially minded as they are absurd.
In the music video for "BRKN LNGWJZ," FOKN Bois consistently change identities both through lyrics and clothing, wearing everything from traditional African clothing, to priests' to business suits, to boxers. If that's not enough for you, check out this video.
9."Questions" by Black Noise
Formed in 1988, Black Noise is considered South Africa's first hip-hop crew. The group was immersed in all aspects of hip hop, including graffiti and breakdancing, and in 1997, they took third place in the Germany's breakdancing Battle of the Year. Black Noise was comprised of South African activists, and their political stances came through in songs like "Questions," in which they question the suffering of South Africans.
The group still exists today, but Emile Jansen is the only remaining founding member.
8. "Hello Hello Kitty" by Tumi
Tumi Molekane was born to parents in exile in Tanzania and moved to South Africa at the age of 11. He released his first album with The Volume in 2003 and his first solo album in 2007. Three years later, he shared the stage with Shakira at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
This is the newest of two Tumi songs featured on our list, the latter of which includes his now-disbanded band, the Volume. "Hello Hello Kitty" is from Tumi's latest album, Rob the Church, and shows him in a new, slightly more commercialized light. We're not too worried, though. It's clear that Tumi will always be a revolutionary at heart.
7. "How We Do It" by Keko
Ugandan rapper Keko is one of the classiest and sassiest ladies in the East African hip hop scene. She also happens to be six feet tall, and in the music video for "How We Do It," it's clear that she towers the men in the background. The song was so successful, it landed her an endorsement deal with Pepsi, for which Keko rapped about how awesome Mountain Dew is to the beat of "How We Do It."
6. "Respect the Nubians" by Positive Black Soul
Positive Black Soul was formed by a group of Senegalese activists in 1989. Like many of the artists on our list, the group raps in multiple languages, including English, French, and Wolof, and incorporates traditional Senegalese instruments. "Respect the Nubians" starts off with traditional Senegalese singing and transitions to an N.W.A.-esque beat, over which Positive Black Soul sing-raps in the style of Bone Thugs 'n Harmony.[page]
5. "Warchild" by Emmanuel Jal
When Emmanuel Jal was seven-years-old, he was forced to join Sudan's civil war as one of 10,000 child soldiers. He later escaped his camp, roamed around Africa for four months, and was finally found and adopted by British aid worker, Emma McCune, who later died in a car crash. Jal released his first album, Gua, in 2005 and Warchild in 2008. The titular track tells the story of his years as a child soldier.
4. "Hegemony" by Ben Sharpa
"Hegemony" features both the creepiest beat and music video of the songs on our list, which works exceptionally well with the lyrical content. The track tackles the state of post-Apartheid South Africa, with a more direct focus on corrupt South African police. Sharpa proves himself to be one of the best lyricists of the South African underground with lines like, "I mind control swine patrol in Jedi mode" and "Armed response jobby-job carbon copy cops in rental suits, burning and lootin' more than Bob Marley uses herbs."
3. "Aha!" by X Plastaz
X Plastaz made a unique name (and genre) for themselves in a country dominated by bongo flava with their fusion of traditional Maasai singing, Swahili lyrics, and hip-hop. The group was founded in Arusha in 1996 and gained international recognition when they caught the attention of an editor for the Rough Guides ethnic music CD series. Their first album, Maasai Hip Hop was released by Germany's Out Here Records in 2004. Sadly, Nelly, the group's oldest and arguably most talented member, died of stab wounds in 2006.
"Aha!" is rapped in Swahili and haya, a Tanzanian language, and includes a traditional Maasai chant as the chorus. The song was featured on HBO's This is My Africa, which, along with their National Geographic feature, created some controversy around issues of exploitation.
2. "Reality Check" by Tumi and the Volume
"Reality Check" is off Tumi and the Volume's third album, "Pick a Dream," and features Tumi at his finest. The Volume was born at a club in Melville, South Africa after Tumi recited his poetry at an open mic and was approached by two members of the house band.
The group's first album was met with enough critical success to take the band to Canada for a tour with Somali-born rapper K'naan. Before disbanding in 2012, Tumi and the Volume toured extensively across Europe, played with groups like Massive Attack and Coldplay, and became a staple for South African hip-hop heads.
1. "Bayi Yoon" by Daara J Family
Senegalese hip-hop trio Daara J (which translates to "School of Life") is perhaps the most well known group on our list, and for good reason. Rappers Faada Freddy, N'Dongo D, and
Lord Aladji Man tackle issues like AIDS, corruption, and war in multiple languages, including English, Wolof, French, and Spanish. The group formed in 1997 and cites Positive Black Soul, Grandmaster Flash, Das EFX, and Afrika Bambaataa as influences. "Bayi Yoon" is a multi-layered track rapped and sung in French and Wolof and features one of the greatest banjo parts in the history of hip hop.