S.O.S: Liberating souls through Hip Hop
From her mountainous plains to the cooling shores of penguin inhabited beaches, there is a sea of exciting excursions to lose oneself in Cape Town, South Africa. She boasts her beautiful landscape, which eerily favors that of California and Arizona. She fills your nostrils with the sweet aroma of ‘smileys’ being roasted on any given corner in Langa or Khayelitsha. She stuns you with her production of elaborately twisted, woven, and shaped hairstyles near the taxi rank in the Central Business District (CBD). With every sip of decadent wine on the Solms Delta winery, she pleases your senses. She encloses you in a cloud of comfort as you find yourself overwhelmed with the delectable scents of Atlas spices in Bo-Kaap. She pulls you in with the extraordinary beauty of her land and the undying love of her people. And though you are enthralled with the many qualities of Cape Town, something feels odd.
I was drawn to many things during my semester in Cape Town, South Africa. Most peculiar to me was not the innate beauty of her land, her people, and the sheer sense of Ubuntu I found in different spaces. Rather, it was the many evidences of inequality and oppression hidden beneath her gaze of contentment. It is not difficult to notice the very salient elements of inequality in Cape Town. It manifests itself in the differences between housing units provided to Black South Africans in Apartheid devised townships and the pristine housing units available to White South Africans in upper-class neighborhoods, such as, Stellenbosch (the birthplace of the Apartheid system). It is undeniable when one considers the resources made available to predominantly Black schools in comparison to Model C schools. It cannot be ignored when discussing the 39% unemployment rate amongst Black South Africans, 28% unemployment rate amongst Coloured South Africans and 8.3% unemployment rate amongst White South Africans.
The racial implications of inequality in South Africa saddened me as they strikingly paralleled to that of the United States. However, in the midst of discrimination, there is always a force of opposition that emerges to fight against the status quo. There is and always has been beauty in the resistance. From Black Consciousness to the Liberation Movement there has been a history of revolutionary actions in this country. Today, that resistance manifests itself through the use of various mediums, one of which is hip hop. On a cool evening in the middle of March, two friends and I found ourselves in Khayelitsha prepared to experience a women’s empowerment cypher. I found myself in awe as I listened to stories of love, loss, and hope. This cypher was hosted by the Rebel Sistahs of the Soundz of the South hip hop collective. It didn’t take long before I became interested in knowing more about the collective, the community work they were involved in, and how they employed hip hop culture as a tool of empowerment and enlightenment.
I had the pleasure of spending time with some members of the collective and they were so kind to share details of the work they do, both in South Africa and throughout the African continent. Soundz of the South, a collective of cultural activists, seeks to dismantle the status quo through organized events, rap, spoken word, and community activism. The familial connections members had to one another were made clear as they affectionately referred to one another as brother, sister, and comrade. Similarly, their use of the term collective speaks to their commitment to a culture of equal responsibility, representation, and power. The collective was founded in 2008 at a critical time in South African history. The xenophobic attacks of 2008 claimed the lives of 69 people in some townships of South Africa.
Representations of the xenophobic attacks of 2008. The photo to the left is of Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave. He was an immigrant from Mozambique brutally murdered during the 2008 xenophobic attacks.
It was a crucial moment where South Africa’s role in the continent was called into question. As one comrade recalled of the xenophobic attacks, “we saw it coming, but none of us took it seriously enough to prevent it”. Soundz of the South was founded during an intense time when the movement hit a stalemate and levels of consciousness in the country were subsiding. The question of how to propel the country towards an improved culture of equality and peace was tossed around amidst the minds of many cultural activists. In an effort to enlighten people of the systematic oppression instituted during Apartheid and, in many ways, maintained in this Democratic state, Soundz of the South was founded.
Their name was said to have been a creative play on words. However, the collective unanimously agreed that it represents people of the global south; “the oppressed people, so it is sounds of the oppressed in that sense”. Later, the Soundz of the South were given the abbreviated name S.O.S. Their dedication to representing the voices, experiences, and lives of the people of the global south manifests itself in the events they host and the music they produce. The Rebel Sistahs Cypher, for example, is a reflection of the collective’s devotion to creating a space for women to express their challenges and liberate themselves in an environment created by women for women. Upon the completion of their first CD, Freedom Warriors Vol.1, the collective found that women’s voices were considerably under-represented on the tracks. This led to an acknowledgement of what one comrade highlighted; “in hip hop spaces, it is difficult for women to perform, as we know that hip hop is male dominated”. Coming to this realization led to the production of a CD entitled Words of a Rebel Sistah and the monthly Rebel Sistah Cypher. Both the CD and the cyphers feature sisters of Soundz of the South along with local female artists and MCs. As a sister of the collective stated “we invite every sister that is active in spoken word, rap, etc. Women are welcome to express themselves and be who they want to be”. The collective does not shy away from addressing any issue challenging their communities. As a brother of the collective proclaimed “the CD started conversations in different platforms. We came to the realization that maybe we needed to have a space for women to express themselves; that the place for the women is not in the kitchen but at the center of the struggle”.
As cultural activists, Soundz of the South seek to challenge flaws within South African culture, so as to avoid perpetuating the same mistakes of the past. Their means of doing so is through the incorporation of hip hop culture. They believe that “hip hop is a reflection of our own society. We ask ourselves questions about what is going on in hip hop in relation to what is going on in our community” to avoid “repeating the same mistakes over and over again”. Seeing the gendered dynamics of hip hop prompted Soundz of the South to be intentional in their inclusion of women and men equally. Beyond this, the collective produced two CDs, which they call projects. Freedom Warriors Vol. 1 and Freedom Warriors Vol. 2 are a compilation of tracks that employ hip hop music as an educational tool to view capitalism, neo-liberalism, South African politics amongst other things under a critical lens to encourage a spirit of resistance. The collective’s incorporation of rap, spoken word, and singing in the form of CDs became a living product of the movement. In their experience, they found that there exists a tendency for people to leave the movement in the streets and forget about it once they return home. However, as cultural activists, their mission is to create a space where people can learn about the resistance through performance and dialogue, recreate that same resistance in their homes, and work towards an improved culture.
Freedom Warriors volume 1 was released in. Words of a Rebel Sistah was released in 2011. Freedom Warriors volume 2 (featured above) was released in 2013.
Afrika Bambaataa, affectionately known as the Godfather of hip hop, coined what is called the fifth element of hip hop. That fifth element incorporates the tangible elements of hip hop to spread knowledge of self and knowledge of the world around us. In subscription to spreading enlightenment through hip hop, Soundz of the South hosts a plethora of community events that spark critical discourse concerning the current state of South Africa and the larger African continent. In recognition of Freedom Day on the 27th of April, the brothers and sisters of Soundz of the South hosted a community concert called the “UnFreedom Day Concert”. I had the pleasure of sitting with the collective as they planned for this event. On the 24th of April, I sat with the collective for a screening of the film “Concerning Violence”, a film based on the novel, Wretched of the Earth, written by Franz Fanon. Following the film, we shared our thoughts of de-colonialization and the salience of colonial structures in countries across the African continent. The collective shared their interpretations of the film and discussed the ways in which they can fuse lessons of de-colonization with the UnFreedom Day Concert to encourage their community to question the reality of freedom, or lack thereof, in post-apartheid South Africa.
Their dedication to an improved South Africa manifests in their commitment and dedication to the work of the collective and their community as a whole. Soundz of the South has hosted events ranging from train cyphers held to speak against xenophobia to commemorating the lives of activists, such as, Malcolm X and the Marikana martyrs. Their hopes of an improved South Africa is realized in their music, their events, and their messages. The beauty of their efforts, and in them as people, exists in their effortless fusion of arts and creativity to spread positive messages of enlightenment and empowerment. This is evinced in their involvement with the Afrikan Hip Hop Caravan, a non-profit organization that aims to build ties between African hip hop collectives throughout the continent. The Afrikan Hip Hop Caravan is an initiative that annually brings together local hip hop collectives to discuss current events and relevant issues impacting their communities socially, economically, and politically. The goal is to build a strong African Hip Hop collective movement throughout the continent.
We all have a great deal to learn from the women and men of Soundz of the South. They have succeeded in using the variance of culture and language to liberate the members of their community. “Every day of our lives music is involved. When we are happy, we sing. When we are sad, we sing. When a child is born, we sing. When somebody dies, we sing. When we fight, we sing”. They brilliantly devised ways of fusing their culture with elements of hip hop culture to produce lyrics of profound meaning. “A lot of our everyday life is full of organizing, full of resistance, there is a lot of activism going on to the point that struggling has become part of our culture”. The work of the collective is not for mere enjoyment. The sisters and brothers of Soundz of the South recognized the flaws in the social, political, and economic climate of South Africa. Rather than stand idle in the face of oppression, they used their innate talents and abilities to fuel the movement. Though the question of whether or not the South Africa of their dreams will be realized remains, there is not a question of their undying commitment to resisting all forms of oppression in their home. As one member of the collective said “currently, South Africa is not a free country, we are not free. For me free is when you are in control of your own lives. They make decisions about their everyday living situation. They are in control of their own communities”. Though true freedom has not yet been realized, rest assured that Soundz of the South will fight for an improved South Africa with conscious minds and the will to fight as their weapons.
For more information on Soundz of the South, visit their website at http://soundzofthesouth.blogspot.co.za/
Tiffani Kennedy is a Fourth Year student studying Cultural Studies and Communication at The University of Virginia. During the spring semester of her Third Year, she traveled to Cape Town, South Africa to study Multiculturalism and Human Rights. It was during that semester that she produced this article on the Hip Hop Collective Soundz of the South.
Author: Tiffani l. Kennedy