Political and Commercial Hip Hop: Should SA rappers pick a side?
Should SA rappers balance creative freedom with political correctness or avoid sitting on the fence?
The Gusto Project was honoured to have Priddy Ugly as one of its guests recently, and trap music has never sounded so good. This rapper’s rhymes are priddy darned ugly, excuse the language. He is one of many rappers contributing to South Africa’s rise to being a Hip Hop capital, but the content of SA Hip Hop is what intrigues me the most.
A lot of SA rap lyrical content is currently similar to what American commercial Hip Hop was in the ‘90s and early 2000’s. However, global Hip Hop has rather travelled back to how it started, with politically conscious lyrics being the trend. Think artists like Kendrick Lamar, who are reminiscent of Tupac and Public Enemy.
It is very interesting to see that most of South African Hip Hop music remains in the line of celebrating the material possessions and the access to women that comes with success in the industry. This choice of subject matter has been problematized in many debates as misogynistic (disrespectful to women) and misleading to young people.
In one particular debate called Hip Hop on Trial, Dr. Tricia Rose criticizes Hip Hop as being sexist against black women’s bodies and celebrating both black men and women within negative stereotypes. She further adds that such content does Hip Hop no favour. American columnist Jason Whitlock states: “I don’t hate Hip Hop. I hate what it has become.” This shows that one can love and criticize Hip Hop at the same time. Hip Hop does have another side to it and that is being the platform for inspiring and uplifting people, partly through its lyrics.
Priddy Ugly is a good example of a rapper who uses Hip Hop as both a platform for powerful messages and content with a commercial appeal. In his conversation with the Gusto Project, he justified how he reconciles a song like Thula Mama which talks about the struggles of women with Bula Boot, which uses women as “marketing tools” by saying that he caters for a diverse audience with a variety of musical tastes and that reflects in his music.
He also stated that we live in an era where people do not have time to pay attention and sometimes the artist feels that he needs to catch the attention of the general audience with a lighthearted song such as Bula Boot. On the one hand, this is a fair point because, if an artist is to be sustained by a music career, he or she should be flexible and reach as many people as possible, and the fact these people are all different is inevitable. To understand that is to work smart in the music business.
On the other hand, this makes one ask whether or not a rapper can make fun and commercial music, without women being collateral “damage”. Until that day comes, this conversation should continue. The contrast of the songs Thula Mama and Bula Boot, amongst many examples from various Hip Hop artists, shows how the genre in question has a complex relationship with women and how women in turn have a complex relationship with it. This is because in all honesty, I would probably dance to Priddy Ugly’s Oh my Gah(d) because of its brilliant instrumental as much as I am more inclined to like Thula Mama because of it message of uplifting women.
Hip Hop is of course not only about the music but also a lifestyle, and part of that lifestyle is social responsibility.
Priddy plays his social role with P.U.M.P (Priddy Ugly Mentorship Programme) in which he educates young people about the music industry and what one should expect from it. He also does market research in figuring out why people choose to listen to certain music. That means as an artist, he is proactive in the direction he wants to take his music, while being sensitive to a diverse audience.
Hip Hop can both reveal and feed into the audience’s complexity, resulting in a vicious cycle of the genre remaining on both its legs, the political and the commercial. Should male and female rappers be expected to pick a side? The day we become a simplistic and monolithic audience, it might be fair to require that. The audience, as much as the artist has the power to influence the direction music takes lyrically and otherwise by choosing what it listens to. For flexible people who read Bell Hooks yet dab to EmTee’s music, there will be Hip Hop music that continues to reflect that.