Politics?or art?

2014-06-18 10:00

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Two days before the general elections, a starry line-up of South African rap artists appeared in the music video for a track called Salute?– Run ANC.

Pro, Amu, Tumi, L-Tido, Solo, Selwyn, Bozza, Kabomo and Gigi paid tribute to the ANC, hailing the legacy of the party that liberated our country.

The artists wore outfits in ANC colours emblazoned with a “Run ANC” logo, a reference to the iconic Run-DMC branding of one of rap’s seminal groups.

The video was posted on rap artist Slikour’s website, slikouronlife.co.za, where the words “Run ANC” were displayed with the ANC’s logo.

It might be surprising the cultural movement that produced F**k tha Police now brings us an encomium to a governing party, but the artists are free to express themselves however they want.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o515Il9fEmA

What’s wrong with expressing, as L-Tido puts it, “champagne for the campaign”?

Rap music emerged as a countercultural movement. The rappers’ raison d’être was summarised by the title of Public Enemy’s signature hit, Fight The Power.

The rappers who paid tribute to the ANC were not fighting the power. Whatever the ANC’s role as a liberation movement, it is now the dominant?–?almost hegemonic –?political force in South Africa.

This is especially troublesome in our political landscape where the boundary between state and party is less than clear-cut, a fact the party inadvertently reminded us of when the Gauteng government boasted of its achievements on billboards featuring ANC colours.

There is, of course, a difference between being a dissident and being a hater.

With so many cynics and reactionaries poised to tell us that our country has gone to the dogs under a “black government”, there’s good reason for using art to remind the public of where we have come from and to commemorate the heroes of the liberation struggle.

But praising the history of the governing party days before a national election isn’t education, it’s a political campaign.

Were rappers of Run ANC to stay true to their hip-hop roots, they would be proclaiming themselves Proudly Un-South African.

Not to hate, but to proclaim their independence from the dominant moral and political discourse. You can be proud of your country and continue to interrogate its systems of power relations.

To be fair, contemporary US hip-hop?–?the most direct influence on the local hip-hop scene?–?has largely been neutralised by success.

This is partly because artists have become less marginal and there are more opportunities to yield to market forces. But it’s also another demonstration of the flexibility of late capitalism, commodifying the outward form of dissent, while bringing its practitioners into the fold of orthodox production.

The Run ANC crew weren’t merely rapping about Lambos and hoes. The video opens with Nelson Mandela declaring the country liberated from oppression and then repeatedly cuts from struggle images?–?a dying Hector Pieterson, labour organisers, overseas demonstrations?–?to the fashionable young things performing in the video.

You can be grateful for the ANC’s role in fighting oppression and question the remarkably narrow representation of contemporary South Africa. Is our current reality all gold chains, leather jackets and custom T-shirts? What about poverty, Marikana and police brutality? What about Nkandla? Is all the oppression worth singing about?

It’s not as if South Africa has no legacy of radical hip-hop. Cape Town group Prophets of Da City gave voice to their community in the turbulent 1980s. Many members of the group started making rap music as a means of expressing the way their friends and neighbours had been subjugated by the powers that be.

The critical spirit has not been extinguished. Slikour put out Blacks are Fools, a controversial song that addressed themes of black identity. In the build-up to the election, Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, the son of the Economic Freedom Fighters’ Dali Mpofu, released Mr President, a blistering attack on Jacob Zuma.

Mpofu-Walsh might not be the most technically proficient rapper, but at least the song reclaimed some of the genre’s attitude.

Under apartheid, virtually all serious South African art was political. How could it be otherwise? With the end of legalised racism, artists were free to explore a more nuanced set of concerns, focus on formal innovation or just have a bit of fun. But this was always going to be a mixed blessing.

Post-1994, people wanted to dance and kwaito blew up. By the time hip-hop became mainstream, rap’s golden age had ended and aspiring artists turning their ears to the US heard Puff Daddy rap: rappers were bragging and swagging. Back then, Prophets of Da City were channelling Public Enemy, but for whatever reasons, socially conscious hip-hop hasn’t endured.

And the consequence was that even talented performers started making decorative rap.

If classic hip-hop is crack, today’s performers are pushing marshmallows. If Ice Cube had been shot at by LA’s finest in the early 1990s, he would have responded with a searing anthem of insurgency.

But when Khuli Chana was shot at by the SA Police Service for no good reason, his reaction was to institute legal proceedings against the safety and security minister.

We have no right to impose our tastes on anyone. It might be an aesthetic loss that an MC as skilled as L-Tido is making middlebrow background music. But that’s the game.

If you want to drink Chivas at ZAR and listen to Drake, that’s your business. But then don’t even dream of telling us who to vote for.

Feinberg is an entertainment lawyer and Shear is a writer

» This article in print incorrectly referred to ProVerb. This version has been corrected to refer to Pro.

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