The Interview – Emile Jansen: All things hip

2013-09-08 10:00

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Hip-hop scored a victory this week with the inclusion of the word ‘twerk’ in the Oxford dictionary. Lesley Mofokeng and Percy Mabandu quiz Emile Jansen, one of the original kings of local hip-hop and Step Up or Step Out judge, about the culture and his African Hip-Hop Indaba taking place on Friday

Has hip-hop’s ‘gangster’ baggage created a problem for you in your community work on the Cape Flats?

It’s a mechanism to blame black forms of expression for something caused by slavery, colonialism, capitalism, exploitation and oppression.

I’m from an era when hip-hop was associated with speaking out against the ills of society. I work with kids from one of the most gang-ridden areas on the Cape Flats, but good people are the majority in Lavender Hill too.

I teach kids in Manenberg and it’s the same there. So-called gangsters copy what they see when corporations and countries gang up on others to get what they want. It’s no coincidence that the gangs on the Cape Flats are called Americans. They learn from what they see.

You’ve recently celebrated 30 years in hip-hop. How would you define your relationship with it?

I am not involved in the industry of music exploitation, I am a part of the global hip-hop culture. I know that the true MCs will seldom get played on radio these days because they speak truth to power.

I find it a joke that people were so upset with Slikour about the track Blacks Are Fools, because that is another voice of hip-hop that has been silenced for too long. Hip-hoppers have been researching for truths, now labelled conspiracy theories.

Tell us about your book My Hip-Hop is African and Proud.

It is about how we can rise above the lies that we are faced with in hip-hop today. It is a combination of rhymes and articles that I have written dealing with the daily experiences of people of colour in South Africa. I released it myself and sold 1?000 copies.

Hip-hop culture gave me information that liberated my mind. The book speaks of the heritage that goes back to the first people from whom all human beings come.

What is the Heal The Hood project?

In 1993, after releasing an album with Black Noise and touring schools and communities independently, I realised that most people had no idea what hip-hop was about.

I then wrote my first book, What is Hip-Hop? I had just left my teaching post and toured libraries to teach hip-hop to kids.

I released a magazine called Da Juice. Heal the Hood released CDs for artists like Black Noise, Lionz of Zion and Emile YX. It created events like the African Hip-Hop Indaba, African Battle Cry and Cape Flats Uprising.

We raised money for and sent 158 youngsters to international events. In 2009, Heal the Hood did a self-funded national tour called Know Yourself to Love Yourself.

In 2010, Heal the Hood won the award from Words, Beats and Life in Washington for Best Hip-Hop Organisation. We’re hosting the African Hip-Hop Indaba on Friday and Saturday at the Good Hope Centre in Cape Town.

How do you think dance prepared you for your judging role on the reality show Step Up or Step Out?

It played a huge role in sharing information with dancers and ensuring that dancers know that I am as honest as I can be, first and foremost, about dance. I started out dancing in the streets of Cape Town during apartheid when we were not allowed to travel or gather in crews during the state of emergency, and now I’m on a TV show helping dancers realise a dream that was impossible during my days of street dancing.

What are your thoughts on hip-hop as an influence on popular culture?

Hip-hop’s influence is only as deep as it is allowed. It takes a deep breath and eagerness these days to find the real hip-hop. These days we see hip-hop’s economic influence mostly and not its power to enlighten as much. It influences dress, language and the like, but I often wonder how much of that money made from hip-hop goes back to hip-hop culture itself.

Recently we saw Miley Cyrus twerking controversially. How do you rate her as a dancer?

Hahahaha ... really? No comment.

How has hip-hop influenced South African life?

I heard from many of the founders of kwaito that they used to be into hip-hop and decided to create something similar, but more local, and that’s a huge influence on the mental freedom of young South Africans.

These days, you have local hip-hop artists creating tracks and touring nationally, winning SA Music Awards and making the masses aware that hip-hop has arrived. I don’t think it played a huge role in our run-up to the first democratic election, but I do think it will play a huge role in our mental liberation.

How do you think hip-hop has helped with race relations in Cape Town?

Back in the day, it helped in bringing people together who were far removed from each other. It still does, but not to the extent that it actually has a real impact to change the race relations.

What would you regard as the highlight of your career in hip-hop?

I spent a month trying to get a 12-year-old boy a visa and paperwork. His mum lived in some shack and we had to find her to take her to the courts to get permission for him to go represent South Africa at the world break-dance Battle of the Year in Germany. When he hit the stage, the whole crowd went wild ... that was priceless.

What has SA hip-hop given to the world?

Consciousness and revolution through Prophets of Da City and an original South African b-boy scene/style when Black Noise went to Germany in 1997. I don’t know what they see these days.

You have an iconic Afro hairstyle, what should we read into it?

Hair is a huge issue in Africa and my Afro expresses my love for Africa. I believe that when we wear our hair with love as it is, we will not want to act and be like who we are not. What self-hate makes us see straight hair as more beautiful than who we really are? I feel it is a deep self-negation that we are showing the world.

What does SA hip-hop need right now?

It needs to learn to love itself and then it will be itself. And then the world will want what they can find nowhere else, here in South Africa.

» The finals of Step Up or Step Out will be broadcast live on next Sunday at 6.05pm

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