At a glittering red carpet bash in Los Angeles tonight, African artists will once again vie for the BET Award for best act from the continent. If either The Soil or AKA wins, it will be the first time Nigeria’s winning streak has been broken, but is it SA’s time to bring the statue home, asks Gugulethu Mhlungu
Tonight’s Black Entertainment Television (BET) Awards will be featuring more international acts than ever before.
Aside from their annual international act awards, they enlisted hip-hop artists such as the UK’s Little Simz, Ghana’s Sarkodie and South Africa’s AKA to perform on last night’s new international act stage.
They have also added the inaugural International Viewers’ Choice Award category where the winner will be decided by public votes.
The nominees for this, announced last week, include South Africa’s Cassper Nyovest.
Two things are clear: BET wants to speak to a broader audience – and African hip-hop is starting to make international waves.
The BET Awards were launched in 2001 to recognise the achievements of African-American and other minorities’ entertainment and sporting professionals.
In 2011, the Best International Act: Africa category was introduced. And if the last four years are anything to go by, west Africa is home to the kings of contemporary popular African music.
To date, Nigeria and Ghana share the most nominations in the category and Nigeria has won it every year.
D’Banj, 2face Idibia, Ice Prince and Davido have all lifted the star-shaped statue, pipping South African nominees Teargas (2011), Lira (2012), Toya Delazy (2013) and Mafikizolo (2014).
Last year was the year of Mafikizolo’s monster hit Khona and it looked certain the award would finally make its way here, but Nigeria’s Davido, with his already enviable catalogue of hits and awards, took it.
The west African dominance makes sense: the Nigerian music industry is the kind of beast South Africa’s would like to be (and is fast becoming in its own way, even without the large potential consumer base Naija artists enjoy).
Nigeria had already settled into a distinctive contemporary Afropop sound while many young South African artists were fiddling with weird and wonderful faux American accents and an R&B sound that wasn’t quite American but also wasn’t as distinct as Afropop.
This was while also making some of the best House music on the continent, and in the world.
But South Africa’s pop sound has quickly caught up, and a uniqueness and freshness among its younger contemporary artists has emerged, with the necessary references to the old guard who did it first – the Makebas, Fassies, Ladysmith Black Mambazos, Mahlathinis and Mahotella Queens, Abdullah Ibrahims and others.
‘We want to transform your life’
This year, South Africa has two finalists on the list for best African act: rap prince AKA and a capella group The Soil.
They face tough competition in the form of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Fally Ipupa, Ghana’s Sarkodie and Stonebwoy, Kenya’s Sauti Sol and Nigeria’s Wizkid and Yemi Alade.
While South Africa has quickly found its various sounds, particularly where commercial hip-hop is concerned, the rest of the continent has also powered along, meaning first-time nominees are up against some repeat nominees.
The Soil burst on to the South African music scene in 2011 with their eponymous album.
“When we perform in France, Germany and especially in the US, the crowd goes quiet,” the group’s Ntsika Ngxanga told #Trending this week. “Especially when they hear we are from South Africa, because they would have then heard of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who paved the way for us.”
The group has just performed at the iconic Apollo Theatre in New York for the third time, where Ngxanga said they received a standing ovation and had some audience members in tears.
“We always make sure our music is out there to transform people’s lives,” Ngxanga says, “and we are not just a force to be reckoned with at home, but now also abroad.”
Their first album achieved platinum status in South Africa, selling more than 50 000 copies, while their second, Nostalgic Moments, has seen them winning numerous awards. It features their a capella heroes Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
“Ladysmith did a great job of getting the sound and the country out there, and so there is a huge responsibility for us when we do our music, because we are aware of the heritage of our sound.”
Tonight, although they won’t be in attendance due to a performance they committed to last year already, The Soil hopes to add a BET to their growing list of accolades. Ngxanga says they dream of lifting a Grammy one day too.
Unlocking the world
The Soil’s fellow nominee, rap prince AKA, has established himself as one of the country’s leading talents, and arguably the best local rapper to do it.
Multiple accolades – SA Hip Hop Awards, SA Music Awards, Metro Awards and Channel O Awards – have already been garnered.
AKA headed to Los Angeles after three weeks of his UK tour, which included an appearance on DJ Tim Westwood’s massive Crib Session on the Capital Xtra radio station, and during which his Nigerian Entertainment Awards nomination (the only South African artist on this year’s list) was announced.
He also announced that his latest album, Levels, had achieved gold status in South Africa (25 000 copies sold).
AKA has disproven two recurring narratives about local hip-hop: that English rap can’t be as successful as rap in vernacular, and South African rap is not exportable.
His music currently enjoys airplay in other parts of the world, including the UK and Nigeria. In many ways, the Cape Town-born AKA is unlocking new spaces for other artists and not just hip-hop performers.
A win at the prestigious BETs would not only cement his place as a leading contemporary African rapper, but cement the global relevance of contemporary hip-hop sounds coming out of this country.
It is fitting that both The Soil and Kiernan Forbes, AKA Super Mega, AKA The Third World Boss, AKA AKA, will tonight represent South Africa on the international stage.
“I think South Africa has a great chance of bringing the award home this year,” adds Ngxanga. “It’s our time. Our music is cool; our music is edgy and, like other parts of Africa, we’ve given the world so much of what it deems cool.”
.The BET Awards take place in Los Angeles tonight. See page 9 for details of the TV broadcast