Hip-Hop’s link to the struggles of apartheid aren’t widely discussed, considering the abolishment of the racist practice in South Africa ended during the golden age of the genre. However, there have been several instances in the 1980s where rap artists of lore voiced strong opposition to the majority rule Afrikaners’ oppressive ways.
One important event that must be mentioned is the Artists United Against Apartheid and the boycott of Sun City. Sun City, which was essentially a resort for the rich cut off from the rest of South Africa’s ills, presented a false representation of what was truly happening outside its walls. Despite a global chorus of public figures decrying apartheid, then-president Ronald Reagan backed away from assisting in efforts to end the segregation.
In response, several prominent musicians formed the Artists United Against Apartheid group behind the boycott efforts of Steven Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen‘s E Street band. Joining Van Zandt was Bob Dylan, Hall & Oates, Miles Davis, George Clinton, Bobby Womack among others. Hip-Hop acts such as Run DMC, Kool Herc, Melle Mel, Kurtis Blow and Afrika Bambaataa followed suit in creating several versions of a protest track, “Sun City.”
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As noted by writer and activist Davey D, some acts such as Ray Charles and the O’Jays didn’t join the boycott efforts and nearly undermined its push. But these actions would go on to spark and inspire some of Rap’s up and coming to address the issue on their own terms.
Rappers like Kool G Rap mentioned Mandela’s release in 1990 on the track “Erase Racism,” and groups like Public Enemy verbally checked South Africa and apartheid in 1987 on the track “Timebomb.”
The Hip Hop Against Apartheid 12-inch single released in 1990, “Ndodemnyama (Free South Africa),” featured greats such as Queen Latifah, U.T.F.O., Lakim Shabazz, Jungle Brothers and X-Clan. Stetsasonic, considered the first Hip-Hop band, released its record “A.F.R.I.C.A.” in 1987, which also featured heavy anti-apartheid themes.
The bonds between Hip-Hop and South Africa remain strong to this day, thanks in part to the efforts of Washington-based rapper, educator and activist Gabriel “Asheru” Benn. Although Asheru has been well-known in underground rap circles after working with other great modern MCs such as Talib Kweli, he gained national fame as the rapper who provided the theme song for the popular The Boondocks cartoon series.
Asheru’s latest album, “Sleepless In Soweto,” was inspired by his many trips to South Africa, where he has performed and held workshops with local Hip-Hop artists. Asheru hopes to continue forging the unique bond that African-Americans and Africans share via music and culture, using Hip-Hop as the foundation.
The passing of Nelson Mandela was, without doubt, an earth-shattering event. But there has been a positive remembrance of Madiba’s achievements that removes the sting of sadness. Mandela was definitely admired by rappers in verse, even those who on paper wouldn’t appear to have any reverence for the great leader. Common, Jadakiss, Nas, The Game, and countless others have all wisely given props to Mandela in times past.
Hip-Hop’s image today isn’t one of delivering sound messages to the people, especially via its mainstream channels. But there still exists powerful and potent voices that have plenty to say. Just like decades ago, we still have a bevy of artists within the often-criticized genre to look to for positive inspiration and the link between Hip-Hop and the ending of apartheid proves that fact.
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