HARARE - Three weeks ago the curtain came down on another successful edition of Zimbabwe’s sole international spoken word and hip-hop festival, the third Shoko Festival.
Not so long ago , a major festival in Zimbabwe that focused specifically on hip-hop would have seemed like a pipe dream, but three years in, Shoko is showing no signs of slowing down.
In fact, it is expanding by leaps and bounds. Importantly, it is reaching out to a community in Zimbabwe deeply in love with this global musical expression.
Over the past two decades, Zimbabwean hip-hop has risen from a niche genre to a popular art form and the just-ended Shoko Festival proved that.
Ground-breaking audiences turned out in big numbers to witness local and international spoken word and hip-hop performed live at the iconic water park, Water Whirld.
But how did Zimbabwean hip-hop originate? One has to look back to the very origins of hip-hop in New York in the early 1970s.
Hip-hop is one of America’s most successful cultural exports along with jazz and RnB, created by Black Americans.
Just like American music which has become a popular global export, hip-hop quickly gained a global following and it was in the mid-80s that the first Zimbabwean hip-hop artistes emerged.
Peace of Ebony was the first hip-hop outfit that made Zimbabwean audiences sit up and take notice.
The ensemble featured the talents of Herbert Schwamborn, Tony Chihota, Tendai Viki, the future queen of mbira, Chiwoniso Maraire with legendary Ilanga music-maker Keith Farquason, producing.
This super group exploded on the local music scene and became the first Zimbabwean hip-hop band to get international attention, with their single Vadzimu. In 1994, Peace Of Ebony won the Best New Group out of southern Africa award in the Radio France International Discovery contest. They composed Vadzimu specifically for the competition: A mbira song with a hip-hop rhythm and a mix of Shona, English and French.
One cannot underestimate the importance of Peace of Ebony.
Simba Mushunje, an MC known as Loud 5, and producer of the documentary, Hip-Hop in Zimbabwe is not dead says, “Peace of Ebony broke the barriers between what people were listening to or doing and what Zimbabweans were beginning to accept.
“They were the first to break the barriers nationally and internationally because they managed to merge local music with hip-hop. They were number one for several weeks, especially with Pretend It Never Happened. It not only made it in Zimbabwe, but also in South Africa as well.”
Mushunje’s documentary released this year, features profiles and interviews with a number of local hip-hop stars who are all passionate about hip-hop.
After Peace of Ebony’s breakthrough (who could forget their catchy number one hit, Native Tongue?) hip-hop artists sprung up from out of the woodwork and made their mark on Zimbabwean music history.
Among them was Mizchif, the first Zimbabwean hip-hop artiste to sign a record deal with Sony, one of the biggest record labels in the world. Another who has achieved international fame and renown is Metaphysics.
Formerly Herbert Shwamborn or Qwela from, A Peace of Ebony, he broke away to form Kataklyzm with Tendai Viki and his brother Carlprit before going solo as Metaphysics.
Today, he releases music on his German record label, Gandanga Music.
Last year, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Zimbabwe Hip-hop Awards.
Shingirayi Sabeta, known as Mau Mau, also made an impact, and is a favourite among local hip-hop heads.
His hit song Ndiyani Mau Mau was catchy and relatable.
Of all Zimbabwean hip-hop artistes, Mau Mau has the distinction of being one of the first hip-hop artistes to rap primarily in Shona.
Mau Mau talks of how his musical career started.
“In 1996, I hooked up with Fortune Mparutsa. At that point, he was the only one making hot beats and we worked on Ndiyani Mau Mau which was released as a single in 1997.”
“I did two versions, one was Shona completely, and the other was in English which was new at that point which really made people take notice. In 2002, we did the first ever Zimbabwean hip-hop national tour with Mizchif, Mo Vip and three other crews. We did shows in Kwekwe, Gweru, Bulawayo and Mutare,” added Mau Mau.
Other notable MC’s include Munetsi, who has been a major player on the scene for years, and whose single Ghetto Slogan has everyone talking about its killer beat and slick music video.
Hailing from Chitungwiza, Munetsi Matambanadzo is another MC whose lyrics are predominantly in his native language, Shona.
Mushunje says of Munetsi: “He was there in the late 90s just after Peace of Ebony. A lot of people did not know his music.
“He is new, but he is not very new. He was a very conscious hip-hop artiste.”
Another MC much respected in the genre is Begotten Sun, who started singing hip-hop in Zimbabwe in the late 1980s, before moving to the UK and continuing there.
Last year he featured notably on Synik’s award-winning “Syn City” album on the conscious track Afr-I-can.
One cannot speak of the greatest Zimbabwean hip-hop artistes without mentioning King Pinn, a pioneer of the genre, and to many, one of Zimbabwe’s greatest.
This hip-hop hero whose untimely death robbed us of future great music, has been celebrated (largely underground) as a lyrical genius.
His mixtape, 100% Verbal Vitamin which was unofficially released, is a sampling of what some call the best Zimbabwean hip-hop, including the classic track, I Salute You. Other veteran MCs in the hip-hop game include Prometheus, Loud 5, and Take 5.
Take 5 has been a producer for local urban grooves and hip-hop music for many years.
Mushunje lauds Prometheus’ impact in Zimbabwean hip-hop.
“Me and a group of other people like Prometheus started doing hip-hop together in the early 90s. Take 5 was on the rise at That Squad studios. That’s where all the urban groovers started. Roki, Stunner, and Ex-Q all came from here.
“Literally everyone that we know of today that we have respect for as urban groovers, came from Take 5. Back then, he produced anything and for everybody.
“But now he is producing for Tehn Diamond and Jr. Brown because he understands where they are coming from. They blend very well together.”
Tehn Diamond whose hit Happy was one of the radio and party anthems of last year, as well as frequent collaborator, Jr. Brown whose MaDrinks was on every party girl’s lips, have raised their profile by performing live on Big Brother Africa, reaching an audience of millions across the continent.
Take 5, Tehn Diamond and Jr. Brown have set themselves up as a collective called Few Kings that is making a strong commercial splash with their brand of music.
Tehn Diamond and Jr. Brown are the hip-hop stars who are on the other side of the coin, who have embraced the party ‘light-hearted’ aspect of hip-hop, and are gaining their fair share of recognition through radio play and free downloads online.
But there are of course challengers to their throne.
MMT, consisting of MC Cut, Mariachi and Tatea Da MC with their hits Party Yatanga and Zvirdhori, have raised the bar in terms of standard of music production.
Coupled with confident flow and word play, they are part of an increasing trend in hip-hop pushing local languages into this American art form.
Let’s not forget female MC’s DJ Naida who is a DJ, producer, songwriter and MC in her own right and the outspoken Blackbird, the first Zimbabwean woman to release a full-length hip-hop album and whose performance at this year’s Hifa raised her profile.
On the more ‘conscious’ side of the genre is the winner of last year’s hip-hop album of the year, best newcomer, and best collaboration, is Gerald Mugwenhi known as Synik.
His album Syn City spawned several singles, including the popular track Powercut which received a lot of airplay.
Synik has performed at the Shoko Festival several times and his debut album stands alone as a modern classic with a strong concept based around his adopted city, Harare.
Others who rap along the same vein include Upmost, Aerosol and Outspoken.
Outspoken, co-founder of the Shoko Festival released his eclectic, debut double disc album early September entitled, Uncool and Unrated/God Before Anything to critical acclaim from fans and media alike.
Also of note, is out-of-the box outfit Dimitri and The Scarecrow, who are fusing rock with hip-hop.
This new generation of MC’s seem to be focusing on hip-hop moving in a new direction that is more innovative, and solidly alternative in content and influence, while still staying Zimbabwean.
As for its future, Zimbabwean hip-hop can only go far with new ideas, and with artistes embracing a distinct art form but infusing it with their own unique take. Time alone will tell.