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The New Era Of Cape Town Hip-Hop

A crop of young artists — including Youngsta, Dope Saint Jude, Blaq Slim, BoolZ & more — are changing the climate of Cape Town hip-hop.


Photo: Andiswa Mkosi

In the black townships they still call it crunk, the bass-heavy electronic and trap-influenced ratchet sound that’s beginning to dominate Cape Town hip-hop. Heads sneer at it, they mock it. It’s dumb, it’s unoriginal. It’s painfully loud and shamelessly happy. Cape Town has long been known for its “raw,” laid-back and socially conscious approach to hip-hop, as championed by the front-runners of the city’s scene – Godessa, Driemanskap, Ill Skillz, Brasse Vannie kaap, Jitsvinger, etc. It dates back to the pioneering years of Prophets of da City (POC) and Black Noise. Hip-hop in The Mother City has always been true to the art form of hip-hop through all its four elements. To this day, the city is still known and respected for that.

Recently, however, there has been a crop of young artists — Youngsta, E-Jay, FonZo, Sibah Anne, Miss Celaneous, PHFat and more — who are slowly changing the climate with a light-hearted approach to lyrics and beats. The sound isn’t new per se, it just wasn’t something one would expect from The Mother City. Johannesburg sort of makes the rules in South African hip-hop. What pops there becomes what pops in the country because most of the big television and radio stations are based there, so the influence is easily spread across the country. The sound used by the biggest South African hip-hop artists like Cassper Nyovest, AKA, K.O and more, is the formula for success. Cape Town artists took long to jump on the bandwagon.

One warm Sunday afternoon, my friend and photographer, Andiswa Mkosi and I attempt to gather some of these new age rappers at the Cape Town taxi station. They show up one by one. We bask in the sun like geckos, waiting for everyone to get there. After waiting for over an hour, we decide to start the shoot around the station with those who are already here. We had planned to do a group shoot, with everyone we have invited, but it plays differently, as some end up not showing up, others show up after others have left.

Youngsta, Leader Of The Pack

E-Jay & Youngsta. Photo: Andiswa Mkosi

Hip-hop in general has a tendency of being resistant to change. Youngsta, one of the leaders of the Cape Town new school has had a fair share of criticism for going against the grain, especially in his early days. “Now you have to go back and look at the guys like Ready D and POC. They have now planted the seed,” he said in a 2012 documentary called Fede Fokol: 25 Years of SA Hip Hop. “And the seed is basically saying ‘this is how you do it.’ No one has tried another route yet but they’re saying this is how it’s done. So the minute someone goes and tries something else, the ones who’re stuck here, are going to tell you ‘we don’t like that' because you’re going out of the box.” Youngsta stuck to his guns and has gone on to become one of the most notable names in Cape Town hip-hop with a skill and work ethic that compares to no one. You might know him for releasing 24 mixtapes in about two years. He’s currently releasing a video every week, as part of his #VisualVrydag campaign. With collaborations with the likes of Tumi, Reason, DJ Ready D, DJ Hamma, DJ Switch and more on his portfolio, the emcee has proven that being new and current doesn’t equate to being sublime and lacking skill.

Getting countrywide recognition hasn’t been easy for Youngsta, he has expressed his frustrations on the impermeable South African music industry. Currently swinging between Jo’burg and Cape Town, the emcee is on the verge of becoming Cape Town’s latest export into the larger South African music scene. His music is, however, different to that of Cape Town acts the country has been exposed to.

Dope Saint Jude, Method In The Madness

Dope Saint Jude. Photo: Andiswa Mkosi

The main criticism the new generation of rappers who choose to rap over synth-bass lines and 808s faces is mundane lyrical content. The subject matter stereotypically revolves around materialism, partying and bottle-poppin’, an influence that can be attributed to the the Dirty South in the US. But according to rapper Dope Saint Jude, the hedonistic lyrics are part of a political statement. “Hip hop for me is a very political genre because it’s music created by people who’ve been oppressed. Even the swaggy hip-hop – young black people enjoying themselves when they’re being told to be sad and oppressed, that in itself is a political statement,” says the eloquent rapper. “So the content of the music doesn’t have to be political, the act can be political.” Dope Saint Jude’s music touches on issues like gender and sexuality in a witty and comical way as displayed on her catchy “Keep in Touch” song. She’s a reluctant academic who has studied Xhosa, gender, philosophy and law among other humanities courses.

“I try studying a bit of everything,” she says. “It allows me to be more eloquent in my raps and that allows me to reach into different kinds of ideas and audiences that I wouldn’t normally reach.”

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Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF


This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF


You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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