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Black Vulcanite. Image courtesy of artist.

How to Rap About Africa: Remembering When Binyavanga’s Iconic Essay Was Turned Into a Scathing Rap Song By Black Vulcanite

In 2016, the Namibian hip-hop crew Black Vulcanite turned Binyavanga's iconic essay into a scathing rap song 'How To Rap About Africa.'

One of Binyavanga Wainaina's most popular essays, 2005's How To Write About Africa, which was later turned into a book, is one of the most effective pieces about the stereotyping of Africa ever published.

In it, the author, who recently passed away, gave a tongue-in-cheek guide to writing about Africa for foreigners.

"Always use the word 'Africa' or 'Darkness' or 'Safari' in your title. Subtitles may include the words 'Zanzibar,' 'Masai,' 'Zulu,' 'Zambezi,' 'Congo,' 'Nile,' 'Big,' 'Sky,' 'Shadow,' 'Drum,' 'Sun' or 'Bygone.' Also useful are words such as 'Guerrillas,' 'Timeless,' 'Primordial' and 'Tribal.' Note that 'People' means Africans who are not black, while 'The People' means black Africans," he wrote, adding, a few lines later: "In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates."

Eleven years after Binyavanga's essay, three Namibian writers—rappers Mark Mushiva and AliThatDude and poet Okin who are collectively known as Black Vulcanite—took a leaf from the author's book in their song "How To Rap About Africa," a title that's an obvious nod to Binyavanga.


On "How To Rap About Africa," a deep cut from their debut album Black Colonialists (2016), the trio deliberately make reference to the stereotypes the West has about the continent. But the twist is, unlike the essay, the song isn't a guide, but an interrogation of the continent's present.


It's the MCs' choice of words that references How To Write About Africa. The most obvious is on the hook, performed by Okin; he chants most of the stereotypes Binyavanga brought up in his essay: "Black, genocide, famine, apartheid, kaffir, safari, Buddha, slavery, Namibia, civil war, Congo, primordial, poverty, gorillas, malaria, AIDS," as a group of protesters join in between every word.

The imagery deployed by Mark and Ali paints a grim picture, the point is that Africa is a seriously complex continent, and shit can get real for you if you don't watch yourself.

On "How To Rap About Africa," Mark talks about the ills faced by modern Africans, from corrupt politicians, who he refers to as "hyenas," to the taxing effects of capitalism. He raps:

"This is Africa, and here the currencies favour/ The hippos that it made, tell me what you have to trade/ You wanna build a pipeline, you have to wash some hands/ Hyenas manage tenders, eat meat by the gram/ Eat meat like the lamb/ NGOs don't stand a chance"

And then later, "Ain't shit changed, we got this independence of ours/ Cuz the zookeeper simply extended the bars/ We're still caged, debt unpaid, more aid/ Home sweet home mortgage/ Got two more days till the last payment."

In the last quoted lines, the MC talks about how our leaders are our new oppressors—the word "hippo" is a play on the safari concept, but it also refers to the wars that are still ongoing in some parts of the continent. "Tender" is cleverly placed just before the MC mentions "meat" and "lamb."

But what hits home is how he dispels the concept of freedom in a system where we have to depend on money to even have a place we call home. The continent is in huge debt, and so are most individual middle and working class Africans.

When he raps, "Went from the bushveld to the harsh pavement," he is speaking to how civilization brought with it a lot of suffering, as many Africans find themselves in the fringes of the system, both physically and systemically.

He further looks at how media is still biased towards western standards of beauty, rapping: "They say we light years from Kwame's dream/ There's only light women in magazines/ Man, I don't even like women in magazines/ But it seems, western vaccines all we need."

Mark Mushiva. Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela.

Ali's verse is scathing towards politicians, he labels them "the African black mamba" (because really, they are), and describes a hostile environment in which the rich (lions) hang out with your woman (gazelle) in a watering hole.

Both Ali and Mark refer to places like clubs and bars as "watering holes." While Mark refers to politicians as hyenas, Ali speaks of criminals as hyenas—great imagery considering the predatory nature of politicians and criminals of all sorts.

Ali raps, "One drop from his venom, make your body go numb/ The African black mamba, scaly politician/ Hyenas never wander far, they out to mission"

Unlike a tour guide, he will take tourists to parts of the continent where it's not safe for them and anyone else. He will take them on a "a slum safari, no white sand beach" where "every white man out here is just fresh meat."

After all, these tourists stand out and are easy targets, no matter how hard they can try to blend in with their surroundings—a zebra always stands out because of its stripes. He raps:

"European looking zebra tryna blend in the grass/ This is not your habitat and we all can see/ The scent of fear in the air every time you breathe/ It wouldn't happen to me, my wild dog pack deep/ Four claws, four paws, set of canine Gs"

"How To Write About Africa" plays out like a fable, which is a prominent literary genre that has been widely deployed by Africans for the longest times in educational fairy tales and literature. Just like many folk tales, the song "How To Rap About Africa" is up to the listener's interpretation.

Black Vulcanite are among many rappers who have used jungle imagery to interrogate their surroundings. Pharoahe Monch also did it on "Jungle" when he played around with the concept of crime riddled cities being jungles: he mentioned Chicago, Cape Town and Joburg among others. Stogie T, while still rapping under his birth name, opened The Journey, his collaborative EP with Chinese Man with the song "Jungle Boogie," where he raps as a satiric tour guide that will show you around the safari.

The progressive politics and nuanced views of the continent on "How To Rap About Africa" make more sense in the context of the album the song is a part of. Black Colonialists, the trio's debut, explores the position black people occupy in the world today with our history of colonization and displacement. In the album, the trio break down how us finding ourselves in the diaspora could be leveraged towards our advantage, hence the term "Black Colonialists."

In a 2016 interview, Mark Mushvia put it this way:

"The title was to set the theme for the album which pronounces a massive economic occupation of our artistic, economic, cultural, futuristic [and] historic spaces which have been traditionally overtly white. And we also wanted to upend the dialect of a colonizer and shed this cloak of victimhood that we're always draped in, and saying we are viewing all the tragedies that happened — the transatlantic slave trade, Haiti, Jamaica, Portugal, Spain — not as tragedies but as unique opportunities for the diaspora and African people to go out and influence the greater parts of the world. In a way, colonise them."

Stream Black Colonialists below:


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Photo courtesy of Sam Soko.

Interview: Sam Soko is the Kenyan Director Behind Sundance Hit, 'Softie'

We meet filmmaker Sam Soko who has made a stirring documentary about the Kenyan protest leader Boniface Mwangi

Filmmaker Sam Soko didn't intend on making a documentary about Kenyan photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi.

The original idea he had was to make a manual of sorts, a short video guide, on how to protest, the do's and don't's. Soko, himself an activist artist who cut his teeth convincing friends to let him create political music videos for their apolitical songs, knew Mwangi's experience on the streets both photographing protests and staging them meant he had a lot to share with others.

But then came the blood. A thousand litres of it, to be precise. And the pigs. Dozens of them, with words like MPigs written on them. Like the graphic photos Mwangi had become known for taking—it was a sight you couldn't look away from. It was a protest Mwangi organized, in 2013, to decry corrupt members of the Kenyan parliament who had decided to increase their salaries, 2 months after taking office. And at his side, through the thick red liquid of it all, was Mwangi's wife, Njere, ready to be arrested with him.

"Once I was witness to his relationship, I started seeing him as a family man," Soko tells OkayAfrica. "Because he's planning a protest and all, but when you look at the footage, you start seeing the kids and you start seeing Njere. That's when it started hitting me, in the sense, that she was with him in such a crazy space."

Soko formed a creative and activist hub, called PAWA 254, with Mwangi, as they became part of the groundswell demanding democratic reforms in a country still left scarred from the division sewed between Kikuyu and Luo people by British colonizers. "We had a new Constitution at the time, and there was this hope that we finally could picket without being tear-gassed or being beaten, Like, our civil liberties could be held up." Instead, the government strengthened its police force into a notorious organization condemned by human rights activists. "That's very salient in the film," says Soko. "If you see how the police dress, for instance, at the beginning, it's very different; they become more militant towards the end."

Soko's debut feature-length documentary, Softie, which became the first Kenyan film to ever premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, earlier this year, is at once a love story between Mwangi and his wife and their three children, but also between Mwangi and his beloved Kenya, under president Uhuru Kenyatta. Central to the film is the tussle between how these different loves bump up against each other: what comes first — love of country or love of family?

We spoke to the Nairobi-based director about making the film, which opens in virtual cinemas, starting this Friday, September 18th.

Boniface Mwangi with his wife Photo courtesy of Sam Soko


OA: Early on in the film, we learn how steadfast Boniface Mwangi is — he talks about being willing to die for the ideals he believes in, which made me think of Nelson Mandela and his Rivonia Treason Trial speech. Boniface is someone in the present day who still shares this belief?

When we were working on the edit, and kind of crafting and thinking about what the story was going to be, something that we found that was really, really interesting is, with a lot of the stories, like the story of Nelson Mandela, you'd never see the other side. That's something we see later, up ahead, as a retrospective. We'd hear about Martin Luther King and then we'd read about Coretta Scott in, I think, 1990, like, 'Oh, this his was her struggle.' That sort of thing. But for me, Boniface and Njere represented a present day reality struggle that showcases what Mandela was going through, what Martin Luther was going through. That was kind of like unravelling the curtain; when you see Martin Luther marching, Coretta's at home, trying to help their kids do their homework. And this is the reality.

OA: And the film poses that question of love for your country versus love for your family, and which one should come first?

Exactly. They see it in different ways. Boniface sees it that if you improve the country, you improve the lives of those who you love. Njere's like, you have to have your family's back first. And that means everything else comes second. And she's right; she's not wrong. And he's not wrong.

OA: The film really is privy to some really private moments in Mwangi's life — how did you gain his trust?

When we started filming the short video, he was really involved with the protests, and we started doing the protests with him. So we were—quote, unquote—in the trenches with him in the protests, and somehow that's how he kind of welcomed us to his home. When you've been with someone in the streets, and you're tear-gassed together more than once, you already have a common bond. But then I started developing a relationship with him that was beyond the streets. Just checking up on him and asking, what's going on, what's taking place? That sort of thing. I think it took a while. And I think even from Njere, we kind of developed a kind of camaraderie that was separate from my relationship with Boniface, because I would actually be like, 'Hey, he said that, how does that make you feel?' And not necessarily on camera. But over time, he kind of accepted us to be there with a camera. At some point, I kind of felt like they were talking to me, and not necessarily the camera; like, the camera is kind of this thing that's there, but not there. That kind of trust, again, was built on a respect that I have for them and their values and what they're doing. I think that's something they saw. It made them trust me with their story and trust me with their family.

You're the director of the film, but you're also producer, writer and cinematographer. Did Boniface's own style as a photojournalist influence you in any way?

The film has three cinematographers, and a lot of my cinematography is within the intimate moments, because that's when they would only engage with someone they trust. But him being a photographer actually, to a point, made the work a bit hard because he's constantly looking at how you're doing it. He's in your face about the angle. He's like, 'Hey, why are you standing there, you should be there.' But in some places he did help 'cause he's been filming in the streets and filming protests for a very long time. So when you're there filming, he'll easily tell you, 'Dude, don't stand there. They're about to start tear-gassing. Go to the other side.' And it's weird, when you're on the other side and you're filming, and all of a sudden you see tear gas, you wonder, 'How the hell did he know?' You do that 234 times and you start knowing yourself, 'Oh, this is how,' and he was really helpful in that sense.

I can imagine that filming during the protests must have been one of the big challenges of making this film but what else did you struggle with? There were death threats for Mwangi, did that happen to you as well?

It's so funny, when you're filming and when you're in the protests, it's adrenaline talking. So you're not really thinking about whether you're going to be okay. This one time, I got arrested because the cop said I was a spy for the protesters. [We had everything] from cameras breaking to sound equipment messing up, but when it became a more political story, with death threats, it became scary even for editing the film. Because you don't know who's watching you. This one time, I was with him in the car, filming, and we were being followed. So we kind of had to be very careful who we are telling about the story. It was a very deep secret that we were making this film and there are people who are watching it now asking, 'How could you keep this from us from all these years?' Because we had to do that. Especially when the family was in the US. We had to do that for the sake of safety for him, Boniface, for his family but also the film team. I remember doing the pitches with different names. But then we were also lucky that we had our co-producing partner in Canada, Eye Steel Film, so they were able to house the edit there. I went to Canada to edit and that kind of also gives you a kind of freedom to think and work and create. That was the reality, and now I think we have PTSD from the film. I can't film another protest. I'm sorry. I'm out. Like, it tapped me out.

There are similarities to the Black Lives Matter protests here in the US, against police brutality and violence but the slogan takes on a different resonance in places like Kenya, where the police force is particularly heavy-handed. How do you see these protests as being similar but also different?

There are two things that you learn with the film. One, our voices can never be silenced. They will try, but I think humanity is like a pressure cooker. The more you boil us, the more you put that heat, the more explosive we become. And through people like Boniface's life, you see that there are human beings who exist, who do extraordinary things.

The other thing is the idea of activism doesn't necessarily just speak to the person who's on the street. It doesn't necessarily speak to the person who's holding the placard. An activist is someone like Njere and her life, and her family. And Khadija [Mohamed, Mwangi's campaign manager]. She's such a strong and powerful activist in her own right. She was Boniface's campaign manager for free. The work they did was so powerful. And you have these other people in the background who are doing such incredible things. The sum total of what they've done is [to] instigate… We have an election next year, but I am so sure that we are going to have so many candidates who are going to be like, 'We want you to donate to our campaign. We have these values and beliefs; this is what we want to do.' That is how we need to go about change or add on to the conversations of change.

The same thing that's happening with the Black Lives Matters movement. Yes, there are people going to the street and we should keep going to the street. But we need to push people to engage in policy and make sure these policy changes are made.

We need to stand for what we believe in, as filmmakers in spaces where we feel oppression exists. Like the rules that have come out with the Academy Awards, these are rules that should be celebrated because they add on to that conversation of diversity and representation. All these things—that sum total—is what makes the difference. It's going beyond the streets and going beyond our Tweets, going beyond our Facebook messages, making films and sharing films. We just need to keep pumping up the volume, keeping the heat up, keep pushing. It's gonna take a while, but we'll get there.


Photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi during a protest in Nairobi, Kenya Photo courtesy of Sam Soko


That's where you as a filmmaker come in—this film was the first Kenyan film to get into Sundance, where it won a special editing prize.

There's another film I'm producing and, and, yes, I had my film at Sundance, that's great. But there's this other filmmaker who's making another film, and it's so cool, and this is the thing—we need to keep bouncing off this energy and this light and this vibe, and just keep pushing and making sure that the wheels keep turning. That's what we're all about.

How do you renew your strength, as a filmmaker but also as a Kenyan and as an African?

Being a Kenyan is hard. I think being an African is hard. Like, it's hard. There's a line I heard Boniface say once: 'I love my country, but I am afraid of my government.' But the way in which, personally, I find energy is when I meet new filmmakers, or you know, people who are like starting out and they want to make films that sound totally crazy. And they believe that they can do it. And I'm like, 'yes, yes, keep going!' We are planning to do a premiere. We have not confirmed the date yet but we're thinking it's around going to be early October in Kenya, because Kenyans haven't watched it. The government gave us an adult rating. They're putting us on the same level as porn.

This is the same government that banned Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki because of its homosexual theme…

Exactly, that's what we're getting but the lemonade that we've made out of all this is, 'Guess what? This is cinema!' We're going to take it to a cinema. People are going to come to watch it in a cinema or watch it at home or watch it in the best way possible. And the people who've watched it have appreciated it as a film and a story, and their story. They've seen a reflection of themselves. That gives me so much joy because the Kenyans who've watched it, when they give you feedback, they say, this is truth; this is our truth. And they don't see just an activist. They see a couple struggling with love. They see our history in the last 10 years. And they're like, 'What the hell, we lived this?' and they see the things that are unresolved — and many things are unresolved. Seeing that reaction gives me so much strength and hope. But it's hard. It's very hard. Because, you know, you have to wake up and see the policeman getting a bribe. And you're like, 'Homie??'


"SOFTIE" Movie Poster



Watch the trailer for Softie here.

Softie | Official Trailer | A film by Sam Soko www.youtube.com

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