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The Pretorian Prog-Rap Revival

The New York prog-rap movement of the late nineties found a new home in Pretoria.


Photo via Dynamic Shapeshifterz

Ideas have the incredible ability to resurrect themselves in foreign contexts. The New York prog-rap movement of the late nineties managed to capture the attention of a select group of discerning heads for a brief moment then briskly evaporated into oblivion when philosophical rap fell out of vogue with its nerdy suburban following. That’s an all too common narrative in our bullet-paced age; modern sub-genres have the life-expectancy of plankton and are equally as copious; multiplying at viral velocity; leaving us hardly any prefixes left to classify them all. Music genres used to be indelible inherited monuments patiently waiting to be discovered by the listener. Now they haphazardly float past our ears like densely scattered sonic bubbles, each popping soon after it’s noticed. Such was the dreaded fate of the prog-rap genre, with only a few of its last apostles like Aesop Rock, Busdriver and Death Grips keeping its flickering torch lit today.

Yet quite unbeknownst to the martyrs of this short-lived cause, a potent seed had been sown on distant soil. It all started in Brooklyn, New York, the birthplace of Definitive Jux, a prog-rap label founded in 1999 by producer/rapper El-P. It housed a fellowship of hip-hop pioneers including Aesop Rock, Big Jus, Cannibal Ox, Atoms Fam and Company Flow. They sought to provide a more figurative voice for the urban music of their generation. They incorporated elements of prose and academia with street slang and ghetto bravado... the result was radioactive. Aesop Rock became hip hop’s T.S. Elliot, unabashedly conveying the moral toxicity of industrial progress. Big Jus became our Karl Marx, debunking the intrinsically exploitative nature of the capitalist system. Their music was a much needed counterweight to the club-rap which came to dominate the era. Which is precisely why when this brand of hip-hop reached its point of extinction, it left a noticeable vacuum. As a universal law of physics: Energy never dies, it’s only transferred... and this energy would be transferred to the most remotely obscure of destinations: Pretoria, South Africa.

The climate of South African hip-hop early to mid 2000’s was one intoxicated by a general preoccupation with battle raps. The majority of local emcees would astound the audience with content that was nothing more than a collage of punch lines stitched together with a-b-a-b rhyme schemes. The lesser evil was the black consciousness hip-hop of the time, most of which was delivered in a prosaic and unimaginative fashion– that was what was deemed as the revolutionary rap of the time. Pretoria was a distinguished arena for both styles with the Sammy Marks’ Square ciphers being the epicentre and forum for many unsung heroes in the scene as well as some sung ones, including Mycbeth (The Anvils), Tumi (from Tumi and the Volume) and Disco Izreal (PHFat, Sedge Warbler). The only problem was that the city hadn’t developed its own signature sound. Joburg hip-hop was recognisable from a mile away, as was Cape Town’s. Pretorian emcees, though, blended into the background with no unique quality or style to set them apart from the swarm.

This all changed when the PTA prog-rap movement was born, when acts like Audio-Flux Modulation and Dynamic Shapeshifterz emerged onto the scene glistening with a refreshing new aesthetic. They rapped on time, stretched arrhythmic jazz loops and touched on virgin subject matter from post-colonial ails to theoretical physics. They portrayed their concepts with a new non-representational method. The subtext was now carefully veiled behind the rhetoric, profound treasure buried deep beneath the surface as if to mask it from those unworthy of its beauty. This new army of artists armed with camouflaged truths represented a tectonic shift in the urban African psyche. The focus now was to construct a new methodology; a new encrypted language in which to document African history; one more based on imagery than syntax; like a verbalised version of hieroglyphics. Their verses should form the syllabi that the next generation of young South African intellectuals could rely on to discern the real story behind the 'Rainbow Nation’ fairytale.

But alas, the chances are the vast majority of them will never be signed and their music will never reach its predestined audience. Like their American predecessors, their greatest possible prospect is to have their subversive genius embraced in eccentric locations like Europe and Japan. The two movements would become like soul mates doomed never to meet– parallel lines constrained from ever converging. Both movements seem to have been born out of wedlock and out of sync with their societies. They both preferred to live in the abstract rather than the tangible, detaching themselves from reality in order to become its objective lyrical narrators. The funny thing is, although both movements were always perversely undervalued and misunderstood by their local audiences, I can’t help but believe that if they somehow had found each other... that would be all the applause they’d ever need.

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Introducing OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2020 List

Celebrating African Women Laying the Groundwork for the Future

It would not be hyperbole to consider the individuals we're honoring for OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2020 list as architects of the future.

This is to say that these women are building infrastructure, both literally and metaphorically, for future generations in Africa and in the Diaspora. And they are doing so intentionally, reaching back, laterally, and forward to bridge gaps and make sure the steps they built—and not without hard work, mines of microaggressions, and challenges—are sturdy enough for the next ascent.

In short, the women on this year's list are laying the groundwork for other women to follow. It's what late author and American novelist Toni Morrison would call your "real job."

"I tell my students, 'When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else."

And that's what inspired us in the curation of this year's list. Our honorees use various mediums to get the job done—DJ's, fashion designers, historians, anthropologists, and even venture capitalists—but each with the mission to clear the road ahead for generations to come. Incredible African women like Eden Ghebreselassie, a marketing lead at ESPN who created a non-profit to fight energy poverty in Eritrea; or Baratang Miya, who is quite literally building technology clubs for disadvantaged youth in South Africa.

There are the builds that aren't physically tangible—movements that inspire women to show up confidently in their skin, like Enam Asiama's quest to normalize plus-sized bodies and Frédérique (Freddie) Harrel's push for Black and African women to embrace the kink and curl of their hair.

And then there are those who use their words to build power, to take control of the narrative, and to usher in true inclusion and equity. Journalists, (sisters Nikki and Lola Ogunnaike), a novelist (Oyinkan Braithwaite), a media maven (Yolisa Phahle), and a number of historians (Nana Oforiatta Ayim, Leïla Sy) to name a few.

In a time of uncertainty in the world, there's assuredness in the mission to bring up our people. We know this moment of global challenge won't last. It is why we are moving forward to share this labor of love with you, our trusted and loyal audience. We hope that this list serves as a beacon for you during this moment—insurance that future generations will be alright. And we have our honorees to thank for securing that future.

EXPERIENCE 100 WOMEN 2020

The annual OkayAfrica 100 Women List is our effort to acknowledge and uplift African women, not only as a resource that has and will continue to enrich the world we live in, but as a group that deserves to be recognized, reinforced and treasured on a global scale. In the spirit of building infrastructure, this year's list will go beyond the month of March (Women's History Month in America) and close in September during Women's Month in South Africa.

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Burna Boy 'African Giant' money cover art by Sajjad.

The 20 Essential Burna Boy Songs

We comb through the Nigerian star's hit-filled discography to select 20 essential songs from the African Giant.

Since bursting onto the scene in 2012 with his chart-topping single, "Like to Party," and the subsequent release of his debut album, L.I.F.E - Leaving an Impact for eternity, Burna Boy has continued to prove time and again that he is a force to be reckoned with.

The African Giant has, over the years, built a remarkable musical identity around the ardent blend of dancehall, hip-hop, reggae, R&B, and afropop to create a game-changing genre he calls afro-fusion. The result has been top tier singles, phenomenal collaborations, and global stardom—with several accolades under his belt which include a Grammy nomination and African Giant earning a spot on many publications' best albums of 2019.

We thought to delve into his hit-filled discography to bring you The 20 Essential Burna Boy Songs.

This list is in no particular order.

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Image courtesy of Lula Ali Ismaïl

'Dhalinyaro' Is the Female Coming-of-Age Story Bringing Djibouti's Film Industry to Life

The must-watch film, from Lula Ali Ismaïl, paints a novel picture of Djibouti's capital city through the story of three friends.

If you're having a tough time recalling the last movie you watched from Djibouti, it's likely because you have never watched one before. With an almost non-existent film industry in the country, Lula Ali Ismaïl, tells a beautiful coming of age story of three young female Djiboutian teenagers at the cusp of womanhood. Dhalinyaro offers a never-before-seen view of Djibouti City as a stunning, dynamic city that blends modernity and tradition—a city in which the youth, like all youth everywhere, struggle to decide what their futures will look like. It's a beautiful story of friendship, family, dreams and love from a female filmmaker who wants to tell a "universal story of youth," but set in the country she loves—Djibouti.

The story revolves around the lives of three young friends from different socio-economic backgrounds, with completely varied attitudes towards life, but bound by a deep friendship. There is Asma, the conservative academic genius who dreams of going to medical school and hails from a modest family. Hibo, a rebellious, liberal, spoiled girl from a very wealthy family who learns to be a better friend as the film evolves and finally Deka. Deka is the binding force in the friendship, a brilliant though sometimes naïve teen who finds herself torn between her divorced mother's ambitions to give her a better life having saved up all her life for her to go to university abroad, and her own conviction that she wants to study and succeed in her own country.

Okayafrica contributor, Ciku Kimeria speaks to Ismaïl on her groundbreaking film, her hopes for the filmmaking industry and the universality of stories.

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Stogie T Enlists Nasty C, Boity, Nadia Nakai and More, for ‘The Empire of Sheep’ Deluxe Edition

Stream the deluxe version of Stogie T's EP 'The Empire of Sheep' featuring Nasty C, Boity, Nadia Nakai and more.

Stogie T just shared a deluxe version of his 2019 EP The Empire of Sheep titled EP The Empire of Sheep (Deluxe Unmasked). The project comes with three new songs. "All You Do Is Talk" features fellow South African rappers Nasty C, Boity and Nadia Nakai. New York lyricist appears on "Bad Luck" while one of Stogie T's favorite collaborators Ziyon appears on "The Making."

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