Sites and Sounds From South Africa's Back To The City Festival

This year's Back to the City Festival—South Africa's biggest and best hip-hop throw-down was a riot of style and cutting edge performances. Here are the pictures.

South Africa’s biggest street culture and hip-hop festival, Back To The City, took place last Thursday—Freedom Day. Now in its 11th year, the festival boasts an attendance of approximately 25,000 hip-hop heads from across South Africa.

The biggest challenge for a fan during the event is catching acts from across all three stages – given performances on the festival are an average of 15 minutes. We stuck to the main stage, where most of our favorite acts were performing.

Back To The City focusses on all four elements of hip-hop – so, as usual, there were graffiti artists embellishing the concrete pillars of the bridge that runs about Mary Fitzgerald Square in Newtown, Johannesburg. There were break dancers, skateboarders, ‘ballers, and an array of deejays such as DJ Switch, DJ Papercutt, DJ Kenzhero, Themba Lunacy, DJ Sliqe and more.


The best thing about Back To The City is that it caters for all of rap music’s sub-genres. Most hip-hop events either focus on mainstream or “underground” rap—never both. It’s only at Back To The City where you will get to witness Tha Hymphatic Thabs and Emtee on one stage. It’s always interesting watching how the audience reacts to these different kinds of artists, and it says a lot about South African hip-hop fans’ tastes and knowledge of the genre.

American artists such as Apollo Brown & Skyzoo, Mazzi, Cappadonna (Wu Tang), added another flavor to the prevalently South African line-up. South African rap superstars such as Cassper Nyovest, Emtee, Stogie T, and more niche artists such as N’Veigh, Smerf Illest, Yugen Blakrok, Mr. Beef, Big Zulu, and Uno July, graced the main stage, and impressed. The more left-field artists such as ByLwansta and Revivolultion were on the Play Stage, where the MC and beat battles were taking place.

There was also, as usual, the Hip-Hop Summit before the performances, where hip-hop scholars and artists such as Skyzoo, Andile Mathobela (founder of, Keke Mokeona (artist manager), T-Lee Moiloa (artist manager) and more, shared what they know about the game to an audience of up-and-coming artists and media peeps.

Even though better than compared to previous years, time management at the festival was an issue–some performances were cut short, while some–most notably Kwesta and Kid X–didn’t happen at all.

The sound was crisp, and the atmosphere was robust, as usual, the place was teeming with cool kids dressed in the most colorful outfits and kicks, puffing marijuana and downing beers like there was no tomorrow.

Our favourite performances came from Tha Hymphatic Thabs, Zola, Stogie T, Priddy Ugly, Mr. Beef, Cassper Nyovest, Reason, Tweezy, Patty Monroe. Not to say everyone else didn’t rock–most of artists on the main stage were impressive.

As the platitude goes, hip-hop won.


6 Samples From 'Éthiopiques' in Hip-Hop

A brief history of Ethio-jazz cultural exchange featuring songs by Nas & Damian Marley, K'naan, Madlib and more.

This article was originally published on OkayAfrica in March, 2017. We're republishing it here for our Crossroads series.

It's 2000 something. I'm holed up in my bedroom searching for samples to chop up on Fruity Loops. While deep into the free-market jungle of Amazon's suggested music section, I stumble across a compilation of Ethiopian music with faded pictures of nine guys jamming in white suit jackets. I press play on the 30 second sample.

My mind races with the opportunities these breakbeats offered a budding beat maker. Catchy organs, swinging horns, funky guitar riffs, soulful melodies and grainy and pained vocalists swoon over love lost and gained. Sung in my mother tongue—Amharic—this was a far cry from the corny synthesizer music of the 1990s that my parents played on Saturday mornings. I could actually sample this shit.

The next day, I burn a CD and pop it into my dad's car. His eyes light up when the first notes ooze out of the speakers. “Where did you get this?" He asks puzzlingly. “The internet," I respond smiling.

In the 1970s my dad was one of thousands of high school students in Addis Ababa protesting the monarchy. The protests eventually created instability which lead to a coup d'état. The monarchy was overthrown and a Marxist styled military junta composed of low ranking officers called the Derg came to power. The new regime subsequently banned music they deemed to be counter revolutionary. When the Derg came into power, Amha Eshete, a pioneering record producer and founder of Ahma Records, fled to the US and the master recordings of his label's tracks somehow ended up in a warehouse in Greece.

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