Emile YX? Shares Some Gems About South African Hip-Hop History, Its Relationship to Capitalism & More
Emile YX?. Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela.

Emile YX? Shares Some Gems About South African Hip-Hop History, Its Relationship to Capitalism & More

Here's a transcript of SA hip-hop pioneer Emile YX?'s talk at the hip-hop summit during Back To The City.

Emile YX? is a member of one of the oldest South African hip-hop crews, Black Noise. He's a rapper, break-dancer, author, philanthropist and life teacher, among other things. Last week, he was part of the panelists of the SA Hip-Hop Summit, which takes place during the annual hip-hop and street culture festival Back To The City.

His speech stood out among the other speakers, who also dropped major gems. The OG drew similarities between indigenous African cultures and hip-hop, touched on the genre's relationship with capitalism, spoke on how Cape Town hip-hop's divisions affect the genre's growth, why Cape Town hip-hop struggles to shine nationally, among other things.

*The transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

So yeah, I'm 51 years old this year, and been involved in hip-hop for the last 36 years. And whenever I come to a gathering, a lot of the people who are talking are the ones who have made it. The worst part of listening to people who have made it is that there are few, and the majority of you are never going to achieve that shit. It's just not how capitalism works. So, to listen to them is wasting your time really. It's like playing the lotto, the chances of you winning are exactly the same.

Because I B-Boy... the main thing about hip-hop is that you throw down. You think and then you do. Now that I'm older, we talk much more, so I want to become an MC too—you can say shit and not be held accountable. But B-Boying is about whatever you're thinking, or if you say something you have to do it. With Black Noise, a lot of what we were saying, we needed to implement, because we were getting... I don't even know what a pen pal is. So they send you an email, but it's done by the post, so you have to wait a few weeks for it to arrive.

In Photos: Back To The City 2019

This is how a lot of information that people would send us; cassettes, mixtapes from the US. They would send us information. And this is during apartheid, so a lot of the information was sort of just photocopied. A lot of the black consciousness information that we were receiving was not given to us during apartheid. A lot of the young people growing up, protesting, had no idea of the depth of white supremacy within South Africa. And to be honest with you, most of our people still don't know how deep that roots run.

And so, we wanted to put that in songs, as Black Noise. And the first album we did with that information was called A Rebirth of Mind and Hip-Hop Culture. There were a couple of songs we knew would never get onto the radio. We tried to sneak it in once or twice, they were like, "What song would you like us to play?", we were like, "Yeah, play that song 'Black Facts,'" they were like, "Oh damn," as soon as they started the song. Although the one song was called "Who Taught You to Hate Yourself?", with a sample of Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela. So half the song goes, "Who taught you to hate yourself?" and the second part is Nelson Mandela saying, "The white man." Within three minutes, the radio station manager came and switched it off and said that it wasn't in the spirit of reconciliation. Recon the silly nation. But just to try to put into context what we're really up against today.

Emile YX? performs on the main stage at Back To The City. Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela.

I actually come from a teaching background, I'm a qualified school teacher. But hip-hop was my life all along, and so because of this information, I left teaching in 1992. I left teaching because teachers play the same role that white supremacy plays in South Africa. They share Euro-centric information to get black minds to become more Eurocentric, and the content hasn't changed. It's still content that's beneficial for capitalism, so you work for the system, you know?

And so, I'm telling you this because this is how hip-hop schooled me. Hip-hop gave me more information about who I am than the system. Both Black Noise and Prophets of Da City were pushing this information. And it's ironic that at the same time that we were given our freedom, or we were brought into the franchise of capitalism, which is really what we did politically… The same time that happened, they decided to choose music for radio that was more party-oriented. This clever tactic that was used, it's almost like they decided house or kwaito was the best thing to sell their products, and it didn't say much. It said what they wanted people to hear. And so suddenly, Black Noise and Prophets of Da City needed to leave South Africa.

And that's why I'm telling a lot of you that people out there want to hear your story. Throughout the world, there's people wanting to hear your story. I'll give an example; in 1994, I attended the Universal Zulu Nation Anniversary, and at that event, you could meet A Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy, they were all in the same room, Busta rhymes, too. Like we're sitting now, and we could have conversations with them.

[During] one of the discussions, they asked me about what was happening in South Africa, and after I was done speaking, a guy put up his hand and asked, "Why do you sound more like F.W. de Klerk than Nelson Mandela?" I was like "What the F?" I didn't realize that, because of Afrikaans, my accent sounds like that. Of course I didn't know that because I don't hang out with people who tell me that shit, right? And here this dude was like, telling me the truth. And then it suddenly dawned on me that if you're from Cape Town, chances are you're never going to get played in Johannesburg because of how you sound.

And because of that, the irony of the racism attached to sounding Afrikaans, which ironically is a language that the Boers stole from Cape Town. It was created in Cape Town. In that language, there were words like "Gogga," "dagga" etc. which are all Bushmen words right? Actually, right here, someone used a Bushman word right now, and don't know it. In South Africa when we agree with someone we say "uh", and when we disagree we say "uh-uh", and "uh" and "uh-uh" in Khoekhoegowab means exactly what you say. It means "yes" and "no." It's an actual language, I didn't know this shit in school. I only learned it off them.

So hip-hop gave me insight, and I'm telling you this, that we've been around a long time to see how hip-hop has been both a liberator but also an enslaver. How it's used by capitalism and the bruh in the back saying, which brand he can put in his rhyme. It's a powerful reality of how it moves, and brother, I understand. Because you need to get paid, and survive within this system, right? But it's important to know the history of where things are from. And how powerful this culture actually is. For example, graffiti and rock art are not different at all. Our ancestors did exactly that. So though we say that we started in '82, we re-ignited what was already inside of us. Our ancestors made a circle, they clapped, they did (sings), that's a loop. (Sings and then beatboxes) It's a loop, that's all it is. And what you do is you go into trance, do you understand? Am I localizing it enough (laughs)? And when someone in the middle of the circle is dope, we say, "Fire!", because in the middle of the circle there was a fire. You need to pay me for teaching this shit.

Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela.

And so, this is who we've always been. And that is what, really, people are attracted to around the world. Even like some kids in the northern parts of Sweden are like, "Oh my goodness, this is so amazing," because they finally connect to even who they were. Everyone is connected to this. The first people of all people are the Bushmen. And their DNA is older than everyone else's. The people who speak Xhosa, the clicks come from the Bushmen. And the Batswana dance, you can't tell me that shit is original…

We're all connected, but we often speak by diversity, the division amongst us. Which is a brilliant tool; capitalism fosters that shit, dividing us, you know? Hip-hop made me see this. And that's why I had to leave teaching, you know? And also understand that when people talk about radio play, if what you rap is contradictory to the brand... like, if they need to sell this advert after your song, if you're talking shit about them, they're not going to play your song. So you can't speak truth to power because the advert, they're paying the bills. Radio and TV is about advertising. It's advertising space, it's not about you. You understand what I'm saying?

Who Taught

So, to go back to the history of hip-hop in Cape Town is not so much for me to mention all the dates. But it's the ability to implement what was necessary. We put the first [SA hip-hop] magazine together. I put a magazine together called The Juice. A hip-hop magazine because we wanted to spread the information. And people from Zimbabwe, from Malawi, people were getting a copy, because people wanted information about hip-hop because it wasn't available. So we took action to put it into reality. Which is ironic now, because everyone is waiting for someone to help them, you know? Jesus ain't coming bruh.

So, maybe the last thing to say, you can ask Osmic this. Osmic (founder of Back To The City) came to Cape Town, and Osmic sort of attended one of the first hip-hop events I ever put on, actually after I came from Universal Zulu Nation. I tried to implement it in Cape Town. Now you tell a bruh from Cape Town to be a Zulu. You know how that doesn't go down really well. But, actually when I was there, I asked Afrika Bambaataa, say for example, if we change the name to Universal Hip-Hop Nation in Cape Town, and they completely understood it. They were like, "Yeah, let's maybe give it a shot." The problem in Cape Town is that Cape Town's history is completely removed from the people. And our ability to work together is impossible. We were just talking about it yesterday. It's fucking impossible. I think once they took away our clicks we were unable to click.

So when Osmic came to this event, 'cause I actually promoted the event and this shit was called the Universal Hip-Hop Nation Anniversary, in 1996. And then, we changed it to African Battle Cry, because we were trying to link to the bigger continent and understood that we need to work together.

So, Osmic saw this event and he was like, "Yo, what if I tried to do that in Johannesburg?", and that is what Back to the City is. And I'm so glad that he did it, because what Osmic is doing here would not be possible in Cape Town. Even though the culture's from there, the division... and I know Osmic is suffering the same thing here. Because our people always look at what is wrong versus what is right. If someone comes from somewhere else and they ask, "Tell me about your place," [the answer is usually], "Yo, you must check the stuff that's going on. All the violence," I'm like "Brah. You're supposed to be serving the place, not killing the place," you know? So let me tell it to you, I think needs to change, you know? 36 years is a long time, from the start of the event. I'll try and share the 36 years of experience with you.

Emile YX? and his organization Heal The Hood run the annual Cape Town festival called African Hip Hop Indaba. He is releasing his 14th studio album, to be titled Billionhair, sometime this year.

Revisit some of Black Noise's albums below.