Things Take Time In The Empire of Sheep
An in-depth look at two hip-hop albums that capture the state of affairs in South Africa: YoungstaCPT's 3T and Stogie T's The Empire of Sheep.
This piece is part of Sabelo Mkhabela's South African hip-hop column.
At this very moment, it's clear to everyone who lives in it that South Africa is headed towards becoming a failed state. A power crisis, high crime rate, political incompetence, corruption and other atrocities plague one of the most prominent and powerful countries on the continent and in the world. A few days into the year, the country had already experienced power cuts. 2020 is already looking like it will be a continuation of 2019.
Two 2019 hip-hop releases captured the country's dysfunction and reflected it back to South Africa's citizens—YoungstaCPT's 3T, which recently won Album of the Year at the South African Hip Hop Awards, and Stogie T's recently-released The Empire of Sheep. While projects such as JimmyWiz' Accordin' to Jim and Touchline's 19 Flow have songs that touch on the country and society's current state, Stogie T and YoungstaCPT's projects make that focus overt.
The two projects are complete opposites—3T is YoungstaCPT's official debut album and spans 21 songs, while Stogie T's EP is only eight songs long and is a prequel to his upcoming full-length album due this year. These are also projects by rappers from different eras: Stogie T is a veteran and YoungstaCPT is part of the new generation of SA hip-hop.
The two projects have in common the artists' personal perspectives in telling the story of South Africa as a country—its past, present, and possible future. On 3T, YoungstaCPT captures the experience of Coloured people in the country, especially the Western Cape.
Stogie T. Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela.
Conversations with the elders take time
The past and present are both common threads on 3T and The Empire of Sheep and the methodologies used in creating both projects are similar.
A conversation between YoungstaCPT and his grandfather plays in bits and pieces between the album's songs. To facilitate his conversation with the past, the rapper asks his grandfather about his family and the country's history before establishing what he makes of South Africa's current state.
Before releasing the EP in November, Stogie T revealed how the project is "an apogee of countless hours of conversation between Stogie T, his mother, an ex-guerrilla fighter with Umkhonto WeSizwe, and many men and women that participated in the armed struggle against the fascist apartheid regime of South Africa."
History takes time
Stogie T recreates the experiences shared by his subjects on songs like "Love and War" and "PTSD." In the former, he raps about love in a time of struggle against the apartheid regime. In the song, he lays bare the duality of our struggle heroes, rapping in the second verse: "The brave stories in the history books/ But slain soldier uniform and dirty laundry, what the widows took/ Lovechild with the village hooker, the scandal is hidden in the nook."
History played a huge role in the writing of 3T, too. A great example is the song "YVR (Young Van Riebeeck)". The title is a play on words—YoungstaCPT is colonizing the rap game in the same way the colonialist Jan Van Riebeeck did present-day Cape Town, later leading to the colonization of South Africa. In the same song, YoungstaCPT gives his take on the country's current state of affairs. While further reflecting on history, he raps on one of the verses of "YVR":
"When they brought us on the slave ships and they took away our education / looking for an oasis/ 'cause they turned our people into vagrants/ You can't win with a racist/ 'cause they still think with that hatred."
In an interview earlier in 2019, YoungstaCPT explained that the political content on the album came from his curiosity about the history of his people and that of the country at large. "If you want to understand why the tree bends to the left, then look down at the fucking root and see how it grows," said YoungstaCPT. "Maybe it's growing into stones, maybe it's growing into the concrete. Maybe there's a rock there that's actually blocking it and preventing it from standing up straight. And also I knew that the only way I was going to make people understand the situation in these ghettos like Grassy Park, Ottery and Lotus River is to take them right back to the start, and if I'm wrong, go do your own research."
YoungstaCPT - YVR (Young Van Riebeek) www.youtube.com
At 38, Stogie T experienced apartheid first-hand when he was growing up, at least for the first 13 years or so of his life. The lyricist was born in exile in Tanzania to parents who were involved in the struggle. As he once rapped on his 2016 single "Son of a Soldier," growing up around a mother who was part of Umkhonto Wesizwe (the ANC's armed wing which operated during the struggle against apartheid) ensured that he'd "seen a gun before a basketball".
Trauma and healing take time
On The Empire of Sheep, Stogie T doesn't stop at telling the stories of those who fought against apartheid, but also observes the country and recounts the realities of black people today. In the song "Nobodies", he paints a graphic picture of the poor in South Africa, rapping, "Nobodies meet nobodies and have nobody children/ Cohabit in those shantytowns, no property shields them."
Meanwhile, in "PTSD," he raps from the perspective of a former struggle hero who is still alive today but has since become an alcoholic. "I hate being afraid when the thunder sounds like grenades/ Floating back to 82 when we came under a raid," he raps.
After fighting for the country's freedom, Stogie T reminds his listeners that some struggle heroes are currently stuck with no jobs and have even become criminals and drug addicts. Their trauma still lives on, years since apartheid was abolished.
Hope and despair take time
In the project's closing song "Strength," the rapper sounds defeated as he utters the last words of the EP, "Stogie T scared for the laaities. peace to my country, we are now the empire of sheep." This, after he laments those who've died during the rat race, women who've suffered violence at the hands of men and the choice-less working class who hate their jobs but still wake up at the break of dawn daily. Apart from the celebratory songs "Vendetta," "Last OG" and "Sins of our Fathers," the project leaves the listener in a state of despair as if to rub the country's constant decline in their face.
Stogie T- Strength www.youtube.com
On the other hand, YoungstaCPT's 3T leaves the listener with a bit of optimism. It starts with the album's title, 3T, which stands for "things take time." In the song "Cape of Good Hope," he raps, "Colonialism shook us, we got off to a rocky start/ Now we building empires and calling it Grassy Park."
Among the detailed rhymes about gangsterism, drugs, self-hatred and the marginalization of Coloured people in present-day South Africa, YoungstaCPT raps about being proud of being Coloured, his love for his city and hope for a better future, which is not so near but will arrive nonetheless.
When asked how he can be optimistic after seeing all the signs of the country's decline and its refusal to deal with its violent history, YoungstaCPT points to the future. "Even though in the time that we're living in, it's hard to see the silver lining, I don't want people to think I was a bitter, hateful rapper," he said in the same interview cited above. "Many of us, like in our old age, especially the hip-hop ouens, they get painted with that brush. Oh, you didn't make it so now you're angry at the world. And I know one day people are gonna look back on this album because it's the first major one I'm putting my all into, and they're going to look back, and how do I want them to remember this?"
Stogie T doesn't believe it's his job to preach optimism. "I will tell you both sides of the story, and you'll make your own conclusion," he says. When the rapper underwent a rebrand and chose to rap under the Stogie T moniker, the most notable difference in his music was his diversified content. In 2018, he told an audience at the Untitled Basement in Braamfontein:
"If you are an artist, you wanna be a repository, you wanna tell people stories, you want to keep telling stories of your people, and people go, 'no, man, that's not Tumi, you can't talk about bad bitches, about getting money, hustling, things that motivate people to do whatever it is they do.' But I just wanna tell people stories, and that's what Stogie T is about. And that's what we mean when we say, 'honey and pain.' We mean to be able to give you beauty and ugly. You can be the judge."
South African hip-hop has a long history of politically and socially conscious rappers and albums. The group Prophets of da City were speaking truth to power in their songs during the apartheid era. Godessa, Zubz, Hymphatic Thabs and many others carried on the tradition. But when hip-hop became pop music in South Africa, the bigger artists who, by default, became the faces of the genre, rapped less about the state of the country and more about personal success and financial prosperity. Nothing wrong with that.
Lyricists like YoungstaCPT, Stogie T, Touchline, Amilca Mezarati and many others are still carrying the torch, however. They hold a mirror to the country, and the reflection isn't always inspiring or celebratory. But if we are to fix this country, the first step will be to acknowledge that we have serious problems we need to address.
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