American artists have seemed to be making pilgrimages to the Motherland in record numbers. From 50 Cent and Beyoncé, to Solange, and now Rick Ross, Americans are traveling to Africa to both soak up the local culture and pass on a little of their own.
But as Africa’s own music scene gains more traction stateside, an interesting development has occurred: in some cases, African artists are beating Americans at their own game.
This summer Rick Ross traveled to Nigeria to shoot a video for the song, “Hold Me Back.” Instead of highlighting the beauty and resiliency of Nigerian people, the video showed the country as one big, poverty-stricken hellhole, not one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
As the video opens, we see several Nigerians with guns, in dire conditions, and with hungry kids as Ross chants, “These n—gas won’t hold me back.”
The capacity of Africans to beat Americans at their own game has not escaped the attention of US hip-hop’s megastars. Rick Ross, the prison officer turned rap phenomenon, recently filmed a video for his “Hold me back” single in Lagos. Realising that the ghettos of New Orleans – shocking as they are – seem pretty sterile compared with the likes of Makoko in Lagos, he put out six minutes of heaving crowds, filthy streets, and powerful poverty to accompany his record about, on one interpretation, triumph over adversity.
Nigerians were not impressed. “I hated the song because of the way he portrayed Nigeria as a hungry nation, a nation of war,” said Soso Soberekon, a Nigerian producer. “I didn’t like the fact that he had the licence to shoot in Nigeria. Right now we are trying to repair the image of Nigeria and someone else is passing the wrong message out.”
The Guardian article also discusses the rise of Africa’s energetic hip-hop culture, noting, “No self-respecting African country is without a homemade, distinctive hip-hop scene.” But while mainstream American hip-hop has influenced its African counterpart to be rife with materialistic images, it lacks one thing: African rap’s consciousness.
While bragging and bling is as deeply ingrained in African hip-hop as it is in American rap, African artists also address many of the issues their compatriots are facing.
Although African hip-hop celebrates excess just like its American counterpart, it is often conscious, too. In many countries African rappers have become the engine of social and political movements.
Take Angolan rapper Luaty Beirao, aka Ikonoklasta, who used his music to mobilise opposition against the 33-year rule of José Eduardo dos Santos during elections last month. Or Mali, which has been rocked by a military coup and virtual partition of the country by Islamists who have captured the north, where rap collective les Sofas de la république has provided the sounds and symbols of a nation’s defiance.
Perhaps it is this subtle dance between consumerism, consciousness, and culture that attracted Kanye West to Nigerian musician D’Banj, and drew Akon to Sarkodie, a Ghanaian rapper who’s won a BET award and is gaining in popularity.
Whether or not African artists continue to breakthrough stateside it’s clear their music, culture, and influence is having an affect on American artists. But it remains to be seen if American artists will simply take from African artists, capitalizing on their distinct sound, dance moves, and fashion, or if they will give credit to their influences and share something in return.