The Three: February Edition
Cultural happenings that caught my eye this month
For the Culture - Making Music in Botswana
Something I want to do this year is to use this space to open a window into music scenes across the continent, from the underground/mainstream dynamic to what moves audiences of African young people. This is the first of such conversations, and I’ll bring these interviews to you as often as I can.
To that end, I had a great chat with Kwaku Gyanteh, a music writer/journalist who has been active since 2010, initially blogging heavily before transitioning to mainstream publications. Over the years his writing has appeared on various online and print media in Botswana and beyond in online publications such as Pigeons & Planes, Writers of Colour, Thought Catalog etc. He is currently Head of Culture at Sturgeon Digital in Botswana, a position which, over and above his scope as a Digital Strategist and Community Manager, entails figuring out how to infuse popular culture and current youth preoccupations and perceptions in strategy such that it translates into relevant and adaptable campaigns that meet and surpasses clients’ expectations.
First of all, let’s talk about the lay of the land here. Does Botswana’s pop music travel across Southern Africa? Or is it pretty localized? Just to get a sense of the regional dynamic where music is concerned.
Botswana pop music is inextricably linked to the continent as a whole but it’s more apparent in Southern Africa where proximity to our neighbours and the language and stylistic similarities give us easy access to their people. However, our lack of an established industry has robbed us of the opportunity of fully tilting to global success. Despite this, we have always found success whether it’s through Ski aka Big Daddy Ski who found himself as one of the contributors to the Kalawa Jazzmee Record success in the 90s which paved the way for legendary Kwaito groups, then finding success as an artist and deejay in his own right. We’ve had success with artists like Zeus being signed to Sony Africa in 2017, Setswana traditional music group Machesa winning the coveted KORA award for their hit song Tshipidi in 2003, another group Dikakapa being nominated for the similar awarding 2010, Veezo winning a Metro FM award for his hit single in 2014, our artists being constantly nominated for the AFRIMAs and most recently Vee Mampeezy signing with Universal Music Group. These are just a few examples of how Botswana artists have and continue to make an impact across the continent.
Can you expand a bit on the “lack of an established industry”?
Unfortunately we have structures that are either in their infancy or not resourced well enough to handle, develop or capacitate a Music Industry capable of generating millions of Pula annually. The situation is dire and pervasive across all facets of the Music business whether it be publishing, licensing agreements and other monetization avenues, legal frameworks, royalty splits, value chain development etc.
Sounds familiar to what one sees in Nigeria. What’s the long-established route to mainstream popularity for artists in the scene? How has that changed over the past couple decades?
For some time now radio has been the crowning ground for mainstream success. Artists got their buzz in the streets then got their big break on radio with a second tier being a video on high rotation on the national broadcaster BTV and performances on any other of their continuity programs. Lately there has been a shift brought about by Social Media where even the underappreciated and overlooked can gain a foothold in the market and grow a fanbase. Circa 2015 to present the freemium model has been preferred by artists who would distribute their music through Whatsapp groups, which some have branded as “Fan Portals” where their supporters get exclusive music and info on the artist. While the benefits of freemium are shunned from a money-making perspective, a middle ground has been reached with platforms where Audiomack, Soundcloud, YouTube and Apple Music are being used in tandem with this model to generate however much money is possible to recoup. As is the case worldwide, shows and brand partnerships have also been the main driver of revenue for artists in Botswana.
Whatsapp use sounds a lot like how Nigerian artists used email lists before Facebook came along. What’s the dynamic between the underground and the mainstream? Are there frequent collaborations, or is it pretty polarized?
There isn’t much delineation of the two from the audience perspective but I would say the playing field is level either. The polarization of the two is heightened by the share of airtime mainstream artists get on radio as well the press compared to underground artists. One thing that also further polarizes the two is the performance bill at festivals and concerts. There were very few grooming grounds for upcoming artists to showcase their talent and skill pre-COVID. Where big name artists thrived in marquee slots in well-funded and publicized events, upcoming artists and those fallen out of favour of the promotions personnel were relegated to relative obscurity or forced to stage their own events to appease and grow their fanbase. The latter has been one of their best moves, personally. That innovation and grind against the blockades formed is what helps them elevate. Personally, I believe that while it’s not the primary focus of promoters to nurture talent, it is their moral duty to leave “the game” in a better position and give back by assisting the next crop of artists. As for collaborations between artists, these have been coming in steady as big name artists realize Gen Z upstarts’ knack for rapid audience building bodes well for their brands as well as they make in-roads to a whole new audience that otherwise branded them out of touch or unreachable.
Indeed, Gen Z’s knack for use of social media to build audiences fairly quickly is clear everywhere one looks! What’s the relationship Botswana artists have with outside influences (say, from other African countries or Western counterparts)? Do you think there’s a strong Botswana identity or is that something that they’re moving towards?
Over the past 30 years Botswana Music has evolved and continues to evolve across genres. Homegrown Rhumba and Kwassa-Kwassa of the 90s and early 2000s were derivatives of Congolese Rhumba songs where the French chants were replaced by Setswana homonyms. The songs somehow weren’t frowned upon by Batswana as they went on to become household favourites served by groups like Alfredo Mos & Les Africa Sounds, Nata Capricorn, Franco and more. When we gained the confidence to create from an authentic place, we tapped into our rich tradition of storytelling taking genres and making them our own; Blues and Bubblegum Pop infusing our rich Setswana language as seen in hits by Donald Botshelo and Astley Gops; Afro-Pop with Unik Attractions, Ex-Cut Edge, Kgotla of Matshidiso fame, Flexy, Lizibo and more.
With the advent and popularity of South Africa’s Kwaito genre we had stars like Vee Mampeezy, Eskimos, Mingo and many others fusing the grit and rebellious nature of Kwaito and the high-energy, pure revelry of Kwassa-Kwassa to create the Kwaito-Kwassa subgenre unique to Botsnwana in the mid-2000s. In terms of Hip Hop, the reference point has always been The United States. From the 90s groups such as Wizards of the Desert, 3rd Mind and members of the P-Side collective took cues from popular artists to express their viewpoints based on their immediate surroundings. This tradition of representing where you’re from is one that was taken by the next immediate generation when artists like Nomadic (f.k.a Mr T.) Scar, Apollo Diablo, Kast, Foster Juliano (f.k.a Mr Doe), Zeus and more fused their language, whether Setswana or Kalanga, into their raps and as such gained national, regional and ultimately continent-wide acclaim. The current generation hoping to get inducted into the pantheon of greats is still finding its feet and reckoning with an audience that is abreast with worldwide trends yet they themselves have yet to pivot and make the Trap sound bend to their will and escape the allure of creating glorified cover band variations of what they see being offered on the international stage. In general, we have always prospered from placing our unique ingenuity and cultural value proposition as Batswana above all else and I think that’s why we’re seeing success in the region with artists like Sereetsi & The Natives, William Last KRM, Mpho Sebina, Maxy Khoisan and Han-C to name a few.
Maybe they should check out Kumerica and see how Ghanaian trap artists are making the sound their own for pointers! What’s the social media universe for music like? If someone was looking to find out what’s hot, or what main commentators on the culture are saying, where would they go?
I think there isn’t a very robust platform yet that completely represents or “puts on” for us. The only single-minded platform is EBW Magazine run by Obakeng Kokwe which is a hub for new music coming out of the country. The Gold Axis also does a good job with this though they have now pivoted to more South African content. There are quite a few standalone Facebook and Twitter pages trying to push the agenda for our music but they don’t have very rigorous or well managed processes to document what’s going on in the scene. As for the commentary and reporting, it’s not as evolved especially in print media. What we do have are a few dedicated people like Bakang Akoonyatse who contributes to various publications around the continent in that regard and the fiery Seabelo Modibe who is a veteran industry player in Entertainment whose opinions can be found on his personal Facebook profile. It could be my own bias but I don’t see any other voices making significant movement in the way musicians are perceived and received. Another great platform is MduThaParty’s #BWTop10RappersList which is an annual round-up, 6 years running, which calls together a few commentators to opine on who’s been making it shake in the Botswana Hip Hop scene. I might have missed a few but for me these are the places and people that make solid commentary on how to move forward and what or who is moving forward.
What’s the relationship that the Botswana audience has with local music? Do they bump to it, or do they tend to listen to music from elsewhere?
I don’t think I would give a fair assessment without proper structures to gauge this but I will say the appetite is there and for every artist who has taken the time to build a brand and ensure the music gets to the people in the right channels, the rewards are immense. The more artists create a solid plan to meet consumers where they are, whether it’s on Social Media or sowing the seed across all Digital Streaming Providers, the audience will support.
What are the some of the key drivers of the underground Hip Hop scene over there? (Unis, major cities, radio shows, etc)
I don’t think there’s an underground scene per se. There’s the mainstream and then there’s a scene for artists who haven’t broken through just yet. The third tier is the purist type which revolves around the battle Rap scene which is flourishing in their own right. Battle Rap has been driven primarily by The Warzone which has been running for years as a monthly competition that sees emcees go head-to-head battling for cash and status. This platform has groomed and exposed rappers to other players in the continent. We had Fungus the Mutated Lung, a native of the mining town of Jwaneng which is taken as the capital of Hip Hop in Botswana. He went on to dominate Southern Africa as a whole as a freestyle champion from the early 2000s. At present, there are heavyweights such as L the Street Poet, Kgox, Prometheus and Osama Bin Chaplin have competed in the renowned Scramble 4 Money in South Africa and other regional competitions while Blain also won a battle in the UK. As I said before, we have an abundance of talent but the support structures are few.
It’s pretty hard for female rappers to rise in prominence, is it the same over there? What are the factors that shape their experience in the industry?
I think I explored this extensively before in two pieces but the most devastating is players in the industry not taking them seriously. I think that’s where we first lose them and second time is when males in the industry want to exploit them for sexual favours. Lastly is the public failing them by reiterating old archetypes like oversexualizing them and placing them in a box that doesn’t allow them to fully explore their creativity. Although this status quo is pervasive across all industries, it’s more pernicious and normalized in the Rap industry where misogyny is rife.
Are there topics that are deemed kinda taboo over there? What artists out there are pushing those barriers?
I would say there’s any topic that is taboo because it’s in the nature of Hip Hop to be rabble rousing so in the 30 years that we’ve seen the unfurling of rap in Botswana, naturally a lot has been said. Right now, a rapper that I would say is pushing the boundaries is Ozi F Teddy. With close to 10 years in the game he has established himself as a mainstay and through his brash, confident and dominant persona has reinvented himself as the rapper you love to hate who is not afraid of confrontation with any artist, politician or even radio station and has the talent to match. Right now, his biggest fight is with freedom of expression, taking his Social Media and his music as the ground for the fight to use cuss words in Setswana as opposed to English, which is considered less harsh compared to our language. I think that’s admirable but maybe that’s just my affinity for rule breaking and making people uncomfortable peeking through.
Who’s the one artist you can think of who rose through the underground and is now a massive star?
Because there’s only a handful or record companies and labels in Botswana, almost every artist in Botswana came from the underground and is independent so virtually all stars come from the bottom. I think this presents an opportunity for any major player to come in and really make a difference. It’s also an opportunity for Batswana artists because they all own their material 100% outright so there’s no room for exploitation. I hope moving forward we can see a change in structure because there is an abundance of talent in the country but the Industry and the Music Business barely exists.
Can you make a playlist of the best jams from Botswana for us?
Thanks so much for chatting with me!
Archetypes and Punching Up
I’m currently watching — and enjoying immensely — Martin Scorsese’s “Pretend It’s a City” which features the brilliant writer and humorist Fran Leibowitz. In it, she comes across as the archetypical grouchy New Yorker: rude and slightly misanthropic while somehow retaining likability and irreverent humor, like a female Larry David. I saw some traces of this New Yorker archetype with some adjustment in Radha Blank’s brilliant “Forty Year Old Version” about an underachieving playwright who decides she wants to be an MC (both of these are on Netflix). Watching these within a couple months of each other made me think of the enduring power of archetypical representations. These representations work because they are familiar, but also because the audience can see themselves in it to varying degrees. Fixed though they can be, they are also robust enough to offer an excellent canvas on which to splash brilliant colour because of the way the complexity of the world they move through, and how their experiences confound and confirm their already-conceived notions.
Funke Akindele owes her rise in the entertainment industry to the use of the character Jenifa, which itself is an archetype: the unsophisticated young Nigerian woman with big aspirations and a penchant for hilariously bad uses of grammar. Her use of this Jenifa or the particular archetype in her comedic roles has been pretty successful. Her most recent film "Omo Ghetto” broke Nigerian box office records in the middle of a pandemic; a crazy feat she deserves all the plaudits for. She’s not the only one who uses this archetype in her comedy. Falz has also deployed this unsophisticated and half-educated archetype to pretty good effect in his skits and sometimes in music. There’s also the IG comedian Kie-Kie who does this as well, to great effect.
These representations work, not because we necessarily recognise them in those they interact with daily or when we middle/upper-middle class folks look into the mirror; but because it hews closely to how we see people who are less privileged than we are. It is very much in line with a lot of the way newer Nollywood titles speak to our aspirations for wealth above all else, and frees us to laugh at what it is that we’re either leaving behind or happy that we are not. We concern ourselves with the hustle so much that we have made aspiration itself a personality type. It’s almost as if the more privileged people who make these films only see less privileged people for what they don’t have and often find it difficult to represent the fullness of characters’ personalities and lives when they don’t have wealth.
This isn't a review of the “Omo Ghetto”, and I’m not even saying that these representations are not funny, because they can be. I’m just never able to shake the fact that, y’know, there’s actually people who can’t help that they talk or act like that; such is the reality of their level of education and exposure. However funny the material is, though, it actually punches down at people who are less privileged than we who are laughing, as opposed to punching up, at ourselves or those who have more power.
It’s not an accident that we don’t have comedy that mocks the powerful. What we have for the powerful, rather, is anger and resentment. Whether it’s TuBaba’s classic “As You See Me So” or Falz’ excellent “Johnny”, what you see is anger at the elite for not caring more about ordinary Nigerians. You never see mocking, because you do not mock that which you aspire to. I just would like to see entertainers be more intentional about what their work is really saying and doing, in addition to the job of being funny.
Yung L is one of the famous Jos massive who have been around for decades and never seem to run out of steam. He dropped a new album called Yaadman Kingsize, very much a continuation of the inspiration so many of our artists get from raggae and dancehall. I’m a Burna Boy fan, so I honestly don’t get to roll my eyes at someone adopting Jamo lingo in their music. Even so, I think evocations of Kingston, Jamaica are a bridge to far and we should really let that shit die with Cynthia Morgan (which I still enjoyed, full disclosure). It’s a reality of our music, from Ras Kimono and the great Majek Fashek to Patoranking and even that Jessie Jagz phase, so I guess I shouldn’t be too irritated. Anyway, that’s why songs like Bwoy and Operator simultaneously made me roll my eyes. The strongest songs on the record for me were the ones that felt more Nigerian. Songs like Puna, Opp and Police and Thief are still on rotation for me. Check it out.
Nigeria’s entry in the 2021 Sundance Festival was a short film called Lizard, and it won the jury prize. It’s a film by Akinola Davies, co-written with his Wale Davies who is also one half of the amazing Show Dem Camp. The synopsis sounds amazing, so if any of you have a link to the film, share with me.
Finally, in the spirit of Valentine’s Day, a girl made you a playlist. Some classics, some newer shit, different genres. Enjoy.
Until next time.