Sharpens Iron With Iron On Africa’s Hip-Hop Tour Of America Pompi, the Zambian hip-hop performer known for his gospel-inspired lyrics, beaming smile, and bow tie, takes the stage for the first time in Washington, D.C., offering a lyrical poem about being mistaken for a criminal: “His foot to my face almost broke my jaw,” Pompi
Sharpens Iron With Iron On Africa’s Hip-Hop Tour Of America
Pompi, the Zambian hip-hop performer known for his gospel-inspired lyrics, beaming smile, and bow tie, takes the stage for the first time in Washington, D.C., offering a lyrical poem about being mistaken for a criminal: “His foot to my face almost broke my jaw,” Pompi recited, recalling the streets of his home town, Lu- saka. “On the way to the gates, heard a feminine call/Saying ‘No, he ain’t the dude, you all fools are confused/The one who tried to rape me is the one you let loose!’ ”
Pompi, 28, born Chaka Nyathando in Lusaka and who sometimes calls himself “The African Eagle”, absorbs the reactions around Washington’s Busboys and Poets lounge theatre as he spins the tale. He is touring America on a mission to find allies to help him and his company, Lota House, wield music as an instrument of change back home, aiming to persuade urban youth away from gang violence and bring hope to isolated rural communities who are left out of Zambia’s rapidly diverging economy.
Seated around the darkened room watching Pompi and sipping coffee and spirits are 20 of Africa’s powerful new leaders in rap, reggae and Afrobeat who have come as guests of the U.S. Department of State on a “hip-hop and civic engagement” programme also seeking collaboration on their missions of social justice. There, listening to Pompi, is Fou Malade, born Malal Talla, the soft-eyed leader of the rap group Bat’ Haillons Blin-D and co-founder of Y’en a Marre, Senegal’s growing democracy and civil rights group. Talla and his peers risked police truncheons broadcasting, chanting and shouting raps criticising the government of President Abdoulaye Wade in national marches, ultimately contributing to Wade’s loss of the 2012 election.
Nearby, in the audience there is Safia Oumarou, the sultry songstress of Kaidan Gaskia, the Afrobeat and soul group of Niger. Born in Sudan, raised in Saudi Arabia, musically tested in Morocco, and now raising the mic in Niger’s capital, Niamey, Oumarou lent her voice to Video ZM’s song “Wahayya“, a tune meant to rally allies behind a growing women’s liberation movement in the Sahel.
Beside Talla, in the group is also Lam Tungwar, the swaggering former rebel of South Sudan who has been on a musical crusade to end underage military conscription with songs like “Child Soldier”, revealing the gore of his experience fighting Khartoum at the age of seven. Magnetic leaders like Shiine Akhyaar Ali, the rap-slinging leader of the Somali Sunrise Concert Tour for Peace 2012, a campaign against violence for his native Somalia; Romeo Sikubwabo, guitarist for the peace-touting reggae band of post-war Burundi, Lion Story; Burkina Faso legend Obscur Jaffar; Djibouti soul man Don Deltafa, and still more would take the stage at other events across the country.
Pompi and the African rappers here tonight see the U.S. as an ally in their struggles for human rights and political reform at home. The alliance suggests that hip-hop – which once served as a canvas for many rappers to rally against injustices some believe the United States committed against African-Americans and Africa – and the U.S. government itself, may have moved past their long adversarial relationship, and learned to work together.
Back when rap anthems like NWA’s “Fuck tha Police” and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” first blasted out of cassette-player stereos from Los Angeles to Lusaka to Dakar in the 1980s, American rappers not only accused the United States of police brutality, racism and support for foreign dictatorships, but many American government officials in kind wanted to ban rap music for its blisteringly honest political critique. Back then, he Reagan administration publically supported South African apartheid and African dictators like Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko, brutal regimes that make current autocrats like Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni or Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki look like cloth puppets.
Though it’s difficult to prove whether protest rap helped reduce police brutality, racial tension, and support for African dictators in the United States, few today would be surprised if they found policemen listening to Tupac with an African friend, State Department staffers grooving to Public Enemy at a hip-hop club, or even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton listening to Bob Marley singing “Old pirates, yes, they rob I/Sold I to the merchant ships… ” on her flight to meet the president of Ghana.
For many of Pompi’s peers on the tour, just the fact that America has transformed from slavery to a black president is evidence enough that American lessons in civil rights could be important inspiration for their work leading or retelling the struggles for reform in their own nations.
“My biggest surprise,” Oumarou tells ROLLING STONE about coming from Niger, “is to see that American people are so kind! In Africa, we used to hear that in the Occident you don’t have the right to even greet people that you don’t know. As far as the music industry here, I was surprised that hip-hop in the U.S. is not only about bling- bling, but about collaboration. We need to wake the conscience of people in Niger to embrace civic engagement to encourage change.”
“The programme came together quickly and smoothly,” recalls Christopher McShane, Africa Branch Chief for the International Visitor Leadership Program at the State Department, which coordinated the tour alongside the International Institute’s Graduate School USA and the National Council for International Visitors.
“Our embassies across Africa did a phenomenal job of selecting key artists who are committed to constructively reaching out to youth and using their influence to improve their communities. I think the only barrier was not having more spots available in the programme. They are all strong leaders who we think will make a difference back home.”
Tonight, just one of many events in their journey, it’s all about taking turns at the mic, solving political and moral riddles in the latest harvest of rhymes. “The cops are where?” Pompi closes his poem. “The dude is running two blocks away/Shot to scare, dude just turns and shoots back/I trembled ’cause I remember his gun malfunctioned/It functioned, punctured, tyre’s gone flat/Cop’s back on his index, aimed and fired/Punctured his lungs, ambulance, a quick response/Medics storm in, the crowd is forming/The dude is dead, cause hell’s a callin’.”
Pompi stands tall among the group, a shaven- head charmer, the child of gospel who was taught music by his mother and three sisters. While many of his allies from the continent will spend the trip learning how to bring music out of their home countries, Pompi aims to bring the global music industry back to local communities in Zambia.
Pompi grew up in the Kalundu section of Lusaka. His sisters, Tamara, Nasara and Tandy, shared with him tunes ranging from MC Hammer, Usher and P Diddy to Luther Vandross and The Motown Sound. Nasara sang for an a capella group that won a continent-wide competition, igniting Pompi’s treatment of music as a global language. He recalls his schoolmate, Chanda, carrying a suitcase full of cassettes and CDs of some of their favourite raps by Nas, Mos Def, Wu-Tang Clan and Jay-Z.
“Iron sharpens iron,” Pompi remembers. “We learned raps and then wrote our own, competing to finish each other’s song or to rap better than the other.” Finally, Chaka took the name “Pompi”, which means “water tap” in Nyanja (spoken in Lusaka), to signify that his lyrics could be a source not only of music but of nourishment. As a guise, he would soon dress against type, donning thick- rimmed glasses, crisp business attire and his bow tie. He would play the intellectual lyricist to undermine the cliché of the ghetto rapper.
While in primary school, Pompi and Chanda discovered a national cause that demonstrated how cultural figures could bring the country together, or break it apart. Watching football as so many kids do, the boys came of age as their neighbourhood cheered on the national team, the Chipolopolo Boys, as it won the 1991 East and Central Africa Championship (CECAFA) en route to global conquest. That same year, President Kenneth Kaunda finally allowed democratic voting and lost to reformer Frederick Chiluba. With the combined victories, Zambians felt that the great change they strived for was on its way.
But then, in April 1993, after more political and economic hardship hit the country, the plane carrying the Chipolopolo Boys to Senegal to qualify for the World Cup crashed, killing all 30 passengers, including 18 players. The tragedy sent the country into a collective funk that lasted for nearly two decades.
Inspired by this collective national trauma, as well as parables he learned while seeking answers in the Bible, Pompi wrote raps presenting social or political questions and moral challenges, and then suggested answers. He began writing rap not only in English but in Nyanja, unusual back then, so that he could communicate with many Zambians who had not been able to understand lyrics they heard on the radio. Pompi sent his mixtape, Watch the Transition, to capital cities around the continent. At last, a Nigerian label picked him up. But almost overnight, he and the label clashed over his positive lyrical messages.
“Positive,” he recalls, “isn’t good for business in their eyes.”
In an environment where many hip-hop artists were satirising or even celebrating gangsterism, bling and ghetto in Lusaka, Pompi felt isolated. He believed that to promote positive hip-hop, within a gospel context, he’d have to carve a fresh path. Committing himself to “making a blueprint” for reforming the music industry, Pompi and his allies created their own company, Lota House. One of their first songs would be “Blahzay”, written in Nyanja so that Zambians who did not know English or Bemba (most-spoken in Zambia) could understand rap for the first time.
“If there’s going to be change, it’s got to be made, not handed out. As teachers, we show where to go,” Pompi explains. “There are different kinds of teachers. Musicians are trendsetters as well as teachers. Our aim as Lota House is to be teachers. Poverty is in the mind.”
As Lusaka’s hip-hop world emerged onto the global music scene, many of the most popular artists have become known for the contemporary clichés.
“First, the majority of the hip-hop here is misogynistic. Second, it takes pride that ‘we’re in the ghetto and want to stay ghetto’. There’s alcohol in excess. These artists portray a destructive way of life, which youth copy. We didn’t have swears in music until this recent music. Now we have not just swears, but artists saying ‘I will beat you’ to another artist. That’s what we’re trying to overcome.”
In a popular example, Eddie Black featuring Yung Majik sang “Black Majik”. The video features the obligatory limos, bling and ladies who appear to be more sexual upholstery than people. With the video for “Chachilamo”, a song by Kay Figo featuring P’Jay, life is celebrated, but from a wealthy, or at least upper middle-class material world that the vast majority of Zambians have never experienced. In Slap Dee’s video “Kuichayila”, he raps from an alleyway lined with girls. The youth has come to see these images as goals, though they may never achieve it. Then comes the diss game, recalls Pompi, who makes an effort not to name or diss anyone himself but instead to champion an end to the negativity.
After Slap Dee took the Best Zambian Hip-Hop Award at the Born N Bred Awards at the end of 2010, Macky 2 featuring Chef 187 took on Slap Dee with the diss track “I Am Zambian Hip-Hop”, igniting a series of barbs played up in the media.
One viewer, Yakael1994, writes: “hahahah mahn i hate the beef u guys have but u have killd slap dee hahaha owh ma gosh if i was him i would kill maself dude nyc and original kiki i can’t stop lafing!” Another one, Tiongible, rings in: “these fuckers gota find better things to do with their free time…booooo!” And yet another, Boss2020ification, feeds the fire: “hey nigga gt sm lyf yo flow jst so weak n lame…Slapdeezy is da shit!! No say thts y u all niggas kip hatin… Go suck a dick kolwe!”
Soon after, performer Hardy struck back at Macky 2 by mimicking an amateurish style meant to poke at Macky 2 in the song “Donchi Kubeba”, and dissing became a norm of the industry. In an interview with the Education Post, Macky 2 defended his attack on Slap Dee by saying there was no bad blood between them. “[The feud] is part of rap. You might not really want to respond to someone, but your fan base will force you to do that.”
Two years earlier, Slap Dee was in a feud with diva Mampi when he put out a track called “Disposable”. She struck back with a diss rap called “I’m Portable”. Soon enough, the pair were recording together as if it had never happened. Critics of the rap feuds feel labels may be manipulating fans to try to drive up sales; or maybe these artists are just hot-tempered or having fun. But Pompi and his peers feel this game is cynical and portrays an unproductive fantasy life youth may try to mimic.
Pompi wanted to persuade his allies at Lota House, all of whom had already dabbled in rap clichés to some extent, to start rejecting this glam, feuds and boasting. He wanted to explore deeper stories, offer more salient truths about society.
Pompi then wrote “Chipolopolo”, a song about those Chipolopolo Boys he had lionised so long ago. With the new video showing him singing – “Saved by suffering God, hanging on Jesus’ arm the boys are” – out over Lusaka, the tune won the Born N Bred Award for Zambian music in the gospel category.
To regional acclaim, Pompi then homed in on a collaboration with Lota House allies Mag44, Tio, Abel Chungu and others to make a new version of the song called “Chipolopolo Africa Unlimited”. The music video shows the rappers down at Lusaka Station rapping while walking through rail cars filled with everyday Zambians living their lives, commuting, selling, working. The tune climaxes with a chorus sing along as kids play football on top of a rail car.
While the video obliterated the trend of “guy wearing a dozen girls to a party” (being the main theme of hip-hop videos), the song also reignited that national candle for the late footballers and was chosen as the theme song for the Zambian league on the SuperSport network of Africa. With “Chipolopolo Express Unlimited” playing in its coverage, the Zambian team won the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations.
Now, Pompi has arrived in the United States with the African hip-hop delegation to make more allies before the release of his new album, Mizu (roots), and single, “Packaging”. He tells his fans that the message behind his second single, “Giant Killer”, is a secret each will have to decode for themselves when they hear the new tune.
After warming up in Washington, D.C., Pompi and the African hip-hop delegation moved on to New Orleans to experience blues in the French Quarter, to Los Angeles to get tips from Latin American hip-hop stars Ozomatli, to Detroit, to Minneapolis, and finally to New York City.
Along the way, dreadlocked and dimpled Romeo Sikubwabo from Lion Story, like others, documented the trip with snaps, sharing them so that fans could follow the trip on the web. One photo of the performers posing with LL Cool J had fans back in Africa screaming and smiling at their regional stars finally getting to rub shoulders with their industry elders.
“The biggest surprise for me about travelling in America,” says Sikubwabo, “is how interested the U.S. government is in music and art in particular. I really appreciated meeting artists from different African countries, so now I know we will not only do more collaboration but a COOL-aboration!”
Rising out of what was left of Bujumbura’s cultural heart after the brutal civil war of the 1990s and 2000s, plus navigating tough censorship laws, Lion Story remains hopeful that their country can not only rebuild its cultural strength but become interconnected with their peers in the faster-growing cities nearby. “Lion Story’s dream is to spread Truth to the four corners of the world.”
From the more peaceful country of Djibouti, mild-mannered crooner Don Deltafa, who per- forms with the Free Men Band, joined the tour to promote cultural revival for his country.
“I was very pleased to meet a lot of professionals from the music industry in the U.S.,” Deltafa says. “But it was amazing to see how huge is the underground scene. My country is poor, but potentially very rich because most of the population is very young. It’s sure for me that music and art in general can contribute to the development of our countries in Africa. I hope that my music will contribute to educate and empower the next generation to make Djibouti and Africa a better place.”
Coming from the western side of the continent, Burkina Faso artist Obscur Jaffar, with his latenight eyes and his cap-tucked dreadlocks, is more focused on helping his peers back home learn more specific skills for packaging their work to promote it among more people, without sacrificing the artistry along the way.
“I was amazed by the power and significance of hip-hop in American communities and institutions,” Obscur says. “The relationship between meeting people and doing exchanges with becoming more professional about the business aspects of the industry was important to learn. My personal dream, for my music, is to contribute to promote change, share love and self-consciousness. I’m planning to tour with my band in the United States, Africa, and all over the world.”
Along the journey, Pompi had a chance to perform spontaneous cyphers in English with singers like KrTC of Swaziland, Witnesz the Fitness from Tanzania and Rushay Booysen of South Africa, and then Oumarou, Obscur and Deltafa took their turns in French. Sikubwabo would play along on guitar, smiling sweetly. The group built one cypher around Pompi’s “Chipolopolo” tune, which made it online and has been shared across the two continents.
When Pompi arrives in New York with the delegation, finishing up the last workshops and tours – including a hip-hop ambassador lesson from the State Department’s go-to spoken-word guru Toni Blackman, as well as a rap tour that took them to the boyhood homes of Jay-Z and Biggie Smalls – Pompi has just one more thing he wants to do: shoot a music video with the New York skyline.
Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan, Pompi explains a critical point he’s trying to make in a new album, which is stocked full of moral riddles. He believes Zambian youth must declare independence from the pressures of society pushing them in all kinds of unnatural or destructive directions, to make decisions for themselves. Of course, Pompi can’t just say that; he presents it in a lyrical puzzle.
On the Brooklyn waterfront, Pompi bobs and weaves for the camera, listening to headphones and hiding behind glasses, posing as aloof. Then he raps, “Pompi for president … of my mind.” When fans crowd to see if he’s really running for public office, instead they’ll find his message to them: “Stay true to yourself. Don’t let anyone else tell you what to do. Make your own way in the world.”
Since flying home, Pompi keeps close contact with his allies on the tour, especially KrTC of Swaziland and hip-hop producer and magazine editor Plot Mhako of Zimbabwe. As the web – Facebook, in particular – runs a flurry of exchanges between the allies, planning everything from rallying behind Somali rapper Shiine Akhyaar Ali for a show in war-torn Mogadishu, to a discussion about creating an African hip-hop media channel focused on human rights and reform – Pompi brings his sharpened iron right back into the studio to complete his latest track.
This full feature article is from the January 2013 issue of Rolling Stone South Africa.