In 2016, the Namibian hip-hop crew Black Vulcanite turned the late Binyavanga’s iconic essay ‘How to Write About Africa’ into a scathing rap song ‘How To Rap About Africa.’
The inspiration was from a popular 2005 essay ‘How To Write About Africa’ by the late award-winning Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina. The essay was later turned into a book, is one of the most effective pieces about the stereotyping of Africa ever published.
In it, the author, who passed away last week as reported by The Sauce, gave a tongue-in-cheek guide to writing about Africa for foreigners.
“Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar,’ ‘Masai,’ ‘Zulu,’ ‘Zambezi,’ ‘Congo,’ ‘Nile,’ ‘Big,’ ‘Sky,’ ‘Shadow,’ ‘Drum,’ ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone.’ Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas,’ ‘Timeless,’ ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal.’ Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans,” he wrote, adding, a few lines later: “In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates.”
Eleven years after Binyavanga’s essay, three Namibian writers, rappers Mark Mushiva and AliThatDudeand poet Okin who are collectively known as Black Vulcanite took a leaf from the author’s book in their song “How To Rap About Africa,” a title that’s an obvious nod to Binyavanga.
On ‘How To Rap About Africa,’ a deep cut from their debut album Black Colonialists (2016), the trio deliberately makes reference to the stereotypes the West has about the continent. But the twist is, unlike the essay, the song isn’t a guide, but an interrogation of the continent’s present, reported Okay Africa.
It’s the MCs’ choice of words that reference ‘How To Write About Africa’. The most obvious is on the hook, performed by Okin; he chants most of the stereotypes Binyavanga brought up in his essay: “Black, genocide, famine, apartheid, kaffir, safari, Buddha, slavery, Namibia, civil war, Congo, primordial, poverty, gorillas, malaria, AIDS,” as a group of protesters join in between every word.
The imagery deployed by Mark and Ali paints a grim picture, the point is that Africa is a seriously complex continent, and shit can get real for you if you don’t watch yourself.
On ‘How To Rap About Africa’, Mark talks about the ills faced by modern Africans, from corrupt politicians, who he refers to as “hyenas,” to the taxing effects of capitalism. He raps: “This is Africa, and here the currencies favour/ The hippos that it made, tell me what you have to trade/ You wanna build a pipeline, you have to watch some hands/ Hyenas manage tenders, eat meat by the gram/ Eat meat like the lamb/ NGOs don’t stand a chance.”
In the last quoted lines, the MC talks about how our leaders are our new oppressors the word “hippo” is a play on the safari concept, but it also refers to the wars that are still ongoing in some parts of the continent. “Tender” is cleverly placed just before the MC mentions “meat” and “lamb.”
But what hits home is how he dispels the concept of freedom in a system where we have to depend on money to even have a place we call home. The continent is in huge debt, and so are most individual middle and working class Africans.
Ali’s verse is scathing towards politicians, he labels them “the African black mamba” (because really, they are), and describes a hostile environment in which the rich (lions) hang out with your woman (gazelle) in a watering hole. Both Ali and Mark refer to places like clubs and bars as “watering holes.” While Mark refers to politicians as hyenas, Ali speaks of criminals as hyenas great imagery considering the predatory nature of politicians and criminals of all sorts.
‘How To Write About Africa’ plays out like a fable, which is a prominent literary genre that has been widely deployed by Africans for the longest times in educational fairy tales and literature. Just like many folk tales, the song “How To Rap About Africa” is up to the listener’s interpretation.
The progressive politics and nuanced views of the continent on ‘How To Rap About Africa’ makes more sense in the context of the album the song is a part of, ‘Black Colonialists’, the trio’s debut, explores the position black people occupy in the world today with our history of colonization and displacement. In the album, the trio breaks down how us finding ourselves in the diaspora could be leveraged towards our advantage, hence the term ‘Black Colonialists.’