Hip-Hop Artist Cultural Exchange Program: A Historic Experience

Since January 15, Hip-Hop has undergone a groundbreaking experience—the forging of a two-week alliance between a popular South African Hip-Hop artist (Hip-Hop Pantsula) and an acclaimed American Hip-Hop artist (Asheru), to draw strength, inspiration, and vision from respective struggles and cultures. The exchange runs through January 28.

Hip-Hop Pantsula (HHP), also known as Jabba, is an MTV Africa Video of the Year award-winning artist whose work transcends genres and fields. He describes his style of music as “Motswako,” a Setswana word meaning “mixture”—the sum of many parts. HHP has collaborated with Nas and shared same stage with artists like Ludacris, Snoop Dogg, and Keith Murray.

Asheru is a Peabody award-winning MC who many know for rapping the opening theme of “The Boondocks”; but he’s also an educator, activist, and founder of Hip-Hop Educational Literacy Program ( H.E.L.P.), a pioneering literacy initiative incorporating Hip-Hop lyrics into curriculum to create culturally-relevant packages for inner-city and low-income kids.

The event is sponsored primarily by BloomBars (“You Bloom. We Bloom.”), a non-profit organization which utilizes art to transform lives and communities.

Legend—rather Asheru’s account—has it that John R. Chambers, founder of BloomBars, visited South Africa recently, and met with HHP, whose music he was familiar with. Chambers returned home and announced to Asheru: “I met a guy over there who is just like you. You got to meet this Brother”

Initially, a mere meeting of the minds was to take place and, perhaps, artistic collaboration between the two. But Chambers’ vision grew more expansive into a comprehensive two-week schedule to include intense traveling, performance, literacy activism, HIV/Aids awareness presentations, educational workshops, and more—with Asheru serving as guide and ambassador.

Asheru shared a telling experience from last Friday which gives some insight into why such an event is worth doing: “We actually had dinner over at the [South African] ambassador’s house last night. The ambassador has three young children, and all three of them knew who this guy was. [HHP] walking into their house was like Jay-Z walking into your house. They were going crazy. I couldn’t believe it.”

Life for Jabba for the next two weeks would include performing alongside the likes of KRS-One, Jean Grae, Dead Prez, Talib Kweli, Grand Puba, and Pharoahe Monch, meeting pioneers like Afrika Bambaataa and DJ Kool Herc, and speaking to youth about literacy and education. He would also be touring art centers, hosting jam sessions, lecturing at colleges and universities, fundraising for HIV/Aids causes and victims of the recent earthquake in Haiti, and much more—with a film crew documenting each step through.

And many of the artists have been thrilled to take part. “Pharoahe Monch heard about it, Rahzel (formerly of The Roots) heard about it, and instantly said, ‘I want to be down.’ So, I just think it’s really dope that’s he getting that reception,” said Asheru, who described HHP in very complimentary terms: “In his heart, he’s a good brother—very, very humble.”

It was about 12:40 PM when I spoke with HHP on Sunday. He had just woken up following a 4 a.m. jam session with his band and Asheru. He apologized for the slight delay, explaining he was now “operating on different time zones and calendars.”

“We left S.A. just when the sun was going down, and the sun has been up for another 22 hours—[it ’s] just like another world,” he joked.

The partnership with BloomBars is perfect because, in his origin town, “rain is the most important” element. “Rain is as important as electricity to the [Western] world.” And BloomBars is particularly invested in “planting the right seeds to make the tree grow.” But seed and rain alone are insufficient. A number of other factors must work in sync for a tree to sprout from seed stage and provide life to its surroundings. HHP uses this metaphor to explain how even the negative and misplaced feedback Hip-Hop often catches from unenlightened critics can—and should—be used as natural fertilizers to bolster the germinating (artistic) process. “We take negativity and turn it into something else,” says HHP.

But he’s thrilled to be involved in this experience which he recently described as a “small step for me but a giant step for Africa.” This border-crossing is significant because, “when you come through, you’re not just one person: you’re representing those who came before you, you’re representing those coming after you. You, yourself, are an ancestor. So, you have to always be connected.” And it’s critical to dispel all the “misconceptions” about African Hip-Hop or, more accurately, Hip-Hop made in Africa. For genuine exchange to take place, HHP sees it important to educate “people about where we come from first.” In that sense, “it’s a true cultural experience—we’re learning something about this side and [presenting] an idea of what’s going on over there.”

Hip-Hop in South Africa and in other parts of Africa is indefinable, he explains—“very broad.” Much of it arose from arms struggle and tribal wars, eventually taking flesh in forms of escapism—ways to push back and, if possible, blot out memories of a traumatic past. But artists gradually collected records and rhythms “from different genres and different countries, and mashed it up to make one dope sound.”

Unfortunately, not many overseas know of this history or how to engage it.

“There are so many misconceptions,” says HHP. Many believe Hip-Hop made in Africa is “still in its indigenous format.” While this may be true in part, Hip-Hop on the continent has also “elevated to different levels.”

And in an age when “musicians are more famous than presidents,” it’s critical that artists take seriously their responsibility to educate as much as they entertain; to gather as much misery surrounds them and “make something meaningful out of it.”

His expectations for the cultural exchange program are ambitious and almost utopian: “I’m hoping people would become open to each other. We were open to American music; we were open to English music for the longest time—(even) when we didn’t understand what they were saying. I’m only starting to understand more, now that I’ve become more fluent in English—like, wow, Biggie was saying that?”

The more those in the Western world listen to Hip-Hop made in Africa—whether understanding all the words or not—“the more it’ll ring in their heads.” Far from condescension, fans and artists need to “consume it, because there’ll be a time when you’ll understand what we are saying.”

This would bring into fruition the creation of a global Hip-Hop community that breaks down borders and barriers; that bypasses parochialism and provincialism; that transcends limits and languages.

As Asheru put it, “we both grew up on Hip-Hop—but just in two different parts of the world.”

For more info, visit: http://www.bloombars.com/