‘We’ve got the power!’ In DRC, rap moves are chang­ing in or­der to take on rumba,

The Gulf Today - Time Out - - CONTENTS FOCUS - Says Samir Tounsi

It is a con­flict at once cul­tural, gen­er­a­tional and po­lit­i­cal: rap mu­sic in DR Congo is stag­ing a frontal as­sault on rumba, ac­cus­ing its age­ing stars of only singing of love and other ba­nal­i­ties. DRC’s grow­ing army of rap­pers say their ur­ban lyrics re­flect a gritty re­al­ism edged with angst as one of Africa’s big­gest and most un­sta­ble na­tions heads to­wards a trou­bled pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

At the back of a court­yard in Ban­dal, a pop­u­lar and trendy dis­trict of the cap­i­tal Kin­shasa, a DJ called DDT has opened Kin­sha­sound, a record­ing stu­dio which is about the size of a toi­let.

At the mix­ing deck, beat maker Kratos is play­ing around with a mix of eth­nic rhythms caught some­where be­tween the big sounds of the Bronx and the driv­ing drum­beats of Afrobeat or Afro-Trap.

This tiny stu­dio has at­tracted rap artists like Sista Becky, Alesh and Mag­neto, who elec­tri­fied the crowds at last month’s Red One ur­ban mu­sic fes­ti­val in Kin­shasa.

But Kin­sha­sound has also at­tracted other vis­i­tors — among them of­fi­cials re­spon­si­ble for mu­sic and events at the na­tional cen­sor­ship board who shut it down in Au­gust, DDT ex­plains.

It was even­tu­ally re­opened af­ter a se­ries of ne­go­ti­a­tions, which in­volved hand­ing over some cash.

And their com­plaint? That DDT was pro­duc­ing “ob­scene songs which were an of­fence to com­mon de­cency” and vi­o­lated a law on cen­sor­ship dat­ing back to 1996.

“I asked them which (lyrics were prob­lem­atic) and they didn’t know what to tell me,” DDT said — although he him­self has a pretty good idea.

“We are ba­si­cally putting out a lot of pop­u­lar songs,” he says, re­fer­ring to one track re­leased late last year by Alesh called “Mokonzi o’a Motema Mabe” — which means “The boss got no heart” with a cho­rus that in­cludes the phrase: “Steal­ing is not good”.

The track came out as the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo was in the grip of a po­lit­i­cal cri­sis over the con­tentious rule of Pres­i­dent Joseph Ka­bila. He re­fused to step down at the end of his man­date and re­peat­edly de­layed the elec­tions — although a date has now been set for a vote on De­cem­ber 23.

For the cen­sors, the track went too far and they banned it, although only for a time.

“They’re afraid that ur­ban mu­sic will change things,” DDT ex­plains.

“The old rumba stars sing about love most of the time, but for us, it’s mostly about so­cial mat­ters, like needy young­sters in the street, the lack of elec­tric­ity,

about ill­ness, about the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, about things that aren’t work­ing.”

Rap’s sub­ver­sive rise has shaken things up for the rumba scene, which has long been re­garded as DR Congo’s na­tional mu­sic and which has had ties to the rul­ing classes since the coun­try won in­de­pen­dence from Bel­gium in 1960.

One of its most cel­e­brated hits, “In­de­pen­dance Cha Cha”, which was writ­ten by singer Le Grande Kalle to cel­e­brate the na­tion’s newly-ac­quired free­dom, re­mains widely recog­nised as one of the best-known ex­am­ples of Congolese rumba.

Widely re­spected for the ge­nius of Grande Kalle and his L’African Jazz band and fel­low found­ing fa­thers Tabu Ley Rochereau and TPOK Jazz as well as ex­tra­or­di­nary vo­cals of the late Papa Wemba, rumba un­der­went some­thing of a re­vival af­ter the mil­len­nium.

Dur­ing that decade, sev­eral bev­er­age com­pa­nies spon­sored stars like Wer­ra­son and JB MPiana, and the genre con­tin­ued its com­mer­cial trend with “libanga” — in which the artist drops the name of an in­flu­en­tial spon­sor into a song in the hope of earn­ing a fist­ful of dol­lars.

“I am a dis­so­nant note in the coun­try of rumba. Ok, rumba is ine but in the end, it’s too much: I love you, I love you, I love you...” says rap­per Lexxus Le­gal.

An em­blem­atic ig­ure within Congolese hip-hop, he has made a name for him­self with mu­sic that “makes your brain dance.”

Like Smockey, a hip-hop artist and po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist in Burk­ina Faso or Uganda’s singer-turned­politi­cian Bobbi Wine, Lexxus Le­gal has long been en­gaged in po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism, and is run­ning as an in­de­pen­dent can­di­date in De­cem­ber ’s leg­isla­tive elec­tions.

“When Pres­i­dent Ka­bila ad­dresses the na­tion, the word ‘cul­ture’ has never passed his lips, not even once,” he rails.

“We no longer have the right to switch off. The words should be about us, we’ve got the power!”

But in the world of mu­sic, like in pol­i­tics, the bound­aries are some­times blurred.

These days, rap’s “rebels” are more likely to come from the nicer neigh­bour­hoods of Kin­shasa like Gombe or MaCam­pagne than from the slums of Masina or Selem­bao. And some of them even have a job.

On the other hand, the coun­try’s most es­tab­lished rumba artist, Kofi Olo­mide, 63, re­cently took ev­ery­one by sur­prise by get­ting po­lit­i­cal. He lashed out at the vot­ing ma­chines, which have sparked wide­spread con­tro­versy in the run-up to the elec­tion.

Lauded by the gov­ern­ment, the ma­chines have been re­jected by the op­po­si­tion as open to abuse and fraud.

Bel­gium singer and artist Baloji is seen dur­ing the shoot­ing of one of his video-clips in Kin­shasa, in the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of the Congo.

A Congolese Hiphop en­thu­si­ast is seen in­side Kin­sha­sound, one of Kin­shasa’s few lo­cal record­ing stu­dios in the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of the Congo.

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