Does Zim Hip Hop Need To Dumb It Down?

"Lyrical genius"

That was a comment I saw under one prominent Zimbabwe hip-hop artist's song on YouTube not named Synik, Tehn Diamond, Jungle Loco, Asaph, Indigo Saint, Malcom Mufunde, RayKaz or Luminous and anyone else who fits the archetype. This led me to spend the rest of my afternoon asking a lot of difficult questions, like "Does the majority of the Zimbabwean audience really care for Zim hip hop?", "Is lyricism dead?" "Does anyone know what it is?". 

Unlike Kanye West, I could make a strained effort in finding answers to most of these questions but the most pertinent question I truly couldn't find an answer to was "Is Zim hip hop too smart for its own good?".

BA7 - Cognac & Crimes III
One of the lyrically dense albums of 2021

Having spent most of last year and the better part of this one defending the integrity of Zimbabwean hip hop as if I'm paid for it, I have struggled to find what the newer fans of the genre truly enjoy. These are the fans who committed to the music in the aftermath of Holy Ten's Ndaremerwa in 2020. The best I could come up with is that the demographic responsible for a king making and putting food in the mouths of artists struggles to diversify its attention. When Zimbabwean music fans, particularly in Zim hip hop have chosen their ring leader, it's very hard for anyone else to break through and offer competition. 

Since the advent of the aforementioned track Ndaremerwa, arguably two names have broken into the mainstream scene since Holy Ten captured the hearts of many and that's Voltz JT and Saintfloew. Now before you bring out the knives, I'm very aware that just like how football in England didn't start in 1992, Zim hip hop didn't come up in 2020. So put back the Takura(?), Ti Gonzi and Metaphysics loaded guns back in your holsters. The point I'm struggling to make is that once the people have decided they like you, they like you and only you. 

The tribalism in hip hop is not a novel thing. It is what defines it as a culture and arguably one of the most competitive sports in the world with no scoreboard. So it doesn't surprise me when Twitter is rife with debates on who is the best rapper or who has a better album. The only problem is that these arguments in Zim hip hop amongst "casual" fans are only between two artists. So imagine the frustration for the purist fan when they see categories like Best Flow, Better Punchlines, and Best Cadence are only contested by two artists. It's incredibly annoying and does a disservice to the under-exposed artists who thrive in niche aspects of hip hop. 

Does this mean "the people" aren't mentally equipped to accept plurality in Zim hip hop? By no means, but the evidence on hand against is staggering. It's been a decent year for Zim hip hop, not exactly reaching the same groundbreaking heights of 2021 but still decent enough to have a song of the year contender across all genres. That being said, it still has a long way to go in lifting the ceiling from having the same cultural impact that Zim dancehall had at its peak circa 2013-16

It's not hyperbole to suggest that most of the demographic that have been flooding shows by Tanto Wavie, Holy Ten or Saint Floew wouldn't be able to tell you who Karizma is or what Student of The Game is. Admittedly not everyone has to be a hip hop scholar or historian, that generation is sitting at home writing articles about the state of Zim hip hop like disgruntled boomers in nursing homes.

Not a newcomer to the game but it took a Holy Ten co-sign for Zimbabwe to know Saintfloew

So, does Zim hip hop need to follow the Zim dancehall template? Does it need its own "Sting 2014"(pun unintended), mass production, comic and relatable repetitive lyrics and accessible layman distribution strategies? Back in the day at the peak of Zim dancehall, it was said that you're not really a hot artist if your music is not heard in the local daily commuter omnibuses in the city. Zim hip hop is halfway there, the recognizable faces at the forefront of the culture are being sung, quoted and booked but more could always be done. Maybe Zim hip hop also has to look within, it is clearly not because people hate Zim hip hop but maybe the packaging has to change slightly.

Look, in a utopia, different styles and facets of the culture would be able to exist. Someone like BA7 should be able to get the same love as Bling4. Ti Gonzi and Michael Chiunda should be able to have similar cultural relevance and standing. This however is a bit of a hurdle. Would it be helpful if we try to anatomically dissect what made the handful of names getting sustained by Zimbabwean hip hop so successful? Is it all coincidence or can my favourite rapper follow the Voltz JT formula and also get 100 000 plays on a song? The talent in the country is undeniable but statistically, the market share is laughably uneven.

Is it possible that fans are in love with the team and not the sport? Could be that what we're seeing is a case of affinity to the name rather than what it represents? Possibly. This is the conundrum we face as Zim hip-hop apologists. The year is closing and as we enter the fourth quarter, the albums, mixtapes and EPs are finding their way to streaming platforms and yet as qualitatively competitive the releases will be, the Zim hip-hop culture itself is unlikely to positively react to them. 

Music is subjective, therefore it's unfair to insist on how audiences should react to whom one thinks should get a reaction. People like what they like. Anyone can have an opinion, even if that opinion is wrong. Should every artist in Zim hip hop at least have a record that is quotable for Instagram captions or be interchangeably applicable in everyday speech? Maybe not but it might help. Could breaking out into the mainstream be down to a science or its just luck? What has Holy Ten rapped about that Tulkmunny hasn't? Does Fish F Ndaramu deserve better? What does Guluva Se7en need to do more? A Ndebele-speaking rapper who even takes time to rap in 3 languages while delivering art that is easily exportable across borders. 

Zimbabwe is full of artists who deliver potentially chart-topping art, be it lyrically complex or pop in nature, with all the tools in place but the pieces barely catch fire. The old adage goes, "Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard enough", but what does one do when they fall short while possessing the talent and working equally hard?  
Mukudzei Mlambo

A bit of Romans 7:15 and 90s Hip Hop & RnB. I write words about things that fascinate me in Zim hip hop on my column series "Justify My Bias"

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