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Hausa hip-hop on the up and up

September 14, 2017

Without Africans in North America, the world would never have had Elvis Presley and the rock’n’roll revolution. Polish cultural historian Mariusz Krasniewski explores this theme and others in his book on Hausa hip-hop.

Hiphop Nigeria
Image: youtube.com/Mob Alfata

Krasniewski is fascinated by folk tales – stories and traditions that are passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. It is something that Afro-Americans and Africans have in common, he argues.

"If we compare social functions and forms of presentation, Hausa hip-hop has a lot in common with traditional folktales. Deliberately or not, it fills the gap between tradition and modernity," he says. 

"It is a music that was developed in Northern America by African Americans and then exported to Africa as a Western cultural product," he goes on, referring to his book "In Da Haus. A Story of Hip-Hop and Oral Literature in Hausa Society," which is being published later this year.

During field research conducted in West Africa in 2014-2016, Krasniewski gathered unique material from the Hausa motherland in Nigeria and Niger, as well as from Ghana, where Hausa traditional culture is patterned into the religious and social mosaic of the country.

Global hip-hop from Ghana

In the early 1970s, Gyedu Blay Ambolley was probably the first Ghanaian artist to include rap in local highlife rhythms with the release of the single Simigwado, explains Krasniewski. 

"It is a very funky, highlife tune but the inclusion of melodic rap recitations and the track's release date [around 1973] actually make the Ghanaian artist one of the founding fathers of the global hip-hop movement!" says Krasniewski.

The first to make a complete Hausa rap album was Abdullahi Mighty, a musician from the city of Kano in northern Nigeria, known as a hub of music.

The beginning of his first album "Taka" (2005) sounds like a Hausa variation of German electronic music from the early Kraftwerk era. 

It started a revolution in Hausa sound. Abdullahi Mighty had created a work that bridged modern rap music imported from the United States and nanaye, Hausa music popular in northern Nigeria that was - and still is - a dominant trend in the region. 

The album also drew from other influences. The track Lugude features Mr Mufti Dreadlock, who performs his English stanzas in a manner clearly inspired by Jamaican toasters from dancehall, as well as Hindi raga music. In this one track, it's possible to find traditional influences, with a focus on clapping and rhythms of the kuntigi (a traditional lute used in Hausa music), and modern sounds with the Hindi film music and Jamaican toasting.

Reaggae roots

Many African musicians are inspired by the Caribbean region.

This approach is fully understandable, Krasniewski says, because "all the music created by the descendants of African slaves, apart from the fact that it was subjected to various external influences, is somehow African and thus can be considered as a part of a wide African heritage." 

This is reflected in the Rastafarian movement, which fuels the widely popular reggae industry in modern day Ghana. 

"It is all about coming back to roots and the roots of all African people are on the African continent," says Krasniewski.  

Don't forget Bollywood

Hindi films have also had a dominant impact on the creation of Hausa popular culture in Northern Nigeria. 

Brought to the region by Lebanese cinema owners in the 1960s, Hindi films quickly gained huge popularity and the music became an inspiration not only for musicians but also writers and ordinary Nigerians. 

More than five decades of Hindi influence on Hausa popular culture indicates that at the time of the first Hausa hip-hop debut, Indian influences were widespread in the northern part of Nigeria. 

Attitude without the swear words 

Early Hausa hip-hop musicians were inspired by American gangsta rap.

The Nigerian Billy O, one of the pioneers of Hausa hip-hop, lists N.W.A. (Niggaz wit Attitudes) as one of his major inspirations during the time he was shaping his musical style. Other influences include Public Enemy, Ice T and 2Pack. 

But instead of abusive language, Hausa rappers use metaphors to describe social problems and criticize the economic situation in the country.

There are antigovernment tracks like Change by Lil' TeaXy and Founding Fathers by IQ. Generally though, Hausa hip-hop artists avoid directly accusing politicians or using their names and political parties as they know they could face problems afterward.

Hip-hop continues to evolve

New style is the second wave of Hausa rappers - those who don't seek approval from Hausa society but instead drop a straightforward message accompanied by aggressive beats. 

"The beats are no longer melodic, they are strong and heavy, to bolster the message even more," Krasniewski says.

The track Duniya Budurwar Wawa (The world is a fool's concubine), composed jointly by Nomiis Gee and Ricqy Ultra, introduces some hard rock guitar and is proudly labeled by its creators as Hausa hip-hop rock. 

Head shot of a man (Jo Harper) with grey hair and brown eyes
Jo Harper Journalist and author specializing in Poland