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Fight the power

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Hip-hop is full of noise, some people would say. But a friend of mine, a law professor in Zomba, would ask me to justify the claims if I said the same thing about hip-hop. The many times I have spoken with my friend, it is not about law but music.

My friend speaks passionately about Public Enemy which is very unusual. But the professor would tell you why that music appeals to him. I would not be surprised if Public Enemy’s CD is the only hip-hop album he has in his collection of good music.

In 2010, I met Chuck D of Public Enemy on the sidelines of MTV Africa Music Awards. He spoke about the power of music among the oppressed people. Coincidentally that night in Lagos, Chuck D rolled back the years to perform ‘Fight the Power’ a single released in 1989 for Spike Lee’s movie Do the Right Thing. ‘Fight the Power’ is an old song so when Chuck D performed the song again in 2010, many of my age in Lagos were only staring at the rapper. It was new to us. It was exciting when Chuck D exited the stage, T-Pain and Rick Ross took over. The euphoria in the room was unbelievable. I was not surprised.

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Although many would easily connect with new music, Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power’ is more sensible than the majority of the music we listen to this day. It is about the past, the present and the future. It is timeless: “What we need is awareness/ We can’t get careless … You gotta go for what you know/ Make everybody see/ In order to fight the powers that be.”

Fighting the powers that be is everyone’s fight today but as we can rightly observe, not much of the music that we hear on the radio or see on TV promotes that awareness. This is the very reason hip-hop in Malawi (not sure if rapping over pasada beats is still hip-hop) is not accepted by the older generation.

The ill-fame of hip-hop today stems from the self-glorification of the young artists. One would think life is all rosy in Malawi. Of course we complain that the cry songs exaggerate our poverty but exaggerating our well-being through hip-hop is equally surprising.

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Although hip-hop seems to be chaotic, some artists in Malawi have maintained the standards. The Dominant One is not given the attention he deserves yet his music is quite thoughtful one would notice he is cut from a different textile (from his own words in the song ‘Testify’ from the album Invisible Tears Because of My Reign). He is the master in his own right.

From his album, ‘Testify’ is not his best song but it is more thoughtful than the usual songs that subject our ears to torture. In the song, he departs from the self-glorification common among the youthful artists.

Other than looking away to ignore the usual things that go wrong, Dominant One chooses unfamiliar route. He gives his verdict: “The current generation suffers from lack of vision” which can easily be connected to how the youth are used for political violence. Do the youths have the vision to become responsible leaders? He continues: “The education system does not produce greatness … the lowest wage goes to our teachers and these are responsible for our next leaders … my words will stab you in the heart.”

If we brought together young artists, they would claim that their aim is to put Malawi on the map yet the basic thing they fail to do is to observe their surroundings and see what’s going wrong. Teachers are usually ignored, we cannot appreciate their role yet we expect them to teach the next generation of leaders. What breed of leaders are we grooming if teachers are not motivated enough?

It is undeniable that in Malawi, local artists (Joseph Nkasa, Charles Sinetre, Lucius Banda, Billy Kaunda and Lawrence Mbenjere) relate to the masses that is why they are referred to as local. What’s wrong that we cannot refer to these hip-hop artists as local? Being local does not mean using local language in the songs; it means music that can relate to the masses.

The Dominant One is not an everyday local artist. The criticism usually is that he uses English in his music. But he tackles relevant issues in his music. I find his music thoughtful as ‘Testify’ proves. But how much of his music is played on the local radio or TVs? Maybe the young artists can learn from the legendary Chuck D of Public Enemy … music should increase the awareness in our communities; it must equip the masses to fight the powers. That’s how the older generation can be compelled to appreciate the art in hip-hop. I believe the Dominant One has done his part to join Chuck D’s league. I testify!

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