Sunday, April 18, 2010
The ‘Niggah Sub-Culture’ among African Youth?
This topic continues to be of interest to me. Warning one: I haven’t proof-read so I apologise before-hand for typo’s and any incoherence I might subject you to. Warning two: This text does not seek to critique any sub-culture in any context particularly in the USA and Africa. So no offense intended, it’s a collation of personal observations. I’ll say upfront that this essay is about young men in what I term the ‘Niggah Culture’. I am very aware that there might be female rap artists and hip-hoppers that might identify with this in the African context but due to my very limited interaction with them and their experiences I am too ignorant to write about them.
So, ‘Niggah Sub-culture’; it’s a sensitive topic but a necessary one. I find it ironic that as I type, I have Phyzix blaring through my earphones. I wish I had The Real Elements original and post-Elements solo acts, Tay Grin, Third Eye, Tha Gosple and Dominant One tracks as well but as they say, if wishes were horses...I’m far from home.
What to make of the Niggah sub-culture? I was propelled to write this now after an encounter this afternoon while waiting for an order of food at a Mexican chicken fast food run by Indians on an African street in a White suburb. Yes, it’s all true and I can give you the Google Earth coordinates if you like. As I sat there, four young men walked in, placed a music device at the centre of their table and dug into shared plates of fries. The music was obviously hip hop and they looked the part, ‘gangstah’ as we called it in the 90’s. Now, Niggahs.
Two weeks ago, I was honoured to meet a wonderful member of my community; he wore Tims and spoke with a twang. We were all invited to call him ‘Niggah’.
I remember two personal ‘niggah- related offences. I am not part of this culture but I believe no-one should criticise a whole sub-culture without understanding their background first. The first was when an American cousin expressed shock that there was a clothing sidewalk shop in Lilongwe called “The N*****s’. “Do they know what that word embodies?” , she gasped. I was offended, of course they know, in their own way. See the shop sold baggy jeans, football jerseys, throwbacks and the like. To the young men owning the shop, they were expressing some sort of solidarity with African-Americans in their sense of style, identifying with what they perceived to be a ‘Niggah Culture’. A culture exuding coolness and style. Apparently this little insight completely eluded my cousin and the African-American cyclist that publicised this story online.
Another offense, K’naan. He was an African himself before he became a Canuck, sorry, Canadian (couldn’t resist that work...hockey anyone?). He was quoted as stating that Africans have no reason to rap, rap is a mode of struggle for the Black minorities in the diaspora. But there was something else he was quoted as saying that I don’t remember but I do remember that it made me feel embarrassed for African rappers, something that suggested African rappers can never own this mode of struggle. All they can do is pretend. But is this so? Then why the ‘Niggah Culture’?
So here I type, seeking to put a sense of my own understanding to the ‘Niggah Culture’ in light of my experiences here in Africa (and yes I do use the term ‘Africa’ broadly) and the US.
The word Niggah: I was told expressly by an African-American I could never use ‘r’ at the end of the word. Understandable, no argument there. However, she made it clear that it was not generally accepted that non-African Americans use this term in addressing African Americans, and, by implication, it not generally accepted that non-African Americans should appropriate this term for themselves. So how does a ‘Niggah culture’ fit for the youth of Africa. Are the youth here limited to ‘pretending’ like K’naan was quoted to have argued or blind copy and pasting, as alluded to by the Black US cyclist?
I believe that the era of rap music as a mode of struggle faded with the demise of Tupac. I stand to be corrected. I was too young to have listened to Run DMC and his contemporaries but I am of the opinion that their music embodied much more of a struggle message than today’s commercialised rap music. I don’t know what men called ‘dog’ and women called b*****s have to do with the struggle of a minority group in a hegemonic White society, but granted, the lyrics do, to many extents embody the lives unique to the contexts of the rappers so I acknowledge my ignorance.
Therefore, there are two ways one might look at rap music in the ‘Niggah Culture’ around me:
A) A Hoped for dream out of the present reality, one of glory, cash and women. If this is the case then it’s not a wholesome dream. We have our own context of unique traditions that should value the notion of UBUNTU, precisely that human values far outweigh egocentric glory, personal riches and the exploitation of women.
B) Another, more interesting interpretation is that of rap here as an articulation of the lived realities of these rappers. Whatever the content might be, twenty stanzas of bragging, twelve consecutive words of profanity or conversely, tales of spiritual transformation , HIV awareness or words of advice to the youth; the music of our ‘Niggahs’ should wake us up to notice what they are actually saying. Perhaps they are prophets in their own way, marking out for us what ails our communities in a mode of struggle, albeit borrowed from over the sea and far away.
This, I find difficult to figure out. I think there are three groups of dressers within the Niggah Culture in the African places I’ve been. Those who have the money (or whose parents have the money) to pull it off, those who don’t, and those who didn’t get the memo. Those who have the money know every trend over the seas and far away, I don’t know where they get the Tims and ipods but they get them. Those with no money still make reasonable attempts; the baggy pants might be Chinese and the shirt may say FUBS but the attempt is there. Then there are those who didn’t get the memo, they are sporting corn rows when they should ‘fade’ maybe; or getting a tattoo when they should be getting a ‘grill’ (eh, don’t be keloidy and lose your teeth in the process, i’m just sayin’).
Relevant is the ‘Niggah’ who is either well read or have quite redolent personal life experiences. At least he knows what he’s talking about, and most importantly, what will make people take notice.
Unfortunately basketball is a game of height and genetic athletic make-up but hey, everyone can try. I was at a game in December and I could have sworn I saw Kobe Bryant, except he was two-thirds the height. It was in Lilongwe, and that Kobe-like kid (whether by coincidence or design) worked the 3-point shots like it was child’s play. Maybe it had to do with his sneakers, they could have been magical the cleanness of that label.....
Can a ‘Niggah’ be president? Well, perhaps not all agents of transformation are presidents; I am interested to see what this culture will achieve in terms of a positive of transformation in the long-term.
So, I could go on and on but all I’m trying to do is show the existence of a sub-culture that is somehow lost from view between the discourses of the popularly recognised strata of African society. Who knows, they might have something important to say to the world....
Picture citation: ‘Niggah’ , please.