31 March 2011

Negotiating identity

Rob One

A few days ago I was contacted by Rob Boffard who is a journalist and artists who records as Rob One. His brand new album African was at the time only to be released and I promised to give it a listen. Now, it has taken me couple of days to get to this point, the point where I am writing this, but I have been listening to the album a lot and I have been trying to write and make sense of it. It’s not nonsense - that's not the reason for delay - but I feel that it requires a little bit of understanding for someone like me. I don’t write just about anything nor am I in a habit of recommending music I don’t know. So I had to pay attention to know what is what.

See, like I said Rob One’s album is called African. It’s an identity reference and the album has a lot of other different identity references sprinkled all over it. Hip-Hop is a cultural expression of identities. I guess it really is many different things, but this is one of them. It has helped countless people – I am one of them – to negotiate their identities whether actual or imagined as Patrick Neate has written.

Rob is South African and the identity in South Africa is the biggest question mark or a mess depending on your approach. I think Hip-Hop, as opposed to many other popular music genres attempts to make sense of this. Admittedly a lot less in the mainstream, but let’s say that some segments of the Hip-Hop community spend a lot of time exploring the topic.

To understand this a bit, let’s look at the Cape Town crew Driemanskap. It’s a group I have written about before and now I am very happy to see them breaking through and hopefully also getting the rewards for their years of hard work, distinct style and seemingly never-ending creativity, and just to brag a bit, I am proudly the first ever person to have bought their debut album Igqabhukil’ Inyongo. From that album they have for now released two videos and both of them are about identity albeit very different ones. First one – Camagu – which is a flawless song, is about their Xhosa identity. It should have been the biggest radio hit in the country, but it wasn’t. I am not saying this only as a fan of music, but someone who has dedicated the past decade and then some for an attempt to understand radio as a medium. The second song, which to my surprise – I guess it goes to show something – has been enjoying much more support from the mainstream media is called S’phum’eGugs; a raw nearly six minute long brilliant township anthem celebrating that side of their identity. The album also has songs about South African identity in general, but I am just using the example to demonstrate the depth of the question of identity not only in Hip-Hop or even in South Africa, but more specifically South African Hip-Hop and how the Hip-Hop has been, and is, able to communicate the complex subject matter.

So I saw the album title – African – as an invitation to look into the questions of identity on this album. I was also intrigued because South Africa has this kind of imagined sound bite national identity involving rainbows and such. I know it aims to heal the nation, but the assumption is that the very experiences that have, in my opinion quite clearly, torn the nation – or all the nations within the country’s borders – apart, are supposedly the ones that bring them together as shared history and something that has been overcome together. And listening to the lyrics of the title track it is more or less this scenario that is described albeit with the emphasis on future, instead of past. Or at least only the very recent past from 1994 onwards.

But I understand; it is easy to be harsh and difficult to make sense since the sound bite South Africanism – even if it was talked about as being African – serves a very different and perhaps no less important function. Much like with communal prayers of many religions what is said is less important than the act of saying it. So the meaning isn’t only on the content of the words, but the act of saying them. Perhaps that is more realistic way to look at the young democracy with barely healings scars.

I’m inclined to understand the statements of the title track as a call to action for the artist's peers to seek pride in the identity that for centuries have been demonised and ‘othered’ or perhaps to find ingredients for that mysterious single South African national identity. Whatever the meaning exactly is might be difficult to communicate in any precise manner – this stuff is deep – but I guess the meaning of identity here is true in the way that it is true to oneself which is all it really can be, and therefore shall suffice.

Rob One reminds me of some Australian rappers – Muph and Plutonic, that sort of thing – and his voice and expression, which are hardly silky smooth, go quite well juxtaposed with beautiful easy going beats and melodies. A fine example of this is Conversations with the City which features Basotho lyricist Core Wreckah and singer Deney.

As a music listener I tend to first listen to the whole album and then get stuck to a handful of songs. Often only weeks, months or even years later I realise what kind of tracks I have missed on the first round and there is one song on this record that I haven’t been able to turn off. It is called The Morning After. The Morning After is an emotional song that has really caught my attention. I have listened to it time and time again. I had it on repeat one on my headphones the whole morning in the bus and I have it on my headphones right now as I write. It’s difficult to turn off. This song is an honest reflection of life after a few beers. Perhaps it is the beer reference that reminds me of some of these Australian artists who never fail to mention their best friend in bottles, pints or cans. Perhaps I just think it’s a dominant theme here, because I have listened to this song more than any other one from the album. The album in general isn’t beer rap and even here it has been dealt without the general banality that so often characterises the songs of that nature. The Morning After has a beautifully melodic instrumental which enables the artist to rap his heart out and show us the real him. I mean, I don’t know him, but after this song I feel I do a bit. It is a reflection of the real him and if it isn’t, it is very well made script for what he could be. It is a story of an individual instead of a member of collective and it just feels like something that sits more naturally. It is him telling all about him – his life hasn’t been struggle – and inviting us to either give it a chance or just leave it be. The Morning After is not only the highlight of the album for me, but actually quite touching story of negotiating one’s own identity. It got me thinking a lot. Thanks.

Rest of the album can be checked out at Rob One’s Bandcamp site.

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