Africa, The Next Throne of ‘Hip-Hop’

I’ve mentioned this story before because it was one of those experiences that always stays with you. In December 2009, I wrote the following in a column at “In 1996, while serving as GM of Wu-Tang Management, I participated in a private meeting with executives from RCA Records. At a certain point they brought […]

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I’ve mentioned this story before because it was one of those experiences that always stays with you. In December 2009, I wrote the following in a column at

“In 1996, while serving as GM of Wu-Tang Management, I participated in a private meeting with executives from RCA Records. At a certain point they brought out our sales figures from around the world. It only included totals from the Americas, Europe and Asia.

So I asked them, ‘What are our sales figures in Africa?’

After waiting a while they returned to the room with a new printout with Africa added to the list. The grand total, according to them, for the sale of ‘Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’ in Africa, a continent of nearly 1 billion people was 73 units sold.

I will never forget how I felt when I saw the number ‘73? on the paper. One day, in this column, I intend to share what I thought was the real cause of, or story behind the ‘73.’

Today that memory stays with me as I build with entrepreneurs and musicians in Africa on business concepts and ways for artists in the States to sell records abroad, and vice versa.”

What I did not mention then but will now is that I asked the representatives of RCA why the sales figures were so low compared to other regions. Their explanation was that Africa did not have the retail infrastructure that existed in other parts of the world and because of that there was no way to distribute music for sale or to track and record sales in the manner that was standard for the industry, elsewhere.

My first thought, aside from suspecting they were lying, was, “That’s because you don’t care about selling our music in Africa, and if it ain’t about Sound Scan it doesn’t matter to you.” My perspective and attitude was more of an ideological one then. At that moment I placed the blame on them, but I also began to realize that there were certain things that we could have pushed for – with the clout we had – on a promotional level, and had failed to do so. We couldn’t have immediately addressed the real problem of the lack of an infrastructure in certain parts of Africa, but we certainly could have pushed the issue of a small promotional tour on the continent.

There’s no guarantee of what would have happened, but in that respect I believe I did not perform at the highest level of my professional ability.

Since that time a lot has changed. Africa is more on the mind of all of us in the West, contact and travel is more frequent, and greater familiarity exists with some aspects of the cultural and political realities on the ground there.

In 1996, the only native Africans I personally knew were those who had immigrated to this country and those who were driving the dollar cabs in Staten Island and taxis uptown in Harlem who would build with me on African culture and Black history.

Now, in 2010 through travel, professional work, Skype and Face Book, email, cell phone, and SMS texting I am developing meaningful relationships with Africans all over the continent and have dialogue with them at the touch of a button. I’ve even had my DNA tested and matched with a particular group of Africans living on the continent (I’ll make this known in a forthcoming book on the economic integration of Africa) today. And of course, the father of our current president is African.

So, obviously, if I were in that meeting today I would have much more to say, and I’m sure they would too.

Those of you who are familiar with my Hip-Hoppreneur ™ columns and perspective know that I do not bite my tongue on where I believe the industry is headed. One of several provocative conclusions that I have come to is that the influence that all of us in the United States have had over the Hip-Hop culture and industry is rapidly ending. It will be replaced in many ways by the creative energy coming from regions of the world like Central and South America and Africa, whose socio-economic conditions in many ways are closer to the original essence of Hip-Hop as it manifested in New York City neighborhoods in the 1970s.

I touch on this in my 2009 piece, “What’s Next For Hip-Hop? The End Of Its American Colonization” (

Another major factor at work which I believe will eventually move the throne of the industry elsewhere is the rapid economic development of Africa and its cultural diversity. As technological, economic and physical infrastructure is built in Africa, and as income levels rise, the ability to monetize creative works (make money from them) and offerings tied to music will grow so fast it will make your head spin.

Decision-makers and entrepreneurs will have to have a presence on the ground not just in New York, Atlanta, and Los Angeles but also cities like Cairo, Egypt; Johannesburg, South Africa; Lagos, Nigeria; Accra, Ghana; Nairobi Kenya; and Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

And it won’t be the traditional major record label that will be an engine for this. One look at the unique arrangement that Somali-born rapper K’Naan has with Coca-Cola is enough to see where things are headed. Coca-Cola has chosen his song, “Wavin’ Flag” as the theme-anthem for its online, radio and television sponsorship of the World Cup next month in South Africa. Contrasting that arrangement with the traditional record label deal we are familiar with, and the so far less than mainstream status of his career, The Wall Street Journal wrote in January, “As the beneficiary of a roughly $300 million marketing spree, K’Naan will be riding a promotional blitz that no record label could afford. It comes at perhaps the perfect time for the singer, whose first U.S. album, ‘Troubadour,’ landed on many critics’ ‘best of 2009’ lists, yet sold modestly.”

Imagine that, a career booming not because of first week record sales but because of an appeal to an emerging market. This is the new era that artists in the West better get used to.

Yes, Drake’s business partnership with Sprite in the ‘Spark’ campaign is impressive ( but it is a drop in the bucket compared to the potential for companies to market products like mobile phones, beverages, and bank cards to Africans in languages like English, French, Arabic, Portuguese and Swahili. The multi-lingual artists of Africa who are able to blend the appeal of Western rap music with indigenous sounds and authentic regional culture will be the next superstars. And Western artists who have what I call a ‘diasporic personality’ (able to navigate a Western empire, homeland, and populations scattered throughout the world) are going to be those best positioned to reap the rewards and backing of cultural entrepreneurs who understand that a hot song increasingly is less valuable when not tied to international demographics, movements, causes, and products and services. Just imagine how big a person with a diasporic personality like Tupac Shakur would be today in an era of cross-border social media.

To get a thorough run down and 101 on what’s happening with the continent of nearly 1 billion and its evolving relationship to rap music, I built with two cultural entrepreneurs and music industry professionals – 19 year old Kuel Lual Deng of Sudan and Karengera Eric Soul of Rwanda. Kuel Lual Deng currently lives in Nairobi, Kenya working as an A&R for a record label in Nairobi called HeadBangaz International which deals with artists of all genres of music but mainly Hip-Hop. He’s currently working with a newly signed group, Shuba Shuba Clan who’ve dropped a mixtape, ‘Wordz War 3’ and are working on their new album.

Karengera Eric Soul is a DJ, event producer and TV host of Wahala and centre of the AFROGROOV movement ( & &

On the question of the state of Hip-Hop in Africa Kuel Lual Deng responded, “Hip-hop has a really big following in Africa. Though it is less funded, the internet has really made it easier for the youth to get hold of new music. Artists are now taking advantage of the internet as it has really put them out there. Compared to the Western scene which has taken a more commercial route, artists here prefer to use Hip-Hop as a means of airing community problems.” And Karengera Eric Soul elaborated, “Africa is a powerful emerging scene with a fantastic potential to fulfill. Hip Hop has already achieved a lot in terms of artist developments, creating business opportunities and triggering social change. Partnerships between Hip Hop practitioners, education, corporate, NGO’s, governmental institution in health and education are current at the moment. People only starting to realise and acknowledged, that as citizens of the globalised world, Africans access the same information as people in Europe or America, and absorb the same aspects of global culture into their lives. First thing to really grasp is that the African continent is huge. We just reached the 1billions mark in terms of population. In geographical terms, try it…with 30,301,596 sq km of land, you could fit India, USA, Western Europe, China, and Argentina together on the continent, and you would still have space to fill…then, Africa is young. Almost half its population is under 25 years of age. Africa is also urban. Contrary to popular belief, Africa is a continent…there is 52 countries in there…not federal states like in US, 52 sovereign countries so people need to grasp that concept when trying to have a real understanding of Africa. Each country, each region has its own flavour, its own colour, rhythms, languages and traditions. So all theses countries and subgroups have assimilated Hip Hop culture, fused it with their own traditions to create something new and unique. At first, in the early 1980s and 90’s, it was very much at its copy-cat stage, US hip hop was the reference point so everybody tried to sound and act like an American or a Jamaican. Then during the crazy gangsta rap era, they came to realise that Africa’s reality and struggle was not exactly the same as in the US, even though there were a lot of parallels as far as institutionalised oppression, racism, lack of opportunities and struggle to survive etc…we also have to deal with wars, tribalism, extreme poverty as well as the endangerment of our culture dominated by western ruthless capitalism and irresponsible consumerism. At the moment, slowly and progressively, each regions, countries and subgroups start to develop their own flavour, values, sounds and style at their own pace. The most successful and emerging hip hop scenes are in Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and East Africa (Tanzania-Kenya-Uganda etc..)…but all countries have something special about them.”

When asked who the biggest groups and artists are, Kuel Lual Deng responded, “The biggest groups now should be South African’s Jozi, Uganda’s Klear Kut, Kenya’s Ukoo Flani Mau Mau.” And Karengera Eric Soul told me, “Once you have grasped the concept of Africa as a continent and not a single country, you will understand it is a hard question to answer. We have to go by regions to be fair…and each region does hip hop their own way, fusing story telling with traditional music, reggae, singing style, flow, languages of their area. Sometimes it is not straight Hip Hop per se. In Senegal for example, you have the Didier Awadi, Daara J, Xuman, Wageble etc…In Nigeria: Weird MC, D’Banj and the Mo Hits crew, the crooner 2Face and pop phenomenon P. Square. Down South, you have JOZI, Hip Hop Pantsula, Zola, Tumi and the Volume…on the Eastside you have artist like Juma Nature, Jua Cali, Professor Jay, Jose Chameleon doing big things…Then you also need to look at the Afropolitan [nomadic diaspora spread around the world] artist making an impact in the west, Nneka, Knaan, Shad K, Wale, Mokobe, MC Solaar etc… Creatively, it is really healthy and this is just the beginning…just the tip of the iceberg.”

When I asked how most young people learn about and obtain new music in Africa, Kuel Lual Deng said, “The youth learn about new music from friends, radio, television, magazines and internet. But mainly from radio and internet.” Karengera Eric Soul explained, “What I have noticed in Africa, is that the exchange and inter-connection between regions and countries is not as automatic as one may think. Radio and word-of-mouth are still the most reliable source to learn about new music. So each country, areas and regions is aware of what is happening on their local scene, they are also exposed to O Channel, Trace TV and MTV which unleash a lot of international music on their screen, broadband, etc… So they know what is going on in the States, in UK or France but the funny thing is region to region, from West to East, Central to East, North to South. Unless you have a trans-continental hit records on full rotation on MTV or O Channel, people in Lagos, Nigeria are not aware of what is happening in Nairobi, Kenya for example, and Dakar, Senegal and Johannesburg, South Africa are dancing on different beats. You get new music via internet, file sharing, buying tapes and CD on the local market, at the local music/dvd/cd vendor, members of family living abroad supply them with newness… there is a mix of official and black market outlets in every major cities so locally, you can always find new local music quite easily.”

I asked both of them to tell me what genres of music in Africa incorporate Hip-Hop music or blend well with it. Kuel Lual Deng replied, “The genres of music that are incorporated with Hip-Hop are Afro-fusion, Traditional music, ie, people rapping and adding folklore from their mother-tongue and Bongo Flavour (Tanzanian style of hiphop). Bongo is a swahili slang name for Tanzania but the word is derived from Ubongo, meaning “brains.” And Karengera Eric Soul did the knowledge for me, “Again, you need break it down by regions and traditions. All influences are incorporated to create something new and unique within that Hip Hop fabric which makes it African Hip Hop, but African Hip Hop forms are not the same…..just like NY, LA and the South have their own sound. South African Kwaito is a mix of slowed-down electronic house beats with tribal chants, shout out, spoken word, singing and rapping. In Senegal Gambia, and Mali, traditional music is big even with the youth…as far as Hip Hop goes, its mixed, they use reggae riddim, or straight hiphop beats, also they sample popular traditional songs and program their beats based on precise traditional rhythm. Check PeeFroiss, Biddew Bou Bess or Daara J. Rap groups are generally composed of 3 members. A rapper, a sing-jay/toaster and a singer and a DJ… It’s the template of a “rap” group over there. In Nigeria, they call it Naija Pop. Their music has a strong commercial appeal and they have that sort of dancehall/reggeaton/afro beat on which they lay a very Nigerian flow to sing melodies…Technically, Nigerians are in par with the west so the production is really heavy and it works well in club alongside any quality hip hop from anywhere else…hence its current popularity. I also feel acoustic soul and folk music is growing a bit at the moment…there are a few girls picking up their guitar and putting themselves out there…a more organic movement as opposed to the computerised sound blasting all over the radios in Nigeria. Bongo Flavor is the term for East African urban music. Also known as Swahili music. Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda all share Swahili as a common language and it created its own style in that region. It’s a sort of RnBish Hip Pop Ragga Zouk kind of sound.”

I took the subject to the business side and inquired about the challenges in the marketing and sale of music in Africa. Kuel Lual Deng itemized it for me like this:

”The main challenges that face the industry as a whole are:

– Lack of funding, especially from government.

– Shady promoters who con artists.

– Monopoly by radio and television stations, they usually favor known artists.

– Lack of knowledge or ignorance by the artists.

Karengera Eric Soul detailed it as, “Africa’s music needs to be recognised as a valuable resource, an efficient and useful tool to support African development, especially as part of the education program. With no structures in place, no regulations, no investment, there cannot be an industry. So some parts of Africa have developed their own label/distribution system, thanks to unscrupulous and shrewd business men. You sell your album for a fee to a marketers/distributors, he is doing his own business to get your album, manufactured, distributed and sold through his connexion, there is no way for you to control how many he will sell so its up to you to negotiate a good price from the get-go…don’t go back later to try collect royalties! He already paid you, period.

If the artist is lucky and gets played on the radio, his business is to maximise his income through live shows, endorsement, appearances, etc…that is his own hustle. If you try to manufacture and sell yourself…your album will be pirated and spread out b4 you even get your own copy from the printer. Despite all that, a lot of artists managed to create a lucrative and successful career, their resilience and determination makes them overcome those obstacles. It is what it is in most part of Africa. South Africa seems to have more organisation and structure with their music industry though, but as real money starts being produced, I heard weird stories of a short–term gratification culture and greed interfering with good judgement and common sense, a lot of back-door deals, corruptions and thieveries occurred so this slows down the process of building a very healthy and empowering music industry. Africa is as ruthless as the West without the legal support when things go really bad! A lack of understanding and we are missing the real political will to harness the potential of the youth creativity, entrepreneurship and self expression which has the potential to act as a catalyst enabling Africa to overcome its many challenges and build a peaceful, economically strong, inspiring and successful society.”

I asked both of them to enlighten me on the impression that many Africans have of rap coming out of the West. Kuel Lual Deng broke it down, “Africans are very fond of Western Hip-Hop more than local raps. But in recent times, the more commercial it got, the more people turned to listening to their own African rap..” Karengera Eric Soul added on, “I don’t really know, I think Africans loved whatever was coming out of the States, and they still do, I still do. Those are our lost cousins after all, as far as black is concerned, we were proud and wanted to emulate whatever Black Americans were doing, but then as I think they are slowly turning their back on US Hip Hop as it became so uninspired…compared to the realities of the continent, the lyrical content sort of “disconnected” from the aspiration of youth Africa at some point… Only in the most conscious circles, because Africans are generally more politically aware than most Americans are. In Senegal or Congo, the government relationship with Hip Hop communities is tense as artists are not afraid to denounce currents issues within their materials, the government knows their powers. In Senegal, Hip Hop has been known to even affect elections processes…. Ask Didier Awadi! In East Africa as well, they talk about their own issues; polygamy, poverty, single-motherhood, aids, love, having fun…Some are hilariously Americanized with the available resources, some are creatively executed with low budget, there is a healthy balance in the East I think.

Then South African region is probably the closest thing you will find to US Hip Hop in Africa, you may even be confused at first listen…I think they are more inspired by the USA than by the rest of Africa or even Europe…unless its London. As far as music industry goes, I would say their impressions is shifting slowly, the aspiration of success portray by the West/US motivate them to be successful themselves in order to push for change in their society rather than flaunting wealth, naked woman, fake fancy cars, hired jewellery, etc… A more responsible hip hop, as it was originally created.

In March of 2010 when participating in the African Union’s First Congress of African Economists in Nairobi, Kenya I met a 21-year old young man named Amos. He had heard me speak during the conference and approached me on the last full day of the conference. He followed me everywhere and we became instant friends, with me as his student, and he as my teacher. I asked him to explain to me his background, Kenyan politics and the music scene that he was into. I wish everyone based in America could have had such a thorough tutorial. Aside from explaining the incredible details of his tribal affiliation, giving me a better analysis of what went wrong in Kenyan’s 2008 elections than anything you will see on TV, and reciting speeches he had memorized of President Barack Obama, he gave me a 101 on the genres of music. He made it clear to me that an artist and MC named Jua Cali was the equivalent over there of what Lil Wayne is over here.

After later listening to all of his music I could find and particularly a track called ‘Kiasi,’ ( I had to bear witness, that the bo’ Jua Cali was the truth. And when I found out what he was actually saying in some of his tracks, I had to blush – Naughty By Nature and Young Money (hint – ‘Every Girl’: would be proud.

But as beautiful as that experience with Amos was I also experienced the pain of seeing how the rap industry has been used to spread a very negative image of Black Americans on this side of the Atlantic. In the middle of a very powerful economic and geo-political discussion about African and American politics, with a Sister from Ethiopia and one from Zimbabwe, I was taken aback when told that until Michele and Barack Obama arrived on the scene other than the Huxtable family on The Cosby Show many Africans had no concept of Blacks in the U.S. with a healthy family life. When the discussion turned to rap music, they still believed that the East Coast-West Coast beef was still going on with young Black men primarily concerned with killing each other. My mind immediately went to a Nov. 16, 2003 New York Times written by a Black American Muslim traveling in Egypt which read:

One night during Ramadan, a skinny hustler in knockoff American clothes joined us for dinner. He was one of those 20-something lotharios who haunt downtown Cairo, seducing tourists. After dinner, we sat alone in front of the shop.

“Do you know the story of Tupac Shakur?” he asked me. I nodded and smiled; I was intrigued that he knew anything about rap and proud that he did. “They killed him in the ghetto,” he continued. “I love all the rap, all the n######.”

My face went hot. I told him he shouldn’t use that word.

“Why not?” he asked. “All the blacks use it. All the blacks have sex and sell drugs like Tupac and Jay-Z.”

Not since grade school had such talk so upset me. “Look at me,” I said. “I’m black. I don’t sell drugs.”

“Please, don’t be upset,” the young man said, offering me his hand. “I’m a n#####. I’m a hustler like Tupac.”

Some of my thoughts on how Africa’s economic development and diversity will eventually transform the West’s dying brand of Hip-Hop culture and industry are things I really only build on with a trusted inner circle partly because aspects of it are so revolutionary and also because without a respect for certain cultural, political and economic realities in Africa, Western business models don’t make sense or can’t be applied properly. I’m also looking for the right team to execute what I have in mind to do. Helping to bridge that gap is one of the reasons why I launched a unique economic information service for investors and entrepreneurs based in the West and African diaspora, Africa PreBrief. You can read some of my thoughts on where things are headed in an interview, “What’s Next For African Economic Development and Investment?”

One of the things I foresee taking place this decade are that many of those currently being let go by the American music industry establishment will eventually find their expertise appreciated by African artists and business interests. The sooner that these talented professionals – who are still wandering in the wilderness – let go of the old, the faster we can all get on with the new.

I’ve already made my decision.

Few things in my life have motivated me as much as that meeting in the offices of RCA Records nearly 14 years ago.

73 units sold in all of Africa, they told me…

Cedric Muhammad is a business consultant, political strategist, and monetary economist. He is a former GM of Wu-Tang Management and currently a Member of the African Union’s First Congress of African Economist. He’s the Founder of the economic information service Africa PreBrief ( and author of ‘The Entrepreneurial Secret’ ( Cedric can be contacted via e-mail at: cedric(at)