Bongo Flava and Hip Hop

Tanzanian hip hop emerged in the late 80s, and by the late 90s was being labeled: Bongo Flava. As this new genre went in the direction of pop and incorporated rap and R&B there continued to be confusion between the two. By the early 2000s Bongo Flava began to eclipse hip hop in popularity, air play, and sales. As a result, several hip hop artists began distancing themselves from Bongo Flava.

The divisions within the music industry in Tanzania center not on a need to destroy popular music and culture, but on the perceived need to save hip hop and its culture. Out of this desire to “save” hip hop came the need to define its boundaries. which allowed artists to define their movement and have an identifiable goal, even if some of the specifics get lost in individual ambitions.

The commercialization of popular music is not new. In the United States the current economic structure is long established, and once hip hop became commercially viable much of it was co-opted and turned into popular music.  This also saw splits within the American hip hop community.

By the early 90s capitalism was fully embraced in post-socialist Tanzania, and this would influence the rapid commercialization of hip hop music and culture. This led to the evolution of Bongo Flava, a hybrid, pop-culture phenomenon that is based on consumption and imitation of American popular culture.

Two radio stations emerged (Radio One and Clouds FM) as a platform for not only playing Bongo Flava, but also for helping to create stars. This was especially the case with Clouds FM, which is linked to the Tanzania House of Talent (THT), an organization that grooms youth for the entertainment industry. Once Bongo Flava became a cash machine, it was recognized that one formula proved most profitable. This formula includes dance tunes and songs about love, whether they are sung or rapped. Add lots of flash and a platform to showcase the new formula (radio and television) and Bongo Flava became a money making industry.

Hip hop pioneers and veterans in Tanzania have been the harshest critics of Bongo Flava. Artists such as Sugu (who won a seat in Parliament in the 2010 election), Saigon, and Zavara have all distanced themselves from Bongo Flava, and are critical of its commercialism.

Hip hop artists like Fid Q are among the few to find success and respect in the hip hop community. Most do this by walking the line between being a mainstream artist and hip hop emcee. Others such as Godzilla, Mangwair, and Witnesz, recognize the financial benefits of performing this style and identify as Bongo Flava or a hybrid of hip hop and Bongo Flava.

The commercialization of hip hop culture and redefining it as Bongo Flavais similar to the process of commercialization of American hip hop culture. In the United States the major record companies bought up most of the small hip hop labels in the 90s. During the same period, the U.S. Telecommunications Act of 1996 removed monopoly restrictions in the telecommunications field, allowing large corporations to dominate urban markets, and thus the music that was played. While commercialized hip hop dominates radio playlists, an argument can be made that the “golden era” of hip hop (mid-80s – mid-90s) proved that various styles of hip hop could be profitable. The major labels, however, have tended to prefer to saturate the market with formulas that were proven moneymakers.

The radio stations, in turn, have relied on two important ingredients when influencing pop culture trends: manipulating public tastes through a heavy infusion of a corporate mentality into music radio, sprinkled with claims of corruption or payola. In the U.S., the company Clear Channel bought up over 1,200 radio stations, created a monopoly, and changed their newly acquired stations to conform to a certain model. Even many of the slogans sounded similar. Words like “Power”, “Hot”, “The Beat” & “Jams” often precede or follow the call numbers. Slogans like “home of hip hop & R&B” and “the people’s station” are also common.
The restructuring of these radio stations included playing the same playlists in their stations across the country and limiting the discretion of the deejays. Tanzania’s Clouds FM has constructed a similar corporate model as Clear Channel, down to the slogan, “the people’s station”.

The blame for hip hop’s commercialization, therefore, often falls on record companies and radio stations, both of which have an enormous influence on who becomes a star. In Tanzania, Clouds Media Group is the company behind Clouds FM as well as two nightclubs and two other radio stations (Choice FM and Coconut FM in Zanzibar). Clouds FM reaches most of Tanzania’s urban regions. In 2010 the station launched Clouds TV and announced a deal with MTV Networks Africa to provide MTV content on the
Clouds TV network.

The second ingredient is payola. Almost everyone interviewed, including individuals at both Clouds FM and ITV (a private television station) admitted that payola is a problem. Several artists in Tanzania complained that without paying the individuals at the radio and television stations, their music is unlikely to get played. What makes the U.S. different from Tanzania  is a strong network of independent radio stations, many supported by public and private funding. Some of these radio stations are allowed the creativity to have diverse playlists.

Individuals interviewed at Clouds FM defended the radio station, pointing out that the station is a business and plays artists that will be good for that business. Most felt it was not the responsibility of radio stations to maintain creativity and diversity in music, that radio stations were not community service-based organizations, but were businesses. On the Clouds FM website the stations states “our kind of music is from the main stream Hip Hop, R&B, Rock, Taarab, Soul, African beat from various west African countries”. The station does not mention Bongo Flava, but does state that the brand of hip hop they play is

Some at Clouds FM assert that it is the listeners and viewers themselves who dictate the direction of music, indicating that if fans wanted more hip hop, that is what would be played. Radio stations refer to this when criticized over playlists, but they ignore the role of radio stations in directing consumer demand.

The rejection of the Bongo Flava label solidifies both Bongo Flava and Tanzanian Hip Hop as distinct genres. The Bongo Flava sound is currently produced for an East African market, and as long as it remains financially successful, little is likely to change and hip hop artists will continue to be financially marginalized.

Radio stations and record companies cannot be relied upon to advance any music genre. For hip hop to remain a viable career option for Tanzanian artists some may choose to add commercial club friendly tracks to their CDs. This has often proven successful for artists in the US. Some of these artists include Ice Cube, Common, and Jadakiss. Few American artists, the exceptions including Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco, have turned socially conscious songs into radio and video top tens. Others artists, such as Mos Def, MF Doom, and The Coup, do not add club tracks to their albums and get little airplay on mainstream radio, but maintain strong fan bases and sell a respectable number of records.

Across the continent in Ghana, where Hiplife emerged, a similar debate between “hip hop” and “Hiplife” is taking place. Much less contentious than the debate in Tanzania and many Ghanaian artists find success in both

The international market is a difficult to enter but may an opportunity for Tanzanian hip hop artists seeking more financial stability from their art. For those that find success or acclaim, like K’Naan (Somalia), Awadi (Senegal), Daara J (Senegal), and Tumi & the Volume (South Africa), there is little doubt of their talent and originality.  For these artists their financial success is evident in the international sales of their music (iTunes is critical), concert attendance (diversity and size of audience), and exposure (hip hop radio programs, podcasts, and new media). For Tanzanian hip hop (and Bongo Flava) artists to penetrate the international market, it will take significant talent, followed by good marketing and networking.

The benefits of new media and the development of independent labels cannot be over estimated. The existence of independent labels has given American artists opportunities to bypass corporate structures and maintain artistic freedom. The international market could be a platform from which Tanzanian artists could find some reward, as the global stage will separate the mediocre from the talented. Finding success abroad would increase the value of Tanzanian hip hop artists in the local music scene as well. As of yet there are no internationally known Tanzanian hip hop superstars. Hip hop in general has gained the respect of the international hip hop community and hip hop aficionados for their skills, talent, and use of Swahili; a language known for its beautiful and complex poetry. Tanzania has in fact been listed among the top hip hop communities in Africa, often second only to Senegal. If a Tanzanian hip hop artist manages to reach international stardom, it will inevitably impact the value of Tanzanian
hip hop artists and culture.

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