Academic journal article Africa

Immunizing Strategies: Hip-Hop and Critique in Tanzania

Academic journal article Africa

Immunizing Strategies: Hip-Hop and Critique in Tanzania

Article excerpt


Tanzania has in the last decade seen a vibrant form of hip-hop emerge that is gaining wide public exposure thanks to its political tenor. First, this article illustrates how rap lyrics reflect Tanzanian political history and in part determine it. Bongo Flava, as the local hip-hop genre is called, has gained credibility by reinterpreting Nyerere's normative legacy and by expanding freedom of expression in the country, while unhampered by factors that normally mitigate the social impact of popular culture. Second, the article explores the global relevance of their social critique. Bongo Flava attempts to outwit the sophisticated indifference and neoliberalism of postcolonial rulers and ruled. Partly inspired by African American popular culture, many songs expose the postcolonial strategy of survival, which is to immunize oneself against the threat of commodification by fully embracing it, the contamination yielding extra power. The lyrics, in their irony and pessimism, exhibit the same immunizing tendency. However, this tendency is curbed by two principles that safeguard streetwise status: the rapper's willingness to 'duel' and the Kiswahili credo of activating bongo, 'the brains'.


Au cours de la derniere decennie, la Tanzanie a vu emerger une forme de hip-hop survolte qui trouve un large retentissement aupres du public par sa teneur politique. Dans un premier temps, l'article illustre la facon dont les paroles de rap refletent l'histoire politique tanzanienne et la determinent en partie. Le Bongo Flava, nom donne au style hip-hop local, a obtenu sa credibilite en reinterpretant l'heritage normatif de Nyerere et en developpant la liberte d'expression dans le pays, sans etre gene par les facteurs qui attenuent normalement l'impact social de la culture populaire. Dans un second temps, l'article examine la pertinence globale de sa critique sociale. Le Bongo Flava tente de dejouer l'indifference sophistiquee et le neoliberalisme des dirigeants et diriges postcoloniaux. En partie inspirees de la culture populaire africaine americaine, beaucoup de chansons denoncent la strategie de survie postcoloniale qui consiste a s'immuniser contre la menace de la marchandisation en s'y ralliant totalement, la contamination rapportant un gain de pouvoir. Les paroles, a travers leur ironie et leur pessimisme, presentent la meme tendance immunisante. Or, deux principes sauvegardent le statut de musique de rue et moderent ainsi cette tendance: la volonte du rappeur d'<< affronter en duel >> et le credo kiswahili d'activer le bongo, .


Hip-hop stands for the fashion and the music genre of rap that originated some thirty years ago from African American inner-city culture. The raw accounts of life at the periphery of society raised political awareness, just as the civil rights movement had done before. Today hip-hop permeates popular culture. Rap music tops the charts world-wide. Mainstream pop music has adopted its vocal style and streetwise attitude. These exhibit what Horkheimer and Adorno (1972) famously called the 'realistic dissidence' the culture industry thrives on. Such dissidence keeping the status quo intact has recently come to include 'gangsta rap'. The lyrics and videos of this relatively new hip-hop style from the USA glorify inner-city crime and extravagant consumption, stripping capitalism to its bare essence while leaving all irony behind. The political ideals that initially characterized US hip-hop music are replaced by a show of predatory sexuality and of power for its own sake. In a surprising analogy, a similar cynicism, or pragmatic of predation, has been observed by Mbembe (1992) and Bayart (1993) among the postcolonial elite in Africa. Their analyses, I argue, belong to a type of social critique that has been perfected in Tanzania's vibrant hip-hop scene, known as Bongo Flava, literally 'flavour of the brains'.

Bongo, 'the brains', is our main lead to discern the close affinity between Tanzanian political history and hip-hop. …

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