Academic journal article The Journal of Hip Hop Studies

Chant Down Tha System 'Till Babylon Falls: The Political Dimensions of Urban Grooves and Underground Hip Hop in Zimbabwe

Academic journal article The Journal of Hip Hop Studies

Chant Down Tha System 'Till Babylon Falls: The Political Dimensions of Urban Grooves and Underground Hip Hop in Zimbabwe

Article excerpt

Used with permission. First published in Journal of Pan African Studies vol.6, no.3, September 2013

Since its arrival in the 1980s1, Hip Hop culture, especially the element of rap, has shaped youth culture in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital and major hub of cultural activity. Yet, in congruence with the multifaceted and often contradictory nature of Hip Hop, two different youth movements in Zimbabwe have appropriated aspects of this culture and they differ vastly in regards to their perception of its definition and mission: Underground Hiphop and Urban Grooves. The former perceives Hip Hop as a culture connected to a global Hip Hop movement that is devoted to advocating Hip Hop's original vision as the voice of the oppressed; whereas the latter, which dominates the contemporary urban youth music scene, can be best described as an umbrella term for a style of popular music that combines the local with the global: the rhythms and beats, generally digitally-produced, are taken from international music, predominantly dancehall, soul, R&B, and rap, yet, the young artists add a local flavor by singing or rapping in Shona or Ndebele, the two dominant national languages of Zimbabwe.

Since some elements of Hip Hop, rapping and fashion style, are defining features of both movements, the dividing line between them is blurred. Indeed, many close- observers of the local music scene define Urban Grooves as Zimbabwean Hip Hop. The "veteran music journalist" (Eyre 96), Maxwell Sibanda, for instance, describes Urban Grooves as, "[...] a grouping of artists, especially youngsters, who call their music Urban Grooves but actually it is Hip Hop."2 Similarly, Bere argues that Zimbabwean Hip Hop, through a process of localization and popularization, has developed into Urban Grooves (93).

However, it is important to clearly differentiate between Underground Hiphop and Urban Grooves, since the 'underground' status of the Hip Hop movement, on one side, and the emergence of Urban Grooves as a mainstream genre in early 2000, on the other, are tied up with specific political developments in Zimbabwe. The ZANU(PF) government, confronted with a fully-fledged political and economic crisis and the rise of a strong opposition movement at the turn of the century, embarked upon a large- scale propaganda project in an effort to assert their hegemony. Urban youth music, including rap, was targeted as one key factor to promulgate the state ideology. This move has led to the conclusion that Hip Hop in Zimbabwe has been appropriated by the state. As Palmberg notes, "What is special for Zimbabwe is that hip-hop and rap belong to the category of state-sponsored music" (31).

Although it is undoubtedly true that rap music affiliated with Urban Grooves has lent itself to boost the state's narrative or at least acquiesces to it, this account offers a one-sided and limited portrayal of Hip Hop in Zimbabwe. To equate Zimbabwean Hip Hop with Urban Grooves is not only too simplistic because it ignores the generic nature of Urban Grooves, it also tends to overlook that the rappers amongst the Urban Groovers are not the only ones who spit rhymes and lay claim to representing Hip Hop in Zimbabwe. There is a small, but vibrant Hip Hop community, the Underground Hiphop scene, that values rap for its uplifting, inspiring and socio-political message. Yet, this movement dwells in the underground and is less visible, while rappers affiliated with Urban Grooves dominate the airwaves. Socially and politically conscious Hip Hop heads generally struggle to receive airplay in the mainstream media across the globe.3 In Zimbabwe, however, the mainstream/underground split is connected to the fact that the ZANU(PF) government consciously promoted youngsters to record either apolitical or pro-government music, which eventually would become known as Urban Grooves, in order to connect with youth and to stifle any form of protest music, including 'conscious' Hip Hop.

In order to illustrate this argument, this article, which is predominantly based upon interviews and lyric excerpts, 4 traces the trajectory of both movements and provides clear definitions. …

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