Lungu Lungu: An Interview with Mr. African Hip-Hop Himself, Thomas Gesthuizen

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Q&A on the history of African hip-hop, and where it stands today

Ghana-based Benjamin Lebrave speaks fluent French and English, and can schmooze in Spanish and Portuguese. He’ll report on new African music every other week. This week, in a special two-part column, he premieres an insane mixtape of afro cosmic club and talks to Mr. African hip-hop himself, Thomas Gesthuizen.

People sometimes look at me in awe when I tell them I started traveling to Ghana and other parts of Africa in 2007, as if I was ahead of the curve, specifically the digital African music curve. Yet I only stumbled across music that was already on the radar of many; blogs such as Wayne & Wax or Ghetto Bassquake had been looking into genres like kuduro or hiplife for a couple of years. True pioneers are few and far between.

But there is one guy who is from our same generation, yet who was already looking into digital African music over a decade before us: Thomas Gesthuizen, aka Jumanne of africanhiphop.com. Today’s column is not so much about featuring a new a discovery as it is about the passion and experience of the youngest veteran I know. When I started asking Thomas a few questions, his answers were so fascinating, I didn’t want to change one single word, so for the first time in Lungu Lungu history, here is a straight Q&A with Mr. African Hip-Hop himself.

Thomas, Jumanne, J4, Gioumanne… Who are you? ‘Jumanne’ is a Swahili name meaning Tuesday, as I was born on that day—like ‘Kwabena’ in Akan. In Tanzania, from when I first started doing research there, I became known in the hip-hop scene as ‘DJ Jumanne’ or abbreviated ‘J4.’ For this mixtape series, which was inspired by the Italian Afro movement of the 1980s, I decided to create a fictional Italian spelling of the name so it became Gioumanne, just for fun.

How did you get involved with hip-hop, and more generally African music? My fascination with rap music started when I was 12 years old, but living in a small village I didn’t have easy access to anything other than what was on the radio. In the mid-’80s in Holland, hip-hop culture was still underground and I learned about non-radio acts like Public Enemy, EPMD and Eric B & Rakim through albums from the public library that I copied to cassette. When I went to university on the other side of the country, it was easier to learn about what was new in hip-hop and I learned about ATCQ, Black Sheep and through my cousin Kid Sundance, who was a DJ and producer, I grew to appreciate the production side of hip-hop music, which sparked my interest in digging for samples in jazz, funk and soul records. In 1991, my dad took me on a trip to see friends in Malawi, and we visited Kenya and Tanzania; the experience influenced my decision to study Swahili and African Studies. 

Two years later I returned to Tanzania and found that there was a small local hip-hop scene that had produced a few cassette tapes. I bought a tape with Swahili versions of songs by Heavy D and Shabba Ranks. Back in Holland, I picked up albums by Positive Black Soul (Senegal) and interviewed them for a magazine on African culture, and learned about Prophets of da City (South Africa).

At the same time, I was DJing at parties that my friends from Senegal and Ivory Coast were throwing—they would get mostly African clientele, but their DJ was a young Dutch kid. The western audience at the time was not ready to accept the idea that there was something like an urban music scene in Africa, and though PBS and POC were well received by the press, the people that had been buying the African records in the ‘world music’ department of music stores generally would scold the fusion of what they saw as pure African music and western hip-hop or dance influences. 

“For a while, NGOs all seemed to embrace the concept of African hip-hop as the savior of a lost generation of African urban youth. Luckily that has phased out by now.”

I wanted to promote these new acts from Tanzania and elsewhere, but they were often considered underground in their own countries, and in Europe the established industry wasn’t ready for them either. So I decided to start a mixtape series, which in 1996 was my first effort to promote the concept of ‘African hip-hop’. This was an unheard term at the time, as in a way it’s an invented community rather than an existing one. Today there’s a bit more coherence across the continent, but not in the ’90s. The mixtapes sold few copies of course, so I decided to try something new, setting up a web page in early 1997, which grew into Africanhiphop.com which for the next 10 years was a lively online community with members from all over the continent.

Around the same time, I started managing and promoting a Tanzanian hip-hop group X Plastaz, who fused Maasai vocal music and hardcore hip-hop. We got to do a few Europe tours and even went to Brazil and Gabon for concerts. Many other projects followed, including a documentary on Tanzanian hip-hop, music videos, research for CD releases, placement of African hip-hop tracks in Hollywood films and major brand ads and support for PhD and MA theses. We also provided advice to numerous NGOs, who for a while all seemed to embrace the concept of African hip-hop as the savior of a lost generation of African urban youth. Luckily that has phased out by now.

How do you feel African music and hip-hop are perceived, and how has this evolved since you first got involved? In the past few years, a lot has changed in terms of how African music is perceived both in Africa and in the rest of the world. Some of it has to do with the internet and the breaking down of walls between musicians and their audiences worldwide, and some can be credited to the way Africa is now portrayed in western media as the next go-to economic wonder with the fastest growing economies in the world.

Also, around the continent several music industries have stood up from a state of collapse in the ’80s and ’90s, to a fully homegrown economy in which a lot of development is taking place and money is being made, which has helped to reinvent the sound of local radio which previously would play mostly western or Congolese hits. Of course, some of the most exciting and innovative electronic music of the past decades has come out of Africa, but I think it would have gone unnoticed if it wasn’t for the internet and these other economic developments that made it easier for people to get introduced.

Recently, a lot of people outside the continent who would have never gotten into African music in the world music era of the ’80s and ’90s have gotten hooked to modern urban African music, or to the treasures of ’60s through ’80s Africa which are now being reissued by a string of small record labels.

Where do you feel African hip-hop going? Does it seem aligned with a global direction of hip-hop? One of the challenges that many scenes around the continent face is that the influence of American hip-hop, as introduced via TV and radio, are often still stronger than any efforts to create a homegrown sound. Ironically, when a local sound does develop, sometimes it strays away so much from the aesthetics of what we have come to know as hip-hop culture that it’s no longer labeled ‘hip-hop’. Bongo flava in Tanzania is an example: while it has been commercially successful, it has been shunned by local hip-hop artists who have kept their own strain of hip-hop culture alive, music that is lyrically un-compromised and thus has less radio appeal. Still, there is much overlap between bongo flava and hip-hop, and artists like Professor Jay will tell you that there’s really no difference, it’s just a different side of the spectrum.

Kwaito has also inherited a lot of elements from hip-hop culture, but few would dare calling it African hip-hop. The commercial and media success of the Afrobeats sound has also inspired hip-hop producers to look for crossover with other, local genres of music or sometimes digging into their musical heritage, and that to me is where the biggest opportunity for African hip-hop will be: creating a sonically superior but musically unique fork of global hip-hop music.

What has been your driving force and inspiration throughout the years? From listening to a lot of conscious hip-hop in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I became quite aware that music culture can and should be more than simple entertainment: it’s a medium to tell stories, change perceptions and emancipate people. When I got to speak to artists in Senegal, Tanzania, South Africa and other countries, many of them were totally convinced that they had an obligation to teach their audience, and not all of that was inherited from conscious hip-hop, because countries like Tanzania had a strong culture of education and social uplifting through music. 

There’s something that has been embedded in hip-hop culture all the way since the mid-’70s, the urge to innovate and come up with something fresher than the next man in a playfully competitive way, not necessarily by spending a lot of budget on your music video but by thinking out of the box.

Sadly, that has been lost in much of the stuff that is now being marketed as hip-hop by major labels and media houses. We should not forget that hip-hop music came from picking elements from many different musical styles including funk, soul, rock as well as African music, but 40 years down the line many producers and emcees seem stuck in a very tight definition of their playing field and hip-hop beats and rap flows often sound boring or repetitive.

This also goes for producers in Africa. There are more and more talents that will bring their own flavor to the table, but the rich musical heritages of the areas they live in are still largely untouched in modern hip-hop. A mixtape like this one is an effort to make people aware of the big grooves that are out there, and the inspiration they can be for modern day producers.

Let’s talk about this mixtape—not exactly hip-hop. I didn’t realize you are such an avid record collector! I have been buying music from the ’70s since the early ’90s, and like many hip-hop heads I was primarily interested in finding funk, breaks and jazz which was the foundation of most productions of that era.

At the same time, I was buying African pop music like soukous, African reggae and Ivorian music on cassette and CD, on my travels and in music shops in Amsterdam, to play out at our African parties. Those were like two different worlds to me that only came together when I found a couple of albums where funk, jazz and African music came together. I remember buying Monomono’s Dawn of Awareness and being amazed at the different sounds that came together on that record—today it would probably be filed as afrobeat or afro funk, but until the early 2000s in Europe there was very little awareness about the funky part of African pop music history. 

Download: DJ Gioumanne’s Afro Cosmic Club Volume 2

[Read the mixtape's annotated tracklist here.]

Why did you resurrect your vinyl gems now, and what’s up with the quirky cover? One day I was looking to do a mix for our monthly African hip-hop radio show, and I noticed that I had a couple of LPs that I never gave a proper chance to, because at the time they didn’t sound dusty enough to me. I gave them a new spin and discovered a couple of superb grooves, mostly from that era in the ’80s just before studios started to sound too clean and digital; they had a less garage sound than what was produced in the ’70s, but still with analog warmth to them.

Those became the basis of Afro Cosmic Club, a mixtape—or rather edit —I dropped online in 2011, of mostly unknown and sometimes very hard to find tunes from Africa, the diaspora and by western based artists inspired by African music like Chris Hinze and Zaka Percussion. The name and the way of combining these sounds was inspired by Italian DJs in the ’80s such as Baldelli or Beppe Loda, whose style of playing came to be known as Afro or Cosmic, and who combined African contemporary music, Brazilian tunes, percussion and more into a sound of its own. All this may seem to have little to do with hip-hop, but don’t forget that hip-hop’s first DJs like Bambaataa, Jazzy Jay and Kool Herc played very eclectic sets where the common factor was the groove. The DJs from the Afro generation did the same, they just played to a different crowd.

So these mixes are an effort to dig up a sound that has been a bit neglected, some of these songs are B-sides of LPs that you will find in the dollar bin, while others are ungoogleable or sell on eBay for over $200. In the past decade, there has been an explosion of reissues of African funky grooves from the ’70s, but few compilers have looked at what was produced beyond 1983. These songs are also among the more experimental or crossover works that the artists made, and they may have been hidden as the last track on side B of an album.

POSTED February 6, 2014 1:46PM IN Lungu Lungu Comments (3) TAGS: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,