Cassper Nyovest caters to the urbane black middle class without alienating less affluent fans by rapping both in English and Tswana.. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA
Cassper Nyovest caters to the urbane black middle class without alienating less affluent fans by rapping both in English and Tswana.. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA

The varying responses local artists receive from their audiences for the language they employ is remarkable. 

Black music lovers tend to appreciate all forms of music in their indigenous languages. But release a book, say in Sotho or Zulu, and almost no one will buy it. All local bestsellers by black authors are published in English.

German-born Rhodes University lecturer and independent publisher Fouad Asfour has two theories why the indigenous languages book market performs badly. He blames the publishing industry for being largely white and untransformed; and the arts-loving public for gravitating towards popular culture, which books are not.

“The problem is that the [publishing] industry is framed for a white audience. It hasn’t yet quite transformed. Reading and writing has been associated with colonialism. For books to become popular culture they must become less white,” Asfour says.

Wits University languages and literacy professor Leketi Makalela thinks monolingualism is a flawed concept in SA where many people find it a necessity to speak more than one language. Makalela points out on his blog that before the age of six, South African children “are exposed to more than three languages”.

While books in indigenous languages do not sell in large volumes, music and television programmes in local languages attract huge audiences. These programmes which use multiple languages do well because they mirror South African reality, Asfour says. But the English market is hard to ignore. Multilingual TV dramas all  have English subtitles.

Code switching, or “multilanguaging”, as Makalela calls it, is beneficial for musicians as well. Rapper Refiloe Phoolo, better known as Cassper Nyovest, caters to the urbane black middle class without alienating less affluent fans by rapping both in English and Tswana.

While the music industry is biased towards artists producing music in indigenous languages, a few musicians performing entirely in English have been successful, but not without criticism.

The rapper ProVerb, real name Tebogo Thekiso, has albums in English only, which certain music lovers find distasteful. The artist he is compared to, the late Linda Mkhize known as Prokid, sang in English and Zulu with a bit of Tsotsitaal mixed in.

Rapper Kieran Forbes, known as AKA, raps in English. Local R&B singer Loyiso Bala’s hits are mostly in English. He has been criticised by local hip-hop musicians for importing American sounds. While many local hip hop artists are accused of importing their lifestyles from the US, it’s inconceivable for top TV dramas to be entirely in English.

Code switching is a linguistic “innovation” that can't be used very successfully in books. In music and drama in African languages, performances have been historically oral and passed to audiences in that form. 

Being bookish in Africa is an exception, says Asfour, who speaks and reads in German, English, French and Arabic. He says there are many countries and cultures, not only African, where people  prefer “the spoken” to the written.

“The European white culture which centres on, and which privileges, the written is an exception globally. Wherever you go, people prefer the spoken, not the written,” he says.

Asfour says there is nothing wrong with Africans reading books in English. They would find it pleasurable and even advantageous if they add languages such as Spanish and French, for example, and perhaps other African languages. But it would be stupid if that meant neglecting books in their home languages, he adds.

“Reading a book in any language is an advantage,” he says. “If I read a book in Spanish or French, if I really like it, that’s an advantage,” says Asfour.

Contrary to dismal statistics on African language book sales, Asfour says the market is doing well through “informal” but underreported outfits self-publishing in African languages. But he admits that the market needs more support.

“I think there’s a large market and it’s informal,” he says. “You’ve got a lot of self-published books in African languages and they’re not on the charts. We need new bookshops and more spaces for books to be read. We need new forms for books to be presented, for books to be launched.”