Godfather of Mother City hip-hop has blazed creative trail for scores
Emile "YX" Jansen is keeping Cape Town’s ancient origins alive with his practical school of hip-hop that draws on indigenous music.
At an early age Jansen took a leadership role in his Grassy Park community when he initiated a roller-skating club, creating a space for youth to be active in a positive way. After school he qualified as a teacher. When the global hip-hop explosion hit Cape Town in the early 1980s, he took to the streets as a break-dancer (B-boy).
"My first experience with hip-hop when I stepped into the circle was that this was somehow familiar; I had been there before. The whole circle idea is embedded in the Bushman trance dance," he says.
It is said that if you take one step towards your ancestors, they will take three steps towards you. Well, Jansen found new, expansive techniques for teaching through hip-hop.
In 1988 he started the performance group Black Noise, which focused on school workshops. These successes led to the launch of the outreach programme Heal the Hood in 1998. It offers activities ranging from individual counselling to mentorship, workshops and cultural exchanges, and has given more than 200 students an opportunity to travel abroad.
He initiated the annual African Battle Cry and African Hip Hop Indaba.
Jansen was gradually drawn to the San influence on Cape Flats culture. (Elders prefer the term Bushman, he says.)
"Cape Town is the first place where cultural clashes took place between the origin of humanity and the capitalistic intention of destruction and white supremacy," he says.
"The rawness of that memory is powerful. This is why we have the arrival of a new thinking that exposes the foundations of humanity within hip-hop, and how we need to change."
Words from the Nama language — such as eina, kwagga, buchu and dagga — have been assimilated into Afrikaans; and this and the cyclical nature of San music became relevant to Jansen’s efforts to use hip-hop to uplift the Cape Flats.
Thousands of young people from Manenberg to Ocean View who have attended Jansen’s workshops have learnt that hip-hop is from Africa. This is "an awakening, in their search for identity", Jansen says.
The Cape Flats hip-hop project Mixed Mense is a manifestation of the power of Jansen’s mentorship programme. It features Leeroy Phillips, Stefan Benting and Charlton Eftha, all former Lavender Hill High School students and graduates of a Black Noise workshop. They are preparing to release their second album as a collective. Each member is also working on a solo album.
Jansen’s development workshops take young people to traditional San locations such as the Kalahari, !Khwattu and Platfontein. "They are unblocking the truth in their own minds. There is a hunger to know more. It is a silent revolution among young people," he says.
"We all have this genetic code that can be traced back to the first people. The Bushman heritage is the story of all humanity. It speaks to people globally through the elements of hip-hop. It is the common denominator that helps bring us together and destroys the illusion of cultural and tribal originality or purity. It shows the fluidity of us all."
And this is why he believes the people of the Cape Flats hold the key to racial tolerance.
"We come from a history understanding that we are mixed in Cape Town. Islam and Christianity can be embraced within the same family."
The natural lyricism of the Cape Flats is enhanced by the fluidity of Afrikaans, which fits in well with the word plays of hip-hop. Jansen’s mother tongue was pure Afrikaans. His father, who grew up in the Bo-Kaap, spoke a broken Afrikaans he called gamala gamtaal.
"Afrikaans gives you that freedom to speak the way you want to. That’s what makes it constantly growing and changing. It is the most vibrant language in Cape Town because there are always new words being created on the Cape Flats," Jansen says.
His understanding of history and the business opportunities he is providing to young people is an alternative to gangsterism.
"I strongly believe that the gangs’ collective power and drug trade on the Cape Flats is a result of these entrepreneurial people being denied access to formal capitalism. As a result, they have opted for an illegal and informal version of capitalism," he says.
"A gang of capitalists fund wars for the control of oil, while gangsters on the Cape Flats go to war for turf. Ironically, on the Cape Flats there is a gang called the Americans … who you idolise comes out in the name."
Jansen is known as the godfather of Cape Town hip-hop. He celebrates his 50th birthday in July with the release of his autobiography, Making a Black Noise, his 10th solo album, Afrocation, and Black Noise’s 13th album, Afrocentric, a compilation album of the best of Black Noise’s journey.
"Afrocation is the passing on of information from one generation to the next. It has always been the way we have shared what we know in Africa. It is a symbiotic necessity that changes the youth from silent participants to active vocal citizens," he says.
His 25-year career in the music industry has taught him business skills, which allowed him the freedom to pursue his mission of "love and healing".
He says: "I was lucky to learn how to create an album and with time I have learnt about the importance of owning what I create and not signing deals. But the biggest lesson I have learnt is how young people follow their hearts and not just money for survival.
"All my creations are just an extension of the work that I have to do to make ends meet. I have done so by not thinking of myself as one thing — a rapper or a dancer — but as a creative person expressing myself in numerous ways.
"I have created two systems that I call The Mathematics of Survival and Diversifying Your Creative Income for Survival. It is how I have been able to do what I love for the past 25 years, and create job opportunities for countless others."
He has secured seven Push 1 Ableton beat-making machines, donated for teaching on the Cape Flats, and the participation of Today’s Future Sound, a beat-making organisation.
Jansen is heading to San Francisco where he has developed a strong support base. He has also created an opportunity for a South African MC to win a spot to perform at the Trinity International Hip-Hop Festival.
• Jansen is launching Making a Black Noise at the Kaleidoscope Café in Claremont on June 2.