No love lost as Congolese rebel songsters take on rumba and politicians
Growing army of rappers say their urban lyrics reflect their impoverished lives rather than romantic love, earning them the attention of the national censors
It is a conflict at once cultural, generational and political: rap music in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is staging a frontal assault on rumba, accusing its ageing stars of only singing of love and other banalities.
The DRC’s growing army of rappers say their urban lyrics reflect a gritty realism edged with angst as one of Africa’s biggest and most unstable nations heads towards a troubled presidential election.
At the back of a courtyard in Bandal, a popular and trendy district of the capital Kinshasa, a DJ called DDT has opened Kinshasound, a recording studio which is about the size of a toilet.
At the mixing deck, beat maker Kratos is playing around with a mix of ethnic rhythms caught somewhere between the big sounds of the Bronx and the driving drumbeats of Afrobeat or Afro-Trap.
This tiny studio has attracted rap artists such as Sista Becky, Alesh and Magneto, who electrified the crowds at October’s Red One urban music festival in Kinshasa. But Kinshasound has also attracted other visitors — among them officials responsible for music and events at the national censorship board — who shut it down in August, DDT says.
It was eventually reopened after a series of negotiations, which involved handing over some cash. And their complaint? That DDT was producing “obscene songs which were an offence to common decency” and violated a law on censorship dating back to 1996.
“I asked them which [lyrics were problematic] and they didn’t know what to tell me,” DDT says, although he has a pretty good idea. “We are basically putting out a lot of popular songs,” he says, referring to one track released late in 2017 by Alesh called Mokonzi o’a Motema Mabe — which means The boss got no heart with a chorus that includes the phrase: “Stealing is not good.”
The track came out as the DRC was in the grip of a political crisis over the contentious rule of President Joseph Kabila. He refused to step down at the end of his mandate in 2017 and repeatedly delayed new elections, although an election date has now been set forDecember 23.
For the censors, the track went too far and they banned it, although only for a while.
“They’re afraid that urban music will change things,” DDT explains. “The old rumba stars sing about love most of the time, but for us, it’s mostly about social matters, like needy youngsters in the street, the lack of electricity, about illness, about the current political system, about things that aren’t working.”
Rap music’s subversive rise has shaken things up for the rumba scene, which has long been regarded as the DRC’s national music and which has had ties to the ruling classes since the country won independence from Belgium in 1960.
One of its most celebrated hits, Independance Cha Cha, which was written by singer Le Grande Kalle to celebrate the nation’s newly acquired freedom, remains widely recognised as one of the best-known examples of Congolese rumba.
Widely respected for the genius of Grande Kalle and his L’African Jazz band and fellow founding fathers Tabu Ley Rochereau and TPOK Jazz as well as the extraordinary vocals of the late Papa Wemba, rumba underwent something of a revival after the millennium.
During that decade, several beer companies sponsored stars such as Werrason and JB MPiana, and the genre continued its commercial trend with “libanga”, in which the artist drops the name of an influential sponsor into a song in the hope of earning a fistful of dollars.
“I am a dissonant note in the country of rumba. OK, rumba is fine but in the end, it’s too much: I love you, I love you, I love you ...” says rapper Lexxus Legal. An emblematic figure within Congolese hip-hop, he has made a name for himself with music that “makes your brain dance”.
Like Smockey, a hip-hop artist and political activist in Burkina Faso, or Uganda’s singer-turned-politician Bobbi Wine, Lexxus Legal has long been engaged in political activism, and is running as an independent candidate in December’s legislative elections.
“When president Kabila addresses the nation, the word ‘culture’ has never passed his lips, not even once,” he rails. “We no longer have the right to switch off. The words should be about us, we’ve got the power!”
But in the world of music, as in politics, the boundaries are sometimes blurred. These days, rap’s “rebels” are more likely to come from the nicer neighbourhoods of Kinshasa such as Gombe or MaCampagne than from the slums of Masina or Selembao. And some of them even have jobs.
On the other hand, the country’s most established rumba artist, Koffi Olomide, 63, recently took everyone by surprise by getting political. He lashed out at the voting machines which have sparked widespread controversy in the run-up to the elections. Lauded by the government, the machines have been rejected by the opposition as open to abuse and fraud.