Kinshasa, DR Congo | AFP | It is a conflict at once cultural, generational and political: rap music in DR Congo is staging a frontal assault on rumba, accusing its ageing stars of only singing of love and other banalities.
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 like Sista Becky, Alesh and Magneto, who electrified the crowds at last month’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 explains.
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.
– ‘The boss got no heart’ –
“I asked them which (lyrics were problematic) and they didn’t know what to tell me,” DDT said — although he himself has a pretty good idea.
“We are basically putting out a lot of popular songs,” he says, referring to one track released late last year 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 Democratic Republic of Congo 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 and repeatedly delayed the elections — although a date has now been set for a vote on December 23.
For the censors, the track went too far and they banned it, although only for a time.
– ‘Making your brain dance’ –
“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’s subversive rise has shaken things up for the rumba scene, which has long been regarded as DR Congo’s national music and which has had ties to the ruling classes since the country won independence from Belgium in 1960.