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Film Reveals Female Role in Rise of South African Hip-Hop


Austin in the United States has hosted an international festival at which the works of several African filmmakers were exhibited. The organizers praised the African productions as being on a par with international films. Although the festival was billed to promote the work of women, the organizers accepted an entry by a South African male filmmaker, Vusi Magubane. He, together with a female co-director, produced a documentary highlighting the struggles of women in his home country who are trying to break into South Africa’s burgeoning hip-hop music industry. VOA’s Darren Taylor filed this report about Magubane’s film, “Counting Headz: South Afrika’s Sistaz in Hip-Hop.”

“I wanted to do a documentary on inner city youth culture in Johannesburg, where I live. Then we shot a lot of footage of hip-hop, because the music has become such a big part of South African youth culture,” Magubane says, explaining the genesis of his film, which was co-directed by a producer based in Canada, Erin Offer.

“When we went through all the footage that we’d filmed, Erin and I realized we did not have any film of female artists. That’s when we decided to go out and focus specifically on women hip-hop artists, because we wanted to be different.”

According to Magubane, hip-hop “struck” South Africa in the 1980s.

“It was big in Cape Town, especially in the Cape Flats area, where even today there are a lot of gangsters. The community there loved gangsta rap, and they watched the rise of American rappers very closely and copied to a large extent what was happening in the eighties in America. And the gangsta rap of Cape Town has evolved into hip-hop, which is now all over SA.”

But, as South African hip-hop artists emerged to sing largely in support of gangsters who were seen as “cultural heroes,” and later to protest against the former government’s policy of apartheid, women were largely excluded from the phenomenon.

“It was only men, really, that were using hip-hop in a social, political way,” says Magubane. “And young people started identifying with these people who were expressing themselves, who were very open about themselves and who they are and where they come from.”

After South Africa became democratic in 1994, says Magubane, and the African National Congress ascended to power with Nelson Mandela at the helm, the country’s hip-hop music underwent another metamorphosis.

“By the time we gained our independence in South Africa, people saw hip hop as a new movement for young people of the future, that expresses the social ills of the youth who live in townships of the inner cities.”

Magubane says his film shows how modern-day hip hop is “more like entertainment” than it previously was, and he believes that this change has “opened the door” for female artists – although they still sing about social issues.

“Crime is a big issue here in South Africa. It’s a subject for many female hip-hop artists, especially crimes against women and children…. Where there’s crime it’s very heavy – like violence against children. These are new things that we never had before…. The struggle has changed. As much as we now have the (political) freedom, we’re still limited in South Africa in terms of just walking down the road at night – because you can lose your life.”

Magubane’s film shows female hip-artists in South Africa rapping about their daily struggles.

“They’re singing about their lives. What they want. What’s happening around them. I don’t hear them rapping about having a beautiful house, because they don’t have them. I don’t hear them rapping about getting the next gold chain, because they don’t have that or they can’t afford that. I guess everything that they rap about is about what they know, and what they see.”

Another subject for women hip-hop artists in SA, says Magubane, is poverty – whether that of the larger community, or their own personal impoverishment.

“In SA, even the most successful hip-hop stars are not rich. Most only sell a few thousand copies of their CDs. South African record companies give artists here a gold disc if they sell only 10,000 copies.”

Yet in spite of the inroads made into allowing women into SA’s hip-hop pantheon, Magubane says there are still only a few female practitioners of the style of music in his home country.

“Even now, I think there’s still less women involved in hip hop. I don’t think there’s more. Even the reason why we targeted the ones that we targeted – we saw then as strong people that have to do whatever they have to do amongst a big bunch of men…. The gender roles are very defined here, so people are starting (only) now to move away from that. That’s why I felt that the film was important so that we can see that those (women) are not just people that are burying children or sitting in the kitchen…because that’s how we (still) look at them (in SA).”

Magubane laughs when asked what it was like for him – a man from the male-dominated Zulu ethnic group – to film all the female hip-hop artists.

“Luckily, Erin took the lead in doing most of the interviews!” he says.

But Magubane also says he underwent remarkable “personal growth” while completing the documentary.

“Where I come from, women are really undermined and everything, you know…. For me, the whole experience was very good because I learnt (more about women), because I grew up in a society when you see a woman driving car, it’s a big thing…. I was very ignorant about issues of women, and things like that. It helped me understand that side of life.”

As much as he – and millions of his fellow South Africans – are enjoying the hip-hop served up by some of the country’s female artists, Magubane’s hoping that they’ll be able to change their tune very soon.

“Maybe one day they can also sing about having money,” he says.

But this, he says, would largely defeat the purpose of hip-hop, as it exists in SA, which is to make people socially aware and to be “voices for positive change.”

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