It was on 11 February 2014 in the Kariakoo neighbourhood in Dar es Salaam when I learned the sad news: The tape is on the brink of extinction.
«Empty tapes are no longer manufactured, so we can’t produce new tapes», the Indian salesman in Mamu Store told me. This outlet of one of Tanzania’s main music distributors used to be packed with tapes. Now, there are only a few dusty tapes left. Newer productions in Tanzania are sold on CD. A bit more than a year ago, I already received CDs from Benin and Burkina Faso, two long-standing K7 (tape) countries, foreshadowing that the tape was threatened with extinction.
This is bad news. Not because I am an European who grew up recording the radio chart shows on tape, trying to stop before the presenter would spoil the song and seeking to enlarge my collection by participating at musical request programs. No, it is not about nostalgia. It is actually bad news for musicians themselves. When the Mamu Store was full of tapes, there was comparatively few piracy of local music in Tanzania. Tapes were more time-consuming to reproduce and thus to pirate and somewhat affordable for customers. While musicians were not awash in money, they at least had some income from the albums they sold. Whole audio albums on CDs in contrast are too expensive for many Tanzanians who rather copy digital music, which takes only a few seconds and can be done with storage media such as a telephone or an USB-stick. This way, almost all the money from the sales of music goes to pirates. The extinction of the tape means that musicians will think twice before producing a whole album, but rather release isolated songs and videos. With the extinction of the tape, also the audio album is critical endangered.
It is thus a good moment to look back and reminisce. This obituary for the tape thus travels across Africa on the traces of rap music published on tapes in my personal collection. The best place to start this journey is Senegal which has a remarkable tradition of rap music on tape. Positive Black Soul was among the forerunners of African rap. Already back in 1998, this tape celebrated their 9th birthday.
Senegalese rap music became famous for its critical stance on politicians (see documentary on Norient). However, quite a few tapes produced in Dakar advocate quite conservative gender stereotypes or visions of society. This often neglected conservative side of rap music is less obvious in neighbouring Mali, although Yeli Fuzzo also comments on the temptations of city life.
Further south, Côte d’Ivoire was another forerunner of African rap music. As other rappers of the first generation, Almighty was heavily inspired by French old school rap.
After an initial success, rap music in the Côte d’Ivoire was less popular than the Coupé Décalé and Zouglou genres. However, there is recently a certain revival of rap music, now rather inspired by poetry slam. Some West African rappers are also influenced by traditional instruments. Fac Alliance from Guinea for example takes up a song by Senegalese Kora player Baaba Maal.
Popular culture in neighbouring Sierra Leone in contrast is more influenced by reggae and dancehall. Using the distinctive Krio language, Emmerson’s song “2 Fut Arata” attacks corruption by the “rats on two feet”, as he calls politicians.
«All I need is that you are going to vote for me» says the slimy politician at the beginning of the song. This is also the central motive of the song “Votez pour moi” by Smockey from Burkina Faso where he mocks the populism of politicians with their Swiss bank accounts.
Among the unpleasant smells described by Ghana’s Sidney in his song “Scenti no!” is also the smell of an honourable – a member of parliament – who removes his shoes to reveal stinking socks. This not very dignified description of a politician is also pictured on the cover of the tape.
It was popularly assumed that the song, which is based on a sample of C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make you Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)”, referred to corruption. So, at the first glance, the song might indicate a certain distance of the musician from the political elite. However, approached by President Kufuor in mid-2004, Sidney sold the rights to the song to the ruling party who added new lyrics («the scent of development is everywhere») and used it for the next election campaign. To be fair, Sidney also sold one song to the major opposition party.
While rap music in Ghana blends elements of the popular highlife music into a mix that is called hiplife, the Sakpata Boys from nearby Benin play with the stereotypical image of the country as the cradle of voodoo. Their tape is called “Hip hop from Voodoo-Land” and their name refers to a divinity for contagious diseases in general and variola in particular.
A rather unexpected paradise of tapes was Chad with its lively rap music scene. Audrey Linda Shey asks «and what about the girls?» and she is right: There are very few female African rappers and even she rather sings than raps.
In the DR Congo, it is even quite hard to find albums by male rappers, as Ndombolo, Rumba and similar genres dominate, especially in the capital Kinshasa. It is easier in the second biggest city Lubumbashi, where among other rappers MC Kaleh originates.
In neighbouring Tanzania, also among the early adopters of rap music, Mr. Ebbo draws on stereotypes about Maasai identity in his song about being a Maasai.
I bought this tape in Mamu Stores in Kariakoo, just before learning about the end of the tape. It could have be one of the last tapes I will ever buy.