"I make no bones about saying that the best music in the world comes from Africa," says South by Southwest Music Festival programmer Matt Sonzala, sitting at a surprisingly barren desk in the new SXSW headquarters building in downtown Austin less than a month before the festival. "Africa is the mother of music, that's where it's at."
In September, Sonzala traveled to the Moshito Music Conference in Johannesburg to represent SXSW. The aim of the trip was two-fold: raise awareness about SXSW abroad, continuing to broaden the festival's ever-expanding international reach, and recruit artists to perform this year. Announcing his trip, sxsw.com proclaimed, "we hope to see an extreme increase in African talent here in Austin next March."
Fast-forward five months, and the story has shifted somewhat. Out of 19 groups from South Africa who applied to the festival, only six are scheduled to perform. Other showcasing artists from around the continent also have dropped out. Sonzala's passion for the artists' music is unshaken, but logistics and financial concerns complicate the situation.
While SXSW has a housing program for international bands, artists must finance their own airfare to attend a festival that offers either $250 or a registration package in exchange for their appearance.
"It's 2,000 bucks a flight (from South Africa), $1,500 if you're lucky," Sonzala says with a sigh. "It's 16 hours each way just from Atlanta, and then you've got to get here. It's a long trip."
Then there's the bureaucratic nightmare of visas for international travel and performance, which artists also must arrange. Several nations with long-established ties to the festival, notably Great Britain, France and Australia, have government-sponsored programs that assist bands, but the roots of such programs are beginning to take hold in Africa. Fostering their growth is part of Sonzala's mission.
"I met a few people when I was over there. They ran me around," he says. "And I've had 6 million phone calls with them since. I've spoken with trade and export folks, people from cultural centers of the governments in Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, the Ivory Coast. They want to make it happen."
Sonzala is convinced that despite the challenges, the trip is worth it for artists. "SXSW is and always has been this international music market. It's like a marketplace. As a writer, a promoter, whatever, you come here, you get work. You're going to get press if you work it, and hip-hop wise, I've seen guys from Norway and other places do songs with some of the Down South guys, and I love to see that, collaborations."
Deeply moved by both the music and culture he experienced in South Africa, Sonzala is adamant that the value of these artists' appearances at the fest goes both ways.
"I was just blown away, blown away at what I don't know," he says, "and I think it's important that we know more. All the materialism and all the (expletive) that we have right now in pop music and hip-hop — you go over there and these dudes are living through some (expletive) and talking about real stuff. I love it. They have their ballin' songs, too, but you dig into the music and there's a message. There's something, and you learn from it. And, man, it's beautiful."
Hip-hop to sound of Motswako
One of the notable South African artists appearing this year is HHP aka Hip Hop Pantsula, a platinum-selling, award-winning rapper with a funky, old-school flow and a smart, lyrical rhymestyle. Sonzala describes him as "the big man" on the South African hip-hop scene. We caught up with HHP via e-mail to talk about his unique sound, the rap in Africa and his upcoming SXSW performance.
American-Statesman: Your music seems very broad in its reach, covering everything from the standard samples that we know in American hip-hop to sounds that are uniquely South African. Can you talk about your influences and how you craft your music?
HHP:I come from a musical family. My mom is a choral music composer and was recognized as the first black woman to compose in four-part harmony. So, I grew up listening to a lot of Bach, Mozart, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Miriam Makeba. My dad, on the other hand, was hip. He listened to everything from Queen to O'Jays. He had a massive music collection. Chicago, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Abba, Michael Jackson, Main Ingredient, Maze ... the list goes on. But he rarely listened to local music except for Juluka, Stimela and some anti-apartheid songs (struggle music). Our next-door neighbor was a man of theater, and he introduced me to South African bands like Sankomota, Bayete, Hugh Masekela, Caiphus Semenya and Letta Mbulu. All those different sounds came to form the style of music that I now do, called Motswako. Motswako is a Setswana word which literally means mixture. My style is a melting pot of different sounds, rhythms, cultural backgrounds and feel. I could have a conventional hip-hop arrangement in a song (16-bar verse and 8-bar chorus), a kwaito melodic instrumental (kwaito is our own urban dance music) and a bass line that sounds like Mbaqanga (that's a Zulu traditional style of music driven mostly by the bass and the guitar). But I feel like there are mainstream artists who do motswako. Artists like Wyclef (Jean). One can never say he's reggae, hip-hop, rock, salsa, r&b ... he's all them at the same time.
What are some characteristics of the South African hip-hop scene?
South African hip-hop now tends to want to be on the same par as international hip-hop. You got artists who want to have auto tune in their sound. They want to sound like it's from the South with its crunk feel, or their content is about the typical booze, women and money. But then, there are other rappers who bring another feel to it. They make it more for the people and less for the heads. The language is vernacular, the content is relative to Africa, and the music itself is not alien to the masses.
Your Twitter bio states, "I'm all about Motsw-Afrika; Breaking down the borders and uniting fellow Africans through song." Can you talk about that mission?
Thanks to satellite television that can be caught throughout, we can now know what's happening more intimately through out the continent. Mediums like Big Brother Africa, MTV Africa, Channel O, trace and many others have made us household names in other countries. Now, more than ever, it is important to start breaking stereotypes, conventions and expectations by collaborating with artists from other areas of Africa, because Africa as a whole, for years, has been divided by colonists and governments. Art has a way of bringing people together. Me and a couple of other high-profile musicians in Africa are a part of an organization called AMA (African Music Alliance). The idea is that because it's hard to penetrate each others' markets, it is up to AMA musicians to collaborate and give other artists platforms in each other's territories and broaden the market. By that we won't have to wait for politicians or governments to bring us together.
Politics seem to play heavily into the themes of your music, do you think the urgency of the political climate in Africa has a larger impact on your hip-hop scene than it does in the States?
Hip-hop is the best form of ghetto or general commentary. Politics obviously play a huge role in Africa. It's evident when you see the number of small wars mushrooming in our continent that have made headlines (Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Sudan, Rwanda). As rappers, I would say we are social commentators. We mention what we're constantly hearing on the streets, and occasionally we'll also throw in our own opinions.
I saw on your Twitter feed that you're planning to be in town from the 15th to the 23rd. Any plans for recording projects or the like while you're here?
Yo, I'm down for anything really. I'm so ready.