Angolans are following the elections quite closely. This guy always orates loudly on the latest news in Luanda's critical newspapers, and always attracts a sizable audience.
Word of warning: No matter what you're investigating or reporting on in Angola, you will never quite get to the conclusive truth; too many conspiracy theories. The following is as clear a picture as we could get, but we know it's not the whole story.
As Angola’s second post-civil war [1975-2002] elections on 31 August quickly draw near, This is Africa takes a look at the role of music in Angolan politics. Politically-conscious rappers address and attack what they perceive as an unjust society and bad governance. Kuduristas don’t. “Happy people are better for the government than unhappy people, and kuduro lifts their spirits.” - quote from an observer who wishes to remain anonymous (Everyone here is interested in the forthcoming elections, but a perceived lack of freedom of expression and the fear of possible repercussions means hardly anybody wants to see their name in print in relation to anything political. Fear and paranoia reign.)
“Hey, Angolan! Don’t do as we do, spending your time getting wasted. That’s what they [Angola’s rulers] want, that’s what they want. If we’re drunk and alienated, we won’t notice them… Picking my pocket, picking your pocket, and filling us with more booze.”
The lyrics are from the track Cuka, by politically-conscious Angolan-Portuguese rapper and anti-government protest organizer Luaty Beirão, known as Ikonoklasta.
Ikonoklasta is currently awaiting trial in Lisbon for cocaine smuggling, and he and his supporters allege that a packet of cocaine was placed in the tire of his bicycle by Angolan officials to incriminate him because of his anti-government views. Fortunately, he is free while awaiting trial, so he can still follow the elections in Angola.
Jose Eduardo dos Santos (69), in power since 1979 and the world’s third-longest serving ruler, is running for another 5-year term as president on 31 August as head of the list of the ruling Popular Movement for Angolan Liberation (MPLA). Angola's politically-conscious rappers, including Brigadeiro 10 Pacotes, MCK, Carbono Casimiro and Ikonoklasta, openly support opposition parties such as MPLA’s former war enemy UNITA, Bloco Democratico (BD), Partido Popular (PP) and the newly created CASA-CE. However, their outspoken stance is not shared by most kuduristas.
One of Luanda's musseques (shanty towns)
The rappers’ discontent stems from daily life after a decade of peace. Ten years after the civil war (1975-2002), Angola is now Africa’s second largest oil producer (after Nigeria) and the world’s fastest growing economy of the last decade (growth rate this year is 12%, and double-digit growth is projected for the next few years). But in 2011, the country also ranked a disappointing 148 out of 187 countries on the UNDP Human Development Index and 168 out of 183 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. More than a third of Angolans live beneath the poverty line. In Luanda, an estimated two-thirds of it's five million inhabitants live in shanty towns, often with no access to clean water. And in one of the world’s most expensive cities, a cleaner or guard earns on average $300,00 USD per month (which is how much it costs to rent a place in one of the shanty towns) while a handful of politically well-connected Angolan families are wealthy beyond most people’s imagination. To make matters worse for the have-nots, inflation is running at 13.5%.
Beer, kuduro and partying
Kuduro and hip hop are two camps with different ideas about how to react to the country’s day-to-day reality. Ikonoklasta’s portrayal of a government purposely numbing its troubled population with alcohol is echoed by members of Luanda’s young, critical avant-garde. This camp sees kuduro as a tool for pacifying the masses, so the music is implicated in their criticisms of the government.
Kuduro, an Angolan electronic music and dance culture, has been around since the 1990s, and is currently the country's most popular cultural genre, especially in the musseques [slums], but also in nightclubs. The name kuduro means both ‘hard ass’ (‘cu duru) and ‘hard environment’ in the Kimbundu language. It is played all day, every day in Luanda’s candongeiros [cheap, blue Angolan taxi buses]; played "way more often than critical rap", according to some passengers.
German musicologist Stefanie Alisch spent some months in Angola exploring the concept of ‘carga’ (charge, or power) in kuduro music and dance. She knows where this criticism comes from. “On public holidays, local party committees organize so-called marathons in the musseques, which comes down to several days of drinking, partying and kuduro.”
A ruling party with music in its veins
Angola’s ruling party (MPLA) and popular music have always had a close relationship. Some of the MPLA's founding members were singers and band leaders. Semba played a major rule during the Angolan war against Portuguese colonial rule [1961-1975], both in the resistance movement and the construction of an Angolan national identitiy, ‘Angolanidade’. Two decades into the civil war, the governing MPLA embraced the new music style kuduro to distract its people from misery, albeit without rejecting other musical styles.
“Kuduristas from the 1990s reported that the MPLA government used to send them to the provinces to entertain the MPLA troops,” Alisch says. “These kuduristas said that a day after UNITA leader Savimbi was killed, they were in the province performing extreme dance moves on stage to distract followers from the fact that they’d just lost their leader.”
Kuduro darling, Titica
Angola’s famous kuduro stars include Bruno M, Dog Murras, Sebem, Os Lambas and the transsexual Titica. Titica is applauded both within Angola and abroad as a performer and artist, and for breaking taboos around homosexuality, transsexuality and HIV/Aids. Here's Titica’s Olha o boneco [Look at that doll’]. “Say no to discrimination and get in touch with globalization”.
However, Titica's easy access to the media is partly due to sponsorship from Semba Comunicação, a private Angolan company created by two members of the ruling family. And Cabo Snoop, W King, Bobany King, Nacobeta and Presidente Gasolina also collaborate with the agency. It is a relationship that arouses suspicion among government critics. “Titica’s music only serves to keep people stupid and applaud the MPLA, which basically sponsors her. If you’re that popular, then why not sing about the things that really matter, like our rappers do?,” a young Angolan filmmaker complains.
Rapper Carbono Casimiro says "All the 'Titicas, I say, almost all artists who get the space to promote their art on television or on radio are in a certain way connected to the regime and get the support of those up there, and cannot do anything against the regime. There are even those who are used by the MPLA or who flatter the MPLA to excel financially."
The government's embrace of kuduro is such that Semba Comunicaçâo is running an international ‘I love Kuduro’ campaign, now called ‘Os Kuduristas’. Here's the Angolan president’s son Coréon Dú, a musician himself, in a promo vid:
But kuduro fans have their own criticisms of hip hop, too. Angolan Antonio Fernandes, a radio music presenter and kuduro enthusiast, is not impressed with Angola’s politically-conscious rappers. “What they have to say is all that counts, it’s not about their music, which by the way is imported from the US,” he says. He lifts his right hand in the air, moving it back and forth in slow motion hip-hop style with a dull look on his face. “Booooring.” In other words, Angola's rappers are so caught up with their lyrics that they forget to make good music.
"Melodramatic, Self-styled Rebels"
Fernandes highlights another dimension to the kuduro-rap culture clash: “Generally speaking, the politically-conscious rappers are young people from the the middle or upper class who have studied and travelled abroad. You want attention? Just rap something against the government,” he says. “It’s not only their music that’s foreign-influenced. Their lyrics are, too. Kuduristas, on the other hand, are with few exceptions uneducated people from the musseques, who sing in competition against each other just for fun.” In other words, some regard political hip hop as internationalist and elitist, while they see kuduro as "truly Angolan", for and by the masses.
Fernandes and Alisch both acknowledge that there are exceptions to this rule. Kuduristas such as Dog Murras and Bruno M, for instance, include social commentary in their music, although never explicitly against the government, and commercial rappers such as Big Nelo are often seen guests at MPLA events.
“I personally see the rappers as slightly melodramatic, self-styled rebels who focus a lot on their own image, although they certainly have valid opinions,” says anonymous observer #2
Says our anonymous observer #1: “On a political level though, the amount of repression the rappers endure and the way kuduro is deployed says a lot about popular music’s role in Angolan society. It shows that the ruling party is certainly aware of just how powerful popular music is. How many Angolans thoroughly read the newspapers and buy books? Mainly the socio-cultural elite. Through music and dance, you can reach people emotionally. Especially in Angola, where music and dance are an integral part of life.”
In Angola’s variegated popular music scene, one thing is clear: government critics lean towards hip hop and rap, using it to perform one of hip hop's traditional functions. Meanwhile kuduro, music by the masses for the masses, is embraced by the authorities to uplift them or distract them, depending on your point of view or who you speak to. Angola loves kuduro, for better or worse.
Read Part I: Angola’s critical rappers remain defiantly vocal as elections draw near