A whirlwind ride through many important themes, the hip-hop collective create innovative rhythms whilst always speaking truth to power
The point of view that all people are created equal regardless of race and as such have the same natural capacity to flourish, is one that is sometimes lost, not due to a self-inflicted victim narrative as some people like to prescribe, but rather having had self-belief beaten out of them for centuries by others. In May 2018, global superstar Kanye West caused a stir for his comments about slavery. “When you hear about slavery for 400 years ... For 400 years? That sounds like a choice,” the American rapper continued, “you were there for 400 years and it's all of y'all. It's like we're mentally imprisoned." As a black artist with such a huge platform it is understandable that his remarks sparked such a reaction, as on the surface they seem to be blaming the victims of horrific oppression for not changing their circumstances. Whether or not egomania or perhaps drug-use led to Kanye’s poor choice of words is rather by the by. Paradoxically, though both heavily offensive and upsetting, his comments that were widely reported on did have an indavertent positive effect, not only in bringing to light both the dangers of victim blaming, but also the rather more nuanced point about the importance of victim empowerment in order to change the narrative and not be stuck in a cycle of a self-fulfilling prophecy created by centuries of white-inflicted subjugation.
“...with this sense of awareness they give the listener an opportunity to change [their belief systems] and become the masters of their own destiny. ”
Timorous belief systems that stem through a barrage of abuse and oppression can of course be incredibly deep-rooted. Nevertheless, though the fact that externally imposed trauma should never be ignored as the cause of it, there is some consensus behind the idea that re-writing the script of one’s self-perception is possible. Namibian conscious hip-hop trio Black Vulcanite put forward this perspective on their sophomore album Black Colonialists, but do so on a race-wide scale. The directness of their point of view which some may find challenging slaps the listener in the face within seconds of the title-track with which the record commences. A voice sounds almost as a call to action: “in the name of my fucking poor people, I summon you”, as the words “summon you” reverberate over a handful of piano keys that are sounded in between each of the subsequent set of lyrics, almost intended to serve as a hypnosis tape. The group’s carefully-crafted poetry continues to penetrate the ear of the listener, with the next line that really catches me being: “black people they have forgotten you, thrown away your forest effigies, left only with the white man and his books” before an intentionally jarring key change is brought in, “a thousand dead pigeons falling from the sky, those before us left too much in a hurry to leave anything behind”. The rather uncomfortable free jazz beat is accompanied by powerful lyricism with some of the most vivid descriptions of black oppression: "we watched twisted flesh and broken bones rattle inside coffins like Chinese fireworks".
Amidst the chaos of the horns and the ever-intensifying percussion comes the most powerful line of all: “who we are is a forest-worth of unwritten books, a people slouch, upright, just now again finding form, stretching fields, human bamboo stalks, losing sense of self in a maze I call the diaspora,” before the rallying cry “but we chose to see this as an opportunity, we are the black colonialists you see?!” This black colonialism that is spoken of is of an idea depicted of an imagined future in which black people, do not colonise and oppress in search of racial dominion like white people have done throughout history, but rather can envision a form of cultural colonisation and economic ambition that white people have manifested into their reality for aeons of time. What Black Vulcanite do so powerfully is reclaim the word colonialist. Colonialism under its traditional understanding is associated with occupation and exploitation on planet earth, however, using an Afrofuturistic lens the group express colonialism to mean intergalactic power and influence, with the black race ambitious and with enough self-confidence to leave their mark across the entire solar system. The track makes reference to the Edward Makuka Nkoloso's ambitions in the 1960s for Zambia to beat the Soviet Union and United States in the Space Race which was of course ridiculed not only by the rest of the world but particularly by Africans themselves, playing into the tropes that the trio question of black people wrongly feeling unable to dream having overcome horrific subjugation for centuries.
As a white man, it is difficult for me to weigh in on this discussion without the full heft of the black lived experience on my shoulders and as such am coming to this topic from an inherent place of privelege. All I can really say is the collective’s position is one that I find convincing for any group or individual who has experienced trauma, especially as they do so expressing it with tact and understanding throughout. Though Black Vulcanite’s position could be particularly jarring for those who listen to the first track, but don’t give the rest of the album a chance, and as such interpret their message to be accusing black people of cognitively choosing the belief system that some find themselves with, it is abundantly clear as the album goes on that their message is one strictly of empowerment as they point out the latent misjustices in having been socialised with self-doubting tendencies, thus giving permission to acknowledge where their belief systems originate from and with this sense of awareness they give the listener an opportunity to change that and become the masters of their own destiny. Take Playing With Dolls for example, a song about psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark's "doll tests” studies to examine children's racial perceptions. The song points out that self-hate for black people starts at even a pre-verbal age as society is filled with subliminal messaging about supposed white superiority that we internalise.
Reparations, meanwhile, a tune that is irresistible to nod one’s head to, speaks about the 20th century’s first holocaust, the Herero and Namaqua genocide that took place in what is modern day Namibia at the hands of the Germans. Half a decade after the album’s release in 2016, the German government finally agreed to pay €1.1 billion to communities impacted by the genocide. The demand for reparations demonstrate that although it is all well and good to rewrite the script of oppression and have ambitions of ‘colonialism’ under their new definition, realistic attempts for power and influence can never be achieved without base level resources. Despite being an album grounded in a sometimes intergalactic and futuristic outlook of the world, the trio are wholly aware of their need for addressing real world problems. As well as on Reparations, the song How To Rap About Africa examines the complexities of the continent, whilst also addressing some of the major issues that exist there often using scouring language to talk about the political class and the endemic corruption. The track is based on Binyavanga Wainaina's legendary 2006 essay How To Write About Africa.
Racial injustice is not the only societal imbalance addressed on the album, themes such as poverty and sexism are also tackled with a deft hand with the latter spoken about in the beautiful track Waiting For God. The soulful song featuring Stardust is a great narrative piece about a woman and as always on the album is of high-calibre lyrically. That said, other lyrical bits of genius on the album can be about rather more introspective and personal themes such as one’s creative journey, as heard on Do It Again. Featuring South African rapper YoungstaCPT, whose accent is rather noticeable, we are reminded that despite often using a typically ‘American’ sound throughout the record the album has been made in a Southern African context, a perspective of which is often not heard so often through the mainstream hip-hop industry. Moreover, the phenomenal lyricism from poets Alain 'Ali That Dude' Villet and Nikolai 'Okin' Tjongarero is of course appreciated, however this is not to dismiss the important role Mark Mushiva has to play.
On the track Beautiful Melancholia Mushiva raps about a girl he loved and as well as being lyrically engaging, alongside other tunes about romance such as Jupiter’s Love, it is musically outstanding. This is what separates Black Vulcanite from many other conscious hip-hop artists in my view. Too often conscious hip-hop artists are so obsessed with finding the perfect lyrical combination to make astute and cutting observations that they miss out on the fact that fundamentally this is music to be enjoyed. The album is stacked with bangers and tunes of real compositional variety. For example the album plays around with the influence of other genres such as reggae on Yardie, to bossa nova on Brazil. Meanwhile, despite probably selecting Playing With Dolls as my favourite tune I find myself spoilt for choice. The Clock, Black Future Super Computer, Smooth as a Mutha, Friends and More and Wayward Soul are all perfect tunes as far as I am concerned. It must be said however, that most of their best songs come in the first half of the album, that is not a criticism of the latter half, just merely an observation that at 22 songs the record could easily end at Reparations without causing too much upset. Nevertheless, the latter half still is to be enjoyed with the wonderful Afrofuturistic pondering on Kaneda and the Youth and the infectious CeeLo Green vibes on If It’s Not You. Despite its immense running time, the album never fails to pack a punch even in its weaker moments. It is inspiring, thought-provoking and enjoyable throughout, and I consider it to be one of the top five hip-hop records of all time.