South African exchange student researches underground hip hop

7 December 2018

Sikelelwa Anita Mashiyi is the first exchange student to come from the University of the Western Cape to Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). A Master's degree student, she is currently undertaking research in JGU's African Music Archives (AMA) on the underground hip hop of South African townships. With the Department of Anthropology and African Studies planning to intensify its partnership with three African universities and to establish a network for research and teaching, further visits might follow.

Her research focuses on underground hip hop in South Africa, more precisely on what is known as spaza hip hop. The first thing Sikelelwa Anita Mashiyi always has to do is spell that out, since hardly anyone in Europe has even heard of the term. Nevertheless, Mashiyi, a student from the University of the Western Cape, in many ways grew up with it. She was born in one of Cape Town's townships where spaza hip hop originated in the 1980s.

"Spaza is a very masculine genre," says Mashiyi. "Women who become involved in this domain aren't usually taken seriously or are simply dismissed as groupies. There are very few female artists." Mashiyi tried to meet some of them to get their perspective on the scene, but she has to admit: "Making contact was quite difficult."

Cooperation with Rwanda, Namibia, and South Africa

In contrast, it is easy to get in touch with Mashiyi. She loves the topic of her Master's thesis, which she will complete soon, and she is eager to talk about it. The conditions in the townships and at the Cape, her people, the Xhosa, and her mother tongue, isiXhosa, are among the related issues that spark enthusiastic and lively engagement with Mashiyi sometimes even jumping up from her chair. When the mood takes her, she demonstrates a few dance steps or sings a quick melody.

Mashiyi is staying at JGU for one month as a visiting student and will be conducting research in the African Music Archives (AMA). "Mainz University has had a partnership with the University of the Western Cape since early 2018," says Dr. Anna-Maria Brandstetter of the Department of Anthropology and African Studies. "We will have a lively exchange of students in the future. Mashiyi is the first to benefit from it."

The newly established partnership is part of a broader collaborative project that also includes the University of Rwanda (UR) and the University of Namibia (UNAM). "There has been an ongoing collaboration with Rwanda since 1985," Brandstetter points out. But the new project takes the four universities a step further. JGU has applied to the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) for funding for its "Study and teaching of anthropology in Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa, and Germany: development of networks and curricula" project.

An independent African anthropology

"The project is first and foremost focused on south-south networking," adds Brandstetter, who manages the partnerships together with Yamara Wessling. They aim to strengthen contacts between African countries and develop independent curricula tailored to their needs. "Pretending we know the answers from here in Germany wouldn't make much sense," Wessling emphasizes. "Our aim is quite the opposite: to de-colonialize the curricula. We are supporting the project so that an autonomous African anthropology can continue to develop."

In late September 2018, Malu Dreyer, the Minister President of the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate, accompanied by JGU President Professor Georg Krausch and representatives of Mainz University, traveled to Rwanda to reinforce the close partnership. Brandstetter and Wessling were two of these JGU representatives. "Both sides highly value our project," asserts Brandstetter happily. There is also a lot of general support for the cooperation, especially at Mainz University: "When we told the head of our JGU International Office about our plans for the first exchange with South Africa he immediately offered his support." And that's how Mashiyi ended up in Mainz.

The African Music Archives at Mainz University are one of the largest and most comprehensive of their kind. Researchers from all over the world come to Mainz to find material for their work. However, even an institution such as the AMA has very little on spaza hip hop, but Mashiyi is investigating the African musical influences that have shaped it. "I want to find out how much Xhosa music has found its way into hip hop, and which melodies may have been taken up."

Spaza hip hop in the townships

Spaza hip hop is a relatively young genre. It originated during the decades when apartheid was particularly brutal and bloody. Artists lamented its abuses in isiXhosa, rapping on street corners and in backyards. Their music was inextricably linked to the townships. It sounded both original and new.

"I think spaza hip-hoppers more or less unconsciously also draw from a repertoire of more traditional Xhosa music. Like me, they grew up with a lot of its melodies." In the AMA Mashiyi discovered recordings of pieces that have since been lost in her homeland. "I had to come to Mainz to hear them again."

"It's reports like this that encourage us in pressing ahead with the ongoing digitalization of the AMA," adds Brandstetter. "We want to make the material freely accessible to everyone, as far as copyright regulations permit. That's our ultimate goal."

Text, music, performance

Mashiyi loves the idea of a complete collection of recorded spaza hip hop songs. "Just reading through the texts isn't enough to understand the genre. I need to experience the music and the performance." A great deal from the brief history of spaza has already been lost. Audio recordings of spaza are rare – and it's constantly evolving: "It is losing its authenticity, and it is being influenced by music from other countries. Where, previously, artists wanted to give something to the people in the townships, today some see themselves as stars and want something back from their fans."

Mashiyi's Master's thesis will examine how spaza hip hop enriches the music of the region and what it can tell us about issues such as ethnicity, gender, and tradition. She hopes her thesis will allow the voices of artists and also producers, agents, and audiences to be heard. She has lots of plans for her return to South Africa. Right now, however, she will be listening to Xhosa music in the AMA for a few more days. And while listening, she often just can't help jumping up from her chair. "I just have to dance to the music," she says, "even if that makes people sometimes sit up in surprise."