A Ugandan MC’s intimate keyboard hip-hop

Does hip-hop belong to Africa? And how has American rap music itself embraced Africa in its lyrics and metaphors? Serubiri Moses reflects on these questions, while at the same time tells the gripping story about Ugandan rapper Cyno MC’s, about his life-threatening heart surgery and how hip-hop helped him through it.

Written by Serubiri Moses.

When we meet at 2:45 pm, I’m sitting at the grand piano in the Green Room, behind the stage of the National Theatre, wondering whether he will make it through the rain, but I’m glad he does, and our interview can finally start.

The piano is quite old, and is dumped in there with no care for the temperature of the room (such as this drastic temperature change from the sunny midday hot to a thunderstorm in just a few minutes).

Along with it, are a set of nine or so human size drums that are used by the Uganda National Contemporary Ballet, whose coordinator, Valerie (a French woman) is sitting in the room too when Cyno MC walks in. He is curious about the piano.

Cyno MC. Photo by Serubiri Moses.

Keen on finding out his fascination, I offer to play something. He likes it, and decides to play me something he has composed for his next album. “I wrote it on a keyboard I have at home. It’s about the surgery,” he says.

The song he plays is in the safe key of C major peppered with arpeggios of the chords of C, E minor and F major, followed by a vamp down the keyboard that reminds me of nothing but funk and James Brown. I quietly marvel about how he has written this music.

Is he really just an MC like he says, I ponder.

Because he follows the base C chord of the song with a contrasting sad E minor chord, then proceeds to augment the fifth of the base chord, I feel that his music takes on the seventh and augmented fifth notes of the blues as well as jazz harmony, which evoke rich emotion.

This is quite something for an MC who took up keyboard just months ago. He proceeds to play the chord progression while singing and rapping on top of it, something that changes the mood of the room to a more intense color than the one created by the afternoon rain. “A producer played it in the studio, but I (composed) the keyboard music,” he says proudly.

Cyno MC. Photo by Serubiri Moses.

Cyno tells me that he also rapped over the song in the studio with just the keyboard and no beat. This means that he took a much more organic approach, focusing on a live performance feel, having only the keyboard without all the unnecessary synthesizer effects. Such effects often evoke the trend of Kenyan and Nigerian rap music, a style that offer a more thoroughly studio-refined sound that is heavily in demand on Kampala’s hip-hop scene.

When he says, “I don’t listen to commercial music; I am an underground rapper,” this is a strong statement which separates him from many rappers on the continent who exclusively make commercial music.

Many of whom have lost the essence of the original sound of hip-hop.

In comparison to more popular rappers in Kampala, such as GNL Zamba, Cyno’s approach to music (at the piano) is closer to hip-hop’s older minimalistic sound. A sound that was  formulated out of using recording samples and adding funk drum patterns on top of them.

Kleptomaniacs and Herbie Hancock

Hip-hop always had this “live music” feel. DJs were the initial hardcore component of the creation of a hip-hop music performance. On turntables they provided the sample of the funk of groups like Zapp—which can be credited for popularizing ‘autotune’.

Funk is a rhythmic style of black American music. It has a strong emphasis and accentuation of the second beat of its 2/4 rhythm, and this sets the backbone of hip-hop from the 70s to the present day.

However, to fully understand this concept of the sample and how it innovated the genre of hip-hop, I take a look at jazz pianist Herbie Hancock’s album from 1973, Head Hunters, which contributed to the development of the genre for several reasons.

First and foremost is Herbie Hancock’s decision to use a sample on the track ‘Watermelon Man‘—a song he had previously recorded on his 1962 Blue Note album ‘Takin Off‘—which he described as imitating “the sound of the watermelon man making his rounds through the back streets and alleys of Chicago’s south side. The wheels of his wagon beat out the rhythm on the cobblestones.”

Jazz was always in a constant kleptomania of grabbing different sounds and incorporating them into the jazz language, almost in the same way that hip-hop uses a sample of various world recordings. So originally, the track “sampled” a watermelon man’s wagon running over the cobblestones. However, on the 1973 album, Herbie Hancock decided to sample something else.

From ethno-musicological field recordings of the rain forest people of the Republic of Zaïre, Hancock again remodeled their sound by blowing over an open soda bottle and using less polyphony. Compared to field recordings, the opening “sample” on the 1973 recording sounds sloppy, but combined with the funk of an electric bass as well as Hancock’s synthesizers, it becomes something completely strange and yet initiates the futurism of the hip-hop genre.

Secondly, Hancock also named his band ‘Mwandishi’ (a word of Swahili origin) and all his band members chose Swahili names, reflecting the pan-Africanist independence movement of 1960—through which ideas of African Nationalism motioned for the continent/countries of Africa to take on Swahili as its official language.

He was one of very few American musicians to embrace African music, along with Harry Belafonte (who embraced Miriam Makeba) and Randy Weston (who embraced Moroccan gnawa music).

African consciousness and Bambaataa

In this same spirit, Afrika Bambaataa, a seminal Bronx DJ, furthered this interaction with the continent of Africa when he performed at the African National Congress (ANC) conference at Wembley Stadium in 1990, in a concert he co-organized titled, “Hip-hop Artists Against Apartheid”.

The charity single he performed was titled ‘Ndodemnyama (Free South Africa),’ which itself sampled a famous African musician, Miriam Makeba, on her 1965 Grammy winning album with Harry Belafonte, introducing hip-hop audiences to Nelson Mandela and the apartheid struggle.

“And those who dare speak out like Mandela were silenced

But it takes a spark

In the heart and the soul for a man to embark

On his quest for freedom”

– lyric from the charity single, Ndodemnyama by Afrika Bambaataa.

Many African-American rappers were inspired by this single, as well as its cause for Black Unity, a concept of Pan-Africanism. They used Bambaataa’s “African consciousness” to strengthen their lyrics and music; from sampling African music in the same way that Herbie Hancock had done, to borrowing the philosophy of Pan-Africanism, especially the rapper Nasir Jones.

Talib Kweli testifies to this in his song ‘The Show‘:

“The only thing we know about Africa is from Nas or Belly,

But go off like a Hutu or Tutsi, from Rwanda or Burundi

Over drums like Babatunde Olatunji”

Here, Kweli shows the “African consciousness” of Nas, while also giving proof of the sampling of African music in the drums of Nigerian musician Babatunde Olatunji, instigating the musical language of hip-hop.

Many of these musicians, including Nasir Jones, Lauryn Hill, 2Pac, Common and Afrika Bambaataa, contributed to the rise of hip-hop in Africa by spreading through their rap lyrics and samples of African music, as well as Caribbean music. An “African consciousness” that struck a chord with African youth in the 1990s, who recognized the similarities between hip-hop and their reality.

A mountain on my back

When I ask Cyno MC about the song he plays on the piano, he tells me that it’s about the surgery. The burning urgency of emotion of the song’s rap lyrics occurs to me, and its desolate use of only a piano. It is all very intentional. The first verse reads in Luganda:

“Tolina kyomanyi mubulamu /

nga tonnaba kugezesebwa Omutoonzi /

nze amaziga gankulukuta

nga netamidwa eno ensi /

Obulumi bwennabaamu

nga ninga eyetisse ensozi mu ddungu /

nga nnoonya a’mazi ewataali luzi /”

You do not know this life

without being tried by God.

Tears streamed from my eyes,

When I was weary of this world. The pain

I felt carrying a mountain on my back

in the desert, searching for water

where there was no oasis.

Cyno MC (real name: Mpiima Moses) was born in 1990, and grew up in one of Kampala’s largest slums, Katwe. He was raised by a Christian family, amidst eight siblings, but he felt belonging within gangs and lived that life until he joined a hip-hop NGO community in 2008.

In April 2011, Nana Schneider, a researcher on youth and hip-hop in Kampala, took Cyno to visit a cardiologist after he confided in her about a pain in the chest that he had felt for the previous three months. They confirmed that he needed heart surgery.

He had a condition known as aortic regurgitation, defined in Merriam-Webster as the “leakage of blood from the aorta back into the left ventricle during diastole because of failure of an aortic valve to close properly”. With each heartbeat, more blood than usual enters the left ventricle causing the heart strain; serious cases can lead to heart failure.

“I started living my life like it’s about to end,” Cyno MC says.

However, the turning point in this crisis came when Nana Schneider convinced him that it was not the end, and encouraged him to get funding for surgery.

He was introduced to a young German intern at Makerere  University Medical School, through DeStreet Art founder, Ayub Kabaati, who helped him fundraise almost the entire amount needed for the surgery in Germany.

“We started reaching out to different artists, but all the hip-hop artists turned us down,” he adds. Cyno started to question the credibility of hip-hop’s “elite” when the most popular stars of Ugandan Rap told him they would pray for him.

However, an organization called End of the Weak, which holds rapping ciphers all over the world, and under which he won an award in 2010, arranged charity concerts to fundraise for his surgery.

End of the Weak showed Cyno MC what he calls brotherhood, offering utter honesty and support in the middle of his life crisis. Along with this organization was Invisible Children (of the KONY 2012 video) as well as BonFire Uganda and Maurice Kirya, who won the Radio France International Award that year.

Hip-hop saved my life

Cyno MC’s life story can be looked at as a collage of several hip-hop metaphors: hip-hop saved my life, hip-hop turned me away from gang violence, hip-hop gave me a sense of belonging. These are all “downloaded” from American rap music, and can mean different things for different people.

The internet has made this process of hand-me-down hip-hop music faster, in which every new development within popular America rap music is readily adopted along with second-hand hip-hop jewellery, baseball caps, skinny jeans, winter jackets and Timbaland boots.

The new fad is, of course, Kanye West’s use of autotune on his 2008 808s & Heartbreak album, which has been “downloaded” by artists like Keko and Ruyonga, who employ his over-indulgent use of auto-tune.

Bongo and Luga Flow

However, Tanzanian rap music, known as “Bongo”, has been quite successful at turning hip-hop’s vocabulary of samples and strong percussive drum patters.

First and foremost by turning those same messages of “African consciousness” around by repatriating it via the words and philosophy of Julius Nyerere’s  African socialism, as well as  sampling staple recordings of Tanzanian musical styles such as Tarab.

In the same way, rappers like Cyno MC are turning the language of hip-hop around to incorporate Luganda poetry in what is today known as “Luga Flow”. Furthermore, in the tradition of early hip-hop, Cyno MC uses live performance ciphers, such as in the practice of End of the Weak, to draw a closer relationship to his audience.

To stress the intimacy of hip-hop, Cyno has gone as far as composing his own musical accompaniment on the keyboard—a very rare attribute in today’s African hip-hop music .

Hip-hop belongs to Africa

I will now argue that this “downloaded” style is taking over Africa too early at its foetus stage, and is very immature indeed.

Musical genres develop by critical study and appreciation, which becomes the basis of innovation; not by the quick opportunistic deployment of American hip-hop and consumed as secondhand material by an audience that is overly obsessed with America.

However, the spread of hip-hop in Africa can mostly be described as “hand-me-down” music, buoyed by Western capitalism, enforcing an American style in a way similar to wholesale foreignization of the British colonial education model of the early 20th century—encouraging young rappers to become opportunists in the free media and production market.

To make it worse, “African consciousness” has all but disappeared from hip-hop, and it is underdogs like Cyno MC who lead in this repatriation of hip-hop by infusing a consciousness defined by personal philosophy, oral literature and language, as well as emphasizing live performance recreating the original intimacy of the hip-hop art form.

“Bongo” and “Luga Flow” are foetuses yet to be reborn in Africa. These are quite under appreciated compared to the glossier pop sounding R&B hip-hop that is never remodeled to suit the reality in East Africa, but instead thrives by “downloading” and incorporating every new change that occurs in American hip-hop.

Cyno MC is walking on a tightrope of a very young art form in Uganda, and is one of its few original innovators. It is great that the potential of these musicians is being recognized by international organizations like End of the Weak, who appreciate their unique approach to hip-hop.

“Hip-hop belongs to Africa,” Cyno says.

Afrika Bambaataa, who initiated the idea of a charity single for the 1990 African National Congress conference in London, mentions:

“(From) funk, soul and reggae music came the birth of this music called hip-hop, which came from Kool DJ Herc coming from Jamaica using his gifts of the music of that country, also from myself coming from a West Indian background and Grandmaster Flash who is also from the same background. So all of these different cultures still relate back to Africa.”

Reinventing African hip-hop

As much as the above quote notes that the origin of hip-hop is in Africa, it is left to be decided whether Africa will really embrace, not just a secondhand version of  hip-hop downloaded from the internet, but the critical study of the art form, and hence moving towards reinventing, rebuilding, remodeling, tailoring and customizing it for an African reality.

Cyno MC. Photo by Serubiri Moses.

The image of Cyno MC at the grand piano plays back in my mind. He has the subtlety of Lauryn Hill in a baby blue baseball cap and jacket, sitting on a bar stool with a guitar on 2002’s MTV Unplugged series. He seems on the verge of overcoming something so drastically life disorienting, and yet is persistent in digging even deeper for more hidden poetic truths.

Hill churned out a live hip-hop performance which burned with an intimacy perhaps too real for the soundscape of American popular music at the time, that is, until Kanye West sampled it on his 2004 debut, The College Dropout.

Cyno has the same quality that enriches his work and this must be shared with a greater African audience.

Serubiri Moses has been published in The New Vision reviewing live music. As a poet, he is featured on the pan African website, Badilisha Poetry Exchange.

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