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Female Hip-Hop Artists Challenge Stereotypes

 IPS 17 May 2019

(Originally published: 03/2010) African hip-hop prides itself on a more positive portrayal of women, but traditional cultural attitudes towards women still dominate the industry, say Namibian female rappers. What started in the late Seventies as an expression of disenfranchised African-American youth in the Bronx of New York city, soon took root in Africa’s urban centres. In the townships of South Africa and Namibia, hip-hop morphed into kwaito and afropop and became an expression of post-apartheid identity. Though the independence struggle and exile that left social networks scattered created a space for Namibian women to break away from convention and take up careers in music, this freedom is fraught with contradictions. (700 words) - By Servaas van den Bosch

WINDHOEK, Nambia - African hip-hop prides itself on a more positive portrayal of women, but traditional cultural attitudes towards women still dominate the industry, say Namibian female rappers.

What started in the late Seventies as an expression of disenfranchised African-American youth in the Bronx of New York city, soon took root in Africa's urban centres. In the townships of South Africa and Namibia, hip-hop morphed into kwaito and afropop and became an expression of post-apartheid identity.

Though the independence struggle and exile that left social networks scattered created a space for Namibian women to break away from convention and take up careers in music, this freedom is fraught with contradictions.

"There are not many places in Africa like Namibia where we can jump around the stage in our mini-skirts without causing an uproar," says Frieda Haindaka from rap duo Gal Level. "But at the same time our biggest challenge is being females in a male dominated industry. We constantly have to prove ourselves. People just want to see two sexy girls on a stage and don't think we can actually do anything."

Other female artists still feel the pull from a traditional Namibian background.

"Of course we feel inferior to men," affirms singer, Sally.

"I used to be afraid of men. I would go to a show and there's guy after guy wowing the crowd and I would just feel like: 'oh my gosh what am I going to do? Maybe I should just turn around and go away.'

"And men are not helpful," she adds. "I walk into a studio and there's seven guys hanging around with their kwaito attitude and their hip-hop thing going on, and they just stare at you like: 'Pff…. whacha gonna do lil' mama?' It makes me want to curl up in the corner immediately."

Despite the prejudice, some of the country's female hip- hop artists are doing what they can to make music that sends young women listeners an inspiring and positive message.

"In my lyrics I encourage women to work for their own bubblegum so to speak, and not depend on favours," says two-time Channel O Music Award winner 'Lady May' (23), who released her third album last year.

One of her hit singles is called Chokola (high heels) "When you are wearing high heels you feel powerful, you feel sexy, you feel like you can conquer the world. High heels give a woman confidence, but they also require focus and discipline, or you will fall over," she explains.

Sally's track, 'dollhouse', is about a woman who breaks free from an abusive relationship. "Just because you are a man you cannot tell me who I should be," she sings.

But the demands of the industry and the competition for sales in a business where the macho standard is already set provides little space for activism.

"I would love to make songs that really drive the point home, but hey, you also got to make the people dance," Sally tells IPS.

"We only have a handful of female artists that have made it in Namibia and none of them are as successful as their male counterparts," says DJ Chè Ulenga of community radio station Base FM in Katutura township. Ulenga has seen many aspiring girls abandoning their dreams of becoming top selling artists.

Ulenga told IPS pay is meagre in the industry, with managers routinely pocketing 50 percent of the fees, if the women get paid at all.

"Women work on songs or videos that become hits but never get the recognition. Men just don't take them seriously and refuse to invest in girls even if they sing a great hook or chorus."

"Girls are lied to all the time," says Sally. "[Producers tell you] you will have your own album, you are going to make it, you will be a superstar. But soon enough the producer will be after you and the music stops."

The abuse and exploitation Sally recounts is routine in the male dominated music industry where many young women, hungry for a break with a hotshot producer, don't ask too many questions.

"When you are a nobody and desperate you are happy to be behind a mic," says Sally.

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