As the African country of Zimbabwe plunged into violent political turmoil earlier this year, worlds away in Toronto, Canada, a rapper by the name of Lameck Williams, was writing about it.
“Mugabe now taking over all small soldiers/this Idi Amin shit got the country colder,” Williams raps in the first verse of his song Peace.
“You can’t forget where you came from,” he says. “That’s the essence of what it means to be black. Knowing about your country or Africa and one way or the other you gotta come back to it.”
Even though Williams feels that it’s important to make mention of his ancestry in his lyrics, not every artist agrees that this is the bottom line when it comes to authenticity as an artist.
“We could have a whole debate here about what’s African content,” Kwame Stephens, co-ordinator of the Youth Zone at Afrofest, the largest showcase of African music in Canada. “I am an African. When I get up there it’s my story.”
“The prevalence of African talent is what’s important. What they speak about is up to them,” he says.
“It’s more who they are and not what they talk about.”
Allegations that the president of Williams’ native country since independence in 1980, Robert Mugabe, was ordering violent and deadly action against supporters of his opposition, provided the theme of his latest song, Peace.
Socially aware hip-hop, often classified as conscious rap, is how Williams best describes his style, but he also describes it as eclectic – borrowing from the music of other cultures and sometimes underground – narrowing down on his experience on the streets of Toronto.
But one thing that remains constant in his work is that he must always come back to his roots. He could never cease to acknowledge his native land in his lyrics.
While Williams might mention the 2 million per cent inflation rate in Zimbabwe in his rapping – even though he hasn’t been there in over a decade – many local artists don’t feel the need to mention their ancestry in their work.
Sean Prominent is a hip-hop artist born and raised in Scarborough, of Sri Lankan and Irish heritage. He admits that his music now, which he defines as “life music,” is a far cry from the gangster “I’ll put my gun in your mouth” rap of his youth.
He talks about his son, mistakes he’s made, his experiences on the streets of Toronto, even God – but he doesn’t talk about Sri Lanka or Ireland.
“The artist doesn’t have to conform himself to his ethnicity,” Prominent says. “Music is an expression of your soul.”
“I’m not gonna talk about roti and rice,” he says. “I stay away from that and I let the pen flow how it wants to.”
Stephens points out that he has had an array of African talent perform at the Youth Zone, with lyrics about anything from sex to war experiences in Africa.
Artists like Kikijiko and Rasselas of Sudan and Ethiopia respectively, have rapped about their experiences in Africa on the Youth Zone stage but Stephens stresses that’s “who they are.”
“When they speak, they sing their experience and express themselves,” Stephens says.
“If an African kid was raised here, I expect him to talk about Jane and Finch or whatever. That’s more true to them.”
Prominent agrees and sees some attempts at cultural awareness as fake.
“You could talk all kinds of nationality talks on your rhymes when you’re at home eating a box of KD,” he says.
Williams concedes that the majority of his music is not focused on Zimbabwe but he does bring it back every now and then because he feels there’s not much of a perspective coming from Africa.
“Not too many black rappers talk about where they came from and I think it’s good when people find their roots,” Williams said.
More importantly to him, acknowledging his native land keeps the spirit of his late mother alive.
“I thank her a lot for taking me back there when I was young,” he says. “She really had a lot of love for her people. There wasn’t any woman so passionate about being a Zimbabwean.”
“I think my love sort of sprang out from that.”
Williams has performed and hosted the Youth Zone stage but he was not chosen necessarily because he discusses African issues but because his positive, conscious style impresses Stephens.
“In the programming I do with the Youth Zone we are very careful to avoid anything negative,” Stephens says. “We have a young audience sometimes and we have to be careful to find people that have a message.”
Another thing Stephens looks for when he books artists for the Youth Zone is originality; “people looking for their own unique voice.”
“Hip hop is universal,” he says. “But I think that hip-hop artists gain the most respect when they take it and make it their own. When you have a voice that stands out from the crowd,” he continues.
“When you don’t sound like every other person saying n*****, bitch, hoe.”
Williams and Prominent agree that it’s important to stand out as an artist and they are disillusioned by the state of hip-hop today.
“I don’t really listen to the radio at all,” Prominent says.
“There’s a lot of monotony, especially from Toronto, I think there’s an identity crisis.”
Being aware of your ancestry is important, Williams believes.
But Williams, Stephens and Prominent all agree that being aware of yourself and reflecting it in your work is what is paramount.