The entry fee tonight of 1,000 kwanzas — the equivalent of 10 US dollars — is not cheap in a country where the majority lives on less than $2 a day. But it means that the hundred or so Angolans in attendance at tonight’s concert are aficionados. Tonight is an open-mic session, and a young MC who introduces the artists encourages the public to cheer louder. The rappers are men in their early 20s; their clothes and body language pay tribute to American rap, but they perform in Portuguese, with only a chorus or a punchline in English every now and then.
My Portuguese isn’t strong enough yet to follow their rapid flow, so I rely on the audience’s enthusiasm to judge the performances. With the help of Janguinda’s translation, I learn that Angola’s hip-hop heads are unimpressed by performers who imitate American rap wholesale, and the rhymes that win the crowd’s approval are those commenting on the quotidian details of life in Luanda. I recognize some key words of local slang. Musseques: the unplanned neighborhoods that developed spontaneously around the colonial center. Candongueiros: the ubiquitous blue-and-white minibuses that serve as public transport. Zungueiras and zungueiros: street vendors, selling everything from fresh fruit to DVDs. Luz e água: electricity and water, basic amenities affected by daily cuts.
I’ve been back to Luanda many times since that evening in the southern winter of 2009. (I ended up on stage that night with several rappers, after unexpectedly winning an album giveaway.) I’ve lived there for as long as my visas would allow, conducting research in both the city center and the sprawling self-built neighborhoods on the periphery. I’ve taken road trips across other Angolan provinces as well. And much of what fascinates me about the country now was already present that first night in the club: the invigorating celebrations by night that allay the hardships of the day, the inexplicable feeling of intimacy in one of the most crowded metropolises I’ve ever been to, and the multiple meanings of underground.
But what I didn’t know, when I went to that first concert with Janguinda, was that underground hip-hop would soon become the flashpoint for national disputes about democracy, corruption, and the future of Angola. Independent hip-hop artists such as MCK and Ikonoklasta have made no secret of their hatred of the country’s kleptocratic government, run since 1979 by President José Eduardo dos Santos, under whose watch Angola has become one of the most corrupt countries on the planet. And as the economic boom of the years after the civil war has faded, conflicts between the regime and its rappers have grown even more scathing — leading all the way to prison, in Ikonoklasta’s case. What does it mean, finally, to be underground for rappers in Luanda? And how did a bunch of hip-hop artists become the most powerful antagonists of the second-longest-serving leader in Africa?
The full article appears in Even no. 6, published in spring 2017.