The late Jabulani Tsambo - aka HHP - was a postaparthied South African icon. In the wake of anti-migrant violence in the country, his continental politics and legacy take on new meaning.
Congo is gone.
With the exception of a few local street vendors and residents who frequent Carrington Street in Mahikeng, the site of what was once a flourishing group of hair businesses, fondly known as "Congo", is now virtually empty. The long pavement strip that breaks just as you're about to cross Victoria Road is an extension of the biggest taxi rank in town. It's here where migrants from the Democratic Republic of the Congo once raised corrugated structures to serve as hair salons. Nestled between the busy block of town bordered by Carrington Street and Warren Street, the salons were guaranteed a stream of clientele.
But according to a few local street vendors, as these salons grew in popularity, so did people begin to complain that foreigners are taking up space; when anti-migrant protests erupted in 2018, the owners of these salons had little choice but to pack their belongings and flee.
It is anyone's guess what the salons would have become had they been allowed to continue to operate. But no one can deny it was a site of which motswako star Jabulani Tsambo would've been proud. Pan-Africanism was one of the driving inspirations behind his musical career, which spanned seven albums.
As he graduated from a regional star to one of the most recognisable musicians on the continent, his ideas became more radical. Not satisfied with marching his hometown rappers to the frontlines of a unique South African hip-hop sound, Tsambo had his sights on something much bigger: a united, prosperous Africa.
In 2008 Tsambo travelled to Abuja, Nigeria, to attend the inaugural MTV Africa Awards where he was nominated in a plethora of categories among the continent's musical giants, including Nigeria's 2face Idibia. He did not win any prizes, but he was able to draw critical lessons for his future projects and his development as a continental artist from the event.
It featured tributes to the continent's musical legends such as Fela Kuti and Miriam Makeba, and collaborative performances with African artists such as Nigerian global folk and soul star, Asa. On his return from Abuja, Tsambo began to work on his highly anticipated experimental double-disc album Dumela, which, with a feature from American rapper Nas, would go on to become one of his most successful albums. It was an album that marked Tsambo's pan-African turn; his collaboration with Nigerian Necto-C on the Boogie Down track would come to be considered one of his most important songs. This song introduced Tsambo and motswako to a continental audience.
South Africa was still reeling from attacks on African migrants when Tsambo travelled to Abuja in 2008. His pan-African turn came to be a critical cultural intervention in a country still trying to define itself in relation to the rest of the continent. South Africa found in Tsambo a cultural icon to represent its continental hopes.
There's a rich history of collaboration between apartheid and postapartheid South African artists. What made Tsambo's continental politics unique, however, was his willingness to sacrifice his burgeoning career at a time when South African hip-hop was only beginning to make commercial sense. The song Sacrifice from his 2011 album Motswafrika, which marked Tsambo's break with the regionalism of local hip-hop, is a recognition of what he had to pay for his ideals.
In the lyrics of this song, he reflects: "I sacrificed all of my sanity / feel bad for all my fans / they be mad at me / telling me Jabba sold out from the family / going from setswana to all out seesemane."
Furthermore, his continental music adventures began in Abuja. In 2009, he visited Nairobi in Kenya to attend the second edition of MTV Africa awards. In that year, he won the coveted Best Video award for his song Mpitse. It was a win that put Tsambo into focus and emboldened his pan-African resolve.
And just as he did not see himself as a "mere rapper", Tsambo came to define himself more and more as an African artist. Aesthetically, Tsambo broke ranks with stereotypical Western depictions of a rapper, giving up his colourful baseball caps for a Nigerian oso (hat). When he returned from Kenya with one of the most important musical accolades on the continent in hand and emboldened by the success of Dumela, Tsambo secured many features from international and African artists in the diaspora, from Jamaican Kingpen Slim to the legendary Talib Kweli. And so he began work on one of his most ambitious albums yet.
Inspired by a plethora of African genres, Motswafrica is Tsambo's contribution to an extensive sonic archive of African musical projects that try to imagine the continent beyond its current sociopolitical predicaments. In Motswafrica, Tsambo sees a once-great continent, now lost and overrun by greed. Tsambo is trying to salvage what is left of a battered Africa and return to the source. The album is also a salient critique of postcolonial governments and leaders. By reimagining Africa, Tsambo laments liberation movements and their failure to deliver on post-revolution promises.
Tsambo's continental ambitions were not out of a desire to conquer new markets, as was often the case with many of his peers. His continental ambitions were driven by an appreciation of the sociopolitical similarities between African countries and the historic role of colonialism in shaping them. More than being inspired by the continent's similarities, Tsambo's pan-African ideas were also born out of frustration.
"I feel like a matric student that has been doing matric eight times. Every year it is the same script, same teachers. We have excluded ourselves from the continent and what is happening out there. Other African artists mingle. They know each other's music, and they visit each other's countries to perform there. We don't," he told the Mail & Guardian in 2012.
And when music proved inadequate to handle Tsambo's continental mission, he took to the road. In 2013, joined by his long-time friend DJ Zondi, he trekked across the continent to Kenya to once more highlight the similarities of cultures across the continent. And with the Dajara walk initiative, Tsambo was also demonstrating his commitment to his pan-African ideals.
It's disappointing that a year after his death, and nearly a decade since the release of Motswafrica, the debate about who is and who isn't an African is still raging in Africa. Tsambo wouldn't, of course, be surprised. He once asked, "How far can we go with no guidance?" He believed that Africa was going through something of a postcolonial disorder, and he sought to contribute to the healing process.