The South African hip-hop scene is interesting. If you were to skim the top of the scene with a net you would only pick up the blandest and least creative artists that merely piggybacked off of the explosive rise of American hip hop. Granted, these artists worked hard to get where they are now but lately – their music seems to be cookie-cutter rap that offers very little in terms of creativity and variety. This is something I cannot fathom because the South African hip-hop scene is teeming with diversity. It is a scene that spawned multiple sub-genres as a result of African influences becoming amalgamated into the genre, and due to the varying language groups morphing the genre into their own specific sound.
Luckily the hip-hop scene begins to yield creative and unique artist as you move away from the major names. One artist, in particular, is 19-year old BCom law student Khanya-Kwezwe Nkambule who goes by the moniker of Gunch The Youth. His music has been described by some as being alternative hip-hop which is a rather broad and bland adjective. It would be better to describe it as rap music influenced by traditional African influences and lounge-styled jazz music spiced up with uptempo live bass riffs and rhythmic percussion. A shorter version would be to call it afro-jazz-fusion-rap tied off with the intelligent lyricism of an educated visionary as he dispels notions of female and youth empowerment on his debut EP Memoirs of a Great Her.
Memoirs of a Great Her is a powerhouse of a rap album divided into six neat tracks that are shaped by pseudo-interview skits that provide a sense of contextualisation. The opening skit establishes the first three songs as being written by Gunch The Youth’s younger self and having live production done by jazz legend Bheki Khoza. It is in these opening songs that Gunch The Youth establishes the afro-jazz side of his sound. “Zimbelebele” opens the single with poignant traditional African features that draw heavily on Gunch’s youth and growing up in a township. Musically, it finds a balance between delivering poignant rap verses and smooth jazz bass riffs and percussion. Gospel-styled backing vocals curl themselves around the reciting of “Zimbelebele” on the chorus as they drive home the fact that the song is about the shared struggle of the black community and particularity that of the youth as they grow up in an environment that totally alienates them and force them into stereotypical boxes while presenting a façade of national unity and non-racism. Wrapped up in the song is also a scathing criticism of the gangster-like stereotypes created by mainstream South African hip-hop. “Adam’s Rib” follows up the song with a song of female empowerment that speaks out against South Africa’s patriarchal rape culture and raises the idea that females should pursue their own personal idea of beauty as opposed to trying to adhere to the notion of beauty created by society and by men in general.
“Polka Dots” closes off this three-song segment of the EP, and it is by far my favourite song on Memoirs of a Great Her. Gunch drops all pretences of being afro-jazz and morphs his sound into something entirely different. A Japanese anime reference acts as an intro to the song before it explodes into a haphazard burst of live percussion and snarling bass riffs. “Polka Dots” takes the form of a combination of aggressive rap-metal and punk-influenced post-hardcore. It puts me in mind of Hyro Da Hero as Gunch savagely delivers lyrics that dissect issues surrounding racism in South Africa as he talks about how Bugs Bunny taught him to stick to his colour. However, the true meaning behind “Polka Dots” is one rooted in criticising the ridiculous division with the South African music industry and how he wishes South Africa could undergo a societal change in which every aspect of the country could become less intolerant divisive.
The midway skit sees Gunch’s sound dramatically changing as he embraces more rap and hip-hop sounds while retaining his distant eclecticism. “Cloudy with a Chance of Asian Mami’s” is Gunch’s ode to Asian woman for whom he holds much love, and especially how they often mess with his head. “Things Fall Apart” features young UK star Chester Watson and is one of the most eclectic songs on the EP. Distant synths and faded vocals dominate the song as the tag-team vocals of Gunch and Chester question exactly what has happened to the hip-hop scene in the past couple of years. Gunch holds a lot of resentment for the trends established in mainstream hip hop and much of his EP is deliberately created to diverge away from those trends while also parodying them in order to mock the genre. “Minute/Weather” sees Gunch returning to his afro-jazz influences slightly with the backing piano melody, but ultimately it is a song that displays an end to the artistic journey that Gunch undertook on his debut EP. The end result was something that can be described as afro-jazz alt-rap as Gunch embarks on a singular masochistic tangent in which he questions whether he should have even started creating rap music and ultimately questions the fake nature of the genre to the rhythm of repeated percussion and restrained snarling bass lines.
Gunch the Youth has created something, unlike anything South Africa has ever heard with his debut EP. Hip-hop is blowing up in South Africa and this young artist stands poised to take it to an entirely new level.
Download the EP on Bandcamp