Hip-Hop, Reggae, and Afro-pop Thrive in Africa’s Only Spanish-Speaking Nation
When El Negro Bey raps, the letter “c” and “z” spill out of his mouth with that trademark lisp that warns you that you’re speaking Spanish with a Spaniard. Except Bey isn’t a Spaniard, not originally at least. He’s a recent transplant from Equatorial Guinea, a bite-sized nation in Central Africa that has the distinction of being the only Spanish-speaking nation on the continent.
Bey is currently living in Barcelona, where he’s been working on an album of high-energy, club-style hip-hop laced with political commentary, titled Cicatriz (Scar). Throughout the album, he talks about wounds that leave scars, both in his personal life and in the history of Equatorial Guinea. Often, they go hand in hand: the poverty and deprivations he experienced growing up in Bata can’t be removed from the corrupt governance of dictator Teodoro Obiang, who has siphoned off the lion’s share the country’s vast oil wealth for himself and his family. The racism Bey combats in his lyrics is intertwined with his frustrations with the world’s apathy towards the problems of his home nation.
Let’s back up for a second. A country in Africa that speaks Spanish? If people around the world are apathetic towards Equatorial Guinea, one reason is that very few even know it exists. The former Spanish colony — the only one in sub-Saharan Africa — is made up of a morsel of land sandwiched between Cameroon and Gabon, and the island of Bioko, (where the capital, Malabo, is located). All together, it’s about the size of Massachusetts.
The country achieved independence in 1968 after centuries of Spanish rule, but chose to keep the Castilian dialect as the administrative language. Today, most people’s first names are in Spanish, and the language is spoken widely alongside tribal Bantu languages.
Equatoguineans get a short-cut to Spanish citizenship, leading to a large community of Equatoguineans and their descendants in Spain, especially in Madrid and Barcelona. And even though their numbers are relatively small, they’ve had a significant impact on the music scene there.
Probably the most famous Equatoguinean of all is flamenco singer Concha Buika. Raised around gitanos on the island of Mallorca, Buika was steeped in the traditional cante jondo singing style from a young age and has become one of the most important voice in the flamenco scene in years – as well as an important symbol of Spain’s multi-culturalism.
Most Equatoguineans in Spain haven’t flocked to flamenco, however, but to a more global sound: hip-hop. Many prominent figures in the Spanish scene have Equatoguinean roots, like Jota Mayúscula (Capital J), a rapper and producer who hosts Spain’s only national hip-hop program, El Rimadero, on Radio 3 every Saturday night, and is a tireless promoter of the Spanish underground. Guinea-born MC Yuma has gotten a lot of love both at home and in Spain as well. Another MC is Mefe, who has collaborated with Spanish Grammy-winner Mala Rodriguez. La Mala recently mentioned Mefe as a talent to watch in an interview with MTV Iggy.
Hip-hop and other urban styles were the focus of a new compilation of Equatoguinean music out earlier this year, titled Pequeño corazón de África (Little Heart of Africa). The compilation contains 19 hip-hop, R&B, and reggae tracks from Equatoguinean artists scattered around the world, and is available in its entirety for free download on Bandcamp.
The project is the creation of Zachary Jones, an Atlanta resident who creates educational materials for learning Spanish through his website Zabombazo. The idea of compiling Equatoguinean music came to Jones one day as he was trawling the web for lesson material about Equatorial Guinea and was having a hard time finding anything. “I like to have a worldwide representation of Spanish-speaking countries on my site, and I noticed it was hard to find stuff from Guinea,” says Jones. “I started to dig and I realized it was really unique – the music, the language, the history. So I started contacting artists.”
Jones reached out to artists through the little-appreciated medium of MySpace messages, and found a sympathetic soul in Madrid reggae/dancehall artist Lion Sitte, who began rounding up his musician friends to contribute tracks. The final result contains artists spread out from Texas (R&B singer Narkelly Pana) to China (rap crew D.3.F’s Johnny Key, who is attending college in the PRC).
Others, like rappers Black Bee and Duddi Wallace, are well-known names in Spain’s hip-hop scene. Wallace (see video below) has ascended Spain with a burning flow, undeniable swagger and a glossy, “get money” attitude.
El Negro Bey lies on the other side of the spectrum. His songs are peppered with earnest appeals to the listener’s consciousness in a world indifferent to his people. On “Gaou,” which appears on the compilation, he spits, “Pido que me quieran como soy y no por más…/ Madre África grita y esa espina no se quita.” “I just ask that you love me as I am and nothing else…/ Mama Africa screams but this thorn isn’t coming out.”
In fact, most of the songs featured on Pequeño corazón de África have lyrics about Guinea and Guinean identity. “We come from Guinea to a country that isn’t ours,” says Lion Sitte. “Liberation, immigration, or things that have happened in Guinea – those themes come out naturally.”
Sitte was born in Madrid, and last summer, he visited his homeland for the first time. “It was really emotional for me,” says the singer. “I met my family, my heritage, my roots. After a month, I was left with a desire to come back and settle, and look for inspiration.”
In contrast to the largely underground scene in Spain, Sitte says that in Equatorial Guinea itself, American-style club rap is very popular, as it is throughout much of Africa. The country even hosts an international hip-hop festival in Malabo each year to showcase local talent. But it is high energy, electronic Afro-pop that dominates the soundscape. Groups like Clan Rojo make hybrid music with tinges of Angolan house music, Ivorian Coupé-Décalé, and Nigerian pop, sung in Spanish with snippets in English, French and local languages. It’s the kind of thing that could only happen in Equatorial Guinea.
Considering how much of Latin American music derives from Africa, it’s interesting to see how the Spanish language comes together with African and African-American pop culture in Equatorial Guinea. Meanwhile, few cross-Atlantic connections have been made between Equatoguinean artists and artists in Latin America, but we’re hoping it starts soon. Clan Rojo/Don Omar collaboration, anyone?
To learn more about the Equatoguinean music scene, check out the Pequeño corazón de África compilation, below.