Gabriel Rasenyai is a Motswana artist with as many names as he has personas. Most of the time he goes by the name Quaint, but is also known as The Faceless Artist and Spirit Strength the Savvy Savage. When he is not working as an IT specialist at the University of Botswana, he seamlessly transitions between disseminating socially conscious messages in his poetry and hip-hop, and burying other emcees in mountains of perfectly crafted insults as one of the country’s most promising battle rappers. But above all, whatever he is calling himself at the time, he seems set on a singular mission—to bring back the spontaneity, purity and competition of old school hip hop.
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The first thing you notice about Old Naledi, a neighborhood in Gaborone, is the sheer number of children. Everywhere you look, kids sprint carelessly across the street, play with makeshift toys or sit on corners watching the day go by.
While the artistic team worked around the neighborhood to paint tuck shops (see previous blog post), Arts for Change was also working directly with the youth of Old Naledi to impart artistic skills and to show how the arts can be used in sustainable careers.
All the emcees, poets and artists I have interviewed share one sentiment in common: the powers that be—government agencies, schools, parents—do not give the arts the attention and respect they deserve. As a result, children tend to regard the arts as a hobby and pursue careers in more “respectable” fields like accounting or law.
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Of the four elements of hip-hop, two—emceeing and deejaying—are far more prevalent in Gaborone than the others—namely, breakdancing and graffiti. I hear about the days of b-boy crews and spontaneous breakdancing circles from old hip-hop heads as if they are talking about a remote and distant past, and I can count the number of active graffiti artists in the city on one hand. The graf pieces that have made their way onto walls are often seen as vandalism and scorned as evidence of a generation of degenerates.
But Arts for Change, a new youth-based initiative in Gaborone, had a vision to not only destigmatize street art but utilize it to uplift the community and inspire the youth. The initiative started as casual conversations between friends, progressed to countless meetings in Kafkaesque government offices and impromptu roadside set-ups with community leaders and residents, and ended as a fully-fledged international arts project in one of the lowest-income neighborhoods in Gaborone.
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Tlokweng is a sandy town populated mostly by cattle, on the southeastern outskirts of Gaborone, along the border with South Africa. Nestled into one corner of this unassuming suburb is a creative playground called XLT Studios. Brimming with creative energy, XLT is a studio whose revolving door of local hip-hop legends, up-and-coming kwaito stars and friends who happen to find themselves in the neighborhood never seems to stop spinning.
XLT was founded seven years ago by a local producer who was given the moniker Grampa as a child, due to his propensity to play classical piano when all his friends in the kasi were listening to the radio hits of the time. He turned XLT from a concept into a reality upon his return to Botswana after attending Berklee College of Music in Boston and spending some years working as an engineer in the United States. XLT’s vision, for a larger than life creative space, was augmented shortly afterwards with the addition of B-Note, a Soweto transplant and self-taught pianist. Since then, it has worked with essentially every local artist I could name, and many more I could not, and continues to release quality material from its one-room/one-mic recording studio, behind Grampa’s house.
When I first came to Botswana in 2008, I felt like poetry was everywhere. You just had to reach up and pick it out of the sky to hear it. Now, after immersing myself even more into the hip-hop and poetry scenes, I see that yes, it is everywhere, but even if you don’t look for it, it will find you, hit you like a sandstorm and knock you flat.
Let me say it again. Poetry in Gaborone is everywhere. It’s in the late night cipher sessions around braai stands loaded with meat, the hip-hop stations on the radio, the open mics that seem to happen every night somewhere in the city.
While I realize focusing on poetry is somewhat a departure from the hip-hop that is my focus here, it is not such a stretch. The two creative worlds are always intermingled, but even more so in Botswana. Here, many poets are also emcees and vice versa. At poetry nights there will be at least one or two performers who will ask the DJ for a beat and spit verses in Setswana and English. Poets judge rap battles and emcees host poetry shows.
In exploring the world of poetry here and its relationship to hip-hop and society at large, I decided to focus on three poets that I have interacted with extensively. All three recently served as teachers for a series of creative arts workshops for youth in the low-income neighborhood of Old Naledi for a project I have been part of starting called Arts for Change (videos and blogposts on that initiative coming soon). Enjoy what they have to say in the video below and read on for more information on them and full performances of their poems.