Kopala Swag: The Copperbelt’s Hip Hop Movement

As I mentioned briefly in my previous post, I have been working with Sun FM since arriving in Ndola in November. While it is not my first time affiliating with a radio station on the Copperbelt, I have been able to spend much more time becoming familiar with the daily operations and practices of Sun FM, including co-hosting a show regularly with one of the most popular presenters, Steve or “So Sick.” I was also generously given the opportunity to have my own late night show on Thursdays which has turned out to be a very fun and insightful experience. (Live stream here!)

Unlike in the U.S. where most popular FM radio stations focus on one type of genre like ‘playing today’s top hits,’ or ‘classic rock radio,’ in Zambia radio tends to focus on promoting different programs or daily themes. For instance, Sun FM has ‘Zed (Zambian music) Tuesday,’ ‘Classic Thursday,’ as well as programs ranging from one to three hours that have a particular focus in terms of music genre or discussion topic.

Perhaps the most significant difference, however, is that radio in Zambia, as well as the majority of Africa, is still the fastest growing form of media. Given that less than 10% of the continent has access to the internet, radio is the primary source for news and information as well as a platform for community members to voice their opinions and contribute to debates. Unlike radio in the U.S., I’ve found radio in Ndola to foster a deeper sense of community. As Emeldah Mpilipili, the Marketing Manager at Sun FM explains, “there is even a ‘Community Watch’ show that addresses issues in different communities and most of the time positive results are even seen.”

Not only has it been interesting to learn about the inside operations of Sun FM, but also to spend time with local radio presenters and DJs who have been able to offer me more insight into music and radio culture.

In particular, I’ve been able to learn about the ‘Kopala Swag’ music culture of the Copperbelt. The most notable leader of the movement is Macky 2, but artists such a Chef 187, Pilato, Dandy Crazy, and Akunika, among others also deserve credit. As I had anticipated, the very local music culture is connected in many ways to U.S. hip hop tradition, and the inventors of ‘Kopala Swag’ acknowledge being heavily influenced in terms of musical and clothing style. As Sun FM radio presenter Steve ‘So Sick’ explains, “it’s very hard to get all these designer clothes for a lot of these hip hop oriented cats…clearly they didn’t have the same income.” The hip hop fans from the Copperbelt don’t try to buy real or fake designer clothes, but simply wear more affordable, stylish clothing that reflects their own interpretation of hip hop swag. As Steve explains, this cheaper dress code still allows them to “rep themselves…it has given them an identity of their own instead of a U.S. identity.”

Check out this video by Macky 2 called “We Don’t Care” which, as it sounds, highlights Kopala Swag pride.

The East Coast versus West Coast aspect of American hip hop also filtered over into Zambian hip hop. The rappers from the capital city of Lusaka often ‘beef’ with the Kopala Swag rappers of the Copperbelt. As DJ Blackson Eazy explains, however, the rappers themselves are actually very “humble” and that it’s the fans that are most aggressive. “Kopala Swag is more than just music culture: it’s about having pride of not simply being based on the Copperbelt, but about being from it,” DJ Blackson Eazy explains. While the culture is led by youth, it also holds the respect of adults who similarly strongly identify as being from the Copperbelt. This pride and ‘repping’ being from the Copperbelt existed long before ‘Kopala Swag’ culture became popular. It’s simply that a group of young people gave it a name, music, dance, and clothing style.

One of the most notable ‘Kopala Swag’ tracks is “Mami (Niuze)” by Macky 2 featuring Afunika and Flavaboy. In the video you can see some of most popular Kopala Swag dances.

In many ways ‘Kopala Swag’ culture reflects both the influence and rejection of globalization. While U.S. hip hop might initially have been a source of inspiration for Kopala Swag, these young people remain dedicated to representing their own specific lifestyles and interests. Popular discourse often laments the overwhelming power of globalization in the Global South, and yet the culture of ‘Kopala Swag’ and their passion for promoting their local culture proves this is not always true. Perhaps it is in these more subtle, cultural ways in which people assert their local identities that we find a hint of insurgency among those citizens who push up against the power of globalization.

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