Mix En Meng It Op: Emile YX?'s Alternative Race and Language Politics in South African Hip-Hop





Hip-hop, Race, Identity Politics, Translingualism, Translanguaging, South Africa, Cape Flats

How to Cite

Haupt, A. (2017). Mix En Meng It Op: Emile YX?’s Alternative Race and Language Politics in South African Hip-Hop. M/C Journal, 20(1). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1202
Vol. 20 No. 1 (2017): alternative
Published 2017-03-15

This paper explores South African hip-hop activist Emile YX?'s work to suggest that he presents an alternative take on mainstream US and South African hip-hop. While it is arguable that a great deal of mainstream hip-hop is commercially co-opted, it is clear that a significant amount of US hip-hop (by Angel Haze or Talib Kweli, for example) and hip-hop beyond the US (by Positive Black Soul, Godessa, Black Noise or Prophets of da City, for example) present alternatives to its co-option. Emile YX? pushes for an alternative to mainstream hip-hop's aesthetics and politics. Foregoing what Prophets of da City call “mindless topics” (Prophets of da City “Cape Crusader”), he employs hip-hop to engage audiences critically about social and political issues, including language and racial identity politics. Significantly, he embraces AfriKaaps, which is a challenge to the hegemonic speech variety of Afrikaans. From Emile's perspective, AfriKaaps preceded Afrikaans because it was spoken by slaves during the Cape colonial era and was later culturally appropriated by Afrikaner Nationalists in the apartheid era to construct white, Afrikaner identity as pure and bounded. AfriKaaps in hip-hop therefore presents an alternative to mainstream US-centric hip-hop in South Africa (via AKA or Cassper Nyovest, for example) as well as Afrikaner Nationalist representations of Afrikaans and race by promoting multilingual hip-hop aesthetics, which was initially advanced by Prophets of da City in the early '90s.

Pursuing Alternative Trajectories

Emile YX?, a former school teacher, started out with the Black Consciousness-aligned hip-hop crew, Black Noise, as a b-boy in the late 1980s before becoming an MC.  Black Noise went through a number of iterations, eventually being led by YX? (aka Emile Jansen) after he persuaded the crew not to pursue a mainstream record deal in favour of plotting a career path as independent artists. The crew’s strategy has been to fund the production and distribution of their albums independently and to combine their work as recording and performing artists with their activism. They therefore arranged community workshops at schools and, initially, their local library in the township, Grassy Park, before touring nationally and internationally. By the late 1990s, Jansen established an NGO, Heal the Hood, in order to facilitate collaborative projects with European and South African partners. These partnerships, not only allowed Black Noise crew members to continue working as hip-hip activists, but also created a network through which they could distribute their music and secure further bookings for performances locally and internationally.

Jansen’s solo work continued along this trajectory and he has gone on to work on collaborative projects, such as the hip-hop theatre show Afrikaaps, which looks critically at the history of Afrikaans and identity politics, and Mixed Mense, a b-boy show that celebrates African dance traditions and performed at One Mic Festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC in 2014 (48 Hours). This artist’s decision not to pursue a mainstream record deal in the early 1990s probably saved Black Noise from being a short-lived pop sensation in favour of pursuing a route that ensured that Cape hip-hop retained its alternative, Black Consciousness-inspired subcultural edge.

The activism of Black Noise and Heal the Hood is an example of activists’ efforts to employ hip-hop as a means of engaging youth critically about social and political issues (Haupt, Stealing Empire 158-165). Hence, despite arguments that the seeds for subcultures’ commercial co-option lie in the fact that they speak through commodities (Hebdige 95; Haupt, Stealing Empire 144–45), there is evidence of agency despite the global reach of US cultural imperialism. H. Samy Alim’s concept of translocal style communities is useful in this regard.  The concept focuses on the “transportability of mobile matrices – sets of styles, aesthetics, knowledges, and ideologies that travel across localities and cross-cut modalities” (Alim 104-105). Alim makes the case for agency when he contends, “Although global style communities may indeed grow out of particular sociohistoric originating moments, or moments in which cultural agents take on the project of creating ‘an origin’ (in this case, Afrodiasporic youth in the United States in the 1970s), it is important to note that a global style community is far from a threatening, homogenizing force” (Alim 107).

Drawing on Arjun Appadurai’s concepts of ethnoscapes, financescapes, ideoscapes and mediascapes, Alim argues that the “persistent dialectical interplay between the local and the global gives rise to the creative linguistic styles that are central to the formation of translocal style communities, and leads into theorizing about glocal stylizations and style as glocal distinctiveness” (Appadurai; Alim 107). His view of globalisation thus accommodates considerations of the extent to which subjects on both the local and global levels are able to exercise agency to produce new or alternative meanings and stylistic practices.

Hip-Hop's Translanguaging Challenge to Hegemony

Jansen’s “Mix en Meng It Op” [“Mix and Blend It / Mix It Up”] offers an example of translocal style by employing translanguaging, code mixing and codeswitching practices. The song’s first verse speaks to the politics of race and language by challenging apartheid-era thinking about purity and mixing:

In South Africa is ek coloured and African means black race
Face it, all mense kom van Africa in the first place
Erase all trace of race and our tribal division
Ek’s siek en sat van all our land’s racist decisions
My mission’s om te expose onse behoort aan een ras
Hou vas, ras is las, watch hoe ons die bubble bars
Plus the mixture that mixed here is not fixed, sir
Stir daai potjie want ons wietie wattie mixtures were
This illusion of race and tribe is rotten to the core
What’s more the lie of purity shouldn’t exist anymore
Look at Shaka Zulu, who mixed all those tribes together
Mixed conquered tribes now Amazulu forever
Have you ever considered all this mixture before?
Xhosa comes from Khoe khoe, do you wanna know more?
Xhosa means angry looking man in Khoe Khoe
Soe hulle moet gemix het om daai clicks to employ
(Emile YX? “Mix en Meng It Op”; my emphasis)

[In South Africa I am coloured and African means black race
Face it, all people come from Africa in the first place
Erase all trace of race and our tribal division
I’m sick and tired of all our land’s racist decisions
My mission’s to expose the fact that we belong top one race
Hold on, race is a burden, watch as we burst the bubble
Plus the mixture that mixed here is not fixed, sir
Stir that pot because we don’t know what the mixtures were
This illusion of race and tribe is rotten to the core
What’s more the lie of purity shouldn’t exist anymore
Look at Shaka Zulu, who mixed all those tribes together
Mixed conquered tribes now Amazulu forever
Have you ever considered all this mixture before?
Xhosa comes from Khoe khoe, do you wanna know more?
Xhosa means angry looking man in Khoe Khoe
So they must have mixed to employ those clicks]

The MC does more than codeswitch or code mix in this verse. The syntax switches from that of English to Afrikaans interchangeably and he is doing more than merely borrowing words and phrases from one language and incorporating it into the other language. In certain instances, he opts to pronounce certain English words and phrases as if they were Afrikaans (for example, “My” and “land’s”). Suresh Canagarajah explains that codeswitching was traditionally “distinguished from code mixing” because it was assumed that codeswitching required “bilingual competence” in order to “switch between [the languages] in fairly contextually appropriate ways with rhetorical and social significance”,  while code mixing merely involved “borrowings which are appropriated into one’s language so that using them doesn't require bilingual competence” (Canagarajah, Translingual Practice 10). However, he argues that both of these translingual practices do not require “full or perfect competence” in the languages being mixed and that “these models of hybridity can be socially and rhetorically significant” (Canagarajah, Translingual Practice 10). However, the artist is clearly competent in both English and Afrikaans; in fact, he is also departing from the hegemonic speech varieties of English and Afrikaans in attempts to affirm black modes of speech, which have been negated during apartheid (cf. Haupt “Black Thing”).

What the artist seems to be doing is closer to translanguaging, which Canagarajah defines as “the ability of multilingual speakers to shuttle between languages, treating the diverse languages that form their repertoire as an integrated system” (Canagarajah, “Codemeshing in Academic Writing” 401). The mix or blend of English and Afrikaans syntax become integrated, thereby performing the very point that Jansen makes about what he calls “the lie of purity” by asserting that the “mixture that mixed here is not fixed, sir” (Emile XY? “Mix en Meng It Op”).  This approach is significant because Canagarajah points out that while research shows that translanguaging is “a naturally occurring phenomenon”, it “occurs surreptitiously behind the backs of the teachers in classes that proscribe language mixing” (Canagarajah, “Codemeshing in Academic Writing” 401). Jansen’s performance of translanguaging and challenge to notions of linguistic and racial purity should be read in relation to South Africa’s history of racial segregation during apartheid. 

Remixing Race/ism and Notions of Purity

Legislated apartheid relied on biologically essentialist understandings of race as bounded and fixed and, hence, the categories black and white were treated as polar opposites with those classified as coloured being seen as racially mixed and, therefore, defiled – marked with the shame of miscegenation (Erasmus 16; Haupt, “Black Thing” 176-178). Apart from the negative political and economic consequences of being classified as either black or coloured by the apartheid state (Salo 363; McDonald 11), the internalisation of processes of racial interpellation was arguably damaging to the psyche of black subjects (in the broad inclusive sense) (cf. Fanon; Du Bois). 

The work of early hip-hop artists like Black Noise and Prophets of da City (POC) was therefore crucial to pointing to alternative modes of speech and self-conception for young people of colour – regardless of whether they self-identified as black or coloured. In the early 1990s, POC lead the way by embracing black modes of speech that employed codeswitching, code mixing and translanguaging as a precursor to the emergence of music genres, such as kwaito, which mixed urban black speech varieties with elements of house music and hip-hop. POC called their performances of Cape Flats speech varieties of English and Afrikaans gamtaal [gam language], which is an appropriation of the term gam, a reference to the curse of Ham and justifications for slavery (Adhikari 95; Haupt Stealing Empire 237). POC’s appropriation of the term gam in celebration of Cape Flats speech varieties challenge the shame attached to coloured identity and the linguistic practices of subjects classified as coloured. On a track called “Gamtaal” off Phunk Phlow, the crew samples an assortment of recordings  from Cape Flats speech communities and capture ordinary people speaking in public and domestic spaces (Prophets of da City “Gamtaal”). In one audio snippet we hear an older woman saying apologetically, “Onse praatie suiwer Afrikaan nie. Onse praat kombius Afrikaans” (Prophets of da City “Gamtaal”).

It is this shame for black modes of speech that POC challenges on this celebratory track and Jansen takes this further by both making an argument against notions of racial and linguistic purity and performing an example of translanguaging. This is important in light of research that suggests that dominant research on the creole history of Afrikaans – specifically, the Cape Muslim contribution to Afrikaans – has been overlooked (Davids 15). This oversight effectively amounted to cultural appropriation as the construction of Afrikaans as a ‘pure’ language with Dutch origins served the Afrikaner Nationalist project when the National Party came into power in 1948 and began to justify its plans to implement legislated apartheid. POC’s act of appropriating the denigrated term gamtaal in service of a Black Consciousness-inspired affirmation of colouredness, which they position as part of the black experience, thus points to alternative ways in which people of colour cand both express and define themselves in defiance of apartheid.

Jansen’s work with the hip-hop theater project Afrikaaps reconceptualised gamtaal as Afrikaaps, a combination of the term Afrikaans and Kaaps. Kaaps means from the Cape – as in Cape Town (the city) or the Cape Flats, which is where many people classified as coloured were forcibly relocated under the Group Areas Act under apartheid (cf. McDonald; Salo; Alim and Haupt). Taking its cue from POC and Brasse vannie Kaap’s Mr FAT, who asserted that “gamtaal is legal” (Haupt, “Black Thing” 176), the Afrikaaps cast sang, “Afrikaaps is legal” (Afrikaaps). 

Conclusion: Agency and the Transportability of Mobile Matrices

Jansen pursues this line of thought by contending that the construction of Shaka Zulu’s kingdom involved mixing many tribes (Emile YX? “Mix en Meng It Op”), thereby alluding to arguments that narratives about Shaka Zulu were developed in service of Zulu nationalism to construct Zulu identity as bounded and fixed (Harries 105). Such constructions were essential to the apartheid state's justifications for establishing Bantustans, separate homelands established along the lines of clearly defined and differentiated ethnic identities (Harries 105). Writing about the use of myths and symbols during apartheid, Patrick Harries argues that in Kwazulu, “the governing Inkatha Freedom Party ... created a vivid and sophisticated vision of the Zulu past” (Harries 105). Likewise, Emile YX? contends that isiXhosa’s clicks come from the Khoi (Emile YX? “Mix en Meng It Op”; Afrikaaps). Hence, the idea of the Khoi San’s lineage and history as being separate from that of other African communities in Southern Africa is challenged. He thus challenges the idea of pure Zulu or Xhosa identities and drives the point home by sampling traditional Zulu music, as opposed to conventional hip-hop beats.

Effectively, colonial strategies of tribalisation as a divide and rule strategy through the reification of linguistic and cultural practices are challenged, thereby reminding us of the “transportability of mobile matrices” and “fluidity of identities” (Alim 104, 105). In short, identities as well as cultural and linguistic practices were never bounded and static, but always-already hybrid, being constantly made and remade in a series of negotiations. This perspective is in line with research that demonstrates that race is socially and politically constructed and discredits biologically essentialist understandings of race (Yudell 13-14; Tattersall and De Salle 3). This is not to ignore the asymmetrical relations of power that enable cultural appropriation and racism (Hart 138), be it in the context of legislated apartheid, colonialism or in the age of corporate globalisation or Empire (cf. Haupt, Static; Hardt & Negri). But, even here, as Alim suggests, one should not underestimate the agency of subjects on the local level to produce alternative forms of expression and self-representation.


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Author Biography

Adam Haupt, University of Cape Town

Associate Professor, Centre for Film & Media Studies