“Ni Full ile laana” (It’s as real as it gets): The creative blending of Hip-Hop with oratory styles to address HIV/AIDS in Tanzania

Aang Serian Community Studio consists of one room—where a pc, mixer, and keyboard are placed—and a bathroom, which has been converted to a vocal recording area. To soundproof the studio, the members of Aang Serian have used newspapers, pieces of mattresses, and egg trays. The mike stand has been fashioned from a broomstick and a sieve has been used as a filter over the microphone.
To many outsiders, the studio may be an unlikely place to find youth responses to AIDS/HIV and mitigation plans. Many local artists, who utilize Swahili language lyrics and styles layered on American inspired Hip-Hop beats, produce HIV/AIDS musical messages. These artists craft their lyrics in a fashion that mimics a social conversation likely to be found in Tanzanian streets. This conversation mode resonates with young people because it builds upon earlier and ongoing Swahili music traditions such as Taarab and/or Kuimbana where the artist’s voice speaks directly to the audience or the individual the message is directed to.
These forms of address are closer to youth than messages from institutions like NGO, government or faith-based organizations. Such groups only distribute condoms and health facts; speak to youth in a paternalistic voice; and do not belong to the same social situation in terms of their income, ethnicity, location, and education. It is through Hip-Hop that young people have the potential to drastically decline the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Tanzania.
Tanzanian Context
The use of music to respond to critical challenges is not new to Tanzanian society. Both written and musical poetry such as Taarab has a long history in responding to issues like identity, gender discrimination, and colonialism. Tanzanian Hip-Hop is a continuum of Taarab—in the way societal and health issues stand in the wake of globalization—and many artists use Swahili, modified Hip-Hop beats, and local language idioms to amplify issues locally and abroad.
Two successive political periods in Tanzania have shaped Tanzanian Hip-Hop as we know it today. In the Ujamaa period, the state dictated Tanzanian cultural industry and musical themes. Prosper Shayo, a member of Moto Mkali group that specializes in HIV/AIDS messages, recalls, “In Ujamaa times the themes were about communal villages, collective work and self-reliance.”
In 1985, a new, more liberal political phase popularly known as Uwazi began to look towards Western cultural influences and capital. Under Uwazi, the state withdrew its support to social programs. These changes affected young people. Gsan Rutta, a member of the Xplastaz crew, explains, “in this period, a lot of youth could not afford school fees and were returned home.” He continues, ”During these free times away from school, youth would sit down to write lyrics and learn how to rap.” As a result, Tanzanian youth managed to adapt Hip-Hop, localizing it as their tool for airing grievances about their society and the state.
Young people have created a deep sense of ownership in coming to voice, so much so that some people in Tanzania have considered Hip-Hop to be Utamaduni (indigenous culture).
Hip-Hop as Stories of Warning
For example, since 2002, Aang Serian Community Studio and Media Drum Project (www.aangserian.org.uk, www.asdrum.org) has provided a space for Arusha indigenous youth age 13-30 to meet each other, talk, collaborate, and record original Hip-Hop songs. Programs like these value youth voice and perspective through Hip-Hop—a value mirrored by Frederick Sumaye, former prime minister of Tanzania who suggests that hip hop can help the continent address its deepest troubles (www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/2008/03.20/09-hiphop.html). Understanding youth from the periphery of power and socio-economic status is significant and an important step in tackling the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Aang Serian Community Studio provides an outlet for these youth to address issues that are important to them and channel their grievances through song, video, and performance. They participate in tangible projects, addressing crime, governance, corruption, poverty, street children, deforestation, employment and loss of indigenous culture.

Through a style that mimics a real conversation, Tanzanian youth use Hip-Hop to create commonality with their audience. For example, in a song called Dada wa Heshima (“respectful sister”), recorded at Aang Serian Community Studio, the artist narrates how a respectful girl succumbed to temptations that led her to HIV/AIDS infection:

Respectful Sister
Watu walimsifu alivyopita katika umati,
(She was praised by crowds,)
Dada wa heshima tabia kabadilika,
(Respectful sister! Her character began changing)
Ilikuwa chini chini hakuna aliyeshtuka,
(Secretly, no one knew,)
Chuda alitembea hakutaka masomo,
(The girl, shunned the book and wandered in the streets,)
Lakini cha kushangaza mitihani alifaulu,
(Surprisingly, she passed her exams,)
Hii ni sababu alitembea na walimu,
(This is because she slept with her teachers,)
Kwakuwa alifaulu,
(Due to her success)
wazazi wake walimheshimu,
(She earned the trust of her parents,)
Na pia alikuwa msiri hakuna aliyemfahamu,
(She was secretive; no one knew her errands,)
Ukisha fanya jambo subiri matokeo,
(Every act awaits its results,)
Badala ya furaha ikageuka kuwa kilio,
(Laughter changed into cries,)
Dada wa heshima kwa sasa yamemkuta,
(Respectful Sister, terrible things befall her,)
Kila aliyesikia, ni lazima alishtuka,
(Everyone who heard was struck with surprise,)
Dada wa heshima ukimwi ameopoa,
(Respectful Sister picked up HIV/AIDS)

In this song, common Swahili sayings have been employed to analyze the protagonists’ life: the first, “every act has its rewards”—meaning that forsaking education and engaging in illicit sex acts leads to consequences. The second, “laughter changes to tears”—meaning that in the state of enjoyment one rarely thinks of the sorrow that follows. The song sheds light on two important issues that are not commonly discussed; how teachers can exploit students through sexual favors and how even a respectful person can get HIV/AIDS.
Hip-Hop’s Critical Role
Unfortunately, the use of Hip-Hop in addressing the dangers of HIV/AIDS has only recently been recognized as an important tool in the overall Tanzanian AIDS campaign. This late adoption of Hip-Hop in national AIDS campaigns can be best explained by the words of Emmanuel Mollel, a musician from Arusha, who explains, “the type of blackness associated with Hip-Hop or rap in Tanzania media is associated with violence, drug use, gender degradation and laziness; this is the reason why authorities and elders have distanced themselves.”
Hip-Hop cannot be judged solely by the American commercial Hip-Hop industry and its stereotypical representations of blackness. Unfortunately, it is these stereotypes that authorities, civil society and elders are resistant to recognize hip-hop as a form of language or culture for Tanzanian youth. It is assumed that young people simply imitate western Hip-Hop rather than using it as a positive tool when in fact, Hip-Hop is a uniting tool for young people globally.
The local variety of Hip-Hop in Tanzania plays a critical role in mobilizing youth around important matters that concern them, including the rise in HIV/AIDS. Using Hip-Hop as a tool for social change, Tanzanian youth are more apt to address and influence the decline of HIV/AIDS than many NGOs and faith based groups.
Nicholas You, a Kenyan-based housing policy adviser for the United Nations who spent months studying global Hip-Hop explains, “The U.N. messages—on poverty, AIDS, and primary education—would have meaning and power if filtered through hop-hop.” You calls Hip-Hop “a lingua franca, shared by all the youth [of] the world.” It is through Hip-Hop songs—which can be thought of as youth oral ethnographies—that adults can learn how youth view, and respond to, the AIDS pandemic and many issues that affect them locally and around the globe. Adult allies in local youth serving organizations are helping youth to engage Hip-Hop as a medium for social change.
Utilizing Hip-Hop
Tanzanian youth mix Hip-Hop, language and cultural idioms to inform and help the local community better understand HIV/AIDS. Through creativity, familiarity and inventiveness, young people are taking the lead in talking about the disease from a positive approach. Rather than objects of infection, young people are the subjects of prevention. Hip-Hop affords young people in Tanzania ownership of being part of the solution.
Hip-Hop must be recognized as an important resource and equal partner in the fight against HIV/AIDS. In order to continue this work, Hip-Hop needs to be developed as an activist and social change agent at the grassroots level globally. But programs need systematic planning, management, and resource allocation in order to continue this work. Young people need to have the guidance of mentors, educators and role models to effectively work towards a sustainable and successful decline of HIV/AIDS infection—and Hip-Hop is one way to battle a global health issue one beat at a time.
Mohamed Yunus Rafiq is the co-founder of Aang Serian Community Studio and Aang Serian Media Drum Project—vibrant global youth organizations that amplify the voices of Arusha youth—in absence of a visible indigenous youth organization in Arusha, Tanzania. Mohamed believes that “a sustainable and peaceful Tanzania should build upon the indigenous traditions of Tanzania.” In addition, Mohamed established the Aang Serian Community Secondary School in Eluwaii Village, whose curriculum integrates both the Tanzanian and Aang Serian “Indigenous Knowledge curriculum,” a model cited by the UNEP 2003 report. Mohamed continues to be active at the UN level as a member of the Permanent Forum of Indigenous and other youth organizations. For more reference visit www.aangserian.org.uk, www.asdrum.org, and www.earthpeoples.org.