Urban music has always been a tool for political expression in Angola. Even before the country’s independence, musicians like Carlitos Vieira Dias, David Zé, and the iconic group N’gola Ritmos offered musical resistance to the colonial regime. Some were even arrested and sent to prison camps by the Portuguese.
Today, the most well known form of Angolan urban music is the ever more popular kuduro. Pulsating and powerful, kuduro is primarily associated with Luanda’s ubiquitous musseques, the teeming slums that house the city’s poorest residents. It’s blasted from candongueiros, the bright blue and white Toyota Hiace minivans that are the form of transport for the vast majority of Luandans, played in seemingly every party and pumped in Luanda’s clubs. Despite its rather middle-class roots, kuduro singers tend to belong to the lower classes and their lyrics cover a wide range of topics, from artists’ feuds to daily hardships.
Kuduro used to be the type of music that your parents would label as trash and tell you not to listen to – many of them still do. But remarkably, and perhaps due to its appeal across broad sectors of Angolan society, the genre has exploded to become a national phenomenon and a source of national pride. Bands like Buraka Som Sistema have helped internationalise kuduro through sold-out concerts around the world.
The proliferation of kuduro didn’t go unnoticed by the political establishment. Keen and adept at controlling all aspects of civil society, the regime saw in kuduro the perfect vehicle with which to reach the masses. Kuduro concerts are now standard fare in political rallies – politicians will actually use wildly popular kuduro artists as a way to get more people to attend their usually stale public events.
Kuduro fever even reached the presidential palace – by 2011, Coreón Dú, one of President José Eduardo Dos Santos’s sons, became one the biggest promoters of kuduro on the national and international stage. He even released a track of his own (I wouldn’t recommend it):
A singer, TV producer (his media and TV production company receives funds directly from the national budget) and the brains behind the annual “I Love Kuduro” festival in Luanda and abroad, Dú funds and promotes a kuduro troupe appropriately named Os Kuduristas. Last year they embarked on a grand, deep-pocketed world tour, performing extensively in Europe and the US. They were expertly represented by some of the best PR firms in the music industry and even offered workshops in the cities they visited.
Although the government was able to effectively appropriate kuduro for its own purposes, it has been much less successful with the other popular form of Angolan urban music: hip-hop. The youth movement protesting against the Angolan regime and President Dos Santos’s 33 years in power has numerous underground rap musicians among its ranks, including Ikonoklasta (Luaty Beirão) and Carbono Casimiro. Interestingly, Luaty also belongs to the kuduro group Batida, which dabbles in political themes. It doesn’t receive state funding and is not invited to kuduro festivals in the country.
Unlike kuduro, hip-hop is a form of urban music that the establishment has not been able to breach. The most popular Angolan rappers are the most critical of the regime, and yet they continue to sell out shows and sell out CDs. MCK, the sharp-tongue rapper from the Chabá slums of Luanda, is the most prominent example of this reality. He’s been offered half a million dollars to stop bad-mouthing government and faced death threats, but this doesn’t phase him.
What the government can’t do by peaceful means, it’ll do through coercion, intimidation, and outright sabotage. Last month, Família Eterna, an organisation of rappers from Lobito, a small city in Benguela province, wanted to celebrate their 10-year anniversary. They invited numerous artists, including MCK. Família Eterna followed every possible legal obligation and submitted a total of five different stamped documents (two of which explicitly stated MCK’s name) that gave them government permission to stage the concert.
It was to no avail. Having caught wind that MCK was due to make an appearance in Lobito, the central government began a chilling campaign of intimidation and coercion to force the organisers to cancel the show. According to Família Eterna, the organisers began receiving threatening phone calls in the days leading up to the show; undercover agents dressed in civilian clothes would come to the venue and inquire about the preparations, all the while threatening and intimidating workers.
On the day of the show, the ministry of culture frantically called the organisers in a last ditch attempt to have them cancel; the state-owned electricity company even shut down power to the venue. In the end, MCK still performed, to a much smaller but still energetic crowd.
When compared to kuduro, the disparate treatment of underground rap is evident. What is also evident is that politics will continue to play a role in urban Angolan music, and the regime will continue to interfere as they see fit. But it is comforting to see that even with these abuses against freedom of expression, urban Angolan music continues to impact the establishment. Through music, the disenfranchised continue to have a voice and a vehicle in which to air their grievances, much like their brethren David Zé and N’gola Ritmos did 38 years ago.
Claudio Silva is an Angolan living in New York City. He has also spent time in Washington DC, Lisbon, Reading (UK) and attended university in Boston. In 2009, he started Caipirinha Lounge, a music blog dedicated to Lusophone music. Claudio contributes to several other blogs including Africa is a Country and Central Angola 7311. Connect with him on Twitter.