The concept of starving artists goes as far back as the times of the Romans, when politics was taking rise. Prominent figures would keep artists on their payroll and forcefully place themselves as their sole muse. They would often pay the artist just enough to get by. All so they can keep them around and coming back for more. This lasted way longer than it should have.
In its early days, SA Hip Hop faced a lot of struggles. For a long time, being a Hip Hop artist in SA followed the traditional idea of a starving artist. Many of the active rappers of the day were not able to make a decent living solely on the proceeds of their art. It was common for rappers to hold down a day job to supplement their passion. It later appeared that labels had a big role to play in this, as we subsequently came to find out. Rappers were then slowly able to break free of the string that bound them and got a bigger slice of the cake.
Even so, only a few cats were able to do more than just well for themselves. That’s until Hip Hop came to the mainstream of SA entertainment circa 2014. The genre was truly at the forefront. With crossovers worth noting, such as Afrikaner schools singing K.O's Cara Cara as their victory song. For a straight two years, the stratosphere was shattered almost single-handedly by Hip Hop Singles. Mainstream acts continued to coin it a few more years past that.
With that success came deals with brands and enough money to go around. More than enough money seemed to be flowing in. But like with any genre that takes the forefront, Hip Hop owed a lot of its success to casual listeners. In order to keep these listeners, the culture had to be largely commercial.
Even rappers that had technical skill saw value in switching styles to what was more palatable by the casuals. Hip Hop in SA was able to have large festivals, fill up venues never filled solely by Hip Hop acts before and more noticeably, make more money than ever before.
The money flowing through was attractive to new acts that visualised a shortcut to having some of it flow their way. Success outside music eventually took precedence over success within the art. And this was a global trend. Once an artist was regarded as hot, they had their turn to eat. And this is great, the idea of the starving artist was finally crushed. But then the music came secondary. Some artists were even able to rake in deals without bodies of work and that never mattered, singles were able to do the job.
Some saw what’s possible beyond what those of us watching from the outside could see. They then used the game as a stepping stone to realising those dreams, with the influence they had over fans. Add celebrity worship to the mix and the whirlwind spun faster. People became more fans of an individual and how they get their bag and not so much of the music.
For casuals, if mainstream artists aren't putting out music, the genre then seems stagnant. It's why we see daily chats about Hip Hop being dead in SA. This is despite the number of projects that dropped just this year. Quality projects for that matter. And more notably, SA Hip Hop seems to have finally sired a new generation of promising rappers.
Some are trying to draw comparisons to the now dominant sound of Amapiano. But it should be noted that Amapiano is not a competing genre but a platform that carries many genres within. Hip Hop artists that feel they can crack it have put out music bearing that sound, successfully for the most part.
The quality of work released this year alone points to a hunger for SA Hip Hop to revive it's spark. Lyricism has also sustained since its return. And maybe it would be best for it to not be mainstream again. Maybe the sweet spot is a niche support base. And maybe the SA market is still a long way from embracing raps as a staple and that's something we have to come to terms with. After all, this current generation was the most ripe for the taking.
So whether or not SA Hip Hop is dead is subjective. Subject to each individual listener's appetite for the music. This has placed core fans and casual fans on opposite sides of that view. And the casuals are done waiting to be serviced, they have moved on. The same goes for artists that served that market. One thing for sure; the game has taken a knock from being used as a stepping stone.