Lucas Mangope became president of Bophuthatswana in 1977. His leadership was authoritarian, but he also invested infrastructure and arts programmes for the youth. The area was a Mecca for talented artists, but the collapse of Bophuthatswana and the chaos of the transition to democracy in 1994 left a generation starved for platforms of expression.
It was from the hunger of young people to express themselves and an attempt to give Mahikeng an identity that the hip-hop subgenre of motswako was born. Though it first took root in Botswana, it was in the streets of Mahikeng that motswako blossomed. The subgenre gave the small town and the province a chance to rally behind something, but, more importantly, it inspired a cultural insurgency against the Western influence on South African hip-hop.
In 2005, three albums were released that would come to define the subgenre. Morafe’s debut, The Anticipation, announced to the world that there was treasure in the rubble of Mangope’s Bophuthatswana. The album’s lead single, The Whole Thang, was the hit that gave ardent kwaito fans hope at a time when kwaito was losing its grip on the charts, and seemed to bridge the divide between the genre and Western-influenced hip-hop. But it was rapper Tuks Senganga’s debut album, Mafoko A Me, in the same year that truly heralded motswako’s reign. The album stormed the streets and the airwaves, and earned the artist two South African Music Awards.
But if there’s one rapper who solidified motswako, it was Jabba, Hip Hop Pantsula, who carried the torch at a time when audiences weren’t as receptive to local hip-hop. He expanded its reach beyond South Africa’s borders, collaborating with a host of international artists, from American singer Amerie in his 2007 single Music and Lights, to Nas in his single Keledimo from 2009.
His fifth studio album, YBA 2 NW, arguably the most important album to emerge from the subgenre, was the first to assert the necessity of motswako rappers to work as a collective, an idea captured in two of the album’s underrated songs, Lekoko la Lekoko and We Built this City. It also introduced one of the most important voices in South African hip-hop, Mo Molemi, who followed up his appearance on the album with two seminal projects of his own, his 2007 debut album, Amantsi, and Rebel Without a Pause from 2010. Botswana’s contribution came from Zeus, whose 2008 debut, Freshly Baked, solidified Botswana’s grasp on a popular culture it invented.
But motswako’s mad scientists, the producers who planted its seeds, have received very little recognition for their efforts. No motswako producer has had as much impact as Thaso. His beats secured the longevity of the genre and some of its pioneers. A number of bestselling motswako albums carry Thaso’s signature beats, most notably Senganga’s gold-selling 2006 album MC Prayer and Morafe’s A Ene.
The story of motswako would be incomplete without its foremost DJ, Lemonka, who has kept its fire burning. His Motswako Tapes albums have been pivotal in unearthing new talent, particularly Notshi, who was heralded as the heir to the motswako dynasty but emerged at the time when Motswako had begun to regress as a collective. Despite his 2010 debut album, Insert Coin, receiving rave reviews, Notshi remained largely in the musical wilderness. That would also be the fate of many of his peers, who struggled to locate that sense of unity that solidified the subgenre.
Motswako was more than just an itch to rap – it was a response to something much bigger than motswakolistas themselves, a world much larger than the streets of Mahikeng. Today, the subgenre is nothing near what it used to be. The unity its late pioneer, Jabba, once inspired and preached as the pivotal ingredient to keep motswako going has all but faded. But some of Southern Africa’s biggest artists still call motswako home, among them pop wonderboy Cassper Nyovest, who not long ago became the first South African rapper to fill a 90 000-seater arena. But his individual gains do not reflect the social clout motswako once had.
Perhaps more depressing is that despite the efforts of motswakolistas to inspire change in Mahikeng, very little has happened. The small town remains little more than a shadow of what Mangope had hoped for. But what is undeniable is the imprint motswako has left on the world beyond the streets of Mahikeng.