The Sunday News
Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Reporter
WHEN he began the long journey towards stardom, Asaph says he never looked for a sound that distinguishes him from other rappers in the country.
Before he was nominated for big award shows, when the red carpet he ever walked was the one in his parents’ living room, Asaph was also just another rapper in search of his true self.
After all, while life is hard for a musician in Bulawayo, it is even harder for a rapper. Not only do they have to battle for crumbs with artistes from other genres, they also have to deal with the fact that their craft is often looked down upon. Hip-hop does not tell the Zimbabwean story, some critics say, and if it does, it does not do so as eloquently or authentically as Zim dancehall, and its army of rough-around-the edges chanters, does.
That quality, that authenticity, which critics say is lacking in the genre, is thought to even more pronounced in Bulawayo, whose wordsmiths are sandwiched between chanters in Harare and the house music beat smiths in South Africa.
It is from this environment that Asaph emerged. Now, after serving hit after hit, he is one who has come closest to what can be described as Bulawayo’s own unique hip-hop sound, a sound capable of propelling hits to the top of the charts and make an entire nation pay attention.
During the week in which he was nominated for a prestigious MTV Africa Music Awards (MAMA) in the Listener’s Choice category, the rapper says the sound and style that has defined his success over the last few years was not by design.
“To be honest, if it was a situation like that, I wasn’t consciously doing it,” he told Sunday Life in an interview. “I was literally just making music with the beats I was given. I’m a person who works with the beat first, once I get an instrumental that I like then I build off of that. Was I purposely searching for a sound? Maybe there were certain songs that I thought get more of a reaction from people.”
As distinctive as his music sounds, the rapper also believes his growing catalogue of hits is as diverse as it is lyrically rich. While bombastic, confident Mambo might have put him on the map, he has not tried to follow its proven formula, with each subsequent hit following a different style and sound. Despite that, the music still sounds and feels like it was made in Bulawayo.
“I really like to believe that most of my releases are different from the last one. Mambo is different from Good Times anthem, like it is different from Like So and it’s different from Asiphel’ Moya. I guess I’m just doing me and it’s just who I am.
If I was raised by the city and influenced by the city then I guess the music will sound like the city. It’s something that we want but I don’t think I was consciously striving for it. I’m just making music. People love what they love and I’m glad they’re saying, ‘okay, this is starting to sound like Bulawayo’. I love it when they feel like we have found a signature sound,” he said.
For Asaph, the vote-based nomination for Mamas was a chance for him to prove the support that he truly has. Sure, he has heard them shout his name during shows and scream their lungs out as he hoists a gong in the air after success at yet another city award show, but how would he do when pitted against the likes of Winky D?
“For me this means I’m now on the African stage, know what I mean? I’m now an artiste who can compete on an African platform. Hopefully, this will come with a lot of recognition and doors to a lot of regional and continental collaborations. As for the support, I’m really chuffed by the way that people came out for me.
It was a voting on Twitter thing so the Twitter community of Zimbabwe, not only people in Bulawayo but the whole Twitter community that follows me, came out with support. Now this final push that’s where we need everyone to come through. This is now going to be a real test of the support base that I really have,” he said.
Last year was perhaps Asaph’s most successful year. His single, Like So, reintroduced Zim hip-hop to international channels like Channel O while Asipheli Moya spoke of not only his own resilience but the stubbornness of Zimbabweans surviving against the odds.
It was the kind of song that the critics say Zim hip hop does not create: heartfelt and honest while touching on the daily realities of fellow countrymen. It is therefore bittersweet for the rapper that he achieved success in a year devasted by a raging global pandemic.
“It was a pretty interesting year because even though there was the whole pandemic happening and everything, there were a lot of things that I seemed to be doing well in. There was a lot of good news coming from me. A lot of good songs were put out last year, a lot of big collaborations and in as far as performances, I felt the difference in the sense that I missed being on stage.
“As for the revenue, that’s where we had to get creative and find other ways to make sure that money continues flowing in. That came with collaborations and also social media work because there we a lot of people doing awareness campaigns for Covid-19 or whatever else awareness campaigns because everyone was now online.
So, it became a matter of who has the following, who has the numbers to push such campaigns. Revenue can be made but it is all about thinking outside the box and seeing how best you can navigate the terrain. As artistes, we shouldn’t just look at ourselves as performing artistes only. We can do much, we can influence and do a lot more,” he said.
Over the years, the most common advice for a talented young artiste looking to achieve success in the music industry has been that they should move to Harare if they want to fully realise their potential. Bulawayo has a ceiling, industry insiders usually tell young artistes, and once your head hits it, one has to move to a bigger market.
Given his success, some thought Asaph had become a big fish in a small pond and the rapper acknowledges that he might have been tempted to change cities at some point.
“I did have those feelings (of moving to Harare). There was a time when I felt that maybe if I was in Harare the bookings would come more frequently. I would be right there where the decisions are being made. I would be able to land more collaborations. I have always loved being in Bulawayo and going out there because it keeps you special. I don’t want to move to Harare and then it becomes like here because the more you grow, the space that you’re in becomes smaller as well.
“I can move to Harare and eventually in a year or two I would have collaborated with everyone and I would have performed everywhere and it would be the same situation as here. Now with the MAMA nomination it has shown me that I don’t need to do that. I did this from Bulawayo so I can skip Harare and go straight to Lagos (Nigeria) or Jozi (South Africa). I’m an African music nominee,” he said.