Voice of the Cape

Rapper YoungstaCPT's headspace is shaped by Cape Town’s history.

Boeta Shaakie and YoungstaCPT. (Image by Ismail Isaacs @Indexfinger88 on Instagram).

A clock ticks. A slow stream of traffic echoes in the distance as the athaan, the Muslim call to prayer, begins. A young man, whom we recognize as the rapper YoungstaCPT, aka Riyadh Roberts, greets a passerby. A street vendor in a distinct Cape sing-song accent entreats us to buy his produce. YoungstaCPT, arrives at a “khutbah” (sermon) in full swing. A group of men passionately debate the state of affairs within their communities on Cape Town’s Cape Flats, the collection of lower middle class and working class townships and suburbs where the majority of the city’s mostly coloured residents live. The discussion touches high levels of violence, grinding poverty, the highest murder rate in South Africa and the frustration of youth living in this bleak environment. YoungstaCPT asks his grandfather, Boeta Shaakie Roberts, his thoughts. “It’s very disappointing, what’s happening with the youth” says the old man. “But this problem can be rectified.”

This is “Pavement Special,”  the first track on YoungstaCPT’s debut album “3T (Things Take Time).”

Boeta Shaakie narrates the album through snippets of conversations recorded in 2012. A total of 22 tracks, “3T” introduces us to the nuances of life in Cape Town and the experiences of many young coloured people living in post-apartheid South Africa. It also gives an intimate window into the artist’s personal and emotional headspace.

That headspace is shaped by Cape Town’s history.

In 1652, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) established a refreshment station at the Cape of Good Hope, but this soon evolved into full-scale slavery and colonialism.

The indigenous Khoi people traded with the Dutch and largely resisted the colonizers attempts to change their nomadic pastoralist traditions. The Dutch began importing slaves from the Indonesian Archipelago. Other slaves were brought from different parts of Africa (mostly Madagascar and Mozambique) and South Asia. The Cape Colony rapidly became a cultural melting pot. A new creole identity emerged with a mix of cultures, ethnic groups, languages and religions and a new creole language: Afrikaans. It is this mix of people who eventually were labeled as “coloureds” by the colonial and then Apartheid state. Now comprising around 8.8% of the national population, coloured people are a minority nationally, but make up a majority in Cape Town and the Western Cape province; they also make up the largest group of Afrikaans-speaking people in the country.

Cape Town also happens to be the birthplace of hip hop in South Africa. The genre’s local origins can be traced back to the early 1980’s. The earliest hip hop groups in the city included Black Noise, Prophets of Da City and Brasse Van Die Kaap. Overwhelmingly, these group’s lyrics and appearance were politically charged and socially conscious. While most of this rap was in English, some of it was also in Afrikaans. This hip hop scene in Cape Town was largely independent from record companies, and would eventually be displaced as SA hip hop’s center by a new commercially driven scene in Johannesburg, and rap in languages like Tswana or Zulu. Today, a new hip hop scene is also emerging in Durban, further displacing Cape Town as hip hop’s center.

YoungstaCPT—who won the 2017 South African Hip Hop Music Award (competition that year included Stogie T and Shane Eagle), and briefly relocated to Johannesburg where he built a reputation as a battle rapper—has been criticized by some outside Cape Town for presenting himself primarily as a coloured, or Cape Malay, and not a black artist. This is in contrast to say AKA, a Cape Town-born rapper who vies with Cassper Nyovest as the country’s most commercially successful rapper in recent times. But perhaps by doing so, YoungstaCPT brings nuance to the black experience by not simply looking at it through what amounts to a homogenous lens of blackness.

YoungstaCPT (Photo by Ismail Isaacs, @Indexfinger88 on Instagram)

YoungstaCPT tells me that the idea behind “3T’ came from years of research and self-realization about the colonial history of Cape Town, slavery and the consequential legislated racial segregation policies of Apartheid.

The second track on the album is titled “VOC,” though here VOC does not refer to the Dutch East India Company, but “Voice of the Cape.” The title of another song, “Young Van Riebeeck” (YVR), is a play on the name of Jan Van Riebeeck, a Dutch navigator and colonial administrator who established the colonial settlement at the Cape and who is considered by whites as the founding father of modern-day Cape Town.

“I realized how heavily ingrained the official Jan Van Riebeeck crest is in the culture of our society—the legacy of this colonizer is celebrated everywhere. It’s still the center of the official city of Cape Town‘s coat of arms and it’s even embedded in my former high school, Wynberg Boys’ crest. There is a statue of Jan Van Riebeeck in the city center. People are desensitized, they’re blind to all of this,” YoungstaCPT tells me.

A principal policy of the Dutch colonizers was to segregate races and religions, which the British continued even after they abolished slavery. (It is an overlooked fact that the British introduced the pass system to control the movement of slaves). In 1910, 8 years after the Anglo-Boer War ended, local whites unified to govern South Africa at the expense of the black majority. The black population, including coloureds, began to be stripped of more of their land and their political rights. In 1948, the National Party won elections and introduced Apartheid. With this, the state began to aggressively enforce a series of laws which stripped black people of their political rights, dictating where they could live (the Group Areas Act) or spend their social time (which beach they could swim in or which parks their children could play in), go to school (the quality of education they could have access to) and what kind of professional work they could do and how much they could earn.

YoungstaCPT’s own family suffered heavily from these racist policies. Boeta Shaakie, originally from Simon’s Town at the southern end of the Cape Peninsula, married YoungstaCPT’s grandmother and moved to central Cape Town to live with his wife’s family in District Six, a multi-racial, mostly coloured part of the city center. By the 1960s, apartheid declared District Six a whites-only area and the Roberts family was forcibly removed and the neighborhood bulldozed. YoungstaCPT’s family ended up in Ocean’s View, a coloured township close to Simon’s Town. (YoungstaCPT grew up mostly in the coloured part of Wynberg, a southern suburb of Cape Town.)

YoungstaCPT tells me that his inspiration for the lyrics to “YVR” came from recognizing and acknowledging the past but flipping the narrative to re-imagine the future. He imagined a slave revolt, where a slave leads his companions and overpowers the colonial master, to take control of and re-define the future. He envisions the slave leader not only as an activist, but also someone who also embodies super human qualities to inspire young people to create a brighter future:

Taking Jan van Riebeek to the barbershop and cutting off his whole mustache
You was worried about the waves, I was worried about the slaves
Now you standing there amazed
Go tell the mense what’s my name

It’s the Cape crusader
Young Van Riebeek

YoungstaCPT is a practicing Muslim, and hails from a devout Muslim Cape Malay family; he was raised by a single mother and his grandmother was a madrassah (Islamic school) teacher.

The term Cape Malay is generally used to describe a sub-group of coloured people. Cape Malays are Muslims whose mixed ethnic ancestry includes Muslim slaves brought from the Bahasa Malayu or Malay speaking groups on the Indonesian Archipelago. Whilst Muslim slaves were brought from other parts of Africa and South Asia, the majority were from the Indonesian archipelago. With the result, the Malay language became the dominant language of communication amongst Muslims and slaves who were extensively excluded from colonial education. The term Cape Malay became a formal state racial classification during the Apartheid era to define creole Muslim people from the Cape who were culturally distinct from Indian Muslims that were categorized as Indian. The legacy of this racial classification imposed on creole Muslims in the Cape, still heavily permeates the fabric of society.

He remains connected to his community and still lives in the neighborhood where he grew up. This all adds up to a cultural capital and authenticity that some of his peers lack. He is also a co-founder of the “Y? Generation Enterprise,” an organization started by young men from the Cape Flats. It heavily invests in social and professional programs to uplift youth through music internships, music school tours and organizing community drives to raise material goods for low-income families. During our interview, YoungstaCPT received a text message from his childhood best friend, currently serving jail time. The friend asked YoungstaCPT to recharge his cell phone credit.

YoungstaCPT tells me that through listening to his favorite rappers Method Man and Redman as well as other US rappers of the early 1990’s, that from an early age, he became aware of the complex nature of personal identity and socio-political issues.

These musical influences are reflected on the album: For example, “To Live and Die in CA” (CA, the local car number plate, stands for Cape Town) clearly reflects the nostalgia for 1990’s West Coast hip hop, especially  NWA and Snoop Dogg. “Sensitive,” “Old Kaapie” and “Mother’s Child” have a trap sound resembling Migos and Drake, while “Just be Lekker” and “Kaapstad Naaier” reflect the eclectic beats preferred by Kendrick Lamar.

With nostalgia, YoungstaCPT remembers dragging his mother out to the local shopping mall to buy CDs. He marvels at the fact that she permitted him to listen to certain songs despite some of their overtly adult themes. “They would rap about drugs, gangs and at the same time about Jesus and going to church. I couldn’t relate to the going to church part, but I realized that what they were singing about were things that were happening all around me. Kids I was growing up and going to mosque with, were also doing drugs and joining gangs.”

He wasn’t aware of the degree of his music’s influence until people started reacting positively and engaged with him through social media by tagging him in posts and Instagram stories, as well as DM him. His Instagram followers list organically grew from 12,000 followers to over 130,000 within the space of three years. YoungstaCPT is aware of the reach of his music: “I’m aware that so many young people listen to me, when they don’t even listen to their parents. With this album, I want to help educate the youth on important issues within our society, inspire them to be proactive and give them hope for the future.” He continues, “what they don’t realize is that it’s important to sit down and listen to our elders who have been through so much adversity. They have the knowledge to help us move forward in this life.”

YoungstaCPT becomes emotional and tears up, as he remembers his grandfather’s closing words in the album outro when Boeta Shaakie advises: “Out of the dirtiest water, comes the whitest lily—all the lily needs is the water’s nutrients to survive. You have to look into the past and think of the benefits and the negatives—extract the good and make the negative a positive.”

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