Raised in a religious family where hip-hop was associated with violence, drugs and social deviance did not deter Awa from pursuing her dream of being an internationally-recognised female rap artiste from the continent.
Born Awakhiwe Sibanda, her stage name, Awa is also an acronym for African Women Arise. It is apt for an artiste who is also known as Zimbabwe’s Rap Queen and an artiste who is championing women’s rights through her brand of the genre delivered in her native Ndebele and English.
The German city of Hanover, where she has been based for the past five years, is a long way, in many respects, from her humble rural beginnings in Nkayi, north of Matabeleland. Before, she lived in a number of townships around Bulawayo, the historic and commercial hub of the region.
“My love for hip-hop was influenced by Ndebele praise poetry when I was 10. I grew up listening to kwaito music and artistes like Zola 7 inspired me to rap in my mother tongue,” the 29-year-old said ahead of her participation in the Reeperbahn Festival in Germany.
Ndebele praise poetry is one of the traditional forms of artistic expression still prominent in the villages of Matabeleland. It is a rich cultural tradition that is still preserved at weddings, funerals and other traditional ceremonies.
One of her seminal influences and inspirations is Albert Nyathi, a popular poet and musician best known for his song Senzeni Na? — composed as a tribute after the assassination of Chris Hani in 1993.
A direct influence who passed on a love for different musical genes to her is her father and guitarist Joshua Sibanda. He never played professionally but made her aware of the gift she had and the possibilities that it presented.
Awa uses Ndebele to telling artistic effect in her songs — a Nguni tongue that’s notable for its click sounds. A case in point is Ngeke Bengimele, a song that poignantly expresses her poetic power as a rapper with an exceptional way with words.
The song is destined to be one of the highlights of her repertoire at Europe’s biggest club festival. Since its debut in 2006, the Reeperbahn
Festival has been attracting explosive up-and-coming talent from all corners of the globe.
“I have performed at big festivals, but this one means a lot to me because it will introduce me to the African market. As an artiste based in Europe, it has always been my dream to find platforms to market my music in Africa as well, especially in SA because of the language and cultural similarities. This is a great opportunity and I am looking forward to it,” she said.
A versatile and charismatic performer with a powerful stage presence, Awa’s music addresses several social and human rights issues that include child marriages, corruption, xenophobia and, of course, violence against women, children and other vulnerable members of society.
Is it an issue that she is a female artiste in a predominantly male genre? “It is. As a female MC, it’s not easy to get to a point where people take you seriously, especially if you are doing something that is different. Many people always expect me to sing or dance and they scoff at the thought of me rapping.
“We are usually expected to prove ourselves and our hip-hop knowledge. I always fight misogyny with great music and hard work. I force my way into spaces and own them. Rap is not for boys. It’s just a way of expressing oneself in rhyme,” she said.
Awa started making music in 2012 and two years later, she turned professional. Her baptism of fire as a stage performer in front of a large audience was in 2014 when she participated at the Shoko Festival in Harare. Since then, she has appeared in a number of international ones including Shambala, Festival Number 6 and Freedom Festival Hull. In the UK, she collaborated and performed with other female artistes in a project dubbed Voices of the Revolution.
In 2016, Noisey Raps released Awa: Ghetto Queen of Zimbabwe, a documentary on Awa’s life and music. The nine-minute film won the inspiration award at the Research In Film Awards (Rifa) in the UK. The film reveals her urban upbringing in Makokoba, a township in Bulawayo notorious for its high levels of crime and violence. It is also here that she had her first taste of recorded music through Makokoba Township Records, the only music studio in the neighbourhood.
She relates how she rejected invitations for sexual favours in exchange for recording her music.
“It’s a common thing in the industry. There are men who expect up-and-coming female artistes to sleep their way to the top,” she said.
It was also in 2016 that she moved to Germany where she was signed by Outhere Records, the Munich-based music label known for exploring the urban African music scene in countries such as SA, Ghana, Kenya, Zambia, Eritrea and Zanzibar.
Because of its African theme due to Africa Day, May is close to Awa’s heart.
“Africa is rich in cultural heritage and it is our identity. It does not matter how far we may be from home, we carry it with us. Africa Month is special to me because we get to celebrate our roots and to educate others, especially in the diaspora where most children are not exposed to it.
“Dressing up in African costumes and attending African-themed events gives them a sense of belonging. Celebrating Africa Day helps us to learn from our history and traditions and it enables us to develop awareness about ourselves.”
And how does she find the hip-hop scene in Hanover?
“There are hip-hop shows in some parts of the city like theatres and clubs, but it is not as vibrant as Berlin. I find BSMG in Berlin remarkable. I think their fusion of German rap and African sounds is and powerful.”
After seven years as a professional, Awa said she is finally ready to release her debut album.
“I have been releasing singles, learning and growing. I am finally ready to release my debut album and to share it with the world.”
This year’s edition of the Reeperbahn Festival International which starts today ending on June 3, has a strong pan-African character as it partners with the Music in Africa Foundation. Eddie Hatitye, the director of the foundation said: “One of our key goals is to support and promote African musicians within the continent and across the globe.
“We partnered with Reeperbahn Festival (RBF) International in 2019 with a view to formalise our mutual interest in facilitating sustainable business engagements and exchange between European and African music businesses and professionals.
“We are excited to see this reciprocal partnership leading to much-needed initiatives such as the RBF pan-Africa event, which is a great platform to showcase our music to the world while connecting African stakeholders with key players from across Europe.” – Sowetan