A Man, His Words & His Many Hats
The story of a rap artist from Bongo with a skill to tell tales
At Bunge Primary School about 20 years ago, I remember a classmate, his name is Charles and he walked into class this one day with a ‘walkman’ player and headphones. Charles would recite word for word one of the songs that redefined ‘Bongo Flava’ music and we would hear him — with envy — across the halls.
Bongo Flava is a melting pot of various music genres born in Dar es salaam and it started mainly by fusing hip hop with local flavors and developed by fusing afro pop, R&B, reggae and other genres. By itself the name ‘bongo flava’ is a combination of two interesting words ‘bongo’ and ‘flava’.
Most cities all over the world have nicknames and Dar es salaam’s is bongo which brands Dar es salaam’s affinity and character in a clever way to tell a story about Dar es salaam and here is why. Bongo is borrowed from ubongo which is a Swahili word translating to ‘brains’. The nickname tells you that if you are inspired to visit this beautiful coastal city (sister to Hamburg city in Germany) you need to use your brains while you are here.
Home to over 5 million people of Swahili, Indian, Arabic & other backgrounds and cultures Dar boasts one of largest seaports in East Africa and a warm humidy weather. As Swahili is (screams for an article) popular for borrowing words from other languages ‘flava’ was corrupted and borrowed from English’s flavor. Therefore ‘bongo flava’ is a double entendre for (a) flavors from the city of Dar es salaam and (b) flavors for your brain.
And Charles was listening to Chemsha Bongo — a song that came out in 1990s.
It was performed by Joseph Haule. An award winning Tanzanian musician born on the 29th of December 1975 and Joseph went by a number of different stage names such as Msomali, Wa Mitulinga, The Heavy Weight MC, ‘Mchawi wa rap’ and the most popular Professor Jay, among others. He released the song while he was still with his former crew Hard Blasters (HBC).
HBC was a Tanzanian hip hop trio from Dar es salaam formed in 1980s composing three rappers including Big Willy, Fanani and Prof. Jay (then Ni**a Jay). Together they released songs including Blast Nuff (1989), Chuzi Limekubali (2000), Funga Kazi (the album) and others under their producer Professor Ludigo.
It was a defining moment for Bongo Flava and as a musical sub-genre bongo flava was still maturing and Jay’s song penetrated undefined boundaries. He managed to connect two generations, ours and that of our parents.
In the song Chemsha Bongo, Jay displayed lyricism and high level techniques in Hip Hop. ‘Chemsha Bongo’ was indeed way ahead of its time. From story telling, word play, perfect rhyming, metaphorical lines to braggadocio Jay got through to us. Lines like “fedha kwangu ni kama nyundo” translating to “money to me is like a hammer” showed metaphorical use of language and “nilikuwa napanga kreti za bia wapambe waoshee gari” which is “I used to have beer crates for the groupies to wash (my) car” was an interesting way to brag.
Chemsha Bongo told a tragic story which weighed in some wisdom that we carried through our school halls to the streets and to the corporate world as we recite his words. He ends the song with an apology for all he did, a reminder to others to pray and a wishful thought that things will get better for him one day after losing everything. A classic parable of the prodigal son with a twist told through music.
For over 20 years of his musical career Joseph has been a great story teller and it is an interesting thing to hear narratives from his point of view. His music touched every aspect of the typical life in Dar es salaam, Tanzania and Africa as a whole. Jay speaks with clarity. Jay speaks to the masses. Here are some of his works that reached out to some if not most of us.
The Trip Advisor
Joseph guided the people who live or who were looking forward to visit Dar es salaam through his song “Bongo Dar es salaam”. He featured Judith “Lady Jay Dee” Wambura who sang the chorus. In this hit song Jay also spoke about ‘machinga’ which is a corrupted way to say ‘marching guys’. Machinga are young people, commonly men, who sell merchandise by walking under Dar’s bitter heat that measures up to 32 degrees celsius. While that happens there are places like Slipway, Blue Palm or Mambo Club where well off people would party and enjoy good things in life. In a way this song breaks down Dar es salaam and the things that take place in this city while capturing a diverse economic life style. From enjoying ‘nyama choma’, drinking beers to harmful things like drug abuse and prostitution — Bongo gives you all different kinds of walks of life like any other major city. Another rapper, Mr. II a.k.a Sugu, a prominent rap artist in Tanzania has a similar song that talks about life in Dar es salaam.
Picture this, a teen nicknamed ‘Msomali’ is being told “you will become a politician and a member of parliament in the next two decades or so but for now put focus in your rap career” it would seem surreal. Yet against all odds Joseph is now a real life politician. The interesting part is that he has a series of exaggerated satirical songs titled “Ndiyo Mzee”, “Kikao Cha Dharura (Siyo Mzee)” and “Nang’atuka” portraying a politician during campaigns, after being elected into the office and after resigning respectively. In the first song, which featured Juma ‘Nature’ Kassim Kiroboto, Babu Ayoub (a voice artist), Judith ‘Lady Jay Dee’ Wambura and Mkoloni, Prof Jay raps about things he promises to do for Tanzania once elected into the office and people are then agreeing with him by saying “Yes sir” to every absurd promise he made. In a sardonic way the song picks on important political and socio-economic issues in Tanzania from health, transport to education and water systems. ‘Ndiyo mzee’ went on to be mentioned by the then president of Tanzania, H.E. Benjamin Mkapa, in one of his speeches while he was in Mtwara (Hooligans & Heroes — page 86, Alex Perillo in Africa Today) which meant a great deal to Joseph that his music is finally reaching all levels in the country.
A composition by producer Q and yet one of the rawest rap songs ever made by Jay. The video reflects life in general and it was captured by Adam Juma. In this masterpiece Joseph breaks down different topics from HIV/AIDS, education, legacy, prison systems to comparing his work to that of Shakespeare. The poetic delivery of the rhymes express struggles that people living in poverty go through in life just to wake up to hypocritical friends, neighbours and coworkers who further drown them into the same hence creating a vicious cycle of poverty. Through his voice Joseph offers hope to everyone of these people and reminds them (and us) to be proud of the fruits of their (and our) labor — another biblical reference. While the song is delivered from Joseph’s point of view but the message fits anyone once they step into his shoes. Other artists like Albert “Ngwair” Mangwea, Black Rhino and frequent collaborators can be spotted in the video but the powerful visual is that of Jay and DJ Choka dressed up and dancing as Maasai warriors breaking a cultural gap. In this song you can clearly witness the way Jay speaks with authority and communicates a strong message to the audience.
Joseph weds Grace and the media covered the event in July of 2017 when Prof. Jay tied a knot and now he is a married man. Before that he released a series of songs that explored the concept of love, relationships and marriage. Haule visited this topic with quite intensive approach with hits like ‘Niamini’ (with HBC), ‘Nimeamini’ (featuring Lady Jay Dee), ‘Zali la Mentali’ (featuring the great Juma ‘Nature’ Kassim Kiroboto, ‘Una’ (featuring Ngwair and his young brother Black Rhino) and ‘Nikusaidiaje’ (featuring Ferouz). Jay got his heart broken in ‘Nikusaidiaje’ (which translates to “How Can I Help You”). The song twisted a common theme of cheating men leaving their wives for other women. He approached the subject as a victim after marrying a woman from rural parts of Tanzania hoping that she will be different from stereotypical women from the city. Zubeda, the character from this story, started to drink with friends she met in a salon after moving into the city. She eventually learns about the night scene and decided that she needed more than her marriage with Joseph. She left him. She got pregnant and she had no idea who was the father of her coming child. Eventually she learned her lesson and went back to apologize just to find Joseph with his new family.
Bongo Flava is not just music. It is not just a form of expression. It is a way of life. The height of success that Bongo Flava has reached is beyond what we imagined and Joseph Haule is part of that success with a lot of other Tanzanians that dared to pursue it. You have to understand in 1980s most young people sought of or were leaving the country to search for a better life elsewhere as Adam Shafi narrated in, his autobiography of some sort, “Mbali Na Nyumbani”. In the midst of all that you had people that decided to start something anew and fresh. They weren’t making money compared to today’s folks in the industry yet they went on with this dream. Joseph Haule portrayed himself as a prodigal son, a doctor, a politician and in so many other characters wearing different hats. Looking back at his career, as an artist, all I can say is Joseph paved the way, showed the way and proved that if we pursue our dreams and follow them with just hearts and strong wills we will one day be successful. That is very well depicted in his recent song “KIBABE” as he insists that to get to a hundred you need to start from one.