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Tracking hip hop in Malawi

DJ Drew festival pic
DJ Drew, one of the country's emerging artists, performing at Malawi's massive music festival Lake of Stars. Photo by Mwai Kasamale. 

By Sarah Feldbloom

In his newly released single Facebook Status, Malawian artist DJ Drew sings along to an acoustic guitar and soothing synth. “I can’t force you to be here, force you to love me, force you to trust me . . . Baby, I’m changing my Facebook status,” he croons. Fellow Malawian hip-hop artists 3rd Eye and Barry One also feature on the track, infusing it with a sprinkle of the local language, Chichewa, giving the universal sounding pop song a Malawian vibe.

The urban music scene in Malawi isn't new, but its popularity is. Only in the past two years has it come into the mainstream, and now it's big, says DJ Drew.

“If you go on Facebook, most of the hip hop artists from Malawi . . . they have at least five thousand friends each. It’s a trend, it’s growing, and who knows where it’s going.”

And what's attracting buy-in for Malawian hip-hop is simple; it’s real. 3rd Eye tells me it's about communicating what Malawian people go through. “I'm driven by my pain, and my people's pain, you know? I see it in their eyes, it inspires me."

He’d like to see the music industry grow because it’s a positive and sustainable export, unlike many of Malawi’s other resources. “That's one thing we'll always have compared to tobacco and things that are dying out."

But developing the industry hasn’t been easy. DJ Drew and Barry One say lack of access to technology and the difficulty of marketing music without home-grown record labels are two main roadblocks. Perhaps the biggest challenge is that most Malawians live below the poverty line and don't have a budget for luxury items like CDs or stereos.

But this hasn't stopped artists from doing what they love. 3rd Eye says friends are working on a proposal to found an arts council, which could help support grassroots projects. 

Mutual support is key in buffering the growing industry. “Malawians like to push each other, we like to help each other.” says DJ Drew. “Malawi has an industry where we are all united, we are one." 

This camaraderie seems to be having an effect. Like DJ Drew, Barry One and 3rd Eye are both about to release new albums that are distinctly Malawian in more than just their use of Chichewa.

3rd Eye’s new disc, Kumidima, which means “if darkness was a place,” binds hip hop and reggae and addresses abuses of power, Malawian history and modern-day imperialism. 3rd Eye calls it the biggest accomplishment of his career.

Evidently, it’s not just the song Facebook Status which aligns these Malawian hip-hoppers. “Me, Drew and 3rd Eye, we've all got different objectives but we're shooting for the same target—to bring about change in the industry and to make it big,” says Barry One.

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  • There's so much more to Africa than predictable headlines about war, famine and AIDS. From Ghanaian beauty pageants to music in Malawi, Africa Without Maps provides a rare glimpse of life in Africa from Journalists for Human Rights interns on the ground.

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