The tiny African nation that’s a rappers’ delight

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Story highlights

CNN's Errol Barnett takes a hip hop cultural tour in Gabon.

He visited Urban FM radio to learn about the African remix of American hip hop.

Barnett met Ba'Ponga, a local hip hop star who uses music to reach disaffected youth.

For Gabonese, hip hop music is not only about hope but unity, finds Barnett.

Libreville, Gabon CNN  — 

Deep and heavy beats vibrate large subwoofer speakers, hip hop artists grab the mic with one hand and gesture passionately with the other as thousands of fans rap along and dance in unison. You would be forgiven for thinking this was a typical urban concert in the U.S. – but it’s thousands of miles away in the tiny African nation of Gabon.

I’ve journeyed to this equatorial country for “Inside Africa” to find out why the Gabonese are such faithful followers of the American hip hop scene and its culture, I also want to know what makes contemporary music here different from other African nations. My first stop is 104.5 Urban FM, one of the most popular radio stations in the country.

Two outspoken women, Jna (pronounced Gina) O’djino and Ingrid Wani are local hip hop critics appearing as special guests on a daily program hosted by station manager Didier DeFreshman.

As they list popular rappers I realize Gabonese stage names mimic U.S. stars; Amenem is an up and coming rapper channeling the street credibility of Grammy-winning artist Eminem; Tina is a fierce female rapper comparable to Trina in the U.S..

Meanwhile, muted music videos play on the walls showing off exotic cars and scantily clad women gyrating suggestively. Turn up the volume and lyrics in French and Fang (Gabon’s indigenous language) prove this is a local interpretation or better yet, an African remix of American hip hop.

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Between moments of playful banter, the radio team discuss the days most requested artist; Ba’Ponga. He personifies a major difference between U.S. and Gabonese music - no royalties! This lack of additional income from selling music means most artists need a day job. So even though Ba’Ponga has been performing since the 1990’s and is well known here, he still has to work weekdays in an office. We go there to meet him.

Ba’Ponga is an intimidating figure, six-feet tall or more with a large full frame but dressed casually. Working at Gabon’s Ministry of Culture he certainly stands out among men and women in suits. He’s helping the government in its effort to reach out to Gabonese youth and convince them that the future of the nation is directly tied to their actions.

In fact, that inspirational message is the cornerstone of Ba’Ponga’s music. He tells me he’s simply emulating what U.S. rappers do; talk about humble beginnings, challenges, downfalls and motivate anyone in a similar situation to rise above it. For its part , the Gabonese government is becoming more sophisticated in how it uses music to communicate that message, partly because its President isn’t shy when it comes to singing and rapping.

Back in 1977 current President Ali Bongo Ondimba released a soulful and funky album titled “A brand new man‘“under the name “Alain Bongo.” On the LP he sounds like James Brown, which is understandable considering the Godfather of Soul’s former manager helped him record it.

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In 2009, while Ali was running to replace his late father Omar Bongo Ondimba (Africa’s longest serving leader) he updated his musical repertoire. Videos on YouTube reveal a rapping Ali Bongo bouncing on stage with Gabon’s hip-hop community. During this campaign, Ali portrayed himself as “Le candidat des jeunes,’” the youthful candidate. It worked - he won.

On the day of my hip hop tour of Gabon, the government sponsored a free streetside concert with Amenem, Tina and Ba’Ponga warming up the stage for Senegalese-born U.S hip-hop star Akon. This wasn’t just for young people, parents brought their toddlers, kids were arm-in-arm and absent was the macho bumping of shoulders and territorial stares common at other hip-hop events.

I realise that for Gabon, hip hop music is not only about hope but unity as well. A small nation of only 1.5 million people means relationships are incredibly important, community invaluable.

Artists have to work harder and be more creative since there is a smaller market in which to thrive. This is what makes urban Gabonese music unique, responsive and a genuine beat of Africa’s true heart.