Pitch Black Afro: Hip-Hop by Way of South Africa Rapper Pitch Black Afro's debut CD has sold a reported 50,000 copies in South Africa, a country where much of the population can rarely afford to buy a CD. Sean Cole reports from Johannesburg.
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Pitch Black Afro: Hip-Hop by Way of South Africa

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Pitch Black Afro: Hip-Hop by Way of South Africa

Pitch Black Afro: Hip-Hop by Way of South Africa

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Once the underground sound of New York City, hip-hop has become the pop music of the world. Fans from Germany to Japan are bobbing their heads to music from Nelly and 50 Cent, and they're listening to local artists, too. In South Africa, the big name in hip-hop is Pitch Black Afro. He's a rapper with an enormous presence and a hairdo to match. Sean Cole of member station WBUR caught up with him at a Johannesburg nightclub.

SEAN COLE reporting:

The club's called Monaco, an upscale venue tucked into a largely white suburb of the city--no sneakers allowed. Around 1 in the morning, the dancing gives way to a live show of local performers doing R&B, rap and a homegrown mishmash of different genres called kwaito. The room's packed and the crowd's pretty mellow, until an enormous circle of hair with a stick-figure body dangling down from it leaps on stage. Suddenly people are shoving and scrambling for a better view.

(Soundbite of music; crowd noise; performance of "Pitch Black Afro")

PITCH BLACK AFRO: (Rapping) Pitch Black Afro. People, let's go (unintelligible)

COLE: Pitch Black Afro immediately launches into his theme song called "Pitch Black Afro." It's one of the hits off his debut album "Styling Gel," which garnered him two nominations at South Africa's version of the Grammys this year.

(Soundbite of "Pitch Black Afro")

PITCH BLACK AFRO: (Rapping) Ha!

(Soundbite of gunshot)

PITCH BLACK AFRO: (Rapping) Pitch Black Afro (tsotsi taal spoken)

COLE: The lyrics are in Zulu and a slangy mixture of different languages called tsotsi taal, which translated literally means `bug language.' He's basically just introducing himself to the music industry, saying who he is, what he's about, that he's been on the scene a while now and that he's here to stay, just like American rap songs. The chorus is undeniably clear, even if you don't speak the language. It's a call in response. When I say Pitch Black, you say `Afro.'

(Soundbite of "Pitch Black Afro")

PITCH BLACK AFRO: (Rapping) ...wearing my O.J. Afro. Pitch Black...

Backup Singers: (Singing) Afro!

PITCH BLACK AFRO: (Rapping) Pitch Black...

Backup Singers: (Singing) Afro!

PITCH BLACK AFRO: (Rapping) ...(Unintelligible) Yeah, man. It's the Pitch Black wearing the O.J. Afro. Pitch Black...

Backup Singers: (Singing) Afro!

PITCH BLACK AFRO: (Rapping) Pitch Black...

Backup Singers: (Singing) Afro!

COLE: Up close Pitch Black Afro's a lot less imposing than he is on stage. Picture Jimmy Walker from "Good Times" with a massive Afro and one front tooth missing. It's all part of the persona, and he's always in character, even in the back of a minivan parked behind the stage at an outdoor show the following night.

PITCH BLACK AFRO: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah! Just keep it moving a whole lot. Yeah. Yeah, man. You're in for a real ride.

COLE: I can tell...

PITCH BLACK AFRO: You want a little kind of ride? You want a little kind of ride? Come to me. Come to my side.

COLE: His real name is Thulani Ngcobo. He says Pitch Black Afro was his second choice for a stage name.

PITCH BLACK AFRO: I used to call myself Afro at first. Then I met this producer. His name was Afro, and he was, like, four years before me, and it was like Pitch Black came as me trying to explain what kind of Afro am I.

COLE: He says he was the darkest in his class and mercilessly teased for it, even though all of his classmates were black as well. This was in the township of Soweto in the early 1980s, when blacks living under the apartheid regime were made to feel that their color was a stain.

PITCH BLACK AFRO: There's this perception of being black is wrong. You know, we were fed that by the regime before us. Black was sin. But I couldn't change that, so I had to stick with it and deal with it. And the only way of dealing with it is being proud of it.

COLE: But being pitch black wasn't the only thing he was teased about. From the time he was little, he's had a speech impediment that should have made a career in rap impossible.

PITCH BLACK AFRO: I'm a stutterer. At that time I was a double- and a quadruple-stutterer. You know, when I prayed, especially aloud, I didn't start--when I sang, I didn't stutter. So I had only one way of communication, singing or praying--I had two forms, singing or praying; hence, rapping. You know, like, you will never hear me--and you will never hear me stutter when I rap.

(Soundbite of song)

PITCH BLACK AFRO: (Rapping in foreign language)

Backup Singers: (Singing in foreign language)

COLE: Despite growing up in what South African rappers call the ghetto, nothing about Pitch Black's life spelled rap star. He started out as a classical pianist. He even taught music and would do rhymes for his students just to get their attention. He was so good at it that he won himself a spot on a radio contest. Immediately he was compared to American rapper Busta Rhymes, who has that same quirky staccato delivery. But when you ask Pitch Black who his biggest influence is, he names another American rapper, Redman. New York Times pop critic Kelefa Sanneh interviewed Pitch Black for the paper. He says he loves it when foreign rappers dig deep and find less-iconic artists, like Redman, to emulate.

Mr. KELEFA SANNEH (The New York Times): That's why it's so cool to hear the way in which he's influenced by hip-hop. And that's why it's kind of encouraging to hear that it doesn't just have to hip-hop spreads all over the world and gets popular, and people in other countries want to sound like America. No, it's not quite that. It's that hip-hop is big and rich and complicated. And people all over the world react to different things in it, find different traditions within hip-hop and find different ways to make them their own.

(Soundbite of song)

PITCH BLACK AFRO: (Rapping in foreign language)

COLE: There's less potential for Pitch Black to return the favor and cross over to American audiences, Kelefa Sanneh says. Language might be part of it. Even in Johannesburg, it isn't easy to find someone who can parse his polyglot slang. Still, Mpumi Phillips, the marketing manager of his record label Ghetto Ruff, says the title of one Pitch Black song has entered the local vernacular, "Matofotofo."

Ms. MPUMI PHILLIPS (Marketing Manager, Ghetto Ruff): That's a slang word, but because he's popularized it and made it a kitchen name, you've got the sports anchor saying, `Oh, that guy played a matofotofo game,' you know, which `matofotofo' means the good things. It's like what he's saying in the song is, like, `I want the good life. I want a good-looking girlfriend. I want the money. I want the cars. I want it all.'

(Soundbite of "Matofotofo")

PITCH BLACK AFRO: (Rapping in foreign language)

COLE: But this isn't a bling-bling song; Pitch Black just wants to live better than he has been. And while he may not have the money and the cars yet, he's got the girls. As funny-looking as he is, women flock to him, wanting him to autograph their boobs.

PITCH BLACK AFRO: I did expect it, but it's very scary, man.

COLE: You did expect it?

PITCH BLACK AFRO: Yes, but it's very scary. You know, when you're seeing all the women, like a 60-year-old woman wanting you to sign her boob, a big boob like that (makes noise)...

COLE: It's just like you've become the most unlikely sex symbol in a way.

PITCH BLACK AFRO: No. I would say the pride of the nation.

COLE: Modesty aside, that pride is only likely to grow. His second album is due out early next year, at which point he'll probably have a real Afro. For the moment, it's a Pitch Black Afro wig. For NPR News, I'm Sean Cole.

(Soundbite of song)

PITCH BLACK AFRO: (Rapping in foreign language)

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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