The Keepers: hip hop, its temple, and its keepers

Alors que le hip-hop et les street cultures n’ont jamais été aussi mainstream, Massinda Zinga (à droite) et Malkia Mutiri partagent le même combat: rappeler le rôle des femmes noires dans l’édification de ces cultures. © Saskia Vanderstichel

Last month, the US hip-hop artist Akua Naru took the web by storm with The Keepers, an international collective led by black women, united by a shared mission: to shine a light on women’s contribution to hip hop culture. BRUZZ went to meet four of these “keepers” from Brussels.

“As women, and especially as black women, we are still being erased from history,” says the filmmaker Malkia Mutiri (Ata Ndele), who needed no persuading to assume the role of spokesperson for the Belgian chapter of the international collective known as the Keepers.

At a time when, according to Spotify, hip hop is the most listened-to form of music in the world, female artists – with the notable exception of Lauryn Hill – do not receive the same recognition as their male counterparts. Is the same true in Belgium? Malkia Mutiri says it is. “Here, we only talk about female hip-hop artists once they have had some success, I’m thinking of Ya Kid K, her sister Leki, and more recently Coely, and then we never talk about them again. We leave much more space to male artists in general. In the same way that we erase black or North African artists. White rappers have the most success because they embody mainstream culture. Sexism and racism exist at all levels of society, including in hip hop.”

1723 Malkia Mutiri en Massinda Zinga
© Saskia Vanderstichele
| Malkia Mutiri and Massinda Zinga.

To reverse that trend, the Keepers emphasize the need for safe creative spaces to encourage young black artists to be able to pursue their ambitions. But the collective does not intend to stop there. A free online database, which includes fifty years’ worth of archives related to women in hip hop (videos, albums, biographies, press articles, etc.) and a range of podcasts, aims to retrieve these artists from the collective amnesia once and for all. For the time being, The Keepers are focusing their attention on an international crowdfunding initiative.

“It is 2020, it has never been so easy to connect with people all over the world,” says the R&B singer Ikraaan (22). Contacted by The Keepers, the artist from Mechelen, a student in Brussels, instantly embraced the idea of a digital platform. “Growing up, my female role models were limited to Destiny’s Child. I said to myself: ‘I am like those girls.’” Ikraaan also welcomes “a safe space to share experiences, a source of support for young black women who are starting out in the music world.” It’s a minefield that is very challenging for the authenticity of the artists. “They practically ask you to sell your soul…”

1723 Ikraaan
© LATIFA SABER VOOR BAYA COLLECTIVE-KLEDING
| Ikraaan.

For many years, the author and poet Joëlle Sambi, a leading light in the L-SLAM collective, has been organising slam workshops that are mostly aimed at women. During the sessions, participants are encouraged to find their voices and assert themselves. “I believe that it’s essential to spend time in spaces in which to have discussions, question things, and above all where you feel at ease and not like you’re being used,” says Sambi about the importance of establishing a venue in Brussels that is devoted to hip-hop culture.

“But I don’t think things will improve for our black-racialised-queer-lesbian-trans communities if we are always in opposition. You can be a hip-hop artist, say things that challenge the system, be underground, and still be invited to the table of those who supposedly decide what is art and what is not. We can choose whether to sit at that table or not, and still, even so, on a personal level, change the paradigm.”

THE KEEPERS

IKRAAAN 30/9, 20.00, Beursschouwburg

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