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Written By Ken Jr Lipenga

The concept of youth, much as it is in common usage, is not easy to be denied because it tends to be context-specic. Honwana (2012, 11),for instance, argues that basing the definition of youth on age has not worked because “age categories are not natural; they constitute cultural systems with particular sets of meaning sand values”.

Various countries also have their own definitions of youth. Youth, according to the Malawi National Youth Policy (2013), for example, is between 10 and 35 years. Most of the hip-hop artistes fall within this bracket.

That the activities of the youth in Africa may be connected to the creation of an alternative public sphere can already be gleaned from the work of Diouf (2003, 3), who speaks of an emerging “irruption” of the youth into the public sphere, where they are increasingly regarded as a threat. Importantly, we might realize from the start that the platform of hip-hop music affords a voice to the younger members of the country’s citizenry.

This is related to a point raised by Nancy Fraser in her critique of Habermas ([1962] 1991). She observes that, in reaction to the bourgeois public, counter- publics emerged that “contested the exclusionary norms of the bourgeois public, elaborat-ing alternative style of political behavior and alternative norms of public speech” (Fraser1992, 116). Fraser’s focus is on the feminist subaltern counter-public, but in this article, I argue that in Malawi the youth also constitute a similar category.

Indeed, despite registering a few political and social successes, the position of the youth remains relatively marginal (Seebode 2012, 237). Hip-hop music is an ex-ample of an alternative form of public speech that has been embraced by the youth. Indeed, according to Halifu Osumare (2012, 84), with-in many countries in Africa, “hip-hop […] isan important tool in shifting power and offer-ing young people a modicum of authority in shaping their personal lives and national affairs”.

In their research on youth languages in Africa, Nico Nassenstein and Andrea Hol-lington (2016, 175) raise a similar point, noting that hip-hop music has contributed to the cre-ation of a global linguistic repertoire among the youth, one that allows them to “reectuid identities in a globalized world”.

The issues that are raised in the songs are those that are pertinent to the youth. An important factor to consider in the emergence of hip-hop music Africa is exactly the fact that “youth cul-ture [which includes hip-hop music] rises as a form of resistance to the hegemonic culture of adults” (Mandala 2017, 30). What then is the place of alcohol in this resistance? We can begin to address this query by considering a case in point, one of the most popular of the banned drinks in Malawi, a liquor called Super Midori. So popular is the drink that it is often featured in hip-hop mu-sic songs, not in condemnation, but rather in praise. 

At least three songs feature the drink in their titles. The rst is Astrol’s (real name Slade Sambani) song, which is simply titled “Midori”, an emotional expression of praise for the drink, as articulated by a young man who religiously devotes all his time to the imbibing of alcohol. The opening lines of the song surface to support the argument concerning the role of alcohol in the lives of the youth. The song starts as an interview, in which Astrol is asked why he never raps about school, but only focuses on alcohol.

In response to the interviewer’s question, Astrol raps:

Sukulu ndinasiya kalekale/ Anzangamumandiseka mumati ndine mphale/  

Akazi amandikana amati ndine stoner/   Amandiona daily ndikusuta fodya/  

Zamunthu sindilabada/Ndipatse bawa sindikana/ Ndipatse pen, ndipatse kope

zovaya geri sitimvana/ Akazi oyesa mayaalibe ntaji kwa ine asise/

N’nakwatirabawa, fodya ndi cocaine aise/ Ghetto youth alibe ntaji please move on/  Tizingoyaka daily basi opanda season (I dropped out of school a long time ago/friends you mock me saying I am a loser/girls rebuff me saying I am an addict/they see me smoking cigarettes daily/I don’t worry about other people’s opinions/I will not refuse if you offer me beer/I will refuse if you offer me a pen, a notebook, or try to send me to school/girls who test me have no chance at all/I am married to beer, cigarettes and cocaine/a ghetto youth has no opportunities in this life/ We will just be getting high daily regard-less of the season)

(Astrol 2017)The narrative that the rapper presents in the song is evocative of the dire situation in which the youth in Malawi nd themselves. One of the common features of waithood is the failure to complete formal education (Honwana 2012,24). Failing to succeed in school leads most of the youth down a path of depression, where the only recourse appears to be alcohol. This is an attitude that we nd in the other artistes to be discussed in this paper. Much as he ac-knowledges the situation of hopelessness and despair, he admits that there is one avenue that remains open to him, the path of Midori.

Another ode to the drink, entitled “GhettoHennessy (Midori Gang)” by the rapper Toast (real name Gomezgani Kambwiri) articulates group identity formed around alcohol consumption. “Ghetto Hennessy” is an apt case study since the rapper accurately captures the idea of deance and community that is at the heart of this article’s argument. This song is perhaps one of the best examples illustrating the way the hip-hop music scene articulates asense of freedom that is to be found with the assistance of alcohol.

In the chorus of the song, the rapper sings,

In the ghetto ain’t nobody have no money so no Hennessy

In the ghetto ain’t nobody have no money so no Heineken what we sipping on…?


(Toast 2017) These lines alone illustrate the idea that alco-hol is the ultimate recourse for the youth who are feeling the pinch of poverty. As is the case with many other forms of hip-hop in Malawi, there is some appropriation of Black Ameri-can culture. In fact, the line “sippin on Mi-dori” echoes lines often mentioned by the late American rapper 2Pac, who often expressed fondness for “sippin on Hennessy”, which is again directly mentioned in the title.

However, instead of a straightforward appropriation, the rapper chooses to identify with the Ghetto Hennessy, which is the illicit drink, Midori. This drink is the cheapest that the youth can afford, and it frequently replac-es the more expensive drinks, Hennessy and Heineken.

In his claim to be sipping on the banned drink, we see a deliberate challenge to authority. In her book, The Africanist Aesthet-ic in Global Hip-Hop, Halifu Osumare (2007,72) observes that “Youthful rebellion forms the ubiquitous connective marginality of hip-hop, where most nations’ young people are able to identify with hip-hop’s rebellious youthful nature”. It is no surprise therefore that we nd such a rebellious tone in Malawian hip-hop.

It is exactly this sort of production that raises concerns about “the bodies of young people and their behaviour, their sexuality and their pleasure” (Diouf 2003, 3). Drinking Midori is an expression of masculinity through daring todo that which is forbidden by the government.

Hennessy is a French cognac, often associated with the upper class. In recent years, however, it has come to be a status symbol among Black American rappers. Heineken is a Dutch lager, which is imported into Malawi from South Africa. As an imported beer, it too has gained a high status amongst the youth.

It is therefore an expression of the Freudian death drive through the drinking of that which has left many dead in its wake, but also in the deliberate provocation of the government authorities. The challenge is emphasized even more when Toast says “tikumwa plain plain” (‘we are drinking the alcohol neat’). Diluting the liquor would be tantamount to admitting the diminishing of one’s masculinity. Drinking the alcohol neat, on the other hand, is in-dicative of resilience and endurance, which is an indirect commentary on the way the youth endure various other hardships in their every-day existence.

The consumption of drinks such as Midori could be explained as the nal recourse for the youth, who and that the world has not availed any opportunities to them. This is quite clear in Astrol’s song, where the artist claims that the drinking of Midori is because he failed to succeed in school. Similarly, P4ceand Ace Oji (2017), another pair of rappers in the country, stress that they will drink Midori even if it kills them. The idea is therefore to live for the moment since the future is uncertain.

In such lyrics we nd the expression of a form of escapism into a world that parallels the real one. The world of alcohol consumption for the youth casts a hue over the environment around them, where the “high” is the only ulti-mate objective. This is obviously a sad state of affairs, but there is logic in such a perspective.

When Toast tells us that “In the ghetto ain’t nobody have no money so no Hennessy”, heis emphasizing the point that there are hardly any opportunities available for the youth in the ghetto. As Honwana (2012, 47) notes, wait-hood is compounded by the fact that Africa has among its highest unemployment rates among the youth. Songs such as these are therefore expressive of the hypocrisy of a circumstance where the youth have easy access to cheap alcohol, but difficulty in ending healthy and sustainable livelihoods through jobs.

The visuals of “Ghetto Hennessy (Mido-ri Gang)” are equally crucial to our interpretation of the song. Hip-hop music has always relied on its visual impact in order to effectively convey its message. That is why it is always important to remember that rap music is part of a wider hip-hop culture, which relies heavily on visual aspects such as clothing and graffiti. The Malawian hip-hop music videos continue this trend.

The hip-hop artist embodies ascertain ethos which is rst and foremost to be interpreted in the way he looks: his clothing, his tattoos, his drinks, his weapons. These all contribute to the creation of a particular per-sona that he wishes to portray to society.

The psychologist Carl Jung argued that human be-ings often create a persona that they project onto the world. The persona exists as “a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a denite impression upon others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individ-ual” (Jung [1943] 1966, 264). That is the ideal “them” that they wish the world to see. In Malawian hip-hop music, this persona is of the in-dividual who is inseparable from his liquor, argure that we also nd in Black American rap music.

One of the forms of criticism that has for a long time been levelled against African hip-hop is the mimicking of Black American culture. This also involves the visual aspect. However, despite the obvious origins of the hip-hop genre, we have to acknowledge that the appropriation of this “foreign” culture results in something that is altogether new (Mot-ley and Henderson 2007).

The novelty comes mainly in the form of the synthesis with local cultural imaginaries. Nilan and Feixa (2006,8) observe that “[y]outh cultures are always emphatically local, despite globally-derived details, since youth are embedded in immedi-ate and embodied economic and political rela-tions”. Another way to view this is to adopt Stephanie Newell and Onookome Okome’s(2014, 8) argument that “urban popular art re-veals that African urban dwellers often produce ingenious responses to the ows of local and international commodities and resources in their cities”. These scholars have in com-mon the argument that what we are witnessing is a synthesis of the foreign and the local, resulting in an art form that is quite novel.

In the song, the rapper paradoxically attempts to create the idea of afuence, which is at odds with the constant reference to the poverty in which the youth exist. The message is that, whereas they may lack various other opportunities, at least cheap liquor is in abun-dance, so much so that they can afford to bathe in it. After all, as the rapper sings, “midori-dori kungovumba ngati manna” (Midori is inabundance, just like manna) (Toast 2017).

This is a deliberately subversive element, where the rapper draws upon biblical imagery to de-scribe the abundance of the liquor. One could extend this image further to indicate that the youth regard themselves as the Israelites, under the oppression of the Egyptian pharaoh, only to be rescued by the one true God. In this case, the Midori is God-given, which is an argument that may be marshalled against those who ban the substance.

Forging a community identity

Regarding new platforms for voicing the con-cerns of the youth, Honwana (2012, 134) ar-gues that hip-hop music is evidence of new forms of citizenship among the waithood generation. This point could be applied specically to the songs examined in this paper.

The stress on alcohol consumption is just one part of a wider emphasis on consumerism of ten reected in hip-hop culture. One’s identity is forged around what one owns, often including clothes, cars, and controversially, women. This is also to be observed amongst Malawian rappers. In Malawi, “urban youth exerted their own cultural preferences and power within their practices of cultural consumption” (Man-dala 2017, 3). Central to this identity formations the consumption of alcohol, which helps to establish one’s status. A glimpse at some of the lyrics by a few of the hip-hop artists supports this fact. In the song “Mkalabongo” by Tonik, the rapper says“

 Bro osazimva, suli ghetto ngati sumakala ubongo

” (Tonik 2016), stressing the point that ghetto credit, as it were, can only be gained through the drinking of hard liquor. If one really wants to be seen as being “ghetto”, then one has to partake of this hard liquor. Simi-larly, Mayar Noel (2014) sings “Ali ndi bawaamatonyada ” (he who has alcohol can walk around proudly). Such statements conrm the place of alcohol as a status symbol among the youth, or even as a fashion accessory.

Also clear is the fact that such lyrics set aspirations for the youth, who then might begin to regard alcohol as the key to entering this community. The songs about alcohol at their core ex- press for the need for communal belonging. The notion of a Midori Gang, for example, is one that shows strength in unity. In most of the songs, there is the idea of the individual as part of a community. However, this is a sense of community that is not forged on any sense of Africanness, as perhaps one might have found among the Negritude poets.

Instead, as Evan Mwangi (2007, 321) argues in a similar con-text, “[t]he personae and characters presented in the music have loose rural roots, and, in-stead of lamenting alienation from traditional culture, they celebrate their unsure identities in the city in a grammar that seems impatient with notions of national purity and rural stability…”. It is in part for this reason that we prefer to term this an alternative public sphere, or acounter-public, since it has parallels that ex-ist within the same geographic space.

Mwangi’s argument explains the constant reference to the ghetto as a shared space of suffering and endurance. The reference to this space is found in many of the songs. For example, in the song “Peter Mutharika”, Shozie (real nameKen Kalore) extends an invitation to the presi-dent of Malawi to visit the youth in the ghetto, where many frustrations abound. Like Toast, the underlying conviction in the song is that government authorities do not really care about the plight of the youth.

As Kyc Nyimbo (real name Kelvin Yamikani Chaguza) observes in his song “Machesi”, “regimes do change but things don’t change” (Nyimbo 2017). This ignoring of the youth is at the government’s own peril. The ghetto comprises the masses who struggle just to make it, one day at a time. In contrast to the earlier forms of Malawian hip-hop, which expressed an elitist, standoffish position, the current songs embrace the community. In that sense, the rap artist sees himself as the voice of that community.

 Of course, in this case, it is mostly the community of the youth, who regard the government authorities as failing to pay heed to their plight. Toast (2017) further argues that the community “ain’t got no king” as “they all deserve a spot”, again emphasizing the fact that the poverty in the ghetto enforces a sense of equality that at the same time creates a bond between its inhabit-ants.

This paper stresses the point that, as far as hip-hop music is concerned, the best form of community is to be found where the youth gather to drink beer, as expressed in Kyc Nyimbo’s statement that one cannot nd him at home. Instead, he is always to be found where people are drinking alcohol, precisely the same statement that fellow rapper Slessor(2017) makes in “Ku Shabini”. “Ku Shabini”takes its name from shebeen, another constant referential point in Malawian hip-hop music.

The South African origin of the term denotes a place where men gather to purchase and drink (often illicit) liquor. It may therefore be identied as social watershed. Certain aspects of this denition have been carried over into the Malawian setting (Rogerson and Hart 1986,156).

For example, in K2B Block’s “Malonda” (2016), despite the apparent identication with market people that the song expresses, and the highlighting of the economic difculties faced by the average Malawian person, the rappers indicate that their hard-earned money “zimakathela ku shabini” (‘all ends up at the shebeen’). The shebeen, therefore, and particularly the alcohol that is found there, is a space that allows the purging of frustrations that mount due to economic hardships. Ruth Mandala (2017, 2) argues that the youth in Blantyre (a city in Malawi), in particular, “often created alternative spheres in which to live their lives as urban youth”.

This is a point that is not to be ignored. It recalls the coffee houses that Habermas ([1962] 1991,30) highlights as being fora for discussions on the state of the society. Within Malawi, Japhet Mchakulu (2018) tentatively identies these spaces as being university campuses.

However (as he himself cursorily notes), these cater fora limited percentage of the youth, given that many of the youth do not make it to university for a variety of reasons. The hip-hop music platform manifests itself as a more accessible space for most of the youth. In hip-hop music, the label of the “Ghetto youth” captures this idea of belonging.

Both Kyc Nyimbo and Toast refer to themselves as “Ghetto youths”, an identity that is embraced by most of the other artists. One of the denitions of the ghetto youth, according to Kyc Nyimbo, is the lack of money, despite having a degree. That is how difcult life is. Even the women, as materialist as they have become (in his opinion), do not nd him attractive. The solution, in his opinion, is “kuyaka ngati ma-chesi” (‘being set alight like a matchstick’)

(Nyimbo 2017). In youth lingo, kuyaka (‘burning/being set alight’) is used colloquially and metaphorically to refer to getting high, especially by ingesting alcoholic drinks. To liken himself to combusting like a matchstick emphasizes the intensity of the high that he seeks, which will offer an escape from his state of joblessness and frustration. 

As the rapper stresses, for the contemporary ghetto youth,“akasangalala ndiye kuti wamwa ka bawa”(‘the only time he is happy is when he drinks some alcohol’) (Nyimbo 2017). Another crucial aspect of the ghetto youth is the idea of constant hustle, as reected in Slessor’s (real name Slessor Munthali) “Pa Chiwaya” (2015),where he points out that a ghetto youth never rests and never goes on holiday.

This may initially seem like the articulation of an admirable work ethic. However, the same point is used to express the fact that the ghetto youth is always drinking or drunk, as Astrol points out in “Midori”.

The sense of community is so strong that those who act in ways that undermine it risk being ostracized within this group. One way in which one may endanger the community is by simply not buying beer for their colleagues.“Sagula mowa” by Charisma, featuring Donzo, is another song that reveals the adulation of alcohol. However, this is a song that expresses a common rhetoric surrounding the imbibing of alcohol by youths. As this paper has already highlighted, the drinking of alcohol is usually a communal event.

It serves to unite the drinkers in their intoxication as well as in their common woes, forging what may be termed an intoxicated identity. Therefore, the actual buying (not just drinking) of the alcohol is also supposed to be a communal activity, in the sense that everybody is supposed to pitch in. Slessor’s “KuShabini” hints at this point. However, Charis-ma’s “Sagula mowa” (‘[He] does not buy beer’)is a song that emphasizes it better. The message of the song is directed at one particular individual, who does not contribute to the purchasing of the beer.

In describing this individual, Charisma raps: Amabwera ndi ya u phanza Amabwera ndi ya u Tarzan Mowa wanga womwe Mpaka kundichitira nkhanza Pamapeto ndikusanza Nde mwapindula chani braza?

(He comes looking like a bouncer/hecomes looking like Tarzan/I have bought the beer/But he uses force to drink it/And ends up vomiting/What have you beneted from this, my brother?) (Charisma2017).

The popularity of this theme of not buying beer can be seen in the fact that in the early 2000s, another Malawian artist, Albert Khoza, released a song with the very same name. One may also connect this theme to the popular tradition of singing about alcohol, as in the mitungu songs of northern Malawi (see Banda 2013)

The song is therefore a mockery of the said in-dividual, who relies on brute strength, cowing others into sharing their alcohol, only to vomit afterwards. The song also features a refrain“Uyo uyo”, which is a jeer from the rest of the drinkers, using their united position to mock and shame the mist.

From the few examples above, it is clearthat there is a certain sense of pessimism thatrides alongside the jubilance expressed in the songs. On the one hand, one nds an escape through the alcohol, an outlet for frustrations. In addition, as we see in songs such as “Ku Shabini”, there is a sense of belonging that is shared by all the youth who drink alcohol.

On the other hand, there appears to be a grim acceptance of the lot of the youth in contemporary Malawi. Kyc Nyimbo, for example, ac-knowledges the fact that the educated youngman is likely to face death after barely two years of drinking mkalabongo Interestingy, however, the liquor is not blamed for his death. Instead, it is the government authorities who, through their control of the public sphere, have not made available opportuni-ties for the youth to thrive in an environment where they do not feel the need for recourse to cheap alcoholic drinks (Nyimbo 2017).

There is quite heavy use of specialist vocabulary in the songs, terms that have been developed by the youth over time. This has the effect of creating bonds through the specialist language, as well as keeping outsiders out. The new “speech community” has gained power through the use of terms that effectively keep others out of the conversation (Moto 2001,320).

It would be prudent to sound a caveat, at this point, drawing from the observation by Nassenstein, Hollington and Storch (2018, 14)that what is often deemed youth language in African town and villages may also be used by other members of the community, who may not necessarily belong to the same de-mographic. Much as this may be true of other terms, popularized through social media, it does not apply to terms used to refer to alcohol. For instance, one will rarely nd beer being referred to by its general Chichewa term, mowa. Instead, the commonly used phrase is the colloquial bawa, used exclusively among the youth in Malawi. Another common col-loquial term is mkalabongo, which designates both the drink and the beer drinking loca-tion.

The name mkalabongo  literally means ‘that which scratches the brain’. It is used to highlight the intoxicating/stimulating effect of the alcohol on the mind of the drinker, who feels that his brain has been ‘scratched’. At the same time, the name incidentally refers to-wards the potentially lethal effect of the liquor on the brain of the drinker.

As Moto (2001,321) points out, language serves the purpose of “[establishing] a strong social bond, identity and the expression of solidarity”. The language choices in hip-hop music are particular-ly important. As Fenn and Perullo (2000, 82) observe, “The English language pervades rapmusical performances in Malawi, but it oc-curs alongside and is often interspersed with Chichewa”. While this is true, in actual fact, the reverse trend is increasingly observed, where the rap is predominantly in Chichewa, but occasionally sprinkled with English.


Following Alcinda Honwana’s argumentsabout waithood as an important social factor in explaining the experiences of frustration among African youth, I have argued here that alcoholism is an important register of such frustration among the youth in Malawi. This youthful alcoholism, I have also suggested,  permeates the expression of musical creativ-ity by young artists in Malawi. While alcohol-ism and musical expressions are both social avenues for Malawian youth to escape their frustrations, neither profoundly obliterates their reality of waithood.

As is also the case elsewhere across Africa, many young men and women continue to be denied opportunities for productive lives that would enable them to thrive.

I have shown that the lyrics of the songs of young artists are a fruitful avenue for ex-amining the plight of the youth in postcolonial Africa and their frustrations with their governments. In the context of Malawi, I have also shown that instead of addressing this youthful frustration through policies that foster youth-ful creativity and productivity, the govern-ment views these youth as a threat to the social and political order in the country.

The govern-ment’s policies of cracking down on the youth and on the associated issue of alcoholism only reinforce the sense of marginalization felt by Malawian youth.

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