Year of the Dogs
From 1969 until 1972, Steve Biko published a series of articles under the heading ‘I Write What I Like’. This blunt assertion of his authorship was both a lit flare of defiance beneath the government censor, as well as a calculated testament to the act of self-expression. One of the leading activists in the fight against apartheid, he spoke of a liberty not only from racial segregation, but from the psychological wounds inflicted by decades of white minority rule— co-founding the Black Consciousness Movement to empower Africans to take pride in their own skin, their own language, in order to escape the subjugating gaze of the oppressor. Before his death at the hands of state security, Biko was the voice of youth in a movement that had lost its leaders to exile and imprisonment, a freedom fighter and socialist whose ideas still echo into the future.
In 2021, the South Africa that Biko Mabuse and the rest of Johannesburg hip-hop collective 12 Dogs inhabit is another country: a young democracy in the grip of COVID-19; still labouring under the weight of its recent history. The speeches and ideals of the struggle are inscribed in its very soil, alongside even deeper furrows carved out by staggering inequality and colonial extraction, while the deaths of icons like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu have once again left the nation in the loudness of their silence.
And it is with a direct line to this past era of prophets and revolutionaries that 12 Dogs approach their music. A 5-member outfit of rappers and multi-instrumentalists barely out of high-school, Biko, Justin Blanckensee, Kabir Jugram, Thabiso Holele and Lukas van Garderen are making howling statements with explicit purpose. To listen to Consequence of Sound, their fantastic project from earlier this year, is to hear the actualising power of writing: a spirit that underpins fleet lyrics and urgent deliveries to capture what it is to grow up in the half-shadow of apartheid, and beneath the electric blue skies of Johannesburg.
First things first— shit sounds good. The production is expertly crafted, super-clean, bearing the clear imprint of old-school hip-hop across scuffed loops and samples, while its lush and melodic instrumentals burnish an indefatigably local sound. On top of these homegrown beats, each vocalist flows with increasing energy and outrage, every line a witness to their sharpening skills. This raw, untested quality only elevates the slickness of their entendres and flexes, which practically trip over themselves in breathless succession:
‘’I’ll never fade
I’m a renegade
So out the box tear the cellophane
Kill a plastic rapper and prepare a grave
Piss on corpses, give him drip for days.”
Across ten cohesive tracks, they weave cyphers, protests and somber vigils, on an album that bears witness to post-colonial scarring and blood-stained economics, cutting a razor sharp line between rap cinema, ragged manifesto and cold hard reality.
‘Thoughts and Prayers’ is a swerving, open-topped ride that trades highway dust and drug deals for a birds-eye view of the Jozi skyline, while ‘Turn it Up’ pulls up to the indoor grooves of a Brixton house party, both tracks highlighting the ease in which they switch up between hell-raising and homilies. At the halfway mark, ‘Lights Out’ moves through darkened streets, flipping irony over Eskom’s frequent power-outages into a bruising polemic against the national violence that takes place in broad daylight.
The group's hardest track is easily ‘Kiss of Death’, which sets some of their best lines against a brooding beat that makes Kabir and Thabiso’s verses sound like they’re spitting blood. The stakes are raised by ticking clocks, wept pleas and hardboiled narration, but it’s often in simple hooks like "we all just begging for change / so motherfuckers can stop begging for change", that the brick wall of progress looms largest.
From the scourge of gender-based violence to unemployment levels that would devastate any Western nation, the cracks on the surface of South Africa’s rainbow nation are plain to see— and 12 Dogs waste no time in calling out the failures of the ruling ANC party on top of centuries of foreign exploitation and violence. Ultimately, however, it is the resentment and the numbing venom of disillusionment that their generation suffers in a country that has literally had its future stolen out from under it— in the gold mines that underlie its undistributed prosperity and fractured, ancient landscapes.
And on the final songs of the album, it is in these expanses of the natural world that a mournful beauty finally emerges. The title track slow-bleeds with guitar lines, forming a red horizon split between the rubbled earth and burning sky, between the graves of the past and the fugitive possibility of change at sunset. ‘Broken Nation’ and ‘Sirens!’ are wintry codas that lope across the veld in pursuit of this failing light ahead, while something in the piano keys captures everything it means to love your country while trying to escape, mourn and commemorate its past.
With Consequence of Sound, 12 Dogs released one of the year’s most exciting recordings, one that is sure to go relatively unnoticed by those who missed its ignition in the heart of Johannesburg’s East side. They may have some ways to go as a collective, and I hope that the polish of their production and wordplay develops in directions as raw and interrogating as their message. But enough of all that! Right here is an album to leave tyre-tracks in your ears, bars repeating in your head and a blazing South African dream playing in HD behind your eyelids. Say it with me now. 2021— the year of the dogs.
Sam Harding is a student at York and an enthusiast of mosh pits. He is trying to marry music with writing but is running out of onomatopoeia. Life soundtrack includes underground rap and electronic bleep bloops.
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