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"I Affirm the Soul in Each Person": Hip-Hop Poetry from South Africa

Posted on November 03, 2021

Image: Zanele Montele, iThemba'lethu, 2020, acrylic on canvas.

I affirm the soul in each person
I affirm the soul in each person
It’s clean as a bone with the vocal tone
Who is still suffering?

With these powerful words, the South African rapper Martin SIEP Muller begins his new song "Affirm," just published in English translation in the magazine Words Without Borders, along with a video of SIEP performing "Affirm" in the original Kaaps. 

Affirming the Kaaps Language 

If the Kaaps language (pronounced "Kahps") is new to you, you're not alone. Although Kaaps has been around since the 1500s, the first dictionary of the language is only being created now. Why? 

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the language was primarily used by working-class people and people of color in South Africa, a place with "persistent high levels of inequality," according to the U.N. 

Recognition of the language we speak is vital to our experience of being human, as Olivia M. Coetzee points out in her essay on Kaaps for WWB:

Language is more than just a method of communication. It is about the ability to lay down roots, to settle into an identity, to have a place in history, in the present, and in the future.  ( . . . "This Language Called Kaaps")
Author and Kaaps translator Olivia M. Coetzee.

The Kaaps dictionary, and new publications of Kaaps-language literature, affirm the legitimacy of this language as a form of expression. And in an interview published in The Conversation, Adam Haupt, one of the dictionary's compilers, draws a connection between that project and songs like "Affirm."  

We are drawn to hip hop’s desire to validate black modes of speech. In a sense, this is what a dictionary will do for Kaaps.
Meet the Author and Translator 
Nathan and Andre Trantraal, and Martin SIEP Muller.

"Affirm," or “Beklemtoon” in the original Kaaps, was translated for Words Without Borders by Andre Trantraal, a South African writer and cartoonist who co-created the graphic fiction series "Coloureds" with his brother Nathan.

Based in Capetown, South Africa, Martin SIEP Muller -- whose middle name is an acronym for Soul In Every Person -- is a community activist, rapper, MC, producer, beat-maker, and DJ, and recording artist based in Capetown, South Africa. (Even that long list does not sum up all he does: according to a profile in the zine Klyntji, SIEP also runs school workshops, produces a podcast and hosts a radio show.)

Students might be interested in visiting SIEP's website, finding him on social media, or listening to a 10-minute English-language interview in which he discusses South African hip-hop, describes his influences, and explains how he got his start as an artist (around minute four.) 

In that interview, SIEP describes himself as "always working to be better, every day" – as one might also gather from his Instagram page:

Interested in bringing "Affirm" and other South African writing to your students? Get resources and ideas in the Part 2 of this post, here! 

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