As a father-figure in South African hip-hop, there’s a lot Emile Lester Jansen, aka Emile YX?, knows. He’ll also tell you, there’s a lot he doesn’t. But the knowledge Emile has gained, over his 3 decades in music, he’s always tried to share with others. His latest project is no different. The Black Noise founder is working on a book that identifies the similarities between Bushmen expression and hip-hop, and how this knowledge can help empower anyone who has a love of the culture.
The book, which will be called Reconnect The String, comes on the back of this year’s 21st anniversary of the African Hip Hop Indaba, one of the landmark hip hop events in Cape Town created by Emile, which has helped many an artist launch their career. As a teacher and a musician, he’s long been involved in using hip hop to uplift communities—first through the seminal group Black Noise, founded in the late 1980s, with its rhymes rallying against Apartheid, and then through the Heal the Hood organization, a non-profit that grew out of the group’s efforts to use its love of hip hop to fuel youth development initiatives in townships on the Cape Flats.
He’s written dozens of books before, most of them self-published, and many for children. Along the way he’s inspired others, like Black Pearl, sister of the late revered Capetonian emcee Devious, to put out a book too. “If an ou [guy] with big hair can write a book, then people can see that anyone can write a book!” he tells OkayAfrica, over the phone from Fremont in California, where he’s been quarantining with his wife’s family. Emile’s own venture into publishing began when he became a father. “I was about to sing ‘Hush-a-bye-Baby,’ and then realized, ‘what the f*** are you about to do? You’re going to traumatize your laatie [little son] with the bough breaking and cradle falling and all that!'” So he made up his own stories and started researching others.
Emile has released eleven books, from the first one, which was essentially a photocopy that he would give out at the schools where he used to go and talk to youngsters about hip-hop. “They would ask me, ‘what is hip-hop?’ and so I called it, What is Hip Hop.” He also wrote My Hip Hop is African and Proud, where he would take rhymes and explain them, and share papers and books that were important in the development of his understanding of Black Consciousness. “Like, Steve Biko‘s I Write What I Like, that kind of thing; how hip hop, specifically, influenced my thinking in that direction,” he says.
Conscious Rhymes for Unconscious Times came out of a call from Afrika Bambaata and Zulu Nation. “They were saying, to change the situation, we need alternative information. Sometimes it feels like, I don’t know if I’m the only one listening to these challenges the hip hop community puts out,” he chuckles. Another book, Rapss, compiled material collected from people in the communities where he would teach, to give others a sense of what it’s like to have their work published.
Each book has been created out of a need. The same, says Emile, is true of Reconnect the String. “Since I started my journey in hip hop, I’ve seen a thread,” he says. “There are some things that are in there that would be beneficial to people who are involved in the arts. At the same time, I was reading about Bushmen. At this time, it almost feels like there’s this fight going on between people that are extremely polarized, especially here in the US, to such an extent that there can be no conversation. It’s like, ‘I’m right, and we can’t see eye to eye ever.’ While reading about the Bushmen, the thing that stands out is this willingness to communicate. The Bushmen were the first to write, even though it was cuneiform, picture writing.”
Emile believes going back to what the Bushmen knew and understood to be true would provide much guidance for today. “Why are people afraid to say, ‘I am African?’ Why is there this disconnect?” He believes the very disconnect between African-Americans and Africa is why hip hop from the South Bronx found an audience in Cape Town. “As so-called Coloureds, we could identify with everything they were feeling and saying,” he says. As Emile explains further, he came to see that in a number of Bushmen drawings there was often a white lion. “It represents this connection to the big love, to God, that all life forms are connected. But that string has been disconnected,” he says. Through the book, Emile hopes to ‘reconnect’ this string, and show how hip hop is connected to Bushmen expression.
“There’s a circle, we clap our hands in the circle, we go into trance—Kool Herc said it actually looked like the guys who were break-dancing had broken away; that they weren’t ‘there’ anymore,” he says. “The vinyl is a circle; writing on rock, graffiti is basically the same thing. The storyteller around the fire, exaggerating parts of the story — all these elements of hip hop have resonance in Bushmen culture.” For Emile, there’s a central question: “How do I connect hop hip as a culture but bring in this heritage to look beyond it?”
Over 14 chapters, with titles like ‘The Village, The Crew, The Posse’ and ‘Your Creativity is the Manifestation of Your God-self,’ Emile further explains the connections, and at the same time, creates a manual for how to best build a life out of this creativity.
The book is being crowdfunded, with proceeds going towards the Heal the Hood Project. Through the knowledge he aims to share in the book, Emile hopes real healing itself can take place — the kind that comes from within. “In the book, I speak about this alternative, where the Bushmen actually think of themselves as enough as they are. If you gave them a whole bag of money and they needed to make a fire, that s*** would be set alight,” he says.
For Emile, ‘reconnecting the string’ is also about re-establishing our humanity and looking at different value systems. “For a long time, Heal the Hood was teaching skills,” he says. “We were teaching b-boying, we were sending ouens [men] to Battle of the Year in Germany, paying for these flights, and then at one point we were like, unless we change people’s minds, unless we give them alternative information so that we heal the way we think, all of this is just pissing in the wind, ek sê. There’s no healing taking place.”