Sometime in the late 1990s, American hip-hop artist Mos Def penned the song Travellin’ Man with Japanese producer and turntablist DJ Honda. It was a paean to the work of the touring artist, with reflections on the grind of long-distance travel, the impact on domestic life and comparisons with the migrant labour commonly associated with the mining industry. The song raises questions about movement (travel) and space (home). I’m reminded of this as I sit down to interview Bernadette Amansure, better known as Burni Aman at her family residence in the suburb of Steenberg, a historically working-class “coloured” neighbourhood south of Cape Town.
Aman was formerly one-third of the Cape Town-bred all-women hip-hop trio Godessa (also including EJ von Lyrik and Shameema Williams), which challenged South African hip-hop’s masculine hegemony with outspoken verbal gymnastics. Strengthened by their individual members’ lyrical depth, Godessa were not afraid to tackle the unholy trinity of racism, sexism and capitalism in their early-2000s releases, such as Social Ills, which garnered airtime on radio and television, and Spillage, their only full-length release as a group.
Three years ago, Aman embarked on her first solo venture. This year she presents the results: the album Sweet Science. It’s the product of a familiar chemistry that includes frequent travel across three continents, collaborations with a number of musical outfits (Godessa, Faranas and Greater Good), and her participation in arts and culture exchanges along the way.
“I’m sort of between two countries at the moment – Switzerland and here. South Africa now is just to come and see family and friends. I’m moving to Switzerland, so I guess it’s home in that sense,” says Aman. She’s preparing to relocate to the Swiss capital Bern after the local launch of her album in February.
The small European country has a reputation for neutrality, chocolate and cheese, but its vibrant music scene, which has provided fertile ground for Aman’s artistic development, is less of a distinctive feature. As a member of Godessa, she participated in the cross-cultural collaborative hip-hop project Rogue State Alliance, which produced two critically acclaimed albums. Through Pro Helvetia, the Swiss Arts Council, Aman was also able to return to Switzerland in 2010 to map out her solo plans.
“Settling in Switzerland will be an adjustment,” says Aman – “different language, different culture.” But she’s picked up a smattering of German, which is enough for her to navigate her way through the cultural travails of German-speaking Switzerland. I jokingly ask her when we can expect to hear her first efforts rapping in German, but she replies quickly: “No, never, not gonna happen ever. I’m comfortable with listening to the music – they have some good German rappers in Switzerland – but I’ll never perform in German. That would be extremely crazy.”
Aman gives the sense she would prefer to keep a healthy level of cultural distance in her adopted home. After all, being an African in Europe hasn’t been easy. Racism and xenophobia are common problems abroad as well. A few years back, in the height of the festive season and the Netherlands’ deeply problematic Zwarte Piet celebrations, Godessa was accosted by a group of drunk men who shouted abuse at them and burped in Aman’s face. And that was not an isolated incident; Aman says she’s been reminded of her “otherness” frequently in Europe’s public spaces.
It is these personal and political challenges that break through the album’s smooth and melodic exterior to manifest themselves in Aman’s lyrics – sometimes delivered in the cadence of a rap artist who has honed her craft, and at other times in the vulnerable tones of a spoken-word poet.
Mystery, which features Raphael Jakob – one of the album’s many collaborators – on the hook, tells the story of a confidence built up and later crushed by a manipulative and dysfunctional relationship between a younger woman and older man, and the freedom that comes from being able to eventually shake the shackles. Silly Love is an ironic ode to the bottle, addiction dressed as love: “When you feel that liquor hitting the back of the throat, does it feel brand new?” On Black, Aman holds up a mirror to those who wear their consciousness like a head wrap, emphasising that “Biko on your back, Che Guevara on your cap … don’t make you black”. Though there are moments of self-love and self-help scattered throughout the album; Aman isn’t shy to dish out tough love or get her critique on.
“The reason the album is called Sweet Science is because I wrote it at quite a difficult time for me. I just moved away from Godessa, and was finding my sound and voice outside of the group.” She’s managed to find it in spades.
It is a remarkable feat that an album with this level of collaboration coheres in the way it does. It really shouldn’t, but Aman somehow manages to fuse it together with her artistic energy. Yet she’s self-effacing about the process: “When I started, I didn’t really have a clear vision of style or genre, or an idea of who I would like to work with. I just asked different producers, and then chose music that I think spoke to me. For certain of the tracks, collaborating with artists, it was a case of, ‘Oh, I like how you’re singing and would you please feature?’ And then we’d have some discussion around what that feature would be.”
Perhaps this is an instance where process and product align in an unexpected way. “After finishing the recording, it seemed to me it was like late-night driving music,” says Aman. “And even after I finished recording, I thought maybe I should add more tracks, because it’s not the typical hip-hop album people expect from me.” I push her to explain what expectations she feels rested on her shoulders: “Harder beats, I think. And one or two tracks that are trendy.”
I’m curious about how artists feel about trends and the need to keep up. Aman’s insights here are illuminating. “It’s important to keep up with trends, but I don’t think trends should define you. I mean, I listen to a lot of stuff. For certain tracks on the album, I would decide I would like this to be in the writing style of that artist, so I’d listen to it a lot. But I don’t think you should allow trends to define who you are.”
Aman goes on to describe the album as a little softer than her previous work, more chilled in its approach and feel. But perhaps the best way to describe it is grown up. “It perfectly describes how I am right now. I feel more settled and more, erm, Burni,” she says laughingly. It’s an album high on traditional musicality through the use of live instrumentation, as well as recording methods that place voice and individual instruments in wide open spaces, an approach that draws in listeners rather than beating them over the head. And Aman is willing to travel across generic borders to find these sounds, drawing on Afrobeat (for the Faranas-assisted Die Kaa) and a mix of rock riffs, ska and gospel-inspired vocals for Children of the Sun.
The album is an artistic success, but it also deserves props for overcoming commercial hurdles – a reality for most local artists that is rarely acknowledged. “When you’re completely independent, resources are definitely a problem,” says Aman. “People still want to get paid, and you can’t do everything on your own. I’m not a mixing and mastering engineer, so I had to find someone to do that. And that person has to get paid.” Fortunately Aman was able to access cultural funding, which gave her the wings to get the album off the ground.
Since Godessa’s split, Aman has carved a rich creative path through collaboration and self-exploration, and this solo outing hints at the rich body of work we can come to expect from her in the future. She’s planning a tour with a Swiss group called Greater Good, and has been asked to do a track with US-based underground stalwart Jean Grae, which may feature on the mix tape she is preparing a for later this year that’s recorded in different time signatures. It seems safe to say that Aman’s bold ventures have led her to both a new physical and creative home.
Sweet Science can be purchased at burniaman.bandcamp.com
Main photograph by Eitan Prince