I’m a hip hop head. I grew up on Hip Hop. People like Nas, Lauryn Hill and Yasiin Bey (then known as Mos Def) helped me find my creative identity, craft my social awareness and amplify my voice. My curiosity about Africa, her history and peoples was greatly influenced by these musicians’ lyrics and although I’ve collected new favourites with time, they still rank high up in my hierarchy of greats. So when I heard that Yasiin would be Creative Director of Unknown Union, a Cape Town-New York clothing company that will soon launch a unique collection featuring pieces made from the traditional blankets of the Basotho people, I paid attention.

Mosotho woman leading a traditional dance image courtesy of Meri Hyoky
Mosotho woman leading a traditional dance image courtesy of Meri Hyoky

The Unknown Union team also runs an independent corporation called Mountain Kingdom, which won the rights to globally distribute Basotho heritage blankets of Aranda Textiles, a South African manufacturing company that produces the blankets exclusively. I previously wrote about this marriage of convenience here.

Despite the commitment by Mountain Kingdom to bring some blanket production to Lesotho and donate to a Lesotho-based charity, I cannot fight off this nagging feeling that an entire culture of people is being exploited by Unknown Union as they design high-end bomber jackets out of our heritage blankets.

The fine print
Yasiin Bey is a profound artist, advocate of social justice and fashion icon who has demonstrated his love for Africa and her diverse cultures throughout his career. He made Hip Hop history by becoming the first American emcee to move to the African south and settle his family in Cape Town. Whether the gesture was an expression of real love or simply a “motherland” fetish is open for debate but he kept it up for at least four years.

One can only speculate on the reasons he agreed to the Unknown Union appointment but from a business perspective it would appear to be complementary. For Unknown Union to bring on a black conscious rapper into their team is a strategic move to counter inevitable criticism, among other things, especially during these times when cultural appropriation is such a hot topic. Not to mention both parties gain some serious publicity when marketing to the West.

A group of Basotho men donned in their blankets at Morija arts and cultural festival-source Ethnic jewel forum
A group of Basotho men donned in their blankets at Morija arts and cultural festival-source Ethnic jewel forum

Nothing personal, just business
Granted Lesotho can do with economic relief; it suffers a great deal of brain drain and art is treated like a joke not worthy of investing in. Perhaps we cannot hold it against anyone who recognises Lesotho’s vast potential for their gain. If we are busy sleeping on our own cultural treasures, maybe we should not get mad when someone else sees their value.

We allow political authorities to continuously over-look creativity and act as though we are helpless and have our hands tied. This kind of attitude conveniently sets us up to have other people tell our stories for us and create wealth from it, and then we proceed to complain in shallow-whispers when it happens.

When Hip Hop was born it was ridiculed and had virtually no support from the powers that be (government, mainstream media etc), but it persevered because it was and still is genuine culture. To date Hip Hop has developed into one of the most lucrative entertainment genres globally, to the extent that it has been exotified and watered down into a commercial tool. Sesotho culture is no different in its potency and uniqueness and it absolutely should be celebrated. Should it be commoditised by people who are not well acquainted with its lived experience though? Now that is a different story!