Rebel Sistah Cypher: Hip-hop as embodied practice for social change


Sudiipta Dowsett, University of New South Wales
Left: Anela Stuurman, emcee, vocalist, activist, member of Soundz of the South and Rebel Sistah Cypher organiser; Right top: flyer for the 2022 Rebel Sistah Cypher event series; Right bottom: Soundz of the South album cover Freedom Warriors Vol. 4, 2022. Images: courtesy of Soundz of the South

This project collaboratively investigates how women in Khayelitsha, a township on the outskirts of Cape Town, are using hip-hop to address issues of racism, sexism, economic oppression and the lasting effects of colonialism and apartheid. Since 2015 the activist hip-hop crew, Soundz of the South, have hosted a regular event called Rebel Sistah Cypher as a space for female hip-hop artists and poets to 'perform critique' and address pressing social issues faced by their communities.  Despite the ‘end’ of apartheid two decades ago, the deep traumatic disruption of colonial and apartheid policies and discourses continue to have a profound impact on everyday experience and how colonised and racialised bodies are inhabited and lived (Fanon 1967; Mbembe 2016) under new forms of neoliberal oppression. In addition to lyrically contesting dominant discourses, hip-hop offers a particular collective mode of inhabiting the body – a way of grasping the world (Merleau-Ponty 1964) through an empowered stance, of navigating post-apocalyptic lifeworlds through a mode of rhythmic embodied wording that centres knowledge of self and deep connection to place through the hip-hop ethic to represent (where you come from). The co-designed project uses practice-based song workshops to document the phenomenon of Rebel Sistah Cypher and ask: What capacities does hip-hop as a distinctive embodied, rhythmic form of experience-based arts-engagement provide women in working for social change in the context of post-apartheid South Africa?  

Dr Sudiipta Dowsett is a Research Associate at the Ethnographic Media Lab (emLAB)/Big Anxiety Research Centre (BARC), at the University of New South Wales. Her research documents and explores the decolonial capacities of hip-hop as global embodied performance practice.

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