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A South African Rapper Takes on AIDS and the Status Quo in Hip Hop

23-year-old hip-hop artist Pelé Maree, who raps about everything from HIV prevention to political assassinations, is drawing the attention of music fans and social justice advocates alike.

Born in Philadelphia to an American mother and South African father, Pelé Maree was only nine years told when his family relocated to Johannesburg, South Africa. He was immediately struck by just how different it was from Philadelphia. “It was definitely abrupt as far as appearances go,” says the 23-year-old. “We blended in pretty well with our family, but we definitely noticed that things were very different from what were used to in the States.”

Pelé found a new home in Johannesburg, but it wasn’t permanent. After living there steadily for five years, the Maree family then moved back and forth between the United States and South Africa. All totaled, Pelé spent about 10 years in Africa, an experience he says has impacted him greatly. “I feel like I see things through a slightly different lens because I was always able to make comparisons,” he says, “to contrast the things I saw from moving around a lot or changing schools.”

With such rich experiences from which to draw, it didn’t take long for Pelé to turn his life into art.

He started writing rap lyrics in middle school, which, at the time, may have been to his detriment. “I was supposed to be taking notes, and all of a sudden I look up and the teacher was erasing the board,” he says with a burst of laughter. “I might have missed whatever I was supposed to write down.”

The learning loss couldn’t have been too bad, of course, as Pelé eventually found himself at the University of Florida, where his music career really began to take shape.

Driven by a childhood spent in the tumultuous South Africa, and surrounded by UF’s academics, it was in college that Pelé’s music started becoming political—an inclination pushed even further by his brother, Daniel. “When he discovered that I that I had this passion for music and that I could put a couple of words together and make them sound kind of good, he decided that this is something he would like to help me with,” says Pelé.

The brothers teamed up to found Ubuntu Universal, an independent record label “dedicated to African development and cross-cultural communication.” And in 2007, Pelé released his first full-length project, a joint effort with Gambian emcee KJ Conteh. Complete with songs like “Poor Child” and “If I Should Die,” the album, The Vyndication, showed the early signs of Pelé’s evolution into the socially minded rapper he is today.

Onstage, Pelé goes by the handle Rap’s Revolutionary. He says the name “stems from the idea that my music is more politically conscious.” “It’s not the typical hip-hop that you might find on TV,” says Pelé. “If you were to just turn on a random music channel and see what is rap, what is hip-hop, I believe you would find that my music goes more in the way that traditional hip-hop really started.”

Pelé believes that music has a unique ability to reach people in ways that things like advertising can’t. To that end, he’s dedicated much of his recent work to combating HIV and AIDS, which have ravaged Africa over the past few decades. “When you drive by a billboard on the highway or hear an advertisement on the radio, saying, don’t forget it’s HIV month, it’s so easy to just forget about that,” he says. “But when you make a song that actually discusses in really raw detail what [HIV can do], then people will relate more to it. It’s more than just a paid program—a paid advertisement—it’s the truth.”

Pelé says he aims to discuss more pragmatic considerations, focusing less on dramatic imagery and more on the way HIV pervades daily life in Africa. On the song “Tomorrow,” for instance, Pelé raps, “If you ain’t strappin’ a condom on, you better off masturbatin’/ you want to show the ladies who the man is, but don’t you understand you only doin’ damage.”

Pelé speaks candidly about personal prevention methods, including testing and condom use throughout many of his songs. As you might imagine, it’s not the sort of music advertisers are rushing to put in Coke commercials. Nevertheless, the musician believes that he could one day score an HIV/AIDS awareness campaign. That said, Pelé also says he never wants to get locked into situation where he must “say these five words that are supposed to advertise the campaign.”

Pelé and Daniel continue to make music as often as they can, bouncing ideas off each other constantly. Pelé says that Daniel might come to him and say, “I wish I could make a song or something about Darfur or the long running war in the Congo.” Within days, Pelé will be attacking those topics in song. The rapper directly takes on the possible political assassination of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on “Darfur.” In no uncertain terms, he raps, “A few marines could take Omar out of here.”

To be sure, not all Pelé’s tracks are hyper-political. Recently, he shot a video for the song “Come with Me” in Johannesburg and Durban, South Africa. The video depicts the late-night club scene of the country, though noticeably absent are the near-naked women, bottles of champagne, and platinum chains that pervade most rap videos. That’s something Pelé promises more of in the future. “When I see a music video with five Lamborghinis and three women half-naked in bikinis, I think they are just doing anything they can do to keep your attention,” he says. “It certainly shows what they are rapping about and whether their message is worth listening to.”

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