About a year or so ago, veteran and relevant (in that order) entertainment journalist Plot Mhako wrote, “Union 5 _ write this name down. 2019 hip hop’s-finest”. During the time I might have looked at him crazy or something, unlike most of the time I see or hear his artistic consignment.
The endorsement came after it was made public knowledge that the kid was among the 10 African artistes selected by emPawa100 and Nigeria’s Mr Eazi for an opportunity to do a four-week music master-class with popstar Raye and renowned producer Diplo. Remorsefully to say, I didn’t bother to check out any of his existing works then, even against that milieu. All I did was thought of the rapper within the context of every other hyped-out wordsmith with no musical substance whatsoever that are out there popping in the proverbial streets. The “we are the new gangsters” and “we all swear and we’re arrogant womanising misogynists that drink copious amounts of Hennessy” type of rapper. The “we have a lot of kids to different women” artist. The self-centred egotistic and one-dimensional SoundCloud spitters that pelt journalists and bloggers for not writing about them when they can’t even make fans out of their own immediate friends.
As the year proceeded, I stumbled upon somewhere where it was written that he gave a stellar performance at the Change A Life Concert which was headlined by South African rapper Nasty C at Pabloz VIP car park in Borrowdale. Still, that did not clout me to his creative lane either, even though his name came up in assorted “best promising rap cats of 2019” millennial conversations in several social group chats I was in. I was adamant AF to, because to me there was nothing special about him.
Then 2020 happened.
In one of my weird YouTube new music check routine, I landed on a grey-scale three months old video with a classic whip that gave me some good vibes nostalgia. The transitions are spooky and haunting. The make-up and costumes worn in the video gives you impressions like it was sponsored by anyone from ASAP Mob. The overall energy is pretty spectacular. The drums are heavy, so is the bass, and before I could tell, I was bouncing.
“These niggaz wanna talk shit, they don’t wanna see you succeed, Everybody wanna get rich but they don’t work as hard as me,” raps the twisted pretty-boy in the video, while he cranks up the weirdness.
It is much more than just a music video. It’s a short film and a piece of art. Everything from the editing, mise-en-scene, makeup and costuming make this four minutes+ work of art so special. It’s difficult enough to tell one effective story through visuals, but the laddie managed to do so. The title of the video is “They Don’t” and, to much of my surprise, it was performed by Union5, real name Tafara Dondo.
I was awestruck. In fact, I didn’t feel cool at all. I felt bad. I sat there with my shoulders slumped, guilt running through my body.
I have been sleeping on this kid.
A part of me was like, dude wait, don’t feel any bad now; let’s check out some of his material to see if he’s always been THIS good or if you’re just witnessing the metamorphosis from wackiness to dopeness which usually comes with either work ethic or experience.
I went and checked out another single, “Hands”, which pretty much follows the creative direction in “They Don’t”.
I was rejuvenated. Much of the mastery behind this video has to do with the work that was put in in the editing room. From the filters used in post-production to the glitchy effects and the superimposition, it shows even more evolution from Union5. I can tell he doesn’t have access to all the resources he may need, but he uses what he has to make memorable videos.
I harked back to another video. This time a year-old visual for “Hona Magetsi” filmed by Dir Kmane. The song was filtered through a unique lens but it still flows in the same creative outlet and the motifs of the aforementioned videos. Actually, by virtue of lifespan, it gave birth to what we are witnessing in “They Don’t” and “Hands”.
What started on YouTube ended up on SoundCloud where I found myself on the shores of his HYPE 2 EP released sometime in 2019.
Listening to whirlwind songs like “Sixteen”, “Checked”, “Blaz” and “Assume”, it is clear that Union5’s great gift isn’t that he flies above rap trends. Albeit, it is that he contorts them at whims.
A rapper who doubles as a beatboxer, he is an ostentatious impresario who takes hollowed-out cloud rap and makes it all sound cool. He might be small and underappreciated now, but the impact that he has made or can make on Zimbabwe and its hip-hop scene is mighty. If offered an opportunity, he could possibly push the Zimhip-hop genre into new, unfound territories.
I hear you looking at me but I’m not crazy. Think about it. For real for real. Why do I say the most underappreciated? Simple. When was the last time you had a conversation about snowballing artists and Union5’s name came up? I’ll wait. This is despite the fact that he’s not only been around for what feels like a minute but has been making music that most of us have been listening to, haughtily.
When rap is repetitive, the culture laments. Indeed, hip-hop’s infatuation with high art has largely been corny and naïve, but tucked between the pomp and the self-importance is a real sense of conviction, that rap is a worthwhile investment of time and effort, for the culture, and for artists themselves. Union5 is a case of an attempt to escape musical clichés but instead overwhelms with peculiar alternatives. This is why his discography, although relatively small and young, has enjoyable moments, songs and visuals.
He deserves a seat at the table of new promising rap folks, and hopefully, he gets his due one day.
If you have never heard his music, you absolutely should head to your nearest streaming service. Let the speakers blare, let the teenagers down, let the lights flash. May the youth be empowered, not poisoned, by the sounds in their ears.