Lyrics With No Limits

With the music industry dominated by English-speaking artists, the question remains: Can musicians have success in the global marketplace while performing in their native language?

Brainpower – born Gertjan Mulder – was, and is, an enormously successful rap artist in Europe. In his 15-year career, he has released a dozen albums and EPs, rocked the festival circuit back and forth, brought home stacks of awards and generally made a nuisance of himself as one of the premier Dutch-language MCs around. However, a few months ago, Brainpower did something seemingly out of character: he began rapping in English, collaborating with American artists in an attempt to expand his career to the United States. He was, in effect, dumping his entire career back to square one. He’s gone from rocking huge stadium shows in Europe to playing for 150 people in the more intimate surroundings of the Viper Room in Los Angeles.

Of course, it’s a little more complicated than that. Brainpower grew up writing down the lyrics of Stateside artists like Run-DMC, The D.O.C, Kool Moe Dee and Public Enemy, and his first single, 1999’s Lyricist, was in English. “I was always rhyming in English,” he says, “but when I started to do the Dutch thing, in the late 1980s, people were like, that’s also great. And then you had a few groups who were releasing records in Dutch – probably around 1991 to 1995. People were like, ‘you gotta do the Dutch stuff’, but I felt like I needed to do both. I felt like I had to get the world to understand me.”

It’d be easy to be cynical about this – to see Brainpower’s USA move as that of an artist not quite satisfied with being big in Europe. There are two things that dispel that notion. Firstly, most of his work in the US has been with artists not known for their commercial potential – you work with Jean Grae, W.C and PMD because you dig their style, not because you want to sell millions of records. And secondly, Brainpower is an immensely gifted MC, whatever language he’s rapping in. He is, quite simply, someone who was born to rap. “I’m not really trying to ‘break in’ to those countries,” he says. “That’s not what it’s about. Music is a necessity for me, and I want to move the crowd. Breaking through, in a different country, is an old-school idea. It’s about being the best artist you can be, and having a message that resonates with people.”

What his move has done, however, is highlight something unusual. As little as two decades ago, if you were a Dutch-language artist, then there was no way that you were ever going to perform outside Dutch-speaking territories. Not a chance. Not even if you spoke another language perfectly.

That’s changing; and it’s changing in a big way. Audiences are much more comfortable with lyrics that aren’t in their home language, far more than they used to be. Brainpower is just one example. Think of The White Stripes, performing in French, or Beck, in Spanish, or even Devendra Banhart, who among other languages has been known to sing in Achumawi (it’s a language spoken by the Pit River people in California, in case you were wondering). Listeners now, it seems, are far less inclined to care about the language they’re hearing. They just want to rock out. “When you rhyme, it’s the spirit and emotion you convey,” says Brainpower. “If I’m able to do it in two languages, it opens up more possibilities for me as an artist. You have a broader market, commercially, but it’s also about having more emotional choices.”

Other artists are encountering this too. Maxhoba Maponya is one of them. The singer goes by his first name, or simply Hoba. He comes from the tiny South African mining town of Welkom, which is nothing if not linguistically diverse. “A lot of people come through there,” he says. “The predominant language is Sesotho, but my parents were Xhosa. Growing up, when I met up with hardcore Tswana cats like [local heavyweight] HHP, it all gelled together.” Maxhoba capitalises on his heritage, and performs in no less than five languages: English, Xhosa, Sesotho, Tswana and Zulu. It’s the equivalent of performing a triple-double back somersault every time he steps on stage.

Maxhoba is not all that well known out of Africa, but he has had a fair amount of touring experience elsewhere to test the impact of the language barrier. “I did a show in Thailand, a year or two ago, in Bangkok,” he says. “My first show was cool, at the South African Embassy, and I hustled and got another gig later on. They do speak English, but not Xhosa or Zulu or Tswana or Sotho. I just had to explain what the song was about, and then do my thing. It ended up not being a problem as such – I just had a lot of people come to me and say, ‘so, what language was that?’ ‘What did you mean by this?”

And that’s the thing. It may have been tricky, and he may have had to switch up his style a little, but Maxhoba’s audiences were never perturbed by the fact that he didn’t speak their language. As immigration has increased across the world (the United Nations estimates that there were 232m migrants moving around the planet in 2013) so too it seems has the tolerance of music fans for artists from different cultures and using different languages. There’s a long way to go in terms of mass acceptance, but audiences seem to be finding that other languages seem a lot less threatening than in the past.

“You can get an emotion from music, and you have no idea what they’re talking about,” Maxhoba explains. “It’s a commitment to the art that makes that happen. Sometimes, someone could be singing in [your own language] but you don’t give a damn what they say, because they’re not talking to you. But if an artist is true and honest to themselves, that honesty comes out.”

Nor is this a conversation about the dominance of English over other languages. Far from it. The more languages an artist speaks, the bigger the palate that he or she has to draw from in order to spark their lyrical creativity. Maxhoba, for example, is able to draw from five different tongues to create his music. Even Brainpower, who performs in two, knows how important this versatility can be to the creative process: “Language is something you can paint different pictures with, and each language has its own colour. For instance, when I talk to you, and I say something, it sounds different to when I’d say it in Dutch. If you want to get a certain emotion, you pick different words in different languages. I want to be able to do it all.”

Of course, this isn’t easy. Mixing languages does come with its own hazards. “I have a song (that I feature on) coming out this month … called Drop That Kick,” Brainpower says. “You couldn’t really say that in Dutch – you’d say ‘drop die kick’. But if you really wanted to say it in Dutch, you’d say: ‘laat die bas drum gaan.’ It’s OK, but doesn’t sound as cool. It sounds funny!”

The rapper explains: “The reason I started to rhyme in Dutch seriously was because I wanted to make that language sound funky. If you say
1988 was great’ in English, that sounds dope. But in Dutch, you’d have to say ‘negentien achtentachtig was prachtig’. It’s a whole different thing.”

On a track Brainpower did with New York artists Brooklyn Academy and Thirstin Howl III – again, not rappers you’d want to link with if your sole concern was challenging Lady Gaga for chart supremacy – he flips from Dutch to English mid-verse. It’s a surprising, refreshing moment, like someone has just adjusted a mental TV so the signal suddenly becomes crystal clear.

Make no mistake – there’s still a long way to go before Maxhoba is selling out tours in Asia, or Brainpower is headlining Madison Square Garden. You only need to glance online to see that the numbers don’t always tip in their favour. Brainpower’s big Dutch single Boks Ouwe, released in 2008, has over 1.6 million views on YouTube. His joint with dancehall artist Yellowman? Less than 50,000. There is a long, long way to go before artists are able to have success in their own languages outside of their own countries.

Not that this bothers Brainpower too much, or Maxhoba. “At this point, it sounds like a cliche,” He says: “But with me, the music I write and perform, the emotions are always captured – it’s more than the lyrics or the melodic lines. It’s the energy that I exude. I capture my audience.” For more information on Brainpower and Maxhoba, visit their websites at and

Rob Boffard