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Research in Film Award Winners: AWA: Zimbabwe's Rap Queen

AWA performing on stage at Shoko Festival
AWA performing on stage at Shoko Festival. © Max Thurlow

“When I'm dressed to do this I feel powerful, like superman in his costume. I'm superwoman. I feel like I can save the world and fly,” says Zimbabwean rapper, AWA, the star of AWA: Zimbabwe’s Rap Queen. “I feel like I can do anything.”

The Arts and Humanities Research Council Research in Film award-winning film transports the viewer to the dusty streets of Africa as seen through the eyes of a local hip hop star as she shares her perspective on music and a community deeply scarred by violence and poverty.

The filmmaker, Max Thurlow, originally travelled to southern Africa to make a film about a music festival being staged by In Place of War, a charity based at The University of Manchester.

But as soon as he met AWA he knew he had to change his plans. “She was set to perform at the festival and I met her there,” he says. “As soon as she started talking I could see she was a really gracious, lovely person.

“I had heard beforehand about some of the topics she rapped about, and so I asked her about her life and immediately felt inspired by her. I knew I had to make my film about her.”

The resulting film mixes interviews and reportage to follow AWA through her creative processes and daily life as she prepares for Shoko Festival, the biggest hip hop concert in Zimbabwe.

AWA posing in front of a door

The film explores the intriguing contrast between AWA’s quiet, thoughtful off-stage persona and her intense live performances; a juxtaposition reinforced by the way that the gentle tinkling of the film's Kalimba soundtrack is suddenly punched through by AWA's fiery performances.

“She's got a great presence and a really infectious enthusiasm, which I was really inspired and excited by,” says Max. “I thought that, if I could just capture some of her personality on film that would be amazing.”

For her part, AWA was delighted to be involved. “I liked having Max follow me around like a bodyguard!” she jokes. “But seriously, I enjoyed the realness that was in the film. Most people don’t publicise how difficult it is to be an artist, especially from Zimbabwe. They cover up the struggles we go through and the videos only show people in fancy cars looking like superstars. Some kids even end up quitting school so they can rap and live large not knowing the sweat that will be necessary to become successful.

“Max and I were showing people the darker side of the moon; the humble beginnings the challenges.”

At the heart of AWA's art is her community, Makokoba, on the outskirts of Bulawayo. “I've never seen anything like it,” says Max. “By lunchtime a lot of people are really quite blackout drunk; passing out and falling over. They drink a strong homebrew. Everyone seems to be drinking it, young and old. I really got the sense that it was a place with very little hope. A lot of people who live nearby would not go into the area because it was just too dangerous.”

AWA performing on stage at Shoko Festival
On the streets of Makokoba. © Max Thurlow

It’s Max’s ambition that the film not only celebrates AWA’s talent but also helps lift the wider community. “I do hope people watch the film and just enjoy seeing an amazing person doing amazing things,” he says. “But I also believe that she has a lot to say that should be listened to.”

In particular Max felt it was important to give a platform to a woman challenging the misogynistic norms of American gangster rap, which is the main influence on African hip hop.

“Most of my songs are story songs,” says AWA. “I talk about social issues that mostly affect women, like domestic violence, rape. I felt that, as one of the few women in hip hop I should speak out for women; that I could be the voice of many women.”

Says Max Thurlow: “The things that AWA raps about; about making the right choices, about standing up for your community, that message is important. I really hope the next generation pick up on that.

“I hope we all do.”

Watch the film AWA: Zimbabwe's Rap Queen here.

Watch Max Thurlow talk about why he wanted to make the film with AWA

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