If the hip hop culture had a redheaded stepchild, Afrikaans rap would be it. Cape Town’s own, Hemel Besem, spoke to Helen Herimbi about that scene and his sounds.

Unless colloquial Afrikaans comes easily to you, you may wonder what in the world a Hemel Besem is. On the intro of his recent album, Uwil Isi Makliki, Besem’s good friend and Tennessee rapper, Ryan “Brown” Delton, puts on a nasal accent and pokes fun at how Americans would say Besem’s name.

“He was just trying to show how, in South Africa, in the hip hop scene especially, kids just imitate that American scene and that’s sad,” Besem tells me when we meet at a busy eatery on a warm day.

But to get to the heart of the matter, the rapper who was born Simon Witbooi – “Witbooi, die witste boy,” he laughs – cites his love for double entendres as a starting point for his alias.

“My name is two-fold,” he says.

“In Afrikaans it means ‘a tall, big person’, but as you can see, I’m not all that tall. In fact, when I go to perform at these festivals, I climb out of the car and people say: ‘Waar is die hemel besem?’ But that’s who I am inside,” he laughs.

“The other meaning is ‘a sweeper from heaven’ so I guess I’m cleaning out this rap game in a sense. Basically, what I feel is false in the industry is what I try to eradicate through my works and my words.”

Before he took hip hop on as a career, Besem says he had to look up to the likes of Prophets of the City who “had Afrikaans tracks, but because of the political climate at the time, they weren’t going to see the light of day.”

He also gives a hat tip to Brasse vannie Kaap (BVK) and Isaac Mutant with whom Besem released a joint album called Double Story.

In terms of who is flying the Afrikaans hip hop flag high at the moment, Besem says to look out for “Garlic Brown who rhymes sick and Jaak, because what he’s done for Afrikaans hip hop is amazing. But all the up-and-coming Afrikaans hip hop artists push each other and the creativity has developed to an extent you can outshine any act on stage.”

He would know because he did that at the last Cape Town’s Finest concert at Zula.

But, Besem says the scene still lacks a few things. Most notably, “the business element has faltered along the way. That’s why some people call Cape Town ‘Slaapstad’ because culture is still way more important to us than money. For instance, there are Park Jams galore, but no one is getting paid.”

Through his sample-heavy hard beats and impressive wordplay that is undeniably top notch even though a non-Afrikaans-speaking hip hop lover may not catch every metaphor, Hemel Besem attempts to address it all. But it doesn’t stop with his music.

“Since he first jumped on to a stage and performed – “first in English, like most of my peers” – in 1997, Besem has made it his mission to bring about change for the better in his culture and in his community. As he mentions often in this interview: “I have a deeper purpose than just rap. As Immortal Technique says: ‘the purpose of life is a life with purpose.’”

Although he admits that “being one of 10 children and growing up poor, living in shacks” meant he “had to mature quickly,” this Namaqualander who now resides in Woodstock says he was always drawn to the arts. “I always had a thing for words,” he tells me, “especially if they are placed in a poetic way, then the beauty of it really stirs me.”

It’s with this in mind and his passion for seeing his community grow and flourish that he set about creating music on one side and working for and with NGOs on the other. He went to the US for an internship at an NGO, came back and did his bit in raising awareness about foetal alcohol syndrome and even wrote public service announcements for certain organisations.

Having hosted a hip hop youth radio show on Valley Radio for the past nine years, Besem continues to spread his wings. He’s even got a hip hop documentary series in the works with RSG. But Besem maintains he’ll do whatever he can to see Afrikaans hip hop and his community in a better place.