The scene outside the airport terminal in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, was an extraordinary sight, even in the fervor we had come to expect from Africans after five days of traveling through South Africa with 50 Cent and G-Unit. Twenty-one of us — a coterie of artists (50, Tony Yayo, Lloyd Banks, DJ Whoo Kid), managers, marketers, production crew and, of course, MTV News — touched down under the blazing midday East African sun for the last of 50 Cent's four concerts on the continent, part of an international swing that also included Asia and Australia.
We made our way through the city's one-story, den-like airport terminal, through local workers, African tourists and a handful of expatriates. 50 Cent, Yayo and Banks were in the rear of our human convoy, with only one security guy (remarkably, the only one in their entire entourage all week) immediately in front of them and two of their managers behind them. Outside loomed a big crowd eager for a glimpse of the world's biggest rappers. We could feel the energy of what lay on the other side of the darkened exit doors before we could see it: an anxious, building chatter of the local language, the bee-like buzz of clicking digital cameras and cell phones.
We had seen dozens of fans in Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa, often outside the hotels, earlier in the week. In Soweto, a group of about 40 or 50 people had gathered at a museum honoring symbolic anti-apartheid figure Hector Pietersen (a 12-year-old boy who was gunned down in a 1976 protest). Their eager and sometimes curious fascination with 50 Cent turned frenzied once he started handing out $20 bills to some of the impoverished kids.
But here, on the steps leading to the small, dilapidated Dar es Salaam airport, the crowd numbered in the hundreds. A few sat on their friends' shoulders, and some gawked from across the street. Interestingly, they formed a polite semicircle that allowed some of us to get through to a caravan of empty cars that would take us to our hotel. But the moment 50 Cent made his way outside, politeness went out the window: There was a roar from the crowd, and then a complete collapse of the security perimeter. 50 and company pushed their way through the throngs, carefully protecting their fitted hats and "day" chains (not the expensive stuff) from the people who just wanted a piece — of anything. (This was just after 50 got his chain snatched while he was onstage in Angola.) It was 50 Cent's Muhammad Ali moment.
"Everyone in a car right now, or we will leave you behind!" Barry Williams, one of 50 Cent's managers, commanded. And as the security situation got precarious, with fans growing increasingly consumed by the idea of touching this international star, we followed orders, scrambling to find any empty space in any of the waiting vehicles while navigating the mob of fans. Dedicated to capturing the fanatic scene, our cameraman, Nick Neofitidis, was the last to get into a vehicle. It took shrewd mobility and dedicated maneuvering to make it out of the airport.
"They get so excited, it almost gets dangerous," 50 Cent said later, on the balcony of his hotel. "I mean, we come out here, and they got 50 Cent shirts and all of this other stuff. It's exciting because you get to see the actual energy. Like Johannesburg and Cape Town, that's not 'Africa,' and when you get into certain parts, like here or in Angola, you know the difference."
In the wake of declining CD sales over the last few years — both for the music industry as a whole and for his own albums — 50 Cent has frequently cited his "international stardom." If you're not much of a world traveler, and the only hip-hop industry you know is that which exists in the United States, it's easy to dismiss his argument as strictly a defensive one.
But piggybacking on this tour through South Africa and Tanzania, we were able to understand exactly what 50 Cent has meant all along. In his second show in Africa, nearly 15,000 people filled up one of Johannesburg's largest arenas to see him and G-Unit perform for nearly two hours. Two nights later, 10,000 people attended his Cape Town show. The crowds in both cities knew the words to everything, including 50 Cent's hit singles, G-Unit tracks and a couple of cuts from Tony Yayo's and Lloyd Banks' respective solo albums. They even joyfully recited Mobb Deep's lines from the "Outta Control" remix. While other artists have been concerned with nicking 50 and crew on their home turf in America, G-Unit have been investing time and energy into building their global brand.
"There is a sacrifice made, an exchange made," 50 explained. "And in exchange for the opportunity to be successful as an artist, and to acquire the things that come with being successful as an artist, I've become public property. So people can say whatever they want about 50 Cent, and it may make you feel like I'm arrogant or full of myself to not allow that to bother me.
"I'm not even responding to other artists anymore," 50 Cent continued defiantly. "Just let 'em go ahead and do them. I was just [arguing with others] for the actual art form, trying to compete, to allow that competition to take place. But there's no comparison in where we are in our careers."
It's hard to dispute that logic. It was clear that no other artist could have come to these countries and attracted the kinds of crowds, both at the shows and on the street, that 50 Cent amassed on this weeklong trek. Even Jay-Z, who performed at the same makeshift arena in Dar es Salaam last year, drew half as many fans as G-Unit's 5,000, according to the local promoter.
50 is wholly conscious of the impact he's making, acknowledging that most of the people who came to his shows in Africa probably have heard his music through bootlegs and the Internet. "It's a bigger sacrifice for them to actually attend these shows," he said. "You know, something is not happening in their lives for a month because they decided to spend money to buy tickets. It's, like, 'OK, we're not driving this month because we're going to see that show.' It's a big deal to them. It means something more to them than it means to attend a concert in the U.S. So, for me, that's exciting."
This trip through Africa is 50's first with both Yayo and Banks (Yayo was incarcerated the last time 50 Cent was in Africa, in 2004), and having this trek billed as a G-Unit tour meant more to him beyond the obvious reason that the group have an album, Terminate on Sight, due on July 1.
"I could come by myself and go back to the Eric B. & Rakim era, where my DJ is DJing, and I'm doing the verse in front of the audience by myself," 50 said. "But I've done that. It's different having them around me. It's like having a part of where you actually come from with you."
Yayo appreciated having this opportunity to travel. "I got a chance to go around the world," he said. "We've been to Australia, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Angola. This is my first time in these places. It's just amazing, man. You never think rap would bring you here. Like, somebody that don't even know how to speak English knows 'So Seductive' or knows 'On Fire.' It's crazy to me."
G-Unit's trip through Africa allowed the group to experience more than just the fandom that comes with being big stars in a foreign land. 50 Cent made a concerted effort to get in touch with his socially conscious side, one he's never really revealed before. He met Nelson Mandela, got lessons in South Africa's anti-apartheid history from Mandela's grandson, visited a local platinum mine to see what working conditions were like, and visited Robben Island, home to the prison off the southern coast of the African continent where Nelson Mandela was jailed for 27 years. All that is coming up in our next story.
Check back later this week for more stories from our trek through Africa with 50 Cent and G-Unit.