Anything goes

What can a writer say about a poet he failed to write about eight months ago, when the poet’s maiden book hit the South African market?

Nothing. Poets are boring people. Aren’t they? Usually, unless the poet is Kgafela oa Magogodi.

By sheer coincidence I find myself at the Wits University sports grounds on a Sunday afternoon. Tension is thick in the air until two soccer teams eventually settle for a draw.

Five minutes earlier a thickset striker glided past two defenders only to miss a scoring opportunity. It’s unartistic, especially when the striker is Oa Magogodi. “Anything goes,” he tells me.

Indeed, anything goes for this poet masquerading as a footballer.

First he took his poetry to the stage, then into knock-and-drop pamphlets, later into a book and now he is taking it to the big screen.

The big question as he leaves for New York for a six-week filmmaking course is whether the literary world is losing him.

“It’s difficult to decide what the governing principle of your spirit is. But I’m always open to change and growth, because one always encounters experiences that changes him.”

Oa Magogodi has experienced many twists of fate in his 33 years of multiple roles as a son, father, husband, musician, poet, filmmaker, Wits PhD student and lecturer.

The accidental course of his life was set at Fuba, the institute of music Oa Magogodi joined in 1988. At the time, he says, he just wanted to sing.

Sipho Sepamla was a director and Don Mattera ran the art gallery. Then followed a stroke of luck that was to propel Oa Magogodi into a career as a poet.

When Mattera came to talk to his class, Oa Magogodi was asked to deliver the vote of thanks.

“Throughout his recital I formulated my speech. When I went upfront I masqueraded as a poet.”

Mattera believed him and with every poem Oa Magogodi subsequently wrote and sent to Mattera for criticism, he also started to believe in himself. Mattera has been his spiritual father ever since.

“He had an instant impact and we still maintain the connection. I go to him if I want to speak to an elder.”

Oa Magogodi has impressed his mentor and has earned his respect.

“He has reached a certain plane of social consciousness. If many of our youth do the same, we will move faster,” says Mattera. “It’s rare for young people to speak their minds and feelings, they normally express that through their actions.”

Oa Magogodi penned Congas for Zinga, a tribute to Mattera that is included in his book Thy Condom Come.

The younger poet still has colourful memories of Fuba’s yearly Steve Biko commemorations, when a group of singers couldn’t make sense of his doodling lyrics.

For the benefit of the singers, his lecturer ordered him to read it with the band playing in the background. Instead of reading, he rapped. And Oa Magogodi ‘s journey as a performance poet started.

In 1993, while reciting poetry at Kippies, he encountered a swearing poet by the name of Lesego Rampologeng.

“I used to be shy because I thought I was swearing. When I saw this guy doing the rap attack, I got inspired to write and recite freely.”

In the end, a batch of things and people shaped this poet. His poetry has echoes of Dambudzo Marechera, Mattera, Rampologeng and Sepamla.

“Look, not one single writer is created in a vacuum. I have created my voice from all the voices that I have listened to,” he says.

“I rhyme when I want to … But playing with a band can be very restrictive. It’s almost like jazz skating, finding one’s voice in the sound.”

He is no ordinary musician. In his performance the pure word prevails, despite the power of the sound, and there is a certain musicality about the natural rhyming of his word.

If you did not see him perform in Holland early this year, I don’t blame you — the venue was sold out when he rocked the Linton Kwesi Johnson stage. Kick yourself if you missed his linguistic chisel at the Grahamstown arts festival. Shame on you if he has not yet shattered your ears in clubs and pubs around Johannesburg or at the Windybrow Theatre recently.

Wits lecturer Phaswane Mpe says listening to Oa Magogodi’s poetry and songs is a shattering experience.

“I guess I was shocked by his vulgarity … Each line throws a defiant question at you and … forces you to search deeper into the cultural-political dynamics of South Africa, as well as the complexities of the country’s individual souls.”

But what is Oa Magogodi’s work about? Social commentary? Partly. Political commentary? Partly. A list of complaints? No.

It may be an utter misreading, even an affront, to discern specific suggestions, given that all things seem allowable in experiment. With Oa Magogodi anything goes.

His poetry skates, consciously or otherwise, between rap, beat, hip-hop and shit. But he has made it his mission to be the one reflecting the prevailing situation. Whether it’s Aids, feminism, homosexuality, crime or life in general, he tries to be there.

Oa Magogodi’s oeuvre also indicates an affirmation, confrontation and celebration of his personal background, environment, family and world culture, referring constantly to the memory of his upbringing by a poetic grandfather. More often he allows human experiences to prevail.

“Our identities are far from being clear. People should decide what they want me to be. You cannot police people’s perceptions about who they think you are.

“Look, I write because I’m located in a community that is in need of my talent. I don’t want to police boundaries because we have gone beyond that stage where people must write about this and not about that. My writing is a celebration of life, whom I sleep with and whom I don’t sleep with.”

I look at Oa Magogodi and think, here is a promising black scholar and public intellectual in the making. But even with a future looking so bright, it has not been smooth sailing for this Soweto-born, Mafikeng-bred boy.

He left Fuba in 1989 because of financial troubles. In the next few years he “chaired the African Writers’ Association [the Sol Plaatje branch] in Mafikeng and encountered a lot of Pan-Africanist writers. The spirit of struggle and resistance was awakened in me.”

But there was pressure from home. The commands came from daddy and were clear. “You either look for a job, son, or go back to school.” He chose school.

In 1993 he did a bridging course at Khanya College for a degree programme at Wits University. When he completed his degree he was invited to design a course on African cinema, oral performance and rap/dub poetry studies. Oa Magogodi had entered Wits through the side door, survived and excelled where many a black student feels alienated.

“I did not go there to train for a job. For me, it was a matter of understanding myself. I knew what I wanted, because I was already a poet and musician then, so my terrain was defined already.”

On the way to getting his work in print he endured, he says, much spiritual pain. The more he wrote poems the more another idea plagued him.

“Publishing for me meant that my work would spread and even be accessible when I was not performing,” he says.

This was to be the beginning of a journey of excuses and unfulfilled promises. The responses from publishing houses ranged from the standard “poetry does not sell” to the encouraging “we are not publishing poetry at the moment” to the dispiriting “you are swearing”.

“I decided to do it my own way.”

His free pamphlets went as far as the University of Natal, where a lecturer bought one of them for R5. When he got a call from the lecturer asking for permission to use it in his classes, the aspirant poet was saddened and thrilled.

“Those pamphlets were not meant to be sold, but at the same time I was excited that someone was already using my work to lecture.”

Then last year, while on a European tour with his band, he played to full houses in France and Germany and realised how important his work was to people. He eventually met his publisher in Holland.

“We were hoping for a recording deal, but I eventually got a publishing one. At first I thought it was one of those things, because I had been promised it in this country before.”

It took three months of communication (editing, re-editing and cover designing) by e-mail to get Thy Condom Come out.

“I felt great to have my material in a book format. I’m not even worried about what people say about the material in there. My work as an artist is to produce.”

His introductory poem, ke Magogodi, is in Tswana, which many would say is short-changing non-Tswana readers, but he vehemently disagrees. “Literacy is not about English alone. So people must learn.”

And now that he has broken into publishing he is confident that next year his experimental stories and more poems will be out.

I skim four pages of his new compilation and ask him about it.

“I’m trying. I’m doing what I can. It’s unfortunate but that’s how it goes. I have got a problem with this notion that young black people don’t write.

“Writing does not only exist in book form. That’s literary deafness. You should come and see young poets and writers expressing themselves at reading sessions.”

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