/ 5 September 2003


Go shorty, it’s your birthright. And we’re gonna fight like it’s your birthright. Yes we’re gonna fight ‘cos it’s your birthright. And they don’t give a fuck about your birthright!”

Tumi Molekane smiles and rhymes to no one in particular on the balcony of the Valve club in Cape Town. He’s acting like a prizefighter — Mohammed Ali in the jungle. He’s high on the whooping applause he has just received on stage. He’s bouncing on the night’s vibe and smiling ear to ear.

The club is packed. Samuel L Jackson reclines on a beanbag making out with a beautiful girl, surrounded by not-so-famous VIPs. It’s the biggest hip-hop gig Cape Town has seen since the abortive Black August in 2001.

Two white kids look up over their spliff and smile at the large black man in his brown velvet tracksuit and Timberlands. It’s a look of pure admiration. Molekane and The Volume are perhaps South Africa’s most exciting hip-hop act with a unique sound beyond the cloned Americanisms that tend to typify the genre locally. But to label the band “hip-hop” is a backhanded compliment. With their jazzy meanderings, dubby soundscapes and spoken-word poems, they are bigger and more complex than the genre allows. And they are laaities to boot, no one in the outfit is older than 25.

The band started off as a concept outfit. Comprising half the Mozambican dub quartet 340ml, lead guitarist Tiago C Paulo and drummer Paulo Chibanga; the classically trained and irrepressibly cool David Bergman on violin; and the beautiful, and also classically trained, Kyla Rose-Smith. On the mic is our man Molekane — more famous for his exploits as a poet than an MC. When you plug them all in together something entirely original emerges.

Like a funky acid jazz, dub style with lyrics that start out as poetry and become refrains, then raps and rhymes and then return to spoken-word poetry. It’s live and spontaneous, with the undeniable hook of big bass and hip-hop rhythms. Molekane steps in and out of the soundscapes, his voice keeps the diverse musical forces united. His lyrical content reaches the lofty heights of poetry and his rhyming style and sense of phrasing set him apart from the unpolished m’rappers that dominate the local scene.

But hang on, if this Molekane cat is so damn good, why haven’t you heard of him? Well chances are you have. Molekane was the face and voice of the original Yfm ads on e.tv. You know the one with the guy doing spoken-word poetry.

Possibly the greatest influence on the young MC is his mom, having grown up in exile, under the wing of the revolution. “I lived in Zambia most of the time, was in Mozambique, was in Denmark, um, we stayed in Zim for a while — but the headquarters of the ANC were in Zambia, Lusaka. So we stayed there most of the time.

“I was an only child, so I did a lot of reading … my mom kept bringing in books from places she’d been. And I always say this, it’s not hard to move from Mzwakhe Mbuli to KRS1. It’s the same story, just KRS1 is more visual and more dynamic and more hip-hop… That’s how I started listening to rap. Writing was just a cool thing to do. Like the first time I wrote what people would call a poem — I was writing a rhyme — and I was always pissed off that people wouldn’t hear.

“One day I wrote a rhyme without a beat and my mom in the next room was playing Tchaikovsky and I noticed I was getting louder and more aggressive when the music got louder and I slowed down when the music did. Then I took the CD and played it in my room and did the poem to it — and I was like shit!

“So I went to Le Club — it was this place in Jo’burg, a hip-hop club where people could battle or just get up on stage and freestyle. I actually played Tchaikovsky in front of this stunned audience and did this rhyme of mine.

“But I don’t listen to a lot of hip-hop anymore unless it’s new and has something fresh to offer. Like, okay, let’s look at 50 Cent I think that shit’s boring. I’ve heard that story … The American ghetto. From drug dealer to rap star. From rap star to dead. To legend to martyr to spawning another generation of gangster rappers.”

As a vegetarian Tswana who speaks with a faded American accent, one of Molekane’s recurrent themes is the question of identity.

“People deny that my story is South African because I don’t speak with an accent that they associate black people with. I don’t talk or think of things that they associate black people to think of. I went through this shit in high school, I went through this shit in college. I am going through this shit with everything I do. But it’s cool, I understand that hip-hop comes in a package. It comes in baggy jeans, a fucking accent, dreadlocks, haircuts, Fubu chains. It comes in that package. But people can’t help but be themselves.

“Look at local hip-hop now, people are rapping in Zulu and Sotho — but people were trying to kill it before it even took root.”

Molekane nods and strokes his chin sagely. “It’s the truth. I think that fucking Oliver Shmidtz said it best: ‘The central theme right now is identity and you really have to know yourself better.'”