Return of the voice

“From prison to release, none could scan my mental capacity. Prison bars and doors, prison gates and keys, prison security and walls, prison cells could not imprison my mind. Yyyess.
My mind is extraordinary.”

The baritone voice so familiar to the generation that toyi-toyied in a new era of freedom in South Africa boomed across Durban’s Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre this week. It was Mzwakhe Mbuli, playing the comeback kid.

Almost exactly a year ago, “the people’s poet” walked out of Leeuwkop Maximum Security prison after serving six years for armed robbery. But watching “daai lang man”, as he was reportedly known to security police in the 1980s, on stage soaking up rousing applause at the Poetry Africa International Festival, it was hard to tell the iconic wordsmith had ever been away.

“I’m here on the eve of my one year anniversary of me being a free man to silence my critics,” Mbuli declares in an interview with the Mail & Guardian just before his opening night performance.

Mbuli’s critics believed his reputation as the nation’s premier performance poet — the man credited with popularising poetry among black youth — would never survive his “armed robber” label and years of silence.

A year on, it looks like they were wrong. Barely six months after his release Mbuli had clinched a recording deal and put out a new album penned during long prison months. Mbulism, a 16-track offering of pretty much typical Mbuli fare, went gold locally, having sold more than 25 000 units.

Invitations to perform across the country, says the poet, have been flowing in.“That is a clear demonstration that I’m not [only] popular, but loved.

“I cannot count how many performances I’ve done this year. I’ve achieved more than an ordinary human being could achieve within a year,” Mbuli says, baring the super-confidence and ego honed by more than 20 years in the game.

That the artist could step out of an effective eight years behind bars for a violent crime straight into a busy performing schedule is undoubtedly remarkable.

How did he do it? There’s no simple answer from a man who talks in poetic expressions. “I’m in a situation now where I’m above pain. I need to be tried. Unless you are tested, there is no testimony. Troubles and pain have fine-tuned me. This is the fire than burns impurities that will bring out the best in me.”

There are undoubtedly many who believe he’s guilty. But the reason for his apparent continued popularity may have as much to do with the die-hard loyalty that South Africans generally show their cultural icons.

Despite her rampant drug abuse and lesbian lover scandals, Brenda Fassie remained the nation’s favourite pop star until her death.

Jail helped his creative development. “My latest imprisonment enabled me to hone my craft. I’m cool-headed now. I’m able to see lines before I deliver them. Before, I’d think, I’d frown and come up with a line. Now it flows.”

The poet is due back in studio shortly to record an awareness-raising song, commissioned by the Environmental Justice Forum.

To an extent, Mbuli faces the same challenges stuggle-era artists such as Pieter-Dirk Uys do. How to adapt to a changed situation yet maintain the appeal of your material? The musical production on Mbulism might be tighter than on previous releases, but it’s the same formula: hard-hitting commentary on social ills over catchy traditional tunes.

The people buying Mbuli’s latest album are most likely those who have been collecting his work through the years. Little has changed. Whether he’s winning new fans remains to be seen.

“Poetry has evolved a lot in the last 10 years, beyond protest poetry,” says presenter Kgomotso “KG” Moeketsi of Durban’s P4 radio station.

“Mzwakhe came up as a protest poet and I don’t know if I can be honest and say Mwzakhe’s evolved as a musician because I haven’t seen evidence of that,” she said. “He’s definitely a card puller. After his release, we had an jazz event at the station I was with, and we invited him to join a band on stage and people loved it, but they were a more mature crowd who knew about the struggle.”

At Poetry Africa, the fortysomething struggle icon finds himself sharing the stage with a new breed of young, urban, black lyricists.

Inspired by the “spoken word” genre that grew out of the American hip-hop movement, theirs is often com-plex rhyming verse, contrasting with Mbuli’s simple, direct wordplay rooted in the style of traditional oratory. “If you say there are lots of poets in the country now, that’s not my worry. When I started some were not born, others were using the wall for balancing. I cannot compete with the born-frees,” he says, with a hint of dismissal.

The Poetry Africa Festival in Durban ends on October 23. Mbuli performs in Cape Town at the Tradewinds Festival on October 28 and 29. See Mzwakhe: People’s Poet airs on SABC1 on October 25 at 10pm

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