The return of Prof Sobukwe

On the two occasions that I have sat with the Prof, full name Sobukwe Seremane, he has struck the solitary figure of a man who is all too aware of where he has been and where he currently is in life. He is a devoted father, a hip-hop artist and one of the founding members of Motswako’s early originators, Baphixile – a duo from the late ninetees, whose hit Ngoma received generous airplay and recognition.

His return is not as part of a group but rather as a solo artist, in an almost Zarathustra-like manner, where he comes back with quite a lot on his mind. 

"Motswako" is a Setswana word that means "mixture" and refers to one of the now popular styles of South African hip-hop, where English and Setswana or any other indigenous language is used in the making of the music.

Prof’s latest project, a first solo album titled The Road Less Travelled, promises to be somewhat of a revelation, especially given how far back he goes in the origins of a genre that has carved out its own space in the music industry. Like other notable Motswako rappers such as Khuli Chana, HHP and Tuks, he too comes from the little town of Mafikeng, in the North West.

The name Prof Sobukwe brings to mind one of South Africa’s great political icons of the struggle era, the first leader of the Pan African Congress, Robert Sobukwe. It turns out that Robert Sobukwe was actually his father’s mentor and it was he who suggested his parents give their first child the name Sobukwe if it was a boy.

With this little bit of coincidence, Prof Sobukwe has tied to him a title that at once seems out of place in the hip-hop music scene (instead of the political one) but which unsurprisingly seems destined to leave its mark even here. The album is a clear break from the days of Baphixile and that is a good thing. Prof Sobukwe presents himself as an artist who is out to re-establish himself as a voice worth listening to. He is political and even capricious at times in his presentation of what has clearly been a number of years in the making.

The trailer that introduces the album suggests the general tone of it. It is a soulful jazz and funk-influenced medley that has seen Prof opening his music up to the tricky space of sampling, a norm in the hip-hop scene and fortunately, it has not taken from his work. Among some of his collaborators is music producer and publisher Simon Sibanda, also from Mafikeng. 

I asked the Prof a few questions about his return and what he hopes to achieve with his first solo offering:  

Where has Prof been?
To be quite honest, it was just the politics that really messed up Baphixile that really made me stay away from the game for so long, you know. I understand that it’s a business but when people just start concentrating on the money side of it, then it defeats the purpose. Now you end up doing things because you have to, not because you want to, so that’s why I just decided to stay away from it.

How did you get by?
I suppose the heavens blessed me with being a hustler dude. I don’t know where my money came from; I don’t know how I took care of my daughter; not sure how I made it but I made it. It’s just that I didn’t sit down on my butt. I tried the 9-5 a couple of times, worked for OUTsurance until I showed them my long, black middle finger and I left. Went to MTN, did some call centre but then I just realised that I was just selling myself short – this is just draining. I suppose that’s the main reason that kept me away from the game, because you’re so consumed by that 9-5 and as an artistic person it ends up killing you and you just need to take that decision like: “you know what, I need to take the road less travelled and just do something that I love".

Anything special in this album?
There is a song that I sampled called I like It and I don’t know why it hit me. My mother passed away before I could even do a song for her. The best that I once did for my mom and, funny enough it was two months before she passed on when Kanye’s song – the one that he did for his mother – dropped, and I actually SMSed my mother the hook and lyrics to it, just to show her how much I appreciate her, so on this album I actually did a song for my mom and my dad.

What was it like starting out in the industry?
It was me and Blax Myth and this was in '96. The best that I ever did then was that a year or two before Glen [Lewis, a Metro FM DJ] was working at Radio BOP and I was doing jingles for him. So those jingles, you know, rapping in Setswana, nobody was doing that. Then I was with a dude named LG, Neo Rakgajane, who is a graphic designer right now, and I worked with him. Then I came to Jo'burg and met Blax Myth, he was also rhyming but then I was like “dude, we need to put Tswana into this and you’ll see what will happen” and it just took off.

Next thing, Radio BOP approached Glen and they wanted to work with us on one of the tracks on their album and that just got interest from Sony. Then Glen started an indie label and was signed to Sony, like, it just happened so quickly.

Next thing the album was released via Sony and it didn’t work out, we didn’t see the money, at all. I just walked away from it. We tried to do our second album, Kasiology, by ourselves – it didn’t go far and then we met with Iggy on the third album and Iggy passed on, but that album was released by Universal and they gave us a distribution deal. [Turns out] they were just knocking us cause that album never went anywhere.

Mpho Moshe Matheolane
Mpho Moshe Matheolane is a Motswana from the little town of Mahikeng. He is a budding academic, researcher and writer with interests in art, history, semiotics and law. He sits on the Constitutional Court Artworks Committee – a clear case of serendipity – and is a firm believer in the power of an informed and active citizenry.

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