Freedom marches to kwaito’s drum

I meet Sbu "The General" Nxumalo at his house on one of the many numbered avenues of Melville. There's a sanded-down door against a white pillar on the backyard stoep.

Two dogs run around vying for our attention, weaving between paint brushes and cans of polyurethane. Two street signs peek over the wooden fence, saluting the street outside. I would never have imagined that this is where we would be talking about kwaito, over ginger tea with honey and lemon. What happened to the rock 'n roll?

A few hours earlier, I was in an attempted hijacking/smash and grab in the birthplace of kwaito. I've been staying at the Soweto Hotel on Freedom Square, Kliptown. This is day four.

On the night I checked in, a man, stabbed, dragged himself on to the tiled stairs outside the lobby. He was to be the first of four bodies in a week.

The next day, the local branch of the ANC hosted a poorly attended rally on the square. The brick-cone pyramid of the Freedom Torch stood unlit in the centre like a dormant volcano. Like the threat of liberation.

Still shaken from the night before, I ruminated on an idea that had been appearing in all my conversations over the past few weeks: people have different urgencies and different ways of expressing them.

Bongo Maffin

This year, the country celebrates 20 years of democracy. We are still trying to figure out what it could mean. The nation as a whole is feeling introspective, retrospective. Political parties auction off false promises. We take stock, count the victories, look backwards. On the precipice of a celebration, maybe tinged with mourning, we can't help but ask: Who the hell are we, and where are we going?

"You see," Nxumalo says, after his return from a room somewhere in the back of the house in what he describes as his interview outfit, "unless you were a practitioner of kwaito, you don't really know it".

He was one of the founding editors of Y – the avant-garde youth magazine. He was also there at the beginning of YFM, arguably one the first stations to give kwaito airplay, and to facilitate a musical language and landscape for a newly liberated, urban black youth. He was around the music, fighting for it to have a platform, writing about the music, becoming deeply involved with it.

"You can't really know it unless you were doing it. There was no difference between me and [anthropologist Paul] Atterbury writing about Isandlwana. It's just a fascination. Back then, kwaito needed a platform and YFM needed a tool. It was a natural, almost organic relationship."

When YFM barraged the airwaves with kwaito in 1997, it was from a studio in Bertrams, near inner Johannesburg. A launch was held, ironically, in the polished and hardened facades of Sandton Square. The invitation letter: a Molotov cocktail in a clenched fist.

"And when you opened it up, the fist had a finger up, like this."

Nxumalo gestures, raising his middle finger.

"The writing said, 'The struggle is not over' – but the fist had a gold chain on it, the fingers had rings, you know, that whole bling thing. That just shows that we didn't understand it. We equated this new struggle to bling but we didn't ask why. Why the bling? Why the gold? What does it mean?"

Before kwaito was seen as a cultural signifier of the times, it took a lot of flak. For many, it had no depth. No musicality. No message. It was about consumerism and overglamourisation, they said. Expensive alcohol, flashy cars and naked women. It was about looking as if you had made it, adorning yourself in the ornamental apparel of success and the things that come with it.

Almost every kwaito artist or group had a song proclaiming that they "have arrived". TKZee commanded that you tell everyone "Ses'fikile [we have arrived]". So did Chiskop, Mashamplani, Bongo Maffin and Alaska. "Seng'khona [I am here when you need me most]", they declare, over looping rhythms wound tight. They were, and still are, planting flags on moons and mountains.

"Kwaito was an expression of liberation," Ishmael Morabe says. "It was a freedom of some sort. People were becoming more and more themselves. It was a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. This is who I am, the way – ngingakhona."

Morabe should know. He entered mainstream musical consciousness as a vocalist for both Prophets of da City and Skeem. This was years before his stint as a soloist under 999 and Ghetto Ruff. "Kwaito was us, man. It was us."

It's 1986. Senyaka, arguably South Africa's first commercial rapper, drops the self-titled, Ntate Senyaka. On this album is Jabulani MC, a direct ancestor of the nascent kwaito.

Two years later, Cool Spot releases an album Where Were You? by male duo MM Deluxe – one part Mdu Masilela from Zola and one part Mandla Mofokeng from Meadowlands. On the cover of their debut album, dressed in stonewashed jeans, brown leathers and gold chains, they are a far cry from their early musical genesis. Mdu is an accomplished piano player; Mandla, the dancing son of a preacher.

Two albums later, they split. Masilela goes on to form M'Du Productions and releases his breakthrough album Tsiki Tsiki in 1994. Mofokeng partners up with Masilela's brother-in-law, Jairus Nkwe. With Zynne Mahoota and Eugene Mthethwa, they found Trompies. Dickies and All Stars. Orange overall delelas and "Not Guilty, GP" T-shirts. Trompies is straight up pantsula.

The country lines up to vote in its first democratic elections, hopeful and victorious, fearful and uncertain. Chris Hani is dead. Letta Mbulu returns from exile with a slew of other repatriates. But, although she laments that it is "not yet uhuru", the kids are creating their own patchwork freedom. Like magpies, they collect and rebuild their identity from the rubble amassing in the peripheries.

When local soccer star Screamer Tshabalala sends his kid off to the quiet, wood-and-brick edifice of St Stithian's School in Bryanston, I imagine he is taking him as far away from the streets of Orlando East as possible.

At St Stithian's, during breaktimes and after choir practice, mass and detention, Tokollo Tshabalala meets up with Mzwandile Bala and Kabelo Mabalane.

After a bad deal with M'Du and Mashamplane, Tokollo forms his own group with Kabelo and Zwai, TKZee, and then, in 1996, the private school boys drop Take It Eezy, challenging the super-thuggish machismo that, apart from Boom Shaka, has dominated the scene. Playful, fresh and with a lyricality as liquid as their parents' bank accounts, they are gunning for the number one spot.

Their follow-up album Phalafala contains a direct swipe at The Godfather of Kwaito, Mdu, in the song Masimbela.

In 1997, YFM broadcasts its first song. Bongo Maffin's Makeba. Thandiswa Mazwai, Stoane, Speedy and Jah Seed's Shona rap beat out station manager Randall Abrahams's choice, Biggie's Mo Money, Mo Problems. This was a symptom of the long-standing, sometimes real, sometimes imagined conflict between hip-hop and kwaito.

Hip-hop has already established itself as more than just music. Like jazz before it, it has been highly theorised and dissected. It has a walk and a look; a manner of speaking and being. In comparison, kwaito seems a shambles.

But, less than a year later, it starts to develop its own languages – S'camto and iTaal, its vernacular.

The first issue of Y launches with kwaito's cheeseboys, TKZee, on the cover. The editorials quote everyone from Milan Kundera to Thebe and Alaska. The publication reflects the multitudinous personality of a young and upwardly mobile black South Africa. It is both 'hood and well-travelled. It exalts the refreshing pleasures of iZamalek while wine-tasting on the Garden Route. It surfs a wave in Muizenburg, and a train at Naledo station.

TKZee's Tokollo Tshabalala, Zwai Bala and Kabelo Mabalane

Now it's the turn of the millennium, and Y2K is on everyone's lips. We're sufficiently scared, appropriately non-plussed. We're not really sure what it is. Is it a virus, maybe an impending alien armageddon? Rumour has it kwaito is dead. Maybe Y2K killed it.

Mandoza, fresh out of Chiskop, releases 9 II 5 Zola South. The Godfather, still defiant, announces that his long tenure on the throne is not coming to an end any time soon. "Y2K or not Y2K, Mdu is back," he laughs.

The politics have shifted and so has the music. The party continues but a hangover is starting to set in.

Lebo Mathosa drops her first effort without her Boom Shaka band members. She negotiates full publishing rights to the album and it reaches gold status in just under four weeks. The first song on the disc is Ntozobantu.

"Kuyoze kubi nini sibulalana sodwa. Umuntu ngumuntu, ufana nawe," she croons in a mbaqangesque rhythm: How long are we going to go on killing each other? A person is a person, just like you.

Meanwhile, Bonginkosi Dlamini, a student at Jabulani Technical, adopts the moniker Zola. His first record, Umdlwembe, is hard and rough-edged. In the video, he rides around on a tractor and in Soweto's car of choice, the BMW 325i, better known as iGusheshe. Chewing on a matchstick, he threatens to leave some mothers childless. He also adds that "it's your life, mawuthand' ungay' phuza, mawuthand' ungay'khanda [you can drink it away if you like, or you can fix it]". The song ends with a hook sampled from a gospel song. "Amagugu alelizwe azosal'emathuneni [The treasures of this earth, will be buried in graves]."

There's a perceptible switch in the message. From announcing and proclaiming, the coding becomes reflective. No longer throwing off chains, we're now telling people who we are, and subsequently engaging with ourselves on a deeper level of consciousness. The lines that separate hip-hop from kwaito begin to blur.

The street will always find its own dialect. A way of speaking about itself that, in part, accepts its pariah status, while subverting it and making it its own. The more marginalised the kids feel, the harder they attempt to be seen. The very things that were seen as thuggish and delinquent are re-appropriated and turned into success. Bucket hats and All Stars. Workers' overalls. iGusheshes and Golf Threes. Kwaito becomes a lifestyle.

"The streets are always inventing a voice, a musical voice." The General is trying to explain the parallels between kwaito and hip-hop. "And it's not just about the racial dynamic between America and South Africa. This music [hip-hop and kwaito] paralleled the generation gap. It was a dialogue that existed in the gap.

"Hip-hop and kwaito are rebel voices, man. And it's not so much about what you're saying, it's the doing. It's about freeing up spaces. It's about finding a clearer voice, an attitude. Guys like [rapper] Siya Shezi are unbundling that. They're unbundling that one phrase, stretching it out and giving themselves space to embrace the lyrical form. Because it's more lyrical, people say it's hip-hop – but it's kwaito, man."

Growing up, I had a cousin who lived in a backroom of my grandmother's house in Jabulani. Several years older than us but too young to be parental, he was an involuntary role model.

Bhut' Sipho wanted to be a kwaito star. According to us, he already was. He lined us up on the bright red stoep he had woken up at 5am to polish. He arranged us in order of height and gave us all a part in his kwaito band, yet to be named.

I was a singer and dancer, as most female kwaito musicians are. He was the "uh" guy. The "uh" is the most common part of any kwaito song. Sometimes in the foreground, sometimes the main part of the song or chorus. The "uh" is an unwavering constant.

Bhut' Sipho wound up a cassette with a pencil, put it in the player and showcased his latest body of work. Mdu was his favourite. A baby-faced streetwise hustler in gold chains from Zola, just five minutes away from where we bounced and gyrated on a shiny, red stage. Sometimes, Bhut' Sipho "featured" with Boom Shaka or Brothers of Peace.

Years later, I realise that it was impossible for him to have been on almost every single kwaito song. But to my younger, gullible self, it was completely plausible.

Of course, kwaito stars didn't do their own "uhs". Of course, they brought someone in who specialised in "uhs" and, surely, Bhut' Sipho was the "uh" guy. And why not? Kwaito then was the summit of black success.

In 1994, football player Doctor Khumalo and radio DJ Bob Mabena released a song sampled from C&C Music Factory's Do You Want to Get Funky?

Notoriously, the song went on to win a South African Music Award for Best Hip-Hop but it was an unmistakable kwaito aspiration. Two dudes, on the top of their respective games, who only had one other avenue up – kwaito.

Even football enfant terrible Jabu Pule and Bafana Bafana prodigal son Benni McCarthy tried their hands at kwaito, the latter collaborating with TKZee on the 1998 hit song Shibobo.

The new-school artists are looking back to the glory days for inspiration. In 2012, rappers Tumi and Zubz form the amalgam TZ Deluxe, inspired by Masilela and Mofokeng's MM Deluxe. On the cover of their 10-track, Zubz and Tumi photoshop their heads on to the bodies of the original Deluxe boys.

DJ Fisherman, on the Afrotainment label, drops a summer banger in December, sampling Masilela's Tsiki Tsiki. Stablemate Duncan does the same. His rendition of Tsiki Tsiki Yo is a love letter to kwaito.

Ricky Rick's and OkMalumkoolkat's Amantobazane could easily have come out of M'Du Productions in the late nineties. The bass reverberates and bounces back over itself. A lazy rap fills the space between booms.

Morabe, aka Ismiza, has a new single out, aptly called Kwaito. It's an ode to the times of "iSeven phezulu", the heady days of kasi exuberance.

Twenty years later, smack dab in the middle of a political quagmire, kwaito is still the musical intervention.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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Lindokuhle Nkosi
Lindokuhle Nkosi
Lindokuhle Nkosi, a writer from South Africa whose work textual work often merges with installation and performance. She has written for Mahala, Chimurenga, Africa Is A Country, City Press, Elephant Magazine, Red Bulletin, and Timeslive, and she has curated exhibitions and projects at galleries and in the public space. While floating across different genres – journalistic, reflective, experimental – her work is consistently insightful, rich in textures, and engaged with realities.

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