/ 30 January 2017

OkMalumKoolKat: The case of an escape artist

OkMalumKoolKat performs at Red Bull Kas'Lami in Umlazi
OkMalumKoolKat performs at Red Bull Kas'Lami in Umlazi

Exhibit A

Mlazi Milano: Here is an album of 17 immaculately produced songs by OkMalumKoolKat. Certainly the most audacious attempt in recent memory to intersect mainstream hip-hop lavishness with a pop sheen. For anyone not new to the afflictions of Windows computers in the late 1990s to early 2000s, the cover for the album with its allusions to the vapor wave movement and incomplete file transfers, evokes the surreal and longing for a past that did not seem desirable at the time. The Portuguese have a word for this brand of nostalgia — saudade.

The references that make up the anatomy of Mlazi Milano are pretty obvious. Gqom with its break beats and emphasis on drums is the primary point of departure. Spacey new wave sci-fi pop that is all dread. On the album OkMalumKoolKat taps into a particular Durban strain of music making: the ability to say fun and whimsical things on dark ethereal beats.

Lyrically, OkMalumKoolKat has more in common with a Derek Walcott than an AKA or Riky Rick. Everything falls on the offbeat, sentences run on, streams of consciousness come out of nowhere and are later abandoned for other avenues. His music has a limping, improvisational quality that is central to his appeal.

One of the standout cuts on Mlazi Milano comes 12 tracks in. La liga‘s 3:30s unfolds at an unrelenting pace. Full of thuds and layered synths, the track is made even more infectious by OkMalumKoolKat’s signature flow that is built entirely on a foundation of catchphrases as opposed to long continuous stories. No artist since Arthur has influenced pop culture the way OkMaulKoolKat has. Arthur did it through dance, churning out signature moves at an alarming rate. Smiso Zwane is doing it through language. IsiZulu colloquial words like ishu, cava and umswenko have become en vogue because of his songs.

The other signature element is that it is music from an elaborately constructed world. The album is an attempt at the esoteric and an immersion in seemingly disconnected references from 16th century Italian astronomer Galileo to football’s poet-in-chief Zinedine Zidane. The track titled after Galileo is a glitchy, low maintenance slow jam. It’s also the song that cements Mlazi Milano‘s status as the best South African album to drive to since Dear Reader’s Idealistic animals.

Hearing KoolKat’s disparate interests make their way into a single cohesive project is what retains the listener’s interest in the album, particularly because most of these interests seem like elusive inside jokes. Listening to the album repeatedly you hope to gain entry into this restricted territory but this is an exercise in futility, still the pleasure is in the try.

OkMalumKoolKat has transcended rap. In hip hop, the self is the center but he employs the spectator’s view. On tracks like International Airport, which features Spoek Mathambo, he speaks about himself almost entirely in the third person. He treats his own life with the dramatic enthusiasm of a casual bystander.

Mlazi Milano operates outside the familiar tropes of Afrofuturism. It’s not an attempt at minimising one’s pain by becoming small and aloof. Instead, it is loud and accessible, it documents the mosh pit of contemporary urban life by being there in the mishap. Whist everywhere we are being bombarded with reports of the demise of the world as we know it, Mlazi Milano is a much needed reprieve, a reminder that ecstasy is the weapon of choice in an increasingly alien and cold world. It assures us of the joys of unfiltered escapism.

Exhibit B

Here is what we know. In the summer of 2015 Smiso Zwane was arrested in Tasmania and pleaded guilty to charges of indecent assault and assault with indecent intent. He was sentenced to six months and served one month with the remaining five months suspended. This was based on the following story: Following the release of the 100k Macassette Mixtape in the summer of 2015, OkMalumKoolKat embarked on a four-show tour of Australia. After a performance at Mofo festival, drunk, in the early hours of the morning, he entered the room of another female artist who had been preforming at the festival. He groped her private parts and kissed her before telling her not to make noise.

In 1979 Woody Allen made the beautiful yet disturbing Manhattan. Shot in luminous black and white, Allen stars in the film as a cantankerous writer who dates a 17-year-old.

It’s difficult to watch the film now and not think about what followed as Allen dated the adopted daughter of his then-partner Mia Farrow, Soon-Yi Previn. Allen and Previn would later marry and it would be business as usual.

In 2014, detailed allegations about Woody Allen sexually abusing Dylan Farrow, emerged from the 28-year-old adopted daughter of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen in an article published in the New York Times, 22 years after a judge had found Allen’s behaviour towards a then 7-year-old Dylan Farrow “grossly inappropriate”.

There are some parallels here, mainly in the way that both Allen and Zwane have been allowed to continue their public lives without much scrutiny because their public work is perceived as more important than their personal offenses.

Immediately after his arrest, there were calls to #FreeMalumKoolKat mostly from male fans who felt he was being victimised. Just how he was being victimised by being held accountable for his crimes is still not clear. The lesson here is apparent: indecently assaulting a woman is not a deal-breaker in the minds of many of OkMalumKoolKat’s fans. They have accepted the misguided notion that to be a bad person is the necessary trade-off for making good art.

None of Zwane’s contemporaries stood up and indicted the rapper for his actions. Instead there were message of support and casual surprise at his arrest. The most comical of which was a tweet by AKA where he posted OkMalumKoolKat’s name next to a surprised face emoji. AKA now appears on track 13 of Mlazi Milano on a song called Mega Milano. We can never underestimate the capacity of men to bond whilst the trauma of their victims is reduced to background noise.

In 2012 American academic and filmmaker Dream Hampton published a short yet handy guide called Anatomy of an Apology. It’s one of those things that resurfaces on the Internet on an annual basis. According to Hampton, the five steps to a genuine and meaningful apology are:

  1. I’m sorry.
  2. Here’s my understanding of how I hurt you.
  3. I will never do this again.
  4. Here is how I’m going to make it right.
  5. Please forgive me.

When Zwane was released from jail he did issue an apology. The widely quoted letter posted on Twitter and Instagram was however not addressed at the woman whom he had violated. Instead it was directed at his fans, an apology for the ways in which he had disappointed them and an appeal for privacy and time to heal. Seen through the lens of Hampton’s five-step guide, the letter Zwane wrote is infuriating in the way it skirted accountability.

In it he implies that he was strong-armed by his lawyers to pleading guilty. He indicates that there is a deeper story about the circumstances of his conviction. A story he will share at a later date when the time is right. One of the ways in which male power is able to assert itself, is through indifference to the pain of others. Mlazi Milano for many of us marked OkMalumKoolKat’s chance to tell us that story, whatever it might be. A chance he ignored.

This omission elevates Mlazi Milano to the status of being the album that our post-truth world deserves. A world where the facts don’t matter as long as the packaging is shiny. By not articulating an experience as formative as being in a Tasmanian jail, OkMalumKoolKat affirms the stereotype that men are emotionally obtuse. That we relish the opportunity to put filters and disguises on things.

Lady Skollie would later point that out in an art piece that rewrites the letter, underlining in red paint the words ‘me’, ‘I’ and ‘my’, which appear 37 times in the letter in which there is no mention of the victim.

Looking at his body of work, it is not surprising that Zwane did not address his arrest in the album. His music is not autobiographical, instead he takes the facts of his life, remixes them and exports them into a fictionalised persona. It is all a long-con, an attempt at accumulating distance. Mlazi Milano is his coming-out party. It is proof of life, evidence of returning unscathed.

I’m no sure we can say the same for his victim who to this day elected to remain anonymous. Perhaps out of shame, perhaps out of a need to not be defined by her victimhood but most likely because she too wants to be afforded that luxury that Zwane talks about in his letter to his fans. The luxury of being able to process and heal.

Selective memory is a recurring trope in South African culture and it is this that allows us to enjoy Mlazi Milano without a pause or a second thought. So as you listen to KoolKat waxing lyrical about making out with women, parties full of libation and keeping the neighbours awake, think about this: has he told his neighbours that he’s been convicted of a crime in a sexual context?

Mthembu’s multiple attempts to contact Zwane for comment at the time of writing the article were unsuccessful.