How Zola’s debut album forever changed kwaito

Kwaito always had difficulty reinventing itself and finding its next step. In the 1990s, a slight variance of artists — TKZee, B.O.P, Mandoza, Arthur, Mdu, Arthur, Guffy — would produce kasi-centric dancefloor anthems for the summer, every year, without fail. The genre’s lyrical content lacked diversity and touted hedonistic tendencies — flashy cars, sexy women, weed, parties — formed the basis of kwaito words.

But in 2001 that changed.

Zola, a budding kwaito star, released his debut album uMdlwembe. Lyrically, it is an irresponsible body of work; his subject matter revolves mostly around guns and violence. In the introduction, which sets the tone for the album, two friends were just kicking it, when one was shot in what appeared to be a drive-by shooting, leaving a friend crying his lungs out. Zola, latching on to Papa Action, the character he played on the hit TV series Yizo Yizo, shows himself to be a relentless, trigger-happy thug. He speaks of shooting in almost every song on the album.

Although previous kwaito albums also had those sensibilities, because of the nature of the ghettos where the artists were from, no kwaito artist had been as blatant as Zola. On the title track, he is vengeful. Lines such as “Mas’fika kuleyo ndawo kuyosal’abafelokazi,” (We will make widows on our arrival) and “Buddy lami ukhomba mina, uhlale wazi eyamadoda ayipheli,” (Men’s beef never ends) vouch for the eye-for-an-eye mentality.

The song Seven, which has a recurring gunshot on the beat, is a gun anthem. The man calls on his fellow thugs to point their sevens (guns) to the sky. In Imali Yegazi (Blood Money), Zola uses phrases such as “Lova, bamb’ibonda” (Thug, face the wall). He talks about the pain of seeing his mother cry because of poverty, and his only solution as a hopeless young black man growing up in Soweto is to grab his gun to get the silver and gold.

uMdlwembe is a dark album, showing a young man trapped by the ghetto, trying to get out by any means necessary. It’s the directness and rawness that sets the album apart from kwaito albums before it. Words such as “tsotsi’, “sgebengu”, “lova”, “kleva” are tossed around as though they don’t refer to thieves.

Zola’s inspiration is hip-hop. There is an underlying Tupac influence — a conscious young man trapped in the thug life, only in a Soweto context. It’s the lyrics in tsotsitaal and isiZulu and the use of familiar words that enable South Africans to relate to the music. He speaks their language, unfiltered. Listening to uMdlwembe is like watching Yizo Yizo; it’s uncomfortable because the listener is exposed to all aspects of the ghetto that were deemed too raw for TV before the series hit our screens.

On the album, Zola and his producer KB — who produced all the songs except Imali Yegazi, which was the work of house music duo Revolution — experimented with different sounds. Ndoda Ndoda has a dancehall influence, and Mavovo has some mbaqanga elements.

There are the quintessential kwaito songs such as uMdlwembe, Guluva and Seven, with heavy basslines and repetitive lyrics. Then there are songs such as Ghetto Scandalous, which feature KB and rapper Amu, and Woof Woof on which Zola raps like his life depends on it. Mzioni is gospel adulterated with kwaito and rap.

Zola was the most exciting kwaito artist of his time and the fans loved him. uMdlwembe moved an impressive 120 000 units. I was 12 growing up in Swaziland at the time, and knew every lyric to every song, and so did my friends.

The kwaito star’s first performance in Swaziland was memorable. Three songs deep, excited by the love he was getting from the audience, he jumped off the stage to join the crowd. Chaos ensued. Fans scrambled for him and there was a stampede. The show was stopped. The audience threw bottles and demanded Zola return to the stage, but it didn’t happen. We all ran for our lives. He was that big of a deal.

Zola isn’t the first kwaito artist to rap in Zulu. The songs of trio TKZee, such as Shibobo, have structured hip-hop verses. Oskido, of the duo B.O.P, have a rap song called Mama Wami (My Mother) in which he features the hip-hop group Baphixile. There are a few more examples.

But Zola was the first to do it with dark lyrics — close to gangster rap — on a mainstream level. Zola influenced a new generation of kwai-rap artists who told their stories in an unapologetic manner. Artists such as Chester, GP Gangster and Ghetto Son told township vignettes with the same aggression as Zola.

Some vernacular rap artists, including Driemanskap, MarazA and Backyard Crew, still cite Zola as an influence for them to rap in their mother tongues. While he was part of the SABC 1 competition Jam Alley Verses circa 2008, MarazA said: “When I first heard Zola’s Ghetto Scandalous, I picked up a pen and wrote my first verse.”

Zola carried on to make more groundbreaking kwaito albums and singles. Also, probably recognising how much influence he had, he started making socially conscious songs. On his second album Kho-khovula (2002) is Tshitshi Lami, in which he warns young women about the trash ways of men and how to deal with such situations. On Bhambatha (2004), arguably his best work to date, he collaborated with maskandi legend Ihashi Elimhlophe on Grey Town, an anti-gun violence song. On Don’t Cry from the same album, he mourns the lack of opportunities for young black people in the ghetto. In the introduction of Ibutho (2005), in a monologue, he questions why God would allow black people to struggle the way they do. He does the same on the song Himself on the same album.

His albums took a familiar format — among the conventional kwaito songs, there was the rap song, the mbaqanga or maskandi song, and the gospel song. For four albums, he ran kwaito. He also started hosting his philanthropic reality TV show Zola 7, which made him South Africans’ darling.

Then the tabloids started reporting on Zola’s child support, women abuse and bankruptcy woes.

The potency of his music also dipped, as did his popularity. Impepho (2009), the follow-up to his brilliant Ibutho, isn’t as great as his previous albums. He released two more albums, Unyezi (2013) and Intathakusa (2015), which didn’t work. In them, Zola complains too much, the music is boring, and his rapping stands no chance when compared with South Africa’s new generation of razor-sharp rhymers.

The artist has performed sporadically at events such as Major League Gardens, and was in talks with the controversial record label Mabala Noise for a deal that was never finalised.

It’s still not clear what the future holds for Zola, but what you can’t take away from him is how he changed kwaito and influenced a legion of vernacular rappers.

Zola will perform uMdlwembe as part of the new Heritage showcase at the Back to the City festival on April  27 at Mary Fitzgerald Square in Newtown, Johannesburg.

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