Struggle is real: Why local acclaim eludes left-field weirdos
“I’m trying to represent a young Zulu kid from the farms [who] loves electronic music, because that’s who I am. But then, in that same breath, I understand that I’m a weirdo.” Empangeni-born producer Muzi began his career trying to emulate the rap talent of his older brother, but soon realised he “wasn’t good at that shit”.
Then, in 2004, his mom bought a computer on which his brother’s friends installed production software. Fast-forward to more than a decade later and that young, Durban-raised kid with dreams of production stardom is getting recognition from the likes of Stormzy, Diplo and The Prodigy, and has been featured in such major media outlets as music platform Noisey and i-D magazine.
If you haven’t heard of Muzi, you are not alone.
Coverage of his music locally is scant. You’re not likely to hear it on most commercial radio stations or catch his videos on TV. This dearth of local coverage for our talented left-field musicians is nothing new. Our most famous “obscure superstar” is Spoek Mathambo, who has been making waves in Europe since 2010 but has struggled to attain the same level of recognition at home.
Spoek managed to mitigate this trend through the 2015 release of his film Future Sounds of Mzansi, which broadened the scope for more experimental and progressive artists in South Africa. However, for many others the struggle to garner attention at home is nothing short of real.
Why is it still so difficult for acts like Muzi and Spoek to gain sustainable traction in a music industry that has arguably progressed by leaps and bounds since the days when only a handful of commercial rock bands, à la Springbok Nude Girls, made it on to national mainstream radio?
Different artists will likely tell you different things.
For controversial hip-hop group DOOKOOM, the problem is a certain brand of South African cynicism and the overpoliticisation of music, as bandleader Isaac Mutant explains in a 2016 interview published on Okay-Africa. “I kept saying this, but these people [European music fans] are so fucking open for something exciting. They’re really open-minded and they don’t give a fuck, bra. South Africa is a bit too cynical for me. Everything is fucking political.”
The crew’s producer-in-chief, Damian “Dplanet” Stephens, elaborates: “To be honest, I just think South Africans have been kept away from a lot of shit musically, culturally — everything. So people are still very locked into a certain way of thinking.”
For Muzi, it comes down to a lack of support from the top.
“The problem is the platforms. You know, we don’t have many platforms that cater for people who are original. Then, when I go to like Germany, those countries have infrastructures for people who are left-field.”
I ask Muzi whether a certain cynicism exists with regard to our creative output, which he says is definitely the case. He feels South Africans don’t always believe in themselves — or, at least, the market doesn’t believe in local talent.
“The market only caters to people that sort of sound like the things that are playing on the radio or sound like things that we love on TV, because that means numbers. You know what I mean: the market is not willing to take chances on South Africans.”
In many ways, what Muzi is saying is true and is certainly evidenced by the need for many of these acts to seek greener pastures abroad. The question, then, becomes about why pastures are so much greener for South African artists in Europe.
There are more platforms in Europe, sure. But why give platforms in these countries to South African artists? Why does the public go to a DOOKOOM show? A possible answer, albeit a troublesome one, is the fetishisation and consumption of African work by the West. It’s no secret that African artistic output has been cannibalised by the West for many, many generations. So it’s reasonable to be sceptical of any enthusiasm for African work in Europe.
I ask Muzi about this and he says there is some truth to it, but plays it down as a matter of benign cultural exchange. “It’s something they [Europeans] don’t have. Just like how we appreciate their art, especially if it’s new to us and some shit we don’t have. On top of that, we can’t appreciate it if it ain’t dope, so it also has to be dope or original as well.”
Another reason Muzi says his music and that of other left-field artists hasn’t been embraced locally is because it is too common. “When it comes to understanding what I’m trying to do, Europeans are more willing, like their minds are more open to the idea of a Muzi … or Spoek Mathambo, and all those people who are doing something that is more African. If you do it in Africa, it’s almost like they can’t appreciate it as much because it’s everywhere.”
Although it’s true that Muzi and the other artists mentioned employ the tropes of “common” gqom, kwaito, maskandi and house, they are certainly not common in their treatment of those tropes, which is a lot more reflective of their true selves.
We seem to have arrived at a strange juncture in our cultural development where the familiar is ironically rejected for being strange. Their music has become, as Muzi describes it, a familiar weirdo.
I’m reluctant to lay the blame for this lack of interest from South Africans on a perennial and general cynicism. No two cities share the same cultural geometry for consuming music and we have certainly, over the past few years, seen revived enthusiasm for local music in South Africa.
This is not to say we don’t perhaps have a certain puritanical approach to our existing music genres. Perhaps it’s not so much that we don’t trust ourselves to make music but that we don’t trust ourselves to innovate within our own cultural languages.
My guess is that most of this, as Muzi says, is down to a pure numbers game. The percentage of music enthusiasts relative to the casual listener is quite small, and even smaller is the percentage of people who might be into more left-field stuff.
Going deeper still, my own hypothesis about why innovative and forward-looking attempts at music creation are overlooked lays the blame squarely at the feet of my own kind: the writers and critics who, in extremely unobvious ways, have let down our most progressive artists.
In a new book called The Music of the Future, author Robert Barry ponders the role of criticism in sculpting the future of music. According to Barry, music criticism does this in several ways, including by creating myths, misapprehending and making mistakes. “The important thing about composers like [Richard] Wagner and [Franz] Liszt,” he says, “is not just the music they made, but all the various fictions circulating around that.”
Barry goes on to say: “We need people — whether critics or composers or other artists — to make these kinds of stories and confabulations up, to make mistakes and get things wrong.
“People should be abusing each other’s work, jamming it up against things it wasn’t supposed to go anywhere near — just as we’d expect
artists to use technology in ways it wasn’t intended for, against the grain of its manufacturer’s intentions — because often that’s where new ideas and new directions come from,
from failure and misuse, and general misapprehension.”
Future Sounds of Mzansi does a great deal to distil the mythical and historic elements of electronic music in South Africa into a cohesive narrative. The thing with narratives, however, is that they must necessarily leave out certain voices and aspects while embellishing and exaggerating others. They place events, movements and people next to each other in ways that may not be historically accurate.
For Barry, this is not a flaw of narrative creation but rather a strength. For him, it’s important that we misapprehend and mistell. This is part of myth creation, which is necessary to understand music and take it forward.
I don’t think the problem is that we, as South Africans, are incapable of appreciating innovation in our local sounds, but rather that we are still developing the tools and opportunities to do so.
In places where we do have appreciation, it has been largely left up to artists to develop their own myths, such as in the Spoek case.
To take it further, we need more critics and more writers and artists adding to a historical, perhaps mythic, narrative through which we can understand our present and our future. Such is the power of mythmaking.