As the sound of music bleeds through the walls of Bomba Records, a music studio in Braamfischerville, Soweto, Tebogo Aubrey Poopedi bounces his head in sync with the rhythm.
Tapping his fingers on his legs, a smile flashes across his face. Poopedi, also known by his stage name, Mr TAP, is South Africa’s first blind rapper.
He is the mastermind behind Prosperity Entertainments and Projects, a group that consists of dancers, rappers and singers. The artist says he finds solace in his music because it gives others like him something to do. It allows him to tell stories that encourage others that “if I can do it, you can do it too”.
Poopedi lost his vision at the age of 14 from an injury incurred during a soccer match. Pointing to his forehead where he was hit by a soccer ball, Poopedi says a tumour and two brain surgeries damaged his optic nerves.
The rapper says he “had to opt for other opportunities like the arts because we [people who are blind] have been failed by the educational system”.
His studio is his one-bedroom home he shares with his girlfriend of 19 months, Leo Kupheka, 22. Poopedi says he lost most of his friends once they discovered he was blind — fearing that they would always have to hold his hands or take care of him.
But Kupheka says she is “not shy or scared to be in a relationship with someone that has a disability because they are also human and deserve to be loved”.
A year after losing his sight, Poopedi was bitten by the hip-hop bug. He took on the genre to tell stories that appeal to youths.
Not only does he rap, he also plays the keyboard. South African rappers such as Zubs and Proverb inspire Mr TAP to compose lyrics for his songs. Celebrate is about his resilience and overcoming the stigma of people with disabilities:
“My situation cultured me that nobody lives in isolation/ plan of action, introspection equals affection and attraction/ took direction that was God/ Mr TAP never thought/ better days will emanate more especially after a storm/ we were born to serve a purpose as mine was naturally crafted people judge/ the reason why my objectives were laughed at/ it was hush, but their negative kept me elevated.”
Now Mr TAP is celebrated.
Poopedi types on his laptop that is fixed on top of a mini refrigerator: “I am glad I have been visited by people like you.”
As he runs his fingers across the keyboard, an automated male voice repeats the keys that are touched. Hearing as each word is formed, Poopedi smiles in agreement as his eyes dart back and forth under his black baseball cap.
Some might find it strange that a blind man can use Microsoft Word and send an email, but for Poopedi it is no big deal.
“I went to the school for people with disabilities in Pretoria that assisted me in mobilising myself. I couldn’t use a pen anymore so I then had to learn braille because I didn’t have any other option if I wanted to progress,” Poopedi says.
According to a new Youth Explorer portal launched by the University of Cape Town on Youth Day, there are more than 10 million young people in South Africa, and 20% of them live with visual impairment.
Many of them can’t go to specialised schools, but Poopedi was fortunate to receive an education.
He has partnered with organisations such as BlindSA to teach people with disabilities computer literacy, braille and writing so they can become employable.
BlindSA offers a braille service for all official South African languages.
Its chief executive officer, Jace Nair, who is also blind, says a bulk of young people have not furthered their education, and the majority remain at home because they can’t get access to educational resources.
“So we find that there’s a need to get blind people literate and our first point is to train them in Braille so that they can receive job training and vocational skills,” Nair says.
Poopedi says: “As a blind person, we are still expected to operate like the rest of [people in] the world that are sighted. We have to be computer literate and are expected to know how to read.”
He is sitting on the edge of his bed looking in the direction of his mini laptop. He praises it, calling it his best friend. He says learning to use the computer was a matter of practice and now he advocates for people with disabilities to become computer literate so that they can get jobs.
With support from local organisations, his family and his own self-education, he has successfully beaten the odds and the stigma of being visually impaired.
Lene Øverland, chief executive officer of Orbis, a global blindness prevention organisation, says visual impairment is sometimes caused by limited access and knowledge. “It’s not just the families that are affected; the individuals are because they don’t have easy access to simple things such as eye-care examination or a pair of glasses.”
Aware of the limitations and inability to access resources, Øverland says Orbis is now rolling out guidelines to “train everybody who deals with children at the age of newborn to prevent blindness among youths”.
Poopedi starts his daily routine by praying with his girlfriend, who helps him with activities such as getting dressed or attending meetings. Kupheka says she does not care what people say about their relationship, because she “loves him and everything that comes with him and God has blessed me to take care of him”. In addition to praying, Poopedi and Kupheka make it a habit to visit the gym, a 10-minute walk from their home.
After the “drastic change” in his life, Poopedi says embracing his new status was a challenge, but he found peace in music. “The music is my form of my expression. It tells stories of my experiences and I can use it to motivate people.”
Poopedi believes that overseeing the quality of work the dancers and musicians in his entertainment group produce dispels the stereotypes associated with disabled people.
“Slowly, we are making progress. There are some folks with disabilities like myself who are breaking down the stigma that a person with visual impairment just sits home and does nothing,” Poopedi says.
Music is not just entertainment for Poopedi. He uses it to inspire others, to tap into their purpose in life. A tragedy at the age of 14 made Poopedi realise his greater purpose in life is to serve others. “I lost my sight, but I gained my vision.”