Like God’s eye, T’s rap sees all

Smokin: Stogie T pushes the envelope of the rap genre by his intelligent references to current affairs, which most rappers, especially in South Africa’s mainstream scene, hardly ever do. (The Plug)

Smokin: Stogie T pushes the envelope of the rap genre by his intelligent references to current affairs, which most rappers, especially in South Africa’s mainstream scene, hardly ever do. (The Plug)

One day before Youth Day, rapper Stogie T (Tumi Molekane) released God’s Eye, 14 minutes of raps and beats. The release consists of bite-size songs, most of which are one verse long, curated into one long song that covers various subjects — connecting them are skits that give context to the songs.

T has always had interesting ways of tackling the subjects he covers. God’s Eye opens with the rapper addressing the hypocrisy of people who make jokes about people’s hustles, when they could be channelling that energy into bettering their own lives. Immediately after, though, he throws jabs at rappers who believe that they are the incumbent kings of rap. With no names mentioned anywhere, it’s up to you to guess who he’s referring to.

You can just see him sneering when he raps: “It’s really awesome, I’m happy for your small run/ You turn tired 16s into a 4x4, son/ But clueless to the standards/ It’s usually embarrassing to witness the pubescent hubris and arrogance/ I was tutored from a different school of graduates/ If we don’t see eye to eye, that’s the view from where I’m standing.”

The mood intensifies after the first two songs, as the MC belts out socially conscious rhymes throughout the release. Weaving impressively as an observer about African immigrants in Libya (on the song Melila), the Black Lives Matter movement (Urban), the Islamic State (Al Raqqa), the pursuit of money (Aspirational Lives), the interconnection of historic events (Evolution of the World) and a flawed judicial system (Leeuhof Prison), the storyteller comments and analyses without preaching.

But in the songs James Fort and Al Raqqa, T writes from his subject’s perspectives. The rapper specialises in this technique, evoking a chilling empathy — and it always has a telling effect. It’s almost like acting, but it’s over beats.

In James Fort, T plays the character of a slave master in The Gambia. He is writing a letter to his wife, giving her gruesome details of what he’s seen of the country thus far. His writing is convincing — the white person attributes entitlement to black bodies to God. He raps: “I am stilled by the scripture that we are not condemned/ For ’tis the right of man to reign over beast here.” Like a true racist, he is impervious, unable to see his own evil, and instead lamenting the natives’ resistance to subservience.

A compelling example of this technique was in the song The Now Rich, from his 2006 debut solo album Music from My Good Eye. He raps from the perspective of a black person driven by capitalism and greed, who now looks down upon poor black people and has adopted the “bootstrap mentality” of white racists.

What T accomplishes in some of the songs on God’s Eye, and in many others from his previous work (such as Sub City, Villages and Malls and I Came Home), is similar to journalism. This may seem like a reach but even Chuck D (of the critically acclaimed rap group Public Enemy) once called hip-hop Black America’s CNN. Ice Cube also once called himself a “brutally honest journalist”.

In Leeuhof Prison, T, like a journalist with a sharp and unconventional eye, tells the story of a distraught prison warder. He tells us that prison isn’t just a deeply toxic space for prisoners but also for wardens, who have to watch young (mostly black) people’s lives slowly destroyed in a facility that’s meant to rehabilitate them. T’s tone in this song is the opposite of the lofty, slightly detached one in the first two songs on God’s Eye. In Leeuhof Prison,  he’s intense, emotional and sympathetic as he raps: “Inmate given time to make it fit the crime, it’s a lie/ ’cause ain’t no future in this present tense.”

God’s Eye reveals a breed of MC that is rare in the 21st century — one whose scope is wider than himself and his immediate surroundings. This project reminded me of just how much hip-hop has taught me. It made me remember that there are many important people’s names and events that I first heard about in a rap song when I was growing up. As a young teenager, I wouldn’t have known about Amadou Diallo, Louis Farrakhan, Rosa Parks, the New York crack era and a whole lot more if it wasn’t for hip-hop. Hell, I even first heard about the Black Panther party in a hip-hop song.

T had me hitting Google for some of the names he drops — the way other like-minded MCs such as Lupe Fiasco, Black Thought, Talib Kweli, Kendrick Lamar, Jean Grae and many others have done.

He makes reference to current affairs, which most rappers, especially in South Africa’s mainstream scene, hardly ever do. If they do, it’s because they are using it in a punchline. But T offers commentary on the Syrian city of Raqqa, once the Islamic State’s stronghold. Who would have thought you’d ever hear the word “caliphate” being chanted in a trap song hook?

In the same song, T sporadically deploys the triplet flow that’s now a staple in rap and what makes it special is that he is tackling a difficult subject. You know what they say — telling the truth (or at least, a truth) is not easy.

God’s Eye shows us that T is getting better as an MC. His flow is still the tightest this side of the equator, his vocabulary is unmatched and his wordplay goes beyond metaphors and similes — double meanings are the order of the day. And he doesn’t just rhyme “sneakers” with “speakers”, he rhymes in syllables and, at times, even gets to rhyming entire lines with each other. All this while still staying on the topic. So even when he raps about rap, which can get tiring at times, there’s an appreciation for the grandiosity of his bars. Like poetry.

The album may have no place on the top 40 charts — you won’t hear any singing or standard pop song structure — but it is a curation of raps over production that segue between boom bap and trap, courtesy of the producer, Tru Hitz and Co Kayn, who produced most of Stogie T (2016), T’s first album under his new moniker.

God’s Eye is a fitting title. It is, of course, a play on words where T believes he’s a kind of god MC. But it can also be interpreted as the man who seems to know about so much that’s happening around the globe, who sees with God’s eye, which we are told reaches all corners of the universe at once. And, just like God’s word, the project is a riddle of some sort — new meanings to the songs come to the listener with every successive listen.

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