Portrait of Ben Sharpa - O' Kaptin My Kaptin - as a young man

Ben Sharpa

Ben Sharpa

“I go as far back being a 14-year-old, bumping into him at Le Club, shortly before it moved to Rippingtons. It was a Saturday afternoon and he was just in this cloud of smoke. It was him, Krook’d, and Snazz.
Snazz, naye ntanga was on some … ya. Uye wang’gwajisha kancane because I stepped on his shoes and shit, but I was just a shorty, you know. First time around that was my experience. And …. they rocked the fucking mic! I’ve never heard anything to this day, still, how Audio Visual fucks shit up jo. It was heavy. It was quite intense, especially for a 14-year-old. I was like … Iiiiiiii’m gonna be like that one day.” — Dice, Basemental Platform/ Groundworks

To his associates, Ben Sharpa is best remembered as O’ Kaptin My Kap’n. The name, taken from a Walt Whitman poem about the death of Abraham Lincoln, perhaps best captures his leadership qualities among his peers who regarded him as the skipper.

“He spearheaded things,” says Breeze, who ran the streets as Frank Talk in the days of Groundworks’ 2003 album Demolition: The Me Story. “He was the captain. He started learning to make beats, because it was a particular type of sound that we were trying to achieve and the people who were producing beats at the time were straying away from what we wanted to hear. He provided a space for us to grow as well, because he lived with his dad in Cape Town and his dad had to go to work during the day.”

When it came to the craft of emceeing, Breeze remembers his captain as “just brilliant”.

“When I wrote, I used to jumble things up, scratch out a few words,” he says, seated in front of a commemorative mural he has just painted in honour of his friend. It is mere hours before a memorial service in Newtown. “He just wrote. He was a smart guy, IQ wise. He was a mathematical genius and his parents were academics. He read a lot, had a lot of knowledge with him.”

What Kaptin carried within, he seemed eager to share with the world, with many of his rapping spars speaking about how integral to his stage persona his personality was.

“A lot of the Credo Mutwa, David Icke concepts, the aliens, I was listening to that song again, Disclosure,” says Bra Mawaza of Ghetto Pioneers.“Those are a lot of conversations we have had.”

A collaboration with British producer Milanese, the refrain from Disclosure goes: “Even civilians know the basics/ we’re living in a spaceship/ children of the matrix/ building on some slave shit/ did it from the ages/ genetic modification/ digging gold for Masons/ I’m seeing aliens.”

The presentation, propelled by a flow malleable enough to maximise every inflection, a sparse, grime-sounding beat that evokes a sense of interplanetary foreboding and a closely cropped, low-budget video that relies on theatrical facial expressions to convey a sense of dread, Ben Sharpa wove multiple artistic disciplines into his expression.

“He was influencing on the culture, but the thing is, there were many influences,” says Kano, from Basemental Platform.“The dude collaborated with people who spanned the art forms like playwriting. He was a student of film. He was a student of anime. All of these things played an influence on him. So when he then incorporates all these things into the art form which we call rap, it comes out as something else altogether. And because he was a people’s person, he was able to convey that message.”

Born in Soweto in 1977, Kgotso Semela, the second of three children, was about four years old when the family joined his father, who was studying for a speech and hearing audiology degree in the United States. But by then his fate as a fisher of men may have already been sealed. This is the gospel according to his younger sister and sometime collaborator, Teboho Semela.

“My mother has a scar on her ankle where, because of the [1976] uprisings, they were bum-rushing the school and she had to jump the gate,” she says. “I’m not a medical doctor but there are always stories about how children, when they are developing in their mothers’ wombs, they can sense these kinds of things. I have always thought it was interesting that he turned out the way he did and chose the path of always being about social consciousness.”

In the US, the family lived mostly in East Lansing, Michigan, while their father pursued two doctorates. Kgotso also proved to be a prodigious learner, bettering his Michigan middle-school peers in maths and English. “By the time he got to 10th grade, he was doing university mathematics,” says Teboho, a singer, violinist and flautist.

In the US, Kgotso picked up the viola but dropped it again for an increasing interest in writing and rapping.

“His engagement with the genre rose to the analytical,” says childhood friend Kobina Yankah in a letter to the Mail & Guardian. “I remember sitting in a car, constantly rewinding They Want EFX by Das EFX as he digested the abstract lyrics, breaking down the significance of each, seemingly unconnected phrase.”

Kgotso returned to South Africa in 1993, trailing after other members of his family, whereas his elder sister Kgothatso remained in the US to complete her studies.

By the time he sealed his high school years with a valedictorian speech at the American International School of Johannesburg, Kgotso had fallen in with the nascent Johannesburg hip-hop scene, which coalesced around the downtown matinee spot Le Club.

It is where scenes like the one so vividly recalled by a 14-year-old Dice were to become commonplace for a horde of young neophytes. It was a flame that neither Kgotso’s BSc degree in computer science nor the job-finding efforts of his elder sister could quell. His gifts for precision and the harnessing of collective energy would be gifted to hip-hop’s underground scenes, primarily the pre- and post-millennial ones that grew out of Cape Town and Johannesburg.

“He fostered bonds between schools of thought,” says Kano. “We had crews but, before we were a community, we were contending peers trying to say: ‘We are the best at what we do’.”

“Kaptin My Kap’n, why he is revered, is that he would go to every crew and respect every individual in that crew as a person. There was love in that. There was activism in that. There was awakening.”

Kgotso died on July 26. He has an album that awaits release, according to his wife, Nomthandazo. He is survived by his mother, wife and two siblings. Those who saw him perform will tell you that, in all of hip-hop, there will never be a replica.

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011. Read more from Kwanele Sosibo

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