Jabba, a man of the people whom we failed to protect

Larger than life: HHP on stage earlier this year. The hip-hop star died on Wednesday. Photo: Lucky Nxumalo/Gallo Images/Sunday Sun

Larger than life: HHP on stage earlier this year. The hip-hop star died on Wednesday. Photo: Lucky Nxumalo/Gallo Images/Sunday Sun

Lefatshe je

ke le tshelang 

le nkisa dinaleding

le ha tsela e mpalela

e nkentsha dikeledi 

ga kitla ka lo latlha

ke tla lo atlarela ka diatla

The world that I live for

Leads me to heaven

Even when the journey urges me to cave in

And it makes me cry

I will not abandon it

I will hold onto it

— Lefatshe je by HHP from the album YBA 2 NW

‘Re khawategile’ – this immense loss has shifted the ground beneath our feet, slowed down time, and enveloped our national body in sorrow. We should stay down and wail. We have never cried.
For all of it. For the crushing failure, our culpability, and our destitution. When living dehumanizes us to an extent of postponing our grief then we are not living but dying. When we do not heed the cries of others we are compliant in our own robotization. And when we choose to worship the unseen while the reality of mental illness is playing out on the stages of our democracy then our intelligence is artificial. Jabulani Tsambo, Jabba, Hip Hop Pantsula is gone and has shattered our illusion because he was the people, and the people are us.

I came in close vicinity of Jabu’s genius, generosity, generative art, and grand spirit as a recently-matriculated would-be artist freshly landed in Brixton, Johannesburg in the early 2000s. I became part of a cultural ferment that I would in hindsight attribute to the power of poetry couched in the stately voice of President Thabo Mbeki’s ‘I am an African’. We heard him and fashioned ourselves personal African renaissances that shaped a ‘back to black’ era and produced a consciously black aesthetic and self-determinism whose cultural production was unseen since the era of Black Consciousness Movement in the 1960s and 1970s. The faces of Miriam Makeba and Steven Biko emblazoned on t-shirts announced an awakening of post-apartheid blackness unabashedly embodying newly-won freedoms. The milieu was of our own making, carved with the fires of our hearts and molded with our youthful hands. We were creators, forging a path in thickets of pain and trauma, using faith and hope to dream new colors of the sky. Jabu’s mainstay in the game was grounded in honoring his intuition from the onset, by drawing from Setswana language, history and culture in shaping our collective present and future desires. 

Poetry and underground hip hop was the glue that held us together. I found the childlike wonder about him refreshing – a way of seeing and hearing and feeling that was uninterrupted by the baggage of life. He was one of the few figureheads of the South African hip hop vanguard, but never carried the problematic reputation of hubris and misogyny associated with that genre. I remember when Amu released The Life, Rap & Drama in 2003 Jabu could not hide his glee and exaltation. We suckled on that album days and nights on end, and he was visibly impacted by that hip hop classic. He wanted to go into studio immediately, and the recording of O Mang? was soon in session. The lesson I took from this period is the profound manner in which HHP remained true to his voice and Tswana cultural reservoir, not emulating Amu even while riding on the inspirational wave Amu conjured. He invited me to record a poem that ended up being the opening track of O Mang?, which was a magnanimous gesture, compounded by his utter trust in my own process when I had never done anything remotely close to that. These were Jabu’s eyes; unmarred by the glitter of Jozi, and relishing golden opportunities to be in the service of others. 

We did not protect Jabu. We saw his inherent predilection to see the best in the world, in people, in situations, and knew how dangerous it was, but we did not protect him. In a way that type of spirit was foreign to most of us in his circle, all from out of town and now inhabiting said town without a solid plan, surviving. We traversed the alleys, dancehalls and underground scenes with ease, while he harboured a secret wish to join Amadodana ase Wesile. He found nothing more supreme than creating and preferred to be at home or in the studio to obey his calling when the muse instructed him. Fame and the world became his inheritance as it usually does for those who honor their gifts and use them to touch the lives of others. The ‘others’ whose lives Jabu’s lyrics transformed were truly ‘the people’, the masses in whose language he spoke, whose practices he weaved with global youth culture, and whose dreams he shepherded to the world. He embodied our collective dream, our ‘back to black’ became his personal mission when he chanted ‘Harambe’ and ‘Daraja’, and when he began his walk to Nairobi on June 16 of 2013.

Jabu knew that the people are us no matter what pseudo-middle-class celebrity high flyer influencer petit-bourgeois status one attains. He had millions of real followers and he bought school shoes for their children, paid their fees, featured them in his videos, and gave the too-many-to-mention artistically-gifted a platform to make names for themselves. In a country bent on instilling a culture of scarcity and competition Jabba’s empathy was viewed as an aberration, and his egalitarian way of life something to be scoffed at. Our cumulative failures as a nation distilled into his personal life because he is the people. The phrase ‘re khawategile’ comes to mind because it languages a social and psychological state where our collective failure to protect him when we heard his cries, of his attempted suicides and his depression, reveals to us the precarity of our own lives under racial capitalism. It reminds us of our dehumanization and our collective feeling of suffocation. Our national neurosis that HHP made his own. The neurosis that wires us, that we embody as ‘the people’. Jabu was the people, and we are Jabu. 

Uhuru Portia Phalafala

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