Party-starter, infamous (former) Kalawa “chikita” and gqom loudhailer Busiswa is nothing if not armoured in confidence. Pick damn near any beat structure and you will still hear it in the tone of her voice: at times combative, at times just fed up, but mostly couching the politics of self-determination in playful banter and sexual innuendo.
Underpinning the methodology is a stripped-down lyricism, honed to pump out pitch-perfect manifestos for the club. This insider knowledge of club psychology, mixed with erudition and instinctive timing, is what allows her to re-enact cinematic scenes without slipping off the groove.
“Poetry was something I was interested in long before music,” she says in an interview that takes place in a white Mercedes Vito in the parking lot of Urban Brew Studios. It comes after a long day of filming as part of her feature on TV show The Real Goboza.
“In primary school, I used to read a lot. I spent a lot of time in the library. That’s why I always encourage people to teach their kids to read, because you become eloquent and more confident in your expression.”
Busiswa, born in Mthatha, the capital of the former Transkei, developed her love of reading by accident. She went to a former model C primary school in East London and she broke her leg during an after-school play session with her friends. Her aunt (her guardian at the time) couldn’t afford the trips to the hospital during her month-long stay. Her grade four English teacher, a Mrs Bailey, took up the mantle instead, easing the girl’s boredom with the books she would bring to the ward.
There she read her very first novel, Little Women, by Louisa Alcott. “It was surprising to me that I could find interest in any of that,” she says, referring to the storyline about the coming-of-age of four sisters, “so I wanted to read more and more and more”.
Armoured in confidence: Gqom loudhailer Busiswa Gqulu spent her childhood immersed in books and poetry. Photo: Oupa Nkosi
Busiswa’s grandmother was a nursing college teacher who had to forego her dream of becoming a doctor because of the restrictions on what black people could study.
“She had a passion for books and studying,” recalls Busiswa.
In high school, in the tenuous shelter of boarding houses because of a calamitous, short-lived family reunion with her father and her siblings, Busiswa voluntarily took drama as an extra subject and honed her public-speaking prowess. By the time she was in grade 11, in 2004, she was a bona-fide performance poet and on her way to becoming a key member of Durban’s then nascent poetry scene. “There [at the BAT Centre] were other poets who introduced me to other shows, other venues, other organisers,” she says. “Eventually, I was doing poems everywhere.
“I did a lot of gigs for civil society organisations; poems about women and children, societal issues, global warming.”
Unbeknown to most, Busiswa has always been weathering storms. There are years in her life that have been filled with devastating events, mitigated by unlikely silver linings. Take 2009, for instance. A brother dies. Then in 2010 the tenuous National Student Financial Aid Scheme bubble bursts. She drops out of accounting in her third year. She contemplates a return to the Eastern Cape. A breakthrough emceeing gig in the midst of all that convinces her that she can parlay her public-speaking skills into an independent hustle in Durban.
In the hyperactivity of 2010, Busiswa gets a call to Clap’s and the late Sir Bubzin’s modest studio. They craft Syaphambana, a song that sets the wheels of her impending stardom in motion. It lands on a Kalawa Jazmee dance compilation in 2011.
Syaphambana represents Busiswa still learning how to edit herself for the dance floor, still gathering the ingredients to juice up anthems such as DJ Zinhle’s My Name Is, her own hit Ngoku and Professor’s One Night Stand.
Initially meant as an instrumental for DJ Zinhle, My Name Is represents that crystalline moment when Busiswa nailed the execution of a brief, laying down what would be the cornerstone of her style.
Today, one can still argue that Busiswa does poems for women and children, only now they are dressed in flat shoes for the club and intent on drowning out all else around them.
While the beat to My Name Is was being worked on by Maphorisa and Clap at Kalawa Jazmee, it was Oskido who recommended that she hop on to Zinhle’s would-be instrumental groove. A flight to Jo’burg was booked on the strength of her performance on Syaphambana.
“I learnt that day the importance of prepping for the things that you want,” she says, her Vito transformed into her lounge from the warmth of her storytelling. “Because I knew that if I walked in there and took too long, if I walked in there and started out wack, if I walked in there and didn’t deliver what they wanted me to deliver, then I was out. I knew I was only called for one song, and I knew from the first day that I wanna be here. This was my next step. I had no other plan. Kumele ngingene eKalawa manje. That was the mission.”
A perfect exhortation for Zinhle’s turn at the decks (something men in reggae and hip-hop had been doing for each other for ages), Busiswa turned the notion on its head, birthing, in a sense, a modus operandi.
“Working with Maphorisa and Clap was great because they knew how to choose the right things and keep them in the song and eliminate extra stuff that’s too much, because I was deep. They taught me the importance of being minimalistic. People are not in the club trying to get preached at, but you could have a powerful impact by saying as little as possible. From that day I took off.”
By the time that song took flight, Busiswa’s mother had ascended to the heavens, clearing the path for the mission that lay in front of her.
By the time Busiswa laces Ngoku (credited as Busiswa featuring Oskido and Uhuru), she is inserting herself deep into the marrow of the beat.
Nab’ abobrother/ bayadimanda/ bacing’uk’ba kufan’ukba/ auction ba-r
So ke mamela/ as’babonise/ asbon’ abo sis’baaaa fun’ukbhaywa …
Ithi sorry, not ngomso kaloku /ngoku
(Here are these men / demanding / they think this is an auction bar /
So then listen / let us show them / we don’t want to be bought … Say sorry, not tomorrow but now)
Despite the clarity, the brevity, the juxtaposition of indignation and the narrative expression of liberating fun, Busiswa somehow wants to disown Ngoku.
“I didn’t connect with the song at first. I didn’t think it was me. I thought it was too playful. It was a strictly party song, like there was no social consciousness whatever. I considered myself very self-aware, too self-aware to release anything like that. But that song won me my first [Channel O] award. It got me to travel outside the country and the continent.”
To the untrained ear, there is probably little to separate the overriding sentiments consistent in Ngoku, Lahla and newer anthems such as Goduka, off her latest album Summer Life. They are all, essentially, about self-determination, but Busiswa drills down to form in her self-critique. “Lahla has range. Lahla has a message. There were some raps. This was when people were starting to take me seriously and realised that I was serious.”
One might say that emboldening women while lampooning men has become a default setting for Busiswa. The bars of 2012’s early gqom banger One Night Stand (off Professor’s The Orientation) typify this stance. If one knows the backstory of the artist’s life, the songs start to take on a biographical twist that enhances their inherent sense of cinema.
“Even though I enjoy partying, I made a lot of good decisions,” says Busiswa about her source material. “I wasn’t going home with guys. There was a point where I was in the club from Thursday to Sunday, drinking water. I didn’t even drink alcohol at the time. I was with my friends, and the rule was: we walk in together, we leave together.”
Asked what drew her to the club scene, she states the obvious in a novel way, similar to what she does in her music. “It’s dark. The music is all you can hear. You can’t even talk to anybody. My friends and I, we all enjoyed dancing. We loved hip-hop, we loved house and we were trying to learn the next dance move and do it the whole time.”
Musically, coming of age for Busiswa has meant that she can tackle themes about sexuality in much the same way that she can exhort her peers and the young ’uns. In Midnight Starring, a staggering Maphorisa hit currently sitting at 5.3-million views on YouTube, she plays with context as she takes a traditional Xhosa wedding song into the complicated milieu of the tacitly acknowledged dynamic between the wife and the other woman. Busiswa blurs the moral distance between the legitimate partner and the supposed scandalous side chick.
With time, her palette expands. For every Midnight Starring (about “being always aware of what one projects”), there is a Bazoyenza (that moment of clarity where one has to behold the presence of a boss before they “turn up”). In its playfulness, especially in the visuals, one can kind of argue that it is Ngoku come full circle.
But the clincher, or perhaps merely the latest instalment in that long line of poems for women, comes in the form of a raw gqom by the Mdantsane duo of Cruel Boyz, simply titled Goduka: “… Ey’lamablesser elokh’ endibuka ekhoth’umlomo/ ak’khont’ezalunga man, ndiyavuka ngomso/ Ey wena, goduka!” (These blessers always looking at me licking their lips/ nothing is going to go well/ I’m waking up early tomorrow/ Ey wena, go home)
It is Busiswa emptied of patience for pretenders to her throne. It is Busiswa gone from club girl to working woman, petulantly putting down interlopers. The song is one of the many guises she assumes in Summer Life, her second full-length project, which is currently out on Busiswa Entertainment.
As for Summer Life and the previously unheard-of Busiswa Entertainment: don’t think of the latter as a label just yet, and don’t separate the former from the necessity to wipe off the bitter after taste of Highly Flavoured. A long-awaited debut, it is now tainted as an album whose proceeds were fudged by record label shenanigans, Busiswa says. Refusing to be embittered, she is walking away into her future, “nyawo phambili”.
Busiswa performs at the Buyel’Ekhaya Festival at East London’s Buffalo Park Cricket Stadium on December 16. For more information visit www.buyelekhaya.co.za