Life imitates art for Babes Wodumo

It is uncanny how, long before Babes Wodumo’s assault at the hands of boyfriend Mampintsha became a national conversation, her 2016 hit Wololo provided clues about the milieu out of which she rose and by which, in many respects, she continues to be hemmed in.

Monday morning’s live Instagram post appears to be her latest attempt to break free from what many are characterising as a suffocating relationship that has left her career at a crossroads.

Wodumo’s sister and her manager, Nonduh Simelane, said the singer was no longer professionally linked to Mampintsha’s record company.

“She hasn’t been linked to West Ink for over a year,” she said. “She has her own company, Wena Wodumo Entertainment.”

An immediate conundrum for Babes is that her standout song, produced by the Distruction Boyz, is partly a praise song for Mampintsha, DJ Tira (Mampintsha’s former boss) and the male-dominated camps that comprise their respective labels, West Ink and Afrotainment.

Oddly enough, it is also a tongue-in-cheek cautionary tale about the absurdities, rather than the dangers, of binge-drinking around cliques of men.

The song’s opening refrain, which includes the line “Wavuk’ek’seni, awaz’ulalephi [You woke up not knowing where you are]”, apparently relates a real-life incident Wodumo had witnessed.

In the video, too, this scene is also seemingly alluded to, except that it is followed by more partying, with teenage girls in denim shorts and bunny ears flanking a proprietorial Mampintsha, who sits in the centre of the scene on the bonnet of an old-model Mercedes-Benz clutching one of the shoot’s ubiquitous red plastic cups.

A few metres from him, as if on a short leash, Wodumo, also clad in denim shorts, dances to her song.

The visuals of the video are significant, if only for what we have come to know about Wodumo’s career.

Her only album to date, Gqom Queen, Vol 1, was a stage-managed farce, with Mampintsha, at the height of his charisma, appearing in all of its 15 songs.

But as Wodumo’s star rose, largely off the back of that one hit, there was a sense that not all was stable at West Ink. In mid-2017, an embarrassed Wodumo had to explain why she would not be making an appearance at the BET Awards, where she had been nominated for a best international act award. The songstress had applied too late for a visa.

It was after this that West Ink hesitantly farmed out the public relations aspects of her career to external agencies, resulting in consecutive short-lived arrangements with African Star Communications and Capacity Relations. It was also during this period that an exodus of talent began to haunt the West Ink label.

Many associates approached by the Mail & Guardian preferred not to speak out publicly, which suggests that Wodumo not only operates in a musical environment in which female talent is seen as expendable — allowing silence to turn into collusion — but in a wider societal framework in which she has been specifically commodified for her commercial value as an artist.

An industry affiliate said the video did not come as a shock, because the signs of abuse had been evident even in 2017.

“When we worked with her, there was no point at which there were signs of physical abuse, but there were arguments and control issues,” the source said.

Photographer Nkanyi Disi, who worked with Wodumo and Mampintsha over a period of three months in 2018, said that, to him, the couple had seemed “very much in love”.

In a televised interview on Tuesday, Mampintsha claimed he and Wodumo have been in a relationship for seven years, and said that tensions in their relationship had to do with Wodumo being the prime breadwinner in her family.

Last year, abuse claims were brought up during an interview on radio station Metro FM.

After this Wodumo’s father, Reverend Welcome Simelane, urged Mampintsha to accept that Wodumo was now an independent artist with her own record label, but acknowledged Mampintsha’s role in building her up and “grooming” her.

Speaking on Metro FM on Tuesday morning, media personality Somizi cautioned the artist about being constantly surrounded by a “yes-crowd”. In a week of public humiliation, in which additional assault charges were laid against Wodumo by another person, it appears her life may have come to represent something even more ominous than a scene from Wololo.

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Aaisha Dadi Patel
Aaisha Dadi Patel
Aaisha Dadi Patel was previously a member of the M&G’s online team. She holds an MA in Media Studies from the University of the Witwatersrand
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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