BLK JKS find life after robots



The cover artwork of the BLK JKS debut full-length recording (released in 2009) features an Andrew Dosunmu image of a Mosotho shepherd, his oddly-featured face obscured by a balaclava, his torso swaddled in a blanket. The man’s features, his balaclava and blanket ensemble, the lone, out of focus cow grazing the background, easily led to a science fiction reading of what the term “after robots” meant, expanding what for South Africans is just a simple instruction to a taxi driver.

READ MORE: Half-JKS are the new BLK

A decade later, as the band releases the single Harare in preparation for a follow-up album, the reading of the image evolves again, with Dosunmu’s handiwork seeming to foretell the meeting between the band and famo-inspired musician Morena Leraba. Leraba’s artistic persona, especially his vocabulary and delivery, are derived from the building blocks of the genre, which has become synonymous with Basotho migrant workers and rural Basotho shepherds.

While Leraba’s vocal weaves the tale of a detained migrant, the story of Harare begins much earlier, capturing the warm residual feelings of a 2011 trip to the Harare International Festival of the Arts.

“I met Vincent Moloi in Hifa for the first time,” says drummer Tshepang Ramoba. “They were at a lobby with his partner. They were trying to get a hotel and they said they had travelled the whole town looking for one. I was like, ‘You can take my hotel room. If I need to sleep I will go to whoever’s hotel room.’ And then I ended up going out with Vincent. We didn’t even need to sleep. We had a great time individually, as BLK JKS. When I went out at night, gallivanting till the morning; the other guys did the same thing nabo at their own time … I just came in the morning to freshen up, go see more of Harare, play the show and disappear again.”

Ramoba remembers being nervous as the rain came down and continued throughout their set, but the Harare massive stayed with them, etching the moment as a key experience for the band. On their return to South Africa, they passed the guitar around in an impromptu jam session producing a skeleton of the song. “We tried to record it with Matthew Fink, but we left it at that,” Ramoba says.

It was Ramoba who met Leraba in Johannesburg in 2017 and played a gig with him in Lesotho. He then invited Leraba to a recording session that yielded the lyrics of Harare.

During the trip to Lesotho, Ramoba played After Robots for Leraba and their destinies began to merge. It was as if the band’s global impact echoed “my views on things,” says Leraba. “I always wanted to explore other sounds, rock included. They became close to me because of Thsepang, then I started getting to know the band. I studied them. For me they represented young people in South Africa breaking barriers.”

When it came time to record the song, Leraba drew from the contemporary subject matter of famo: “The lyrics came naturally. The whole migration thing, people tell you what they go through working in South Africa without proper documentation. It’s a big topic in the famo scene.”

Sonically, Harare tells a parallel story, perhaps one obliquely connected to the theme represented by Leraba’s lyrics. It is the tale of how the band — at the peak of its musical powers and visibility — had to reconfigure its sound after the estrangement of lead singer and guitarist Linda Buthelezi. Although a nervous front man, Buthelezi was an oddly charismatic conduit for the band’s searing electric guitar sound and its ornate lyrics.

Since his departure, the band’s sound has veered towards a rootsier rock with electronic elements that appear to nod at the side projects that picked up as the band’s momentum slowed down.

In its foundation, one can hear the “subliminal” (as Ramoba puts it) but abiding influence of Afrobeat on the group. One can hear the subtropical rock grooves of Motèl Mari (which comprises BLK JKS rhythm guitarist Mpumi Mcata, Ramoba and sound artist João Orecchia). One can also hear fuzzy indie pop that turned up on BLK JKS Soundsystem sets, as well as the expansionism the group aspired to. This is represented here by trumpeter Tebogo Seitei, the lone remaining brass player in a section that once featured three.

While it is bass player Molefi Makananise who speaks of the song’s questions in direct terms (“Yes, things are fucked up but what are we gonna do as African people?”), I would argue that in the polyglot vision of the band lies many possibilities — possibilities that imagine a deeper humanity after robots.

The BLK JKS’s next album is due for release later this year

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

Related stories


Subscribers only

Poachers in prisons tell their stories

Interviews with offenders provide insight into the structure of illegal wildlife trade networks

Covid-overflow hospital in ruins as SIU investigates

A high-level probe has begun into hundreds of millions of rand spent by the Gauteng health department to refurbish a hospital that is now seven months behind schedule – and lying empty

More top stories

The politics of the Zuma-Zondo showdown

Any move made by the Zondo commission head or by former president Jacob Zuma must be calculated, because one mistake from either side could lead to a political fallout

Museveni declared winner of disputed Uganda election

Security personnel out in force as longtime president wins sixth term and main challenger Bobi Wine alleges rigging.

Pay-TV inquiry probes the Multichoice monopoly

Africa’s largest subscription television operator says it is under threat amid the emerging popularity of global platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime

​No apology or comfort as another Marikana mother dies without...

Nomawethu Ma’Bhengu Sompeta, whose funeral will be held this weekend, was unequivocal in calling out the government for its response to the Marikana massacre

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…