The journey to Laliboi’s debut album, Siyangaphi, a tribute to the traditional sounds of South Africa fused with elements of jazz and old-school hip-hop, is also a celebration of the Xhosa language and identity.
It is an identity formed in a home where a jazz-loving father and gospel-listening grandparents fostered the Xhosa language in Laliboi, largely because of his great-grandfather, the Xhosa author WK Tamsanqa, known for his novel Buzani Kubawo.
“Growing up, writing was something that was instilled in me. They did not mind us not knowing how to speak English as long as we knew isiXhosa. That was a major influence in my rap style, it came from home.”
Born Siphosenkosi Nkodlwane in Butterworth in the Eastern Cape, 35-year-old Laliboi, which means rural boy, moved to Vosloorus at about the age of three. A guitarist and trumpeter, his first contact with musical instruments was as a four-year-old, when an uncle came to stay with his family after fleeing the violence that had erupted between the Inkatha Freedom Party and the ANC in 1991. “He came with two guitars, a new one and an old one, which he left me.”
But, it wasn’t until later that Laliboi would go beyond toying around with the guitar. “In 2008 I went to the Music Academy of Gauteng and learnt how to play guitar and fell in love with the trumpet.” The connection to the trumpet also goes deeper to his great-great-grandfather, after whom Laliboi’s album is named, who played the trumpet.
Rapping since the age of 14 and exclusively in Xhosa, Laliboi’s musical approach was shaped in part by his first two musical projects, Impande Core and Radio 123 in which he played the trumpet. Influenced by the sounds of sokkie, mbaqanga and kwaito, Impande Core fused them to create a unique sound they coined carrot funk. The end of Impande Core saw the formation of Radio 123, which still performs today. “When we disbanded, Smash [a member of Impande Core] and I started Radio 123. Our mission was to reflect the state of our country. We’re supposed to be a rainbow nation, but it’s taking forever to reflect. We thought the best way would be to fuse the different sounds that represent South Africans from different backgrounds and we coined that Mandela pop.”
It was through Radio 123 that Laliboi met what would be the producer of his album, the 2020 Standard Bank Young Artist Award-winning Spoek Mathambo. “We were doing the Africa Express project with Dave Albarn as Radio 123. We were doing collaborations on a track produced by Sibot. I jumped in and dropped a rap verse. That’s when Nthato [Spoek] heard me rap and was like ‘yo, I didn’t know you could rap’.” Two weeks later Mathambo called and said he had a beat and that he wants Laliboi on it. “It was a tribute to Mama Mandela. I was more than happy to do it, because I hadn’t done any rap projects for many years. So when we did that song that was the genesis of the Siyangaphi project.”
The approach developed during his time in Impande Core was further reinforced by a meeting with flautist and saxophonist Zim Ngqawana, who told him that “if you can breathe you can blow. Do not be limited by standards and rules that music dictates for musicians because it kills the musicality in you.” Laliboi took these words to heart and decided not to worry about how people would react, but rather dig inside and channel his upbringing without being afraid of being himself.
The connection with Mathambo further allowed him to create the project he was always hoping for. “[Spoek] started playing me beats and said he was struggling to get cats that could flow on it and I was blown away because it was something I was always looking for, out of the box but represented South Africa yesterday, today and tomorrow.” The result is a project that sounds unmistakably South African, while still working on the foundations of jazz and hip-hop.
This is clearly evident on Nomzamo, the tribute to Winnie Mandela which kicked off the project. Sampling Sathima Bea Benjamin’s Winnie Mandela – Beloved Heroine, the track, which also features Raiko, is a laid-back, jazzy summertime jam. Another overt South African sample is taken from African Day by Kippie Morolong Moeketsi, whose circular, jazzy piano loop is sure to bring back memories of childhood and which honours the likes of Bra Kippie, amapantsula and revolutionaries of that era.
Telling not only stories from his life and other South Africans but also celebrating the Xhosa language, Laliboi’s mastery of Xhosa rapping enables him to showcase the beauty and unique features of the language in a way that is engaging to non-Xhosa speakers.
With regard to narrative, Laliboi tells an array of stories. The artist instils pride in rural children by reminding them that greats such as Nelson Mandela, Chris Hani, Steve Biko and Thabo Mbeki were once rural children. Angazi Kanjani lets listeners in on a conversation between a son and his father who spends earnings on drink. And Deuteronomy 28 sparks questions about black Israelites. Then tracks such as Emonti, see Laliboi rapping at such a pace that his rhymes turn into tongue twisters.
The album is filled with South African stories, but there is one love song, Undenzantoni, which features Radio 123 and is an appreciation of one’s ride-or-die girl. Somandla changes things up and is inspired by Ray Charles, who took gospel melodies and wrote love songs. Laliboi flips this with a gospel song that features a party structure and whose groove screams summer. Closing the album are Mayibuye! and the album’s title-track, Siyangaphi, with the former a call for the return of Hintsa kaKhawuta’s head from the United Kingdom and metaphorically calling for a return to our elder’s state of mind. The latter emphasises the importance of the stories of our grandmothers and features words by novelist, writer and academic Ncedile Saule on the subject of comparing these stories to those of the missionaries who came to “redeem” the Xhosa people.
Laliboi hopes the album inspires other children accept their heritage and not be afraid of who they are. “People don’t read anymore. [I want to] reshape the minds of young South Africans to reconnect with who they are and not forget to embrace diversity.” Thanks to the sonic recontextualisation of local sounds atop jazz and hip-hop on Siyangaphi and alongside his top-tier Xhosa rapping and passionate storytelling, there is no doubt this project will have a lasting effect.