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Inside the head of a Mutant

Mutant, which recently received a special mention at the 2021 Encounters South African International Documentary Festival, was initially conceived as a hip-hop-focused follow-up to 2014’s Future Sound of Mzansi.

After some issues regarding the openness of some of the interviews they got from other subjects, Nthato Mokgata and Lebogang Rasethaba’s second feature-length collaboration ended up being about an emcee who needs no introduction, even to those with just a passing familiarity with South African hip-hop.

In Isaac Mutant, the two couldn’t have chosen a worthier subject. The veteran rhymer’s pedigree stretches back to The Base, one of the foundational venues and scenes of Western Cape hip-hop since the 80s. “I stood next to hip-hop when it was born,” he says in the film.

To some, he is a wilfully polarising figure, but what can’t be disputed is his willingness to use his art to address issues, ranging from intensely personal ones to those of national relevance, such as coloured representation and farmworkers’ rights. 

“He hits the nail too hard,” says fellow musician Lee-Ursus in the film. “But I do think he’s an eloquent spokesperson of the people at the same time. So, it’s complex.”

This complexity is at the heart of the six-years-in-the-making Mutant, a film that while doubtless revolving around Isaac Mutant the emcee, is not squarely about Isaac Mutant the emcee. Using several of Isaac Mutant’s songs as a framing device, the film chooses a more difficult path; that of confronting the very tag of “colouredness”, offering less an analysis of the emcee’s rhyming abilities and more of a dissection of the locus from which his creativity springs. 

Rasethaba calls this clash between the subject’s political consciousness and his approach to emceeing  “the inherent conflict of the film”, adding that “we don’t really see these two things as separate things.”

Perhaps, in a sense, this fits in with the emcee’s own approach to his art. “I don’t dig being too technical about MC-ing,” he told Roger Young in the January 2013 edition of Rolling Stone. “Just fucking tell the story. The story is an extension of you.”

In the same article, Isaac Mutant is called “the ‘Moses’ of Cape Flats hip-hop”, a moniker representing both leadership and movement. 

“He took us around the Western Cape with so much force that we couldn’t deny the story,” says Mokgata of the film’s restless edge. “I don’t know if we would have picked him as a subject of an interview if the Larney … moment hadn’t happened like two years before [in 2014]. It speaks to something else that we were looking for in the context of the film.”

By the ‘Larney … moment’, Mokgata is referring to the Dookoom song Larney Jou Poes, a song depicting the takeover of a white-owned farm by its workers. 

Born in Vredendal in the Olifants River valley, Isaac Mutant fronted Dookoom, penning the lyrics to a song inspired by the De Doorns wine farm strike of 2012. The furore over the song’s lyrics and its video’s depiction of a farmworker revolution in which the farm is set ablaze led to a South African Human Rights Commission showdown in which AfriForum attempted to brand the song as hate speech.

The film glides on the momentum of Larney Jou Poes and takes in other related struggles, like the recurring protests around access to land and resources in Hangberg. 

A gritty and thoughtful film, Mutant is ultimately a trade off between two imperatives; access and the buy-in of the subject versus the ability to assess him critically. In the end, buy-in wins. 

Kwanele Sosibo speaks to Mokgata and Rasethaba about these and other aspects of the film. 

Isaac Mutant’s vision of himself and his surroundings is pretty headstrong. How did you maintain your vision while negotiating his?

Nthato Mokgata: For me, a part of the architecture was him taking us around the Western Cape on a tour. That was the feeling, that you are going with this guy to some spots that we haven’t been to. I lived in Cape Town at some point and I’ve been to Mitchells Plain at different points but there were so many areas that I hadn’t been to like Paarl, Hangberg, Chicago, even Heinz Park.That’s what he was doing, he was taking us there, and that’s what the film shows. 

Lebogang Rasethaba: In all these places, there was always something that read it back to his music. He was essentially taking us to places that inspired certain pillars of his artistic expression, the themes and characters in his music, essentially. 

At some point I felt like I needed more of this guy on stage emceeing, a band behind him, or a DJ, or at least some type of examination of his process. I say this just because of his level of artistry?

LR: The content was more important than actually seeing Isaac on stage and we started developing devices of how to help people concentrate and stay in this meditative space as they watch the film. That’s why there are these long ass dreamy pads that Nthato wrote. When Nthato and I were making the film, we were listening to these like really beautiful playlists that release certain frequencies and help you concentrate longer. We were listening to these as we were editing the film and discussing it. 

Nthato had this brilliant idea of actually writing music that was equally as soothing that allows people to concentrate and engage with the actual subject matter of the film.

It was interesting that the other musicians in the film like Dope Saint Jude and EJ von Lyrik and Youngsta, be they peers, competitors or progeny, weren’t tasked with speaking about him directly in most cases?

NM: You have to look at this from the perspective that Isaac was spitting at a high level for Cape Town hip-hop in the late Nineties, early 2000s. I booked him for a show in 2002. Dope Saint Jude and Youngsta come later in the story. They came in to speak to the issues that concern Isaac. 

I got a sense from the film that he might not re-emerge [as an emcee] or if he does, music might not be the vehicle. I don’t know if I’m projecting my expectations of how a musician who has performed everywhere is supposed to speak about music. 

NM: But you are also underestimating the love that he has for something he has been doing since he was very young. He’s called the God of Afrikaans rap. You think you can just leave that, boy. 

LR: Well the film took us six years to make and in that six-year journey, it’s always like, “How do you end off a documentary film?” And for a long time, we were thinking of, like, “He goes on a tour with his band.” But that was in the realm of, like, how to sell a documentary film. It’s like a sexy story. In the real world that’s not what happens. As much as he loves music that’s not where he is and I think we had to represent the truth as much as possible as opposed to like this glamorous version.

Throughout the film, Isaac Mutant takes the filmmakers on a journey through the Western Cape. (Photo: Imraan Christian)

The film treats him with a lot of reverence and sensitivity. What did he make of the final cut when he saw it?

LR: He says it in the film as well, which is important for us: “This documentary says everything I’ve been trying to say my whole life.” If the world hates this film, a ke kgathale, but as long as Isaac loves it, that’s what’s important.

NM: We had different cuts before this and he made us change a lot of stuff. For us, creatively, you just have to bite that and say someone is giving us so much access and friendship into their life. When he says “A”, you respect A. He asked us to take out two things essentially, and we just respected that he didn’t want any of that in the public. 

In journalism you never show a subject the final story because they might want to exert too much control.

NM: There were also things where he didn’t step on our toes creatively because he understood where we were coming from. 

LR: It’s an old-age battle within documentary filmmaking as well. It’s often ill-advised to show a subject a piece of work before. But ethically, our obligation was to Isaac as opposed to old-school rules of filmmaking. 

NM: What do you think about ethics in the context of your question? If somebody from that community in Cape Town is giving us access to his life, don’t we have to [show him the final product]? 

I respect that everything changes, for better or for worse, for the subject of a documentary after participating in a film. I do think there is a lot of respect that you guys show him in the film. There isn’t a whiff of anything that could be compromising. And to do that and still come out with a compelling film is a testament to, among other things, the levels of trust that he had in you.

LR: So imagine us going around showing this film and the subject isn’t happy with it. 

NM: We also had the experience with Future Sound of Mzansi, showing it in different places, being wherever and having to speak about batho bako Pheli, batho ba ko Atteridgeville. You have to have that respect because at the end of the day, you are going to have to answer for what you show. 

LR: Being able to stand in a room full of people with Isaac by my side and have him talk fondly about the film is probably the biggest compliment to me as a filmmaker. I always say to people that I might have a preconceived idea of what a film may be about, but I find joy in relinquishing control to the people my films are about. The co-authorship is most important for me. 

Follow @mutantdocumentary on Instagram for updates on future screenings

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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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