/ 29 October 2021

The Portfolio: HHP’s silver lining at Back To The City

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Hopeful moment: HHP performing at Back To The City in 2016. ‘What we saw on stage was a man seemingly winning the war; making progress in pulling himself out of the depressive abyss,’ writes Sabelo Mkhabela. (Sabelo Mkhabela)

HHP’s set at Back To The City in 2016 was a hopeful moment. The previous year, the motswako rapper had admitted to three suicide attempts in an interview with Gareth Cliff on Cliff Central. “I just got out of rehab,” HHP told the crowd at Mary Fitzgerald Square in Newtown at about 4pm with the sun showering him with its glorious afternoon rays. The rapper shared he had just smoked a “fat blunt” shortly before stepping on stage.

His exact set list has faded away with time, but I recall the usual suspects — Music and Lights, Harambe, Bosso and a few others, inducing a state of euphoria, a product of both nostalgia and seeing Jabba in his element after the concerning revelation.

Seeing thousands of fans losing their minds over his hits shortly after returning from rehab was highly likely a reminder to Jabba of the love his fans had for him. He was showing promise: light on his feet as always; gyrating and contorting to his groovy beats and catchy lyrics. What we saw on stage was a man seemingly winning the war; making progress in pulling himself out of the depressive abyss.

In that era, HHP was growing frustrated by the direction hip-hop had taken. “Radio had started to play trap music only,” he said during the Cliff Central interview. “And I’m like I cannot do trap music; it’s synonymous [with] bitches, champagne, money, and that is not what black excellence is about. That is not what I think Steve Biko died for.” As a result, the gigs had dried up and Jabba found himself at the crossroads with two choices: “Either get with the programme or fizzle out.”

He had no plans of fizzling out. In 2016, the progressive rapper highlighted his 2014 trap-leaning song Pop Mabhodlela from his album Motswako High School with a music video. The song, potent in all aspects, however, didn’t resonate the way trap songs by the likes of Emtee, A-Reece and Nasty C were doing. 

Jabba’s follow-up release was the EP #FGTBB (Feels Good to be Back) which saw him in his best form in years. Working with the young producer Hugo Flash, on #FGTBB, HHP successfully incorporated trap into his original vibe and even tapped into the zeitgeist, rapping over a hurried gqom beat on the EP’s closing song Ganda Dance.

The Back to the City performance that gave me hope for a HHP resurgence was proving itself a reliable sign. In an era that was thriving off blending hip-hop and kwaito, a style he championed years before, Jabba stood a chance to carry on churning out more hits with his eyes closed.

But he didn’t. Even though #FGTBB had potential hits (Mazenke Music was sinfully catchy and the title track as summer-ready as his previous hits), the audience was gravitating towards the new generation of rappers. Twelve days after the release of #FGTBB, HHP was reported to have died of suicide. Thaso, who was one of the first on the scene, confirmed he knew of Jabba’s condition and the two of them had discussed it multiple times.

“I never thought he would do it. He once tried it, and didn’t succeed. I thought my guy was fine,” HHP’s widow Lerato Sengadi was quoted by The Sowetan as saying a day after his artist’s death. “He would lock himself up, and when I saw him do interviews on Metro FM and Motsweding FM, I thought he was fine.” So did many of us when we saw him rocking the Back To The City main stage in 2016.