/ 19 September 2022

Stiff Pap and Mx Blouse answer to the will of the people at Jim Beam Welcome Sessions

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Stiff Pap and Mx Blouse join Muse. Photo: Supplied

As the rock band Muse was gearing up to produce a new album, their label had an idea –  make a greatest-hits album. They’d been pestered about it for years but it didn’t feel right. So, they set out on their own mission, trolling through their 28-year back catalogue and taking note of the elements that made their best music. These notes would culminate in the creation of their ninth studio album, Will of the People, a title so apt and timely, you can’t help but lean in.

So when bourbon-maker Jim Beam announced the Welcome Sessions concert showcase at Smoking Kills in Melville, Johannesburg, to celebrate this new Muse record, along with performances by Stiff Pap and Mx Blouse, it aroused curiosity as to the method to the madness. What do an English rock band and two of South Africa’s most prolific new wave outfits have to do with each other?

By their very existence, Mx Blouse forces you to find comfort in the extraordinary. They are not an ordinary artist. They’re not an ordinary rapper. They’re not an ordinary performer. And they insist on delivering an extraordinary performance. Theirs is a sound that is heavily inspired by the kwaito of TKZee and expertly galvanised with contemporary deep house and gqom sensibilities, to create a unique queer music experience. But on this night, playing at a listening session for a rock band, they saw an opportunity to take their music to a place even they wouldn’t ordinarily have imagined. Flanked by a four-piece band, Mx Blouse delivered a rock reinterpretation of all of their best hits.

“I only work with beats that speak to me,” they tell me. “So it doesn’t matter the genre. I will always be able to make it sound like me.” 

They’ll completely hate me for this but, hearing this, I was surprised when they told me how nervous they were before the performance. Songs like their latest single Izibongo Zami found new meaning in a rock setting. The meditative ode to their ancestors feels extremely intimate on the studio recording but the rock-star version allowed each of us in the room to step into Mx Blouse’s world and connect with who we are.

So, I desperately hoped party-starter duo Stiff Pap would do the same and hit the stage with a band. They chose not to – and they were right. When Ayema and Jakinda take the stage, you have nowhere to hide. Off come their T-shirts and out goes their cool-as-ice demeanour. They mean business. Ayema, we’re used to seeing at the ready with the mic but Jakinda’s DJ deck is now flanked by a mic too. Their rap style is similarly, though unintentionally, meditative, and the beats mean if you were planning on an early night, you need to think twice.

How are they able to hold a crowd so effortlessly? “It’s just us wanting to go into a space and feel free,” Ayema tells me. “Everybody knows each other or people come with the energy of wanting to meet each other.” 

It’s rooted in an authenticity of self – by being the truest versions of themselves, they allow everyone in the room to be themselves. That’s how they can play the new track Stunna Boys mid-set and have the crowd begging, “Drop it tonight!” They took it into consideration but didn’t listen to us.

Across both sets, it’s abundantly clear these are artists who have never been firmer in their identity and vision. 

“There really isn’t a reference for me to look at in society in terms of the way that I should be,” Mx Blouse tells me and Jakinda feels the same about Stiff Pap. “Every project we make, we always reference ourselves.” So, whether it’s re-imagining the music with a rock sound or pushing the music forward by digging into the best of what you’ve done before, Mx Blouse and Stiff Pap are marching to their own drums.

Stiff Pap and Mx Blouse join Muse. Photo: Supplied

There is no template for artists like these. The radio doesn’t recognise them and the commercial world has no idea how to package them. This means, although Muse has its place in the big, popular music machine, all three face the same challenge – how to stay true to who they are. And that’s what makes this Jim Beam Welcome Sessions show one to remember.

For both Mx Blouse and Stiff Pap, new music is on the way. The journalist in me wants a commitment, so I can fire out an exclusive and be the first to let the world know what’s coming. But, as has been the case throughout the interview and performance process, these are artists who remain true to who they are and that means letting the art guide them, even if it means not giving me what I want.

“I don’t wanna tie myself to, ‘now I’m creating an album about my experience in this spiritual I-don’t-know-what-to-call-it that I’m going through’,” Mx Blouse tells me as I wonder if Izibongo Zami is a sign of things to come. “I’ve been making a lot of music about relationships with men, sex, dancing, things I do research on. As much as I think I have enough music to put out a project, until I feel it inside me that it’s time, I’m not gonna do that.”

“Music is always going to be the core of what we do, and what we represent, but we want to get more involved in things like fashion and art because we’re performance artists,” Jakinda explains. “We’re really inspired by musicians who have been able to use what they’ve created in music to open different doors for themselves. People like Riky Rick and how he was able to transcend the music and become an iconic figure within the scene.”

So, when you think about it, Mx Blouse and Stiff Pap are directly answering to the will of the people. By being the truest versions of themselves, they allow us all to do the same. There are no formats or templates to follow. Just remember who you are and let the music set you free.