/ 4 October 2022

BLK RCK Festival celebrates the impact of black music on alternative culture

Blk Jks X Brett Rubin Hi Res
South African experimental rock band BLK JKS, composed of vocalist and guitarist Mpumelelo Mcata, bassist Molefi Makananise, trumpeter Tebogo Seitei and drummer Tshepang Ramoba. Photo: Brett Rubin

BLK RCK Festival is inspired by the BLK JKS’s long-held desire to carve out a platform that celebrates the impact and influence of blackness in the alternative music scene in South Africa.

BLK RCK is a one-day festival hosted by internationally renowned South African experimental rock band BLK JKS, composed of vocalist and guitarist Mpumelelo Mcata, bassist Clement Khanyi, trumpeter Tebogo Seitei and drummer Tshepang Ramoba. 

Alongside BLK JKS, the festival’s lineup included soulful folk singer-songwriter Msaki; Lesotho-born famo-inspired musician and shepherd Morena Leraba; genre-defying non-binary musician Mx Blouse; genre-fluid storyteller SIØ; three-piece Soweto rock band Shameless; rock-n-roll band Ruff Majik; as well as Tshepang Ramoba’s solo project. The festival was held at The Nest in Troyeville, Johannesburg on 1 October. BLK JKS’ guitarist Mpumelelo Mcata shared details of the festival.

BLK RCK Festival was created to acknowledge and reward the bravery of trailblazing artists singing to life new and unexpected futures while making our ancestors proud, Mcata says. It comes from a necessity of creating spaces for and by black creatives, “spaces not bent by racism”. 

The festival’s theme is founded on the BLK JKS’ belief that “all sound is connected and pre-existing, we are simply here to add our touches to it. The best griots or storytellers among us are the most in tune to those vibrations, they are the most gifted vessels, pure of heart and artistic intention,” he says. 

This notion speaks to the calibre of distinguished musicians the band has assembled for the first-ever BLK RCK Festival, though the seamlessly curated lineup simply came down to, as Mcata puts it, “a matter of synchronicities and availabilities – the stuff of a great many friendships”. To seal the deal and bring their vision to life, the band partnered with the creatively adventurous local brewing company Devil’s Peak Beer as the festival’s partner.

BLK RCK Festival comes after BLK JKS released their second album yesteryear, titled Abantu / Before Humans. The retro-futuristic album came more than a decade after the release of their debut album After Robots, naturally they had undergone some major changes, including a shift in the band’s members. 

They have been performing the album on their aptly titled international tour Black Rock Safari since mid-year in Europe and the UK. The tour’s set list features mostly songs from the new album, blended with older songs and some surprise jams in between. The album, as Mcata paraphrases one listener’s interpretation, “starts out speaking to ixesha labantu, a time before humans, then in the middle … it’s contextualising and situating us in the present, the human experience — and by the end, it is sounding out a warning … that if we are not careful there could be a world after all of us too!”

Harare, the album’s lead single, features Morena Leraba, the Mosotho shepherd and musician who is one of the artists who performed at the BLK RCK Festival. The track explores themes of migration. “Migration has been a big global topic and issue for a while now, forever really, but also feels so pertinent now, with so many wars and unrest all over. People dying in search of a better life, trying to feed their kids and so on, we felt it important to add our voices to this as travellers through this world too – our drop in the ocean,” says Mcata. 

The music video, starring Leraba and acclaimed multidisciplinary fine artist Nandipha Mntambo, is “meant to be a representation, of mother nature and human beings having a conversation – not unlike the conversation most people dream of being able to have one day with whatever their idea is of God(s)”. This conceptual direction is a spiritual perspective of addressing the important message of the song. 

While BLK JKS  is making strides, it is noteworthy to highlight some recent milestones by the artists on the line-up. For instance, Msaki won an award for Best Adult Contemporary Album at the 28th annual South African Music Awards, held on 28 August, for her album Platinumb Heart Open. SIØ was featured on a billboard in Times Square, New York, as the SpotifyEqual ambassador for Africa in August, having released her album Torn Tapestries in the same month. Shameless and Morena Leraba were featured on Forbes Africa’s list of Ten African Artists To Watch last month. 

As Mcata states, it’s not about the genre of music these artists make, it’s about something deeper. “There is something real, that all these exciting artists we have selected for the line-up are reaching for, by connecting us through their music not only to life within and around us, but also to something beyond the stars.”

As the BLK JKS have reawakened their purpose and had a realisation of the continued significance of their contribution to music, they understand that in a global context, being a black, African rock band, joining the dots, “like spirits crisscrossing through languages, musical traditions and time”, has an unparalleled quality to it. Moreover, bringing others on the journey with them to contribute to a bigger vision than their sonic talents through BLK RCK Festival is a comeback beyond what audiences and supporters could have ever imagined.