/ 17 March 2023

It’s About Time! Quartet put the boom into SA musical culture

“People wanted to see them, people wanted to be like them.”

Sakumzi Qumana

Writing about legacy acts in the streaming era poses many problems. What’s laid bare is that the catalogues of legacy acts tend to miss crucial releases. 

Such was the case with Boom Shaka, who kicked through the door protesting for the right to rave, telling us it was about damn time we paid attention to the new thang incoming during the Summer of 1993-going-into-1994. With releases such as 1998’s Ain’t No Stoppin’ (Us Now) and Words of Wisdom on the self-titled Boom Shaka (1999), they stuck out like strong colours against a muted background. 

On & On

Before the quartet of Lebo Mathosa, Thembi Seete, Junior Sokhela and Theo Nhlengethwa was the duo L&T. 

Seete shared their origins in a Kaya FM interview last year. 

“L&T is Lebo and Thembi, way before Boom Shaka. It was just something that we came up with to keep ourselves busy after school.” 

She says they mainly imitated artists they liked. 

“When I eventually met Lebo, that was the beginning of my life. I couldn’t believe that there were people like that, with such power, talent and passion. It’s the kind thing you would see on TV and hear on the radio. It was just rare to meet someone that was powerful like that.”

Oscar Mdlongwa, who we now know as Oskido, and who was called Oscar wa Rona in the early 1990s club days, was the one who masterminded the quartet at Club Arena in central Joburg. 

Sokhela had been a member of Prophets of da City and Nhlengethwa was the budding Tevin Campbell-esque figure for the 1990s R&B generation. Oskido was a pioneer in seeing the significance of an audacious group of individuals who were unafraid to be daring and sexy. 

Out of the funk, the groove, the edginess and the rawness of club culture emerged one of the greatest outfits to have reigned in post-94 Mzansi. The end of an era announced itself via news of Mathosa’s death after a car crash on that fateful Monday morning of 26 October 2006. Kwaito music, club tradition, glam — were all taken from the generation that came of age in the 1990s.

In her Kaya FM interview, Seete revealed Mathosa and Nhlengethwa were in a relationship for seven years, and as the individual members went solo, the impact of the group as a whole continued to endure. 

If You Love Boom

Hindsight offers clarity regarding who Boom Shaka were, and what they stood for. They were into dancing and looking fly, not giving a fuck and embracing eternal youth. But that is an observation from a single perspective, one mirroring much of what was said regarding the disposable nature of kwaito and iSgubhu throughout the 1990s, but also in this current age of amapiano.

Boom Shaka embodied the consciousness of club music through their lyrical choices. Songs like Kwere-Kwere only started to make sense when hate revealed itself in the form of the violent attacks on dark-skinned South Africans and immigrant Africans in 2008, while others like Lerato and Don’t Feel Ashamed spoke about the need to embrace yourself fearlessly, to champion yourself because no one can hold you in the same regard. 

(Mathosa was known as a queer woman, and was not ashamed to live her truth, while Nhlengethwa was rumoured to be one of the first transgender men the country had seen as a public figure.)

Nkosi Sikelela, the unofficial B-side to the national anthem, broke the rules and pissed off figures of authority, from parents right up to the government. Be Free was self-care before the trend, a licence to centre the self, but to also situate that embrace within a greater community of boundless love.

In the process of writing this article, I reached out to the most ardent, hardcore fans to share their fondest memories and what stood out is that Mathosa is inimitable, one of a kind, a rare find that can never, ever be recreated or duplicated. It’s necessary to see this as an endorsement of her presence, which was essential to the group, and cemented her pursuit of a solo career, but to also state that her elevated status isn’t above what the collective represented.

Style, Flair, Grace

“I have an aunt who is eight years older than me. I got a lot of my early introduction to kwaito music through her — she was a high school student at the time. 

“Each era had its own vibe; the first one had to do with their look. Auntie was a teenager, she was also into doing her hair. I suppose that’s where my relationship with braids came from,” says vocalist, songwriter and producer Nonku Phiri.

“From a Boom Shaka perspective, they were just the all-round package. They were accessible — yes, it did feel a bit older, but not in a way that excluded me. I was very much into the tunes, it was very unique. 

“We always had the Aba Shantes, but Boom Shaka had its own appeal. There’s nobody who can deny that Lebo has a very distinct voice and I think there’s nobody doing it the way she was at the time. 

“She was giving us the whole Hollywood package before it was a thing here. And she always had an air of being innovative but also sultry. She came in commanding attention; she wasn’t asking for it.”

About Damn Time

“My fondest memory comes from the power of It’s About Time — it speaks to so many moments from high school — it was a song that we’d just sing to each other. 

“I remember being very young, tucking my tummy in, turning my shirt into a cropped top, jiving with the oldies because I grew up with lots of partying [around me] and Lebo was one of those people at the house,” says Monthati Masebe, who is a composer and music researcher, as well as an actor.

“My mom had me quite young and she was an older-sister figure in Lebo’s life. She’d come to decompress from the wild life but would still be her wild self. She dressed in such a liberal way, which was so cool. It’s like she was saying, ‘Kea phapha (I’m forward), and I know you’re judging me, but I don’t care.’

“That was Boom Shaka — legendary!” beams Masebe. 

“There’s so much forward-thinking that [Lebo] just embodied and didn’t have to say aloud; a kind of free being that I think I needed to feel safe in my non-conventional ways of living. She just didn’t care!  

“[She gave us permission to] cut our clothes and to dance to very inappropriate songs. It was about the fun and the dance and the freedom and just embracing everything that has to do with you. We needed that as black women, that liberation.”

Being Free

Rhea Blek, the Durban-based vocalist and songwriter who possesses a dangerous set of pipes, capable of casting out demons and instilling the kwaito tradition into a new generation of freedom seekers, is also a mega fan.

“Boom Shaka was the first alternative black music I was exposed to. They really influenced me to be an artist who is not afraid to experiment, who is not afraid to express themselves, and I really love how they came about in a time that was transformational for South Africa. 

“[Their music] was about happiness, it was about expressing ourselves, an expression of our youth, of just being black. They weren’t focused on commenting on the negative side of being black, and the horrible things that come with our blackness, all the time. 

“It was really nice to [experience] black happiness and black freedom in that way. I just really thought it was so cool — and they just really didn’t give a fuck.”

The Way I Feel

Sakumzi Qumana, formerly of the outfit Johnny Cradle, recalls discovering them with his sister while out on the town in East London during the early 1990s. 

“This shit comes on and we’re, like, ‘Hayibo, what the hell is this?’ And then the stereotype comes in, ‘Yo, it’s international!’ 

“It sounds so South African when you listen to it now, but I guess we still had that thing. Afterwards, it would be seeing the music video and then the subsequent rah-rah regarding Boom Shaka.”

He adds that they were the first big stars of his generation. 

“People wanted to see them, people wanted to be like them.”

Phiri rounds it up by reflecting on how Boom Shaka has been influential during various phases throughout her life. 

“They were just icons, they were mavericks. There’s nobody who has been able to duplicate it. They made it very easy to hold the two queens in high esteem; it was very clear who was running the show. For me, Boom Shaka was always fearless, they were always pioneering.”

She continues: “To be able to approach music in that way, at that time, [and] to still have it be relevant now, I always hold a soft spot when it comes [to them]. 

“I feel like everybody kind of has a part of them that wishes they had a Lebo Mathosa alive in this time, either as a guide, a mentor or just to be able to witness what she would have become now. She was totally a mystic. 

“I’m very grateful to have witnessed all of that. For me, Boom Shaka has always been this amazing collective of pioneers who just did the damn thing and left a very beautiful legacy with regard to female artists not being [grouped with] gospel singers or pop singers. 

“They were able to carve out a space where it was just the full package — dancing, singing, aesthetics — the girls were on it, man.”

At a time when we speak about diversity and not looking at the world in a binary manner, Boom Shaka — and the team at Kalawa Jazmee Records — gave us an inclusive group that championed individuality, being openly whoever you are and that your sexuality, who you love and what you identify as, can enhance your talent, not take away from it. 

But the real reason Boom Shaka is worth celebrating 30 years on is that they prove the best part about ourselves, as a nation and a continent — that although we might be labelled close-minded and prejudiced, we have the capacity to open our hearts and love those who fearlessly love themselves and we are more progressive than we think we are. 

Boom Shaka was not only right but prophetic — it was time for us to stand out, to be bold and fearless. 

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Ahead of their time: Boom Shaka endorsed individuality, being openly yourself, whatever your sexuality, before it was a thing.