Flygirl Penny Lebyane has great insight into kwaito, a musical genre borne out of a culture that was violently patriarchal in its nature. It made her a great moderator for the Saturday panel at the Abantu Book Festival titled “Kwaito is a way of life” where she was in discussion with Esinako Ndabeni and Sihle Mthembu, authors of Born To Kwaito: Reflections on the Kwaito Generation.
The discussion was entertaining and robust, laced with humour and detailed knowledge of the players, producers and artists of the era.
Lebyane was a disc jockey in the 1990s when kwaito was at its prime, making her the perfect personality to lead the discussion with the duo that ventured to scribe a necessary piece of literature of an era they hardly experienced. Born to Kwaito is essential to our historical memory, a collection of essays that tackles the changing meaning of the genre after its decline and its ever-contested relevance in post-apartheid South Africa.
Through rigorous historical analysis as well as threads of narrative journalism Born To Kwaito interrogates issues of artistic autonomy, the politics of language in the music, and whether the music is part of a strand within the larger feminist movement in South Africa. It reveals candid and insightful interviews from the genre’s foremost innovators and torchbearers, such as Mandla Spikiri, Robbie Malinga and Lance Stehr, and provides unique historical context to kwaito music’s greatest highs, most captivating hits and most devastating lows. The book traverses the kwaito landscape and captures the era as close as possible to its real time social milieu.
In writing the book, the writers became deeply entrenched in the world they were trying to reveal. Lebyane questioned Mthembu on his obsession with kwaito legend Sandile Ngwenya, also known as Mapaputsi, the writer ideolising the artist while also recording his off-stage existentialist challenges. Her prodding question seemed to throw Mthembu off balance when he attempted to justify reasons behind what seemed extensive coverage of one artist. Sneaking in a chuckle, prior to responding, he said he wanted to show the world that even the then celebrated kwaito legends had ordinary human challenges.
The book empathetically chronicles the plight of Mapaputsi, the hitmaker of Izinja, the album that won him the Best Kwaito Artist and Best Kwaito Song at the Metro FM Awards in 2002 and the South African Music Awards for Best Music Video in 2003. Mapupitsi, one of the strongest kwaito pioneers, would follow that album with a number of hits throughout the years including ‘Kleva’, ‘Last Man Standing’, ‘Groova More’, and his final release ‘Still Barking’.
On the surface Mapupitsi appeared to have it all figured out while on stage cutting a larger than life figure, a towering presence. Yet he struggled to make ends meet in the mid 2000s, a story all too familiar in the South African art and music landscape.
The mention of kwaito musician and producer Arthur Mafokate, prompted whispers and murmurs from the audience. His mention even got one of the authors, Ndabeni unapologetically questioning the reasons he should even be discussed. Mafokate, said Ndabeni, was an antagonist whose sole mission seemed to be to prey on vulnerable yet talented women in search of fame, before abusing and discarding them. There are quite a few references, his latest being Cici who ended up walking on crutches as a result of an alleged assault at the hands of Mafokate.
Mafokate enjoyed a successful career in the independent record label realm. His record label 999, which was founded in 1992, thrived on discovering artists who became sensations on his terms. According to Ndabeni, Mafokate is the character that binds kwaito to a violent history. She questioned why we continue to celebrate him at all and argued that as opposed to discussing him, space and time should be given to his victims.
Ndabeni and Mthembu insist that their work is about setting the record straight about the artists and the time while Lebyane attested to the fact that most of the kwaito stars lived recklessly as a reflection of the broken society they grew up in.
Mthembu also talked about pioneering kwaito music group Boom Shaka, the nineties pop quartet of Junior Sokhela, Lebo Mathosa, Theo Nhlengethwa and Thembi Seete, they were artists and social activists who handed out condoms at concerts during the height of the HIV/Aids outbreak.
Lebyane argued that the youngsters were great performers, but hardly preoccupied with civil society duty. She asked how Mthembu came to the conclusion that their actions were tantamount to community service. The writer responded that it was necessary to highlight this small detail as it had been overlooked, but left it to the reader to make of it what they wished.
Born To Kwaito: Reflections on the Kwaito Generation is a worthy read that encapsulates the culture of gun carrying, binge drinking lyrics that were far from respectful to women. The session at the Abantu Book Festival was audience engaging, intense at time with splashes of laughter and great insight.
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