A couple of months ago a friend of mine asked me if I knew who Sho Madjozi was, and would I please translate the lyrics to one of her songs? The assignment sent me to her handle, but my curiosity, which peaked when I was deep into (three or four weeks’ worth of posts) stalking her page, kept me there. In one video, she is performing to a room full of male hip-hop heads, all bobbing up and down as she spits the words to her verse on rapper pH’s song A Mi Ku Yini (What Are they Sayin?). By the time she reaches the last part before the trap soul hook, the crowd is at the zenith with her, matching every bit of her spirited delivery. I was impressed.
It was not just the rapper’s ability to garner respect from these men in a genre which is still deeply problematic, but the fact that she did so whilst rapping in Xitsonga (a language which for many South Africans is a joke) that impressed me. I will admit – I envied the ease with which she flaunted her unapologetic devotion to doing whatever the hell she wanted.
To understand how radical Sho Madjozi’s aesthetic and stylings are, you need to understand the sticky relationship South Africa has with Tsonga people and Tsonga culture. There are only about five million Shangaan speaking people in South Africa, most of whom live in Limpopo and Mpumalanga. Shangaan people are really considered foreigners in this country, and are often treated with the same disdain immigrants are subjected to. There’s that incident where Tito Mboweni’s son was asked to produce his passport in a taxi, but there’s also hundreds of other microaggressions we endure daily, such as being called ‘ishangan’ (which is derogatory) or being ridiculed for our traditional dress (too bright, mismatched), the complexion of our skin (too dark); and our bodies, which get sexualised and reduced to tropes (men with oversized penises, etc)
My own relationship with Tsonga culture is complicated for two reasons. One, my mother is a Motswana and father Motsonga, which meant that I was never Tsonga enough for Tsonga-speaking people, and never Tswana enough for Tswana-speaking people. I never felt like I could claim one without betraying the other, and it was hard to belong. The second complication is an unspoken rule we grew up believing amongst the Vatsonga: in order to survive we must blend in, we don’t stand out. We often joke that in the taxi from Joburg to Tzaneen, you can hear people gradually change from isiZulu and Sepedi to Xitsonga as the transport approaches Limpopo. By the time the taxi reaches the nauseatingly twisty Magoebaskloof route, they have switched back to Xitsonga completely. The expectation was/ is that Vatsonga must assimilate. Not only was/ is no one willing to accommodate us, but they bully us for not trying to fade away. So I’ve often found myself speaking my literal mother’s tongue in the city more than I do my father’s, like many Vatsonga who perform similar code-switching survival tactics.
But a new day is slowly dawning. More and more Vatsonga are speaking the language freely, in public, loudly and unapologetically. The history of Vatsonga, much like the history of all peoples, is intricate and complex. There is a dissertation to be written I am sure, that can trace the roots of and relationship between the marginalisation of Vatsonga and Vatsonga pride and psyche much better than I could. How marginalisation has caused a huge dent in our pride. How we have internalised the shame of being a shunned people. Maybe one day I will write about this ‘place’ (apologies to Wainaina), but for now, let me offer that somewhere along the line more Vatsonga became, for lack of a better word, “woke”.
It is in precisely this kind of climate that Sho Madjozi has made a name for herself. Vatsonga millennials have been hungry for a modern representation of themselves for a long time. In the same niche hip hop genre that she is making headway in, there are the gains made by the likes of rapper Mchangani, and more recently pH, of course; but Wegerif’s talent with words, coupled with her image, made her accessible to the millennial in a way that the others were not able to do. For thousands of young women, Motsonga or “in-between and figuring it out” like myself, seeing Madjozi flaunt her xibelani (the traditional Vatsonga skirt) set a fire in our hearts.
Way before she ever gained fame for her smooth delivery of Xitsonga punchlines over gqom beats, she was dropping bars in the spoken word circuit as Maya the Poet. Her poetry, like that of her namesake Angelou, evoked empathy and captured the hearts and minds of those who heard it with its energy and easy, raw political grit. Whether as a rapper or a poet, Maya Wegerif demonstrates that storytelling is in her blood.
Wegerif’s mother is Black, and her father white, and she brings these experiences into her poetry often; as in the fierce and unforgiving, Black and White (They Call Me), in which we see that the swagger she so easily wears as a rapper has always been her vibe. In it she proclaims:
Here I stand as evidence that black and white makes honey marmalade/ Damn straight I’m mixed race/ and honestly – I’m doing just fine/ […] I wear my biracial hair as my crown/ And you have no idea how long that takes/ I sit on a giant throne made from all the combs my hair breaks/ And if you don’t believe me/ Run your fingers through my hair/ Not!/ And another knot/ And a whole clump of knots/ […] Stop trying to define and decide who I am and who I’ll be/ No, I decide who I am and under which category I go/ I hope you know/ I’m mixed race and honestly, I’m doing just fine.
I’m of the opinion that all good rappers are poets, but not all good poets are rappers. All good rap is poetry, but not all poetry is rap. It takes a skilled wordsmith to marry the two – sliding into rap as a poet is completely doable but it is not easy. The fact that Wegerif made it look so seamless is a testament to her undeniable talent and wit.
Part of her charm is that she hit the scene like a pleasant surprise – no one really saw it coming. Her styling – modern, quirky, eclectic combined with the traditional – is a huge part of how she represents herself across Instagram and other social media, as well as in performances, and is a huge part of what makes her the quintessential carefree Black girl. She occupies that space because of how easily she moves in and out of categories (or inhabits multiple categories at once, for that matter). She is Xitsonga speaking and flaunts her roots proudly, but behaves as one who is unboxed by labels.
As a trailblazer, the choices she has to make seem almost easy, and that’s the allure of the carefree Black girl – they make it look effortless. There are other artists who rap in Xitsonga who have come before her, as I have mentioned, but they have had much less glossy paths. It was the collaboration with Smiso Zwane, more popularly known as Okmalumkoolkat, that moved her from low-key to the mainstream. The boost it gave her career means that she is fast becoming hip-hop’s darling, and even a fashion icon, as seen in her recent collaboration with Nike, in which she boldly states, “You’re only gonna be this dope if you collaborate, you know? I want to be fully myself all the time.”
And she chooses her collaborations well. In addition to A Mi Ku Yini (What Are they Sayin?), she has dropped her singular flow on the Dj Maphorisa produced house banger Probleme. Maphorisa has worked with the likes of Drake, and with Kwesta on the hit Ngud. In May she was featured along with DJ Buckz and Shareen on Khuli Chana’s Tlekeke. On each track she brought the natural intonation and timbre of Xitsonga to the track, making it so that the character and flavour of the Tsonga culture is not lost.
But it is her first major musical collaboration I am most interested in.
In 2016 Simiso Zwane was charged – and plead guilty to – indecent assault and assault with indecent intent on an artist. He served a one month sentence, with the remaining five months suspended, and continued with business as usual.
He apologised, of course, but as was pointed out by Lady Skollie and others, it was half arsed. In both the apologies that he made, he deflected responsibility for his actions elsewhere. The first time it was “legal aid”:
I am sincerely sorry to everybody that has been affected by this. I pleaded guilty for a number of reasons, one of which was that I was in a foreign country and was advised by legal aid to do so.
The second time it was “this broken society”:
I AM SINCERELY SORRY THAT A WOMAN FELT VIOLATED ON MY ACCOUNT. I SPENT TIME IN PRISON, SERVING A SENTENCE GIVEN TO ME BY THE JUSTICE SYSTEM. I AM A BROKEN MAN FROM THIS BROKEN SOCIETY. WHERE WE ARE ALL SMILES AND POUTS ON SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS BUT WE DONT TALK ABOUT THESE ISSUES. WE LIVE IN A SOCIETY WHERE ITS OK TO OBJECTIFY WOMEN, WHERE WOMEN ARE ALWAYS SCARED OF THEIR WELLBEING. THIS IS TRUE, I HAVE TWO SISTERS. WHY WRITE ABOUT IT ONLY NOW, A FEW WEEKS LATER. WHEN I HAVE JUST DROPPED #GQIMUSICVIDEO AND THE RESPONSE IS GOOD.
A repentant offender who does the work, we can perhaps forgive, but an arrogant apologist? I don’t know.
While offenders like Zwane are shouting at us in tweets, the women they’ve violated remain with scars that will take years to heal. Meanwhile, Zwane’s career continues to flourish.
And what of Wegerif, who approached Zwane at the start of her rap career, initially hoping to ghostwrite for him, and continues to work with him today? It would be unfair to say that she owes her career to Zwane; because even if his co-sign and connections got her into rapping, it’s her talent that is gaining her respect as an artist. There’s something undeniably refreshing about Wegerif.
Like all risk-takers, there are compromises trailblazing women have to make to carve a name for themselves. Some of these compromises are negligible, but some are morally dubious and possibly dangerous. The trailblazer may constantly have to ask herself, “Am I willing to co-sign that?”, but the question for she who values sisterhood is a lot more sobering – “Does a woman’s trauma become a side note when I co-sign this?”
The kind of visibility she brings into the artistic space is so necessary, but at what cost?
I believe in sisterhood, so I am struggling to reduce Zwane’s offenses to a footnote in this piece, to a “by the way”. But at the same time, that same belief won’t let me reduce another woman to a man’s misdemeanours. Women are complicated human beings who have to make complicated choices, we are not the men who helped ‘make’ us, or those men’s mistakes.
So sadly, I offer no answers, only more questions, the most important being: what is the responsible thing to do, as an artist, and as a supporter?