Black people have always done storytelling well. Our love affair with stories as history, as balm, as entertainment, stories as information, representation, lesson – in our oral history, poetry and music – testifies to the esteem that we place on this art form. Stories have long been our classroom, our unifier, our way to be in the world, our revival; and rightly so, because if ever there was a people who needed a tool like storytelling to survive, to document quotidian struggles, triumphs, joys, fears, failures and loves – it’s Black people. And if there ever was a time when we needed these stories, the world over, it is now.
Something in the zeitgeist is calling for narrative with renewed vigour. We want – no, need – to be seen.
Jobie Clarke’s Kwasukasukela, his debut offering presented by Native Rhythms and Universal Music, is an album that captures some of this sentiment. The sixteen-track story, so to speak, is Afropop in that it is very radio friendly, but the way that it tackles its themes, and how it populates the songs with relatable characters – and character, really – is all soul. There are references to traditional flesh and blood individuals, but there are also symbolic characters. Not just the men and women who raised us, the women we love, the children that surround us, but also our pain and loss, our hope, the desire we carry, and the joy we experience.
Kwasukasukela is both traditional and experimental. The generations, in both the making of the work and its lyrical content, speak to one another. It delightfully utilises the call and response motif that is undivorceable from fireside story-time, a tool which is most evident in the up-tempo and playful Cabhayeye.
In Ngeke Ngikulahle he croons:
When it hurts down to the bone/ ‘Cos of something that you shared/ […] If you’ve never felt like dying/ Then you’ve never been in love
Other than being the chest pain song that was telling my whole life recently (it’s fine, I’m fine, got my glo up back), it also tenderly and transparently shows us the give and take of love, and not just the take popularised by traditional masculinity as reflected and perpetuated in much popular music.
Relebone Rirhandzu eAfrika: Okay, let’s start with an easy question. Tell me a little bit about yourself?
Jobie Clarke: [laughs] That is not an easy question!
RRA: It is!
JC: I am a singer, a songwriter, performing artist, vocal coach and I’m a minister.
RRA: When did you know that you were going to be a singer?
JC: A part of me wants to say, “When I was young I knew that it was the thing…” [laughs]
RRA: “You grew up singing in the church” [laughs]
JC: Yes! But my secret dream was to be a professional dancer. Grade seven was the year the teachers said, “Hey there’s a farewell for one of the headmasters so the whole grade is going to sing”. And they said to me, “Come and try”. At first, I didn’t take it seriously, but I tried. When I sang the whole school cheered.
RRA: This is your official debut LP, but you’ve been hustling for years.
JC: It’s been a good, refining journey. The songs I wrote and performed in Grahamstown, birthed the songs I wrote in [Port Elizabeth]. And the songs I wrote in PE birthed the songs that ended up on my debut album. The desire to perform started in PE. In Joburg I bumped into a friend who was a PR consultant and he said, “There’s this conference I want you to perform at, but you need to apply, and to apply you need a demo, professional photos, a press kit.” I had to quickly put together a demo, take photos, get a friend, you, to write a bio, another friend [et cetera.] We waited for a week – I [was] accepted! I performed at Moshito, and then they said to me, “Please come to demo presentations the next day?” There were about eighty applicants, I was number six on the list. Their rule was that they play songs for eight bars only – they played my song till almost the end.
JC: The audience roared in applause after that. And they said that it’s very clear that you’re going to be signed. We just don’t know who’s going to sign you because we want you to stay true to your sound. They then decided that Native Rhythms was going to be the label. Native Rhythms wasn’t even there! Sipho Sithole had walked out to take a phone call. When he walked back in they told him, “This guy is the one you need to sign!” Sipho gave me a tour of their studios, [and also] introduced me to his wife – of whom he had said, “If my wife doesn’t like you, we have a situation! She’s the big boss.” And so I met Velile Sithole, she was sweet, and she said that she’d heard a lot about me, and hopefully we could work [together]. I was excited! Much later we went into studio, but it was a process that took two years.
RRA: Tell me a little bit about how your upbringing influenced the sound of your album.
JC: I grew up in many parts of KZN, but every December without a doubt I would be eMatimatolo in Greytown. You’ll be walking and you’ll just hear men singing, babeshaya indlamu. And then you walk across and you see young girls participating in rites of passage. In the evenings at my grandfather’s house, my aunts would come over from time to time, and we would sit around the fire and we’d sing amaHubo. Babecula izingoma zenkonzo, bevuma ingoma umoya uvunguze! I was too small to know the words so I would just clap along. And they would all get up and dance. It only clicked much later that my music carries a bit of maskandi, a bit of isicathamiya, a bit of other nuances.
RRA: Speaking of maskandi, you’ve mentioned before that Ihashi Elimhlope were one of your inspirations. Who else?
JC: Most of Jabu Khanyile’s music has a kartar, which is an Indian percussion instrument. My mom used to listen to him a lot, and so when I went into studio I said to Sipho, “I want a kartar”. And he said, “How do you know a kartar?!” He is also into different native instruments. Busi Mhlongo; and then uMam Sibongile Khumalo. Joe Nina’s writing of just day-to-day life inspired me. Ringo. Hayike! Even today I’m just mesmerised. Oh! My aunts used to love Soul Brothers. They also played a role in shaping my sound.
RRA: One twitter user called you “The Zulu love letter on legs”. So – who is this album, this love letter, for?
JC: [laughs] I’d forgotten about that.
RRA: It’s so great! I feel like it needs to go on every press release that you send out about your music, accompanied with a picture of your legs!
JC: It’s such a diverse album, but I think it’s for the young, brave person who believes that they have something to give. This album showed me that your dreams are valid. Then on the other hand, I want to call it, “The Millennial’s Box of – something”. Like Love Box. It’s got chest-pain songs and it’s got fun wedding songs, deep heartbreak songs, silly tunes that talk about nothing really, but are fun to listen to, and then it’s got a bit of consciousness. It’s not necessarily based on romantic relationships. It’s based on love in general.
RRA: Speaking of the stories in the album, what are the stories, other than Thelefoni and Hlonipha, that are true?
JC: Zabalaza is my take on what I imagine my mother felt raising me as a single parent. Induk’enhle is actually also a true story. Everyone is free to mack on anyone…”
RRA: [laughs] Sliiiide into the DMs!
JC: And we no longer hold onto, “Wait for the guy to mack!”
There was a time when someone was really interested in me and I was just like, “What’s all the fuss about? We’ve done this thing before/ I told you where I stand and where you belong/ It makes no difference to me, whether you’re sweet or not/ I’ll tell you once again – I actually don’t need you in my life/ But then you come and tell me that you love me…”
RRA: “Sweetness galore!”
JC: “You think you’re charming – I don’t think so!” Because you know, my mother told me that induk’enhle igawul’ezizweni.” It basically means that you need to search for treasure to find it.
RRA: And Ngeke Ngikulahle?
JC: Ngeke Ngikulahle is a co-written song, so it’s not necessarily my true story. The person I wrote it with told me a story and I was like, “Yoh yoh yoh!” [laughs] Same goes for Taxi – I said “Yoh!” and then we wrote it.
RRA: Hence, Kwasukasukela.
JC: Yes! It is used in the Zulu culture when you are going to tell a tale. You start the story with “Kwasukasukela!” and all the kids gather and say, “Cosi!” And then you say, “Kwakhona…” and then you begin the story. This album is telling different stories. For instance, Black Tear Drops tells a sad story of death and heroes all in one song. Because it’s my first album, it’s the start of my story.
RRA: I like to think of Black Tear Drops as the “Black Lives Matter song”.
JC: Yes. It’s the one song that I sing and I think of the struggle, of being Black. How many fathers left to go and work far to make sure that their kids had food, how many mothers suffered, raising their kids [alone]. The woman in the song is sick and is about to die, but the husband is nowhere to be found because he’s gone to work, probably in Johannesburg, and has infected her with a disease. We know how the tale goes. And so, “Greetings! Warriors! Warriors for humanity/ Take up your spears, defend ubuntu bethu” part is a call to rise up, but also an imagined tale of what it felt like for men to return home. A chant that people would be singing to them, but also that they would be singing back to say, “You guys are also warriors”. It’s like an interchange of the Black heroic story.
RRA: What does being a man mean to you and did any of that go into writing this album?
JC: For me being a man means being true to who you are and what you feel. What I figured out about manhood is that you need to listen to yourself and to your heart, and just be. Sometimes no one will understand what the heck you’re doing but it’s okay. Each man brings a part of what manhood should look like. Zabalaza was written for a young boy: they watch him play, they watch him crawl, they watch him start to walk, then he runs and before you know it he’s influencing and changing nations; which is what I believe could be attained if young men were true to themselves and let themselves just grow without the expectation to be like anyone else.
RRA: When you’re on stage all of the black boy joy and happiness come out, and then we see the dancer also! So, what gives you joy?
JC: What gives me joy in life are people, God gives me great joy, seeing people win internal battles. Of late I’m learning that it gives me great joy to hear people singing my songs. You know, there’s a way people watch you when you’re on stage. Eyes that say, “Hey, pour into us!” And that’s exciting because music is a gift to uplift. The gift of music from God is one that is made to make the soul feel lighter, and ultimately connect to Him, regardless of genre.
**This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity