Although not originally from Johannesburg; “the place of gold, the end of the road for broken souls… [place of] big cribs, small shacks, schemes that fall flat and dreams for more cash”, uSanele has been a part of the big decaying-with-human-touch-city’s creative scene for many years in counting now. Specifically, its artistic space of hip hop and the cultural production that comes with finding expression through the sub-culture and the various art forms and linages of forms of art that have developed from it, spanning from graffiti, rapping, producing and streetwear. One of the original members of Boyzn Bucks, uSanele back then “described himself as a DJ and a designer of fashion and graphics”, however, as our telephonic conversation progresses- it becomes more pronounced that the artist is no longer interested in being confined to one way of creating — echoed in how he, even no longer really thinks of himself as a rapper — choosing rather, to tell the stories that come and are important to him in a manner not dictated by confinement in one discipline. About four months ago he released his most personal project yet, in the form of his EP Umvelase, which was preceded by Gangular- a thoughtfully constructed sonic collage of experimentation with some heavy hitting collaborative work and features. Ahead of the release of our entirely computer generated cover with him, I caught up with uSanele to gain more insight on the person behind the artistic outputs and cultural contribution but also to talk more about the projects he has worked on, including from the early days of Boyzn Bucks to his more recent works- even candidly unpacking some of his thoughts on systems of support within South Africa’s music and creative industry for new, emerging artists and voices, and the importance of pushing cultural progression over individualised egocentric success.
Okay let’s start at the beginning, what or who led you to music, hip hop and rap specifically? I guess, I’m asking you this as I think that for the most part, our individual journeys with music or a particular type of musical art form can be an incredibly intimate and memorable relationship. Like hip hop for me came along and was really unfolded to me by one of those friends who are also soulmates I met in high school. I fell in love with it slowly, consciously; every time I rewatched Brown Sugar or Love & Basketball, each time LL Cool J broke it down in his Kangol on “I Need Love”, through Grand Master Flash, De La Soul etc…
uSanele: Sho! How far back to you want me to go? I mean I guess, like every other teenage guy growing up at the time, we all grew up listening mostly to what was on TV and what was on radio so it would have been American music and local South African dance, kwaito and house you know? So, I guess I just really grew up with it, and I grew up with a lot of RnB because I was at the mercy of parents so I listened to whatever my mom and aunt were listening to and that was a lot of RnB… and via my older brother and I think this was around the TKZee times that I was introduced to rap, or to hip hop. I think hip hop is one of those sorts of sub-cultures or genres — I guess, maybe generally most Black music, or any sort of musical genre with a culture around it — it demands that you participate. So, I’ve kind of done all of what was termed the “different elements of hip hop” you know, the graffiti- I was into that at some stage, the b-boying or breakdancing- I’ve done a bit of that and [as] it has a whole lifestyle and culture [cultivated by] and around it, it really demands you participate.
What Kind of social or cultural scene/space was there for hip hop in Durban or KwaZulu Natal at large while you were growing up?
uSanele: There definitely was a scene [and] there definitely was a lot of activity, there was a place called The Bat Centre which would be the equivalent of Baseline here in Joburg that was the heart and soul of hip hop in Durban, but prior to that there were a number of movements and spots that I obviously at the time was too young to go to but learnt of via my brother, his peers and kind of the older guys — it’s always older guys who put you on (laughs) — that were around, you know? There was also a place called, I think keRockbees, which was kind of the earlier sort of centres yehip hop, but as far as I can remember the Bat Centre is where it was at. There was also a place called Albert Park. So Albert Park is like a… it’s almost like a Hillbrow? In the sense that it’s where in the city, Black people started moving to first, and there was a basketball court there which is a big part of hip hop culture, Durban at large had a huge basketball scene. I actually grew up playing basketball because it went hand in hand with the music and culture. Whatever was happening in Joburg was kind of happening but to a lesser degree in Durban, I remember one of the biggest and most prominent things from my memory in terms of hip hop events was Black August and I know that happened here in Joburg too, so you had Talib Kweli, you had Black Thought, you had Dead Prez; I felt like I was really a part of hip hop when that happened.
Umvelase begins with a praise of your clan names, which I think already gives us a more personal point of departure from which the listener can engage with the work, locating us from the jump within your ancestral and cultural history. It also sounds distinctly different to Gangular, which starts off with what you could described as an indie Nguni track, which is especially heightened by Bongeziwe’s feature on it and it ends with what could essentially be described as a Gqom track. Can you tell me about the shifts and changes you went through with regards to your own musical and creative process and what you were finding inspiration in between the making of the two EPs?
uSanele: I would say the biggest inspiration is life you know and the experiences that one goes through in it, cause ultimately your music, your art, your craft is a reflection of yourself or a reflection of your life in a way. I would say prior to Gangular, that period I was going through a lot of difficulties in life as does everyone you know? It’s not something that’s unique to me but it was just heavily pronounced I’d say [as when] I look back in my life out of everything I’ve experienced, that just felt the heaviest… The period prior to [that EP] there were a lot of intense things happening along with intense changes in emotions and within spirit so, a lot of what was going on in my life all happened in a short period of time between both EPs. Moving from Gangular — which to me was always an ode to like Durban and that kind of scene as well as to Spova Gang and the post Boyzn Bucks era — I think Umvelase was a lot more personal, it was a lot more about me and my story specifically. Whereas, when I had been making music before with Boyzn Bucks, I wasn’t really writing about myself specifically. I think [that particular time] was more about what was happening in the scene and what was happening in the culture… Umvelase, even the title is iThakazelo from my dad’s side and I unfortunately didn’t really grow up with my dad. So it was a tribute to my family name and a way to honour that. I guess for me it was just about taking ownership of that story because it is something that’s shaped me and affected me in a way.
…this is weird for a rapper but I don’t really consider myself a rapper anymore, but I was praying and meditating a lot at the time and I know that specific song “Umvelase”, it was one of those songs that just pour out of you and you just feel like you’re channeling a spirit in some way… I mean, I didn’t even really know what I was doing. I was just maybe trying to deal with the changes in life and some painful experiences and at that stage I realised as well that the experience of making music is an incredibly healing one. You tend to reflect when you create music and my process between the two was also very different. Usually I’d write raps or the lyrics on my phone, like I’ve been doing that since [the] 3310. I’ve never really been a fan of writing on paper [as] I draw and [with that] every single stroke becomes a part of the final product and with writing music, that’s very different as the cadence of the rhyme or a certain word gets changed but with this project, like I said, the process was different and while meditating, I’d find the songs were all in my head and I would memorise all the lyrics… with Umvelase’s creative process it was like saying the same thing over and over again in my head — like a meditative chant or trance — and then the music comes and it becomes much easier to write the lyrics.
Let talks about Boyzn Bucks for a minute. Do you think the collective gets enough credit not just as artists in their own individual rights but as cultural producers who — along with other factors, of course — had a distinct impact and imprint on the evolution of South African hip hop as more than a genre of music but as a space for cultural production as well?
uSanele: We always used to say “no we’re not a boy band and no it’s not about the music”. So Boyzn Bucks was more of a creative collective. If I go back prior to Boyzn Bucks, coming from Durban; myself, my brother Dokta SpiZee (who was the other half of Dirty Paraffin)… We were kind of a clique because we were all from Durban. One of the first things that we got involved in here was more the fashion side of things before the music… When we came here one of the first sort of cultural movements we were involved in was amakipkip In fact we designed the amakipkip logo designs. Fast forward to when I started working for Nike and I was the head of influencer marketing there, and that is kind of how everyone gravitated towards what is now called Boyzn Bucks and that’s how we all met, via Nike, via events, through working with different influencers. I guess for the team that was built around that, of which Mome from Cream Cartel, Choc who now goes by STILO MAGOLIDE and uBhubesii were all a part of; it was always about culture. Participating in culture, moving it forward — which is something, I can say I’ve personally always been involved in — from my time growing up in Durban to moving here to Joburg. So that happened, and post World Cup there was a lot going on in South Africa particularly Joburg, which now had opportunity everywhere as far as brands and in a cultural sense. I guess brands had seen the culture and scene in Jozi and they were a lot more willing to spend on localised content and local heroes and we were fortunate enough to be part of that wave early on but how we got introduced to the “mass audience” was through the music. It was great, but looking back now I’m really sad because that’s kind of how things fell apart… the people that were involved in the beginning, who helped establish the collective, were not the music artists. They mostly joined later and it just became about the music you know? And through music there was also a lot of competition, a lot of egos, lots of tension. As a result- as people, their names and their brands got bigger, it became a lot more competitive and it stopped being about pushing culture forward.
What are you currently working on and how has this current period made you rethink your relationship to your industry and craft, if at all that is?
uSanele: More music, from early Boyzn Bucks days I’ve never stopped making music but it wasn’t always with the intention of putting it out whereas, since Gangular up until now, it has been with the intention to put it out and share it with people. Right now I’m working on a lot of new music, or rather, I’ve worked on lots of new music and I guess, like everyone else we’re just waiting it out to see what happens but the plan was to continue to push uMvelase, to create visuals for it and to perform it. After which I was going to release another project, I’ve worked with another amazing producer who I met here; Tsukudu we have a project in the pipe-lines that we’re busy polishing right now. I see everyone trying to adapt quickly and take advantage of this situation, and how they are doing it seems to be mainly through these remote performances and IG Live performances, I’m not a big fan of social media, I just… I can’t. Me and my anxiety and social media; I can’t really do it, so I guess that’s why I’ve been quiet. Further, for me in performing music, it’s a lot about interaction and it’s a lot about energy; receiving it from the crowd and giving it back and I just feel like with going live and instagram it’s not the same for me.
As a result, I’ve been thinking about other things. I am planning on getting more into the production of content and storytelling in that sense cause I had previously been involved in a lot of music videos and their production… Casper’s “Tito Mboweni”, we did Dj Maphorisa’s “Midnight Starring”. My plan is to continue with storytelling, in the same way I’m doing it in music but to do it in an audiovisual way. What I’ve also noticed [with the move to virtual online performances] is that it’s always more of the same thing, it’s kind of like where we were as Boyzn Bucks when we were emerging. Our whole thing was that we never really wanted to be part of the industry [as] we felt that people like us and other collectives and individuals who were super creative but [were] not part of the mainstream or“main stream conversation” were always left out and with the shut down I’m starting to realise that again. Like fo’sho we rode the wave and became mainstream, or certain members did but now what is the industry doing for artists? Where are the new opportunities for new talent? With these IG lives and battles, you’re seeing the same faces you would see at major shows. It’s the same people getting the same opportunities and I feel like we’re not really growing in that way. And nobody wants to talk about that, but I’m hoping to address issues like these with [the] content I plan on producing.
Creative Direction by: Jamal Nxedlana
CGI by: Lex Trickett
uSanele wears: Iris Van Herpen AW 2011/12
Sneakers by: Balenciaga