“Bra Willie is and will remain a teacher, a mentor, a friend, a hero, a challenger, an inspiration, a brother, a light that does not flicker, and a fellow soldier. We’ve admired his persistent battle against white supremacy and human exploitation large and small. We’ve been transformed by him and his work and by the struggle he carried out, on the page, in the streets and in the corridors of power. We are all Bra Willie’s people.” – Prof. Stefan Rubelin
Him, the walking library of Setswana lore, Jazz music, African nationalist politics and the emancipatory poetics of struggle spanning spirits and continents. Him, whom we can thank personally for influencing the very birth of this Hip Hop* that the world so loves. Him, the great intellectual with a ready smile and a life full of words that weaved struggles into tapestries of hope. We are so profoundly privileged to have known him and to be here in the world of words that he has made. We, the poets. We, the writers. We, the thinkers.
I bought my copy of This Way I Salute You at the Polokwane Literary Festival in 2012, where I shared a stage with Prof. Kgositsile. The book is full of poetic odes to his creative peers across the fields of music and poetry. Every time I read it, I am touched that he felt it necessary to go beyond documenting the times, as artists must do, and chose to pay homage to both the living and the departed. At his memorial service at the Market Theatre, I had the honour of also bidding him farewell through poetry. I read the poem “For Ilva Mackay and Mongane”, with ntate Mongane Wally Serote in the audience. In the words of Kanye West, Prof. Kgositsile gave his people flowers while they could still smell ’em.
In a similar vein, I would like to think that we too gave him his flowers. Prof. is one of the greats who walked among us and became a bridge among the generations of poets in South Africa. We felt his presence and support for new movements, both in how he was there physically but also in how he did not suffer bad poetry; his critique delivered in ways that I personally found both necessary and endearing. He kept us sharp. He kept us agile.
We have indeed lost a monument of a man. As Prof. Kgositsile now rests, I would like to think that he knows that he was appreciated, admired and greatly respected by us, the new generation of writers, thinkers and poets. After his funeral – a beautiful affair of heartfelt tributes, poetry and Jazz – I sat steeped in sadness as I reflected on his amazing, full life that touched innumerable lives with the work of his words. How remarkable? I too would love to live a life in which I can do what I love and honour my blood by bettering the human condition with the work of my words. Prof. Kgositsile did that.
He has given us so much. It was at his memorial service that I sat in conversation with his nephew, Towdee Mac and his friend, Phillippa Yaa de Villiers. It dawned on me that Towdee was part of the songwriters on Reason’s “Endurance” on which I feature and which has been a special moment in my career. I also had a moment to speak to his son, Thebe (alias, Earl Sweatshirt) to thank him for Doris, my favourite album of 2013, as he shared some insights about his forthcoming album and the powerful way in which it came together in relation to his father. Which is to say, Prof. Kgositsile has left us with his incredibly, gifted people and has left us as more thoughtful, considerate writers than we were before we discovered his life’s work.
Indeed, we are all Bra Willie’s people. And, it is in this way that I salute him.
Somehow, it is on this day of the monumental Hugh Masekela’s passing, that I have found my ability to write through and complete this ode. So, here we have Prof. Kgositsile: giving flowers, perhaps calling his comrade home and reminding us all about time and what it is known to do.
*Please seek out and read the work of Prof. Kgositsile’s biographer, Dr Uhuru Phalafala on his connection to the birth of Hip Hop and the immense importance of his work.
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Robalang ka kgotso, bagolo. It has been an honour to walk in your light. Thank you.