People of the Light: On Inspiration

It’s a weird to say that I “grew up” in Braam. Back then, we called it regular Braamfontein and it was just a small, comparatively quiet CBD unlike its much louder and busier sister downtown. Having attended the best high school in the city, Braam was also our backyard, our neighbourhood and the big stretch of terrain I frequently journeyed across on foot on my way to my beloved, Newtown. Newtown used to be colossal; a place of great minds, art and energy before it became the sad little excuse of a money-driven capitalist art hub that it is now. In thinking about my own Hip Hop Herstory, in my beginning as wide-eyes and wandering, I can safely say that it was there where I met and made some of my favourite parts of myself.

After school, my friend and I would hurry to our boarding rooms, get changed and dash across town, across the Mandela Bridge and walk around Newtown, finding interesting people and listening to their stories. Outside the Market Theatre was where the Rastas hung out, the Photo Workshop had some of the most striking photographic exhibitions where I first encountered Zanele Muholi’s work, there would always be rap cyphers near the Worker’s Library and I recall one amazing afternoon when Mac Manaka was blasting Mos Def’s Umi Says, it my first time hearing both the song and him freestyling. On Friday and Saturday nights, I was in between Bassline and Songwriter’s Club for spoken word poetry shows. There I was 15 years old (with ) and wide-eyed, hanging onto every word recited by greats such as Afurakan, PO from Kwani Experience (Kwani Experience as a whole!), Natalia Molebatsi, Mac Manaka to name a few. I never got to see Lebo Mashile then but that’s what L’Attitude was for, right? Those were the days! I found such easy inspiration among Newtown’s many storied buildings and people.

This is where I became obsessed with poetry and Hip Hop. To my mind, there was absolutely no difference between them. I mean, even Dr Uhuru Phalafala’s doctoral scholarship on Prof. Keorapetse Kgositsile agrees. To write well and deliver poetry beautifully was Hip Hop. Tumi Molekane was living proof of my conviction being sound and I am still slightly sore that his collaboration with 340ml was way before I even knew what Bassline or Newtown was. I began to write dutifully. I began to care deeply about the construction of verses and how the perfect line could both be a work of technical brilliance and a teachable moment. I understand how you most likely feel about The Miseducation, but I’m saying that my life was never the same after listening to Lauryn Hill on The Score. She held the world perfectly in her mouth; each line delivered with the kind of precision that would make me screw my face up and pace around the room a little at the sheer perfection! I sought to embody that same spirit in my own work. I sought to make people feel me.

Writing became a giant block of marble and with every complete poem, I lovingly chiseled away at it slowly to reveal parts of myself that I was incredibly grateful to meet. I began to experience, in the laborious work of building sentences, a satisfaction in hearing my words moving in and out of my mouth and a resounding joy in being awarded with people’s applause, too. My life’s sculpture began to take on many forms over the years and at times what I thought it was shaping up to be would change, over what felt like a moment’s notice. With my beloved Lauryn Hill having faded from the spotlight and my own reckoning with the socio-political meaning of my femininity, I realised that Hip Hop did not have much for me. For years, I could overlook, nod my head and dance around every derogatory phrase and instance of violence that found home so easily inside and outside the music. One day, I just couldn’t do it any more.

While falling in love with all of the beautiful sounds that coloured my life, I also began to fall in love with Jazz music, which is foundational to so many great Hip Hop songs, anyway. There was something so soothing about the silence of the voice and the many ways that musicians made their instruments stand up and speak. Jazz is my comfort and sanctuary. Although my relationship with Hip Hop goes through changes, I find it admirable that there are women who can exist within the system and choose to nurture their craft, regardless of the misogyny they may face. I chose poetry and even so, it is looking like I may choose something else soon and I always welcome it. Whether I am writing an academic chapter or a children’s book, the magic of The Score and every braggadocio bar that Jay Z has ever dropped continue to light my path.

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A Herstory Ghazal

History hurts women who weave word, sound and truth to brew story. 

Seen as lesser scribes, they fade from light. This ain’t a new story.

The house of Hip Hop belongs to all who live and love in it.

Divine residents build it brick by blessed beat through story.

From Godessa to Lee Kasumba, this black girl magic we

inhabit shatters each glass ceiling into debut story.

What’s a boys club to a god; to us? We birth worlds and verses

and rise to revise the lies and proclaim: this is true story!

Grateful for the glory of creation, Lebohang meets page.

In the beginning was the word. The world awaits. Cue: story.

— A Herstory Ghazal by Lebohang Masango

 

In “A Herstory Ghazal”, I use the upcoming #HipHopHerstory concert as a prompt to express my feelings on the creative power that most women hold, both biologically and artistically. The landmark event will host a selection of talents from South Africa and the US to celebrate women’s roles and achievements within the culture. While the introductory post to this series demonstrates multiple academic perspectives of women’s involvement in Hip Hop that appeal to my interests as a scholar, I use this week to continue that tradition of documentation in writing creatively, as a poet.

The ghazal honestly needs more flowers (while we can still smell ’em), which is to say, the ghazal is Top Two and I don’t mean number two. This underrated form of Arabic poetry has held me spellbound for a few years now. I find it so sad that I went through an entire high school career’s worth of poetry lessons, without encountering it among the usual classes about sonnets and iambic meter. When I first read Hip Hop Ghazal by Patricia Smith, my absolute fave, I was immediately delighted by the rhythms and its insistence on cleverly crafted repetition. I love how it has been a slow revelation; the more I savoured it, the more I realised how different parts have to exist in very particular ways to make it whole. It is an impressively simple-looking yet demanding piece of writing.

Read over my ghazal once more and see if you can identify the rules that dictate how a ghazal is constructed. Here is a short summary:

  1. Ghazal must consist of 5 – 15 couplets, that can each stand alone as separate poems.
  2. First two lines must end in rhyme – using the same word or phrase – this is called a refrain.
  3. The refrain should end the second line of every couplet that follows.
  4. Before each refrain, there has to be a word that rhymes consistently throughout the ghazal.
  5. The first line of the last couplet should contain the poets’s name, or a reference to the poet.
  6. Each line must contain the same number of syllables.

Do you see why I say it is not easy? It’s such a challenge! At the same time, I cannot explain how good it feels to know that when I apply myself, I too can write in one of my favourite forms. Today, my special contribution to the Hip Hop her story movement, also marks my second ghazal (ever!) and I am so excited that it exists. I love how writing this set a challenge for me to write a big story about the strides that women make each day and express it succinctly. I hope that you’ll be inspired to fall in love with the ghazal and to keep women’s stories well-recognised and alive in your own work, whatever it may be.

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