MultiChoice Presents: Africa’s Most Loved Storyteller Issue featuring…me! I recently collaborated with media giant MultiChoice in writing a poem that represents the importance of the storytelling tradition on the African continent which also extends to who they are as a company that has been giving opportunities to Africans of all ages to tell their stories for the past 25 years. You can read about my insights and my work in the cover story which was so beautifully written by Gomolemo Lesejane in the latest edition of The Throne as well as more stunning photographs. My gratitude goes to Caron Williams, publisher of the Throne; photographer, Austin Malema; make-up artist, Nureen; hair stylist, Smangele from Indalo Nubian Naturals and Sibu Mabena from Duma Collective for bringing it all together. It was amazing to be on sent with this remarkable group of people who are all so supremely gifted in what they do.
There aren’t enough words to capture how incredible Austin Malema’s photography is.
You can watch my poem, Ten Thousand Stories below and read the words inside The Throne.
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.
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.
Ghazal must consist of 5 – 15 couplets, that can each stand alone as separate poems.
First two lines must end in rhyme – using the same word or phrase – this is called a refrain.
The refrain should end the second line of every couplet that follows.
Before each refrain, there has to be a word that rhymes consistently throughout the ghazal.
The first line of the last couplet should contain the poets’s name, or a reference to the poet.
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.
Last night, I was invited to SA FM’s The Mash Up, a show about poetry and music collaboration hosted by Naledi Moleo. When the producer of the show asked me which musician I would like to collaborate with, I immediately thought of Mpumi Dhlamini, a talented multi-instrumentalist and (fun fact) my uncle. Music is my go-to device in my work and it just made sense to be accompanied by an actual Jazz man.
I would say, “Mpumi this poem will be better with saxophone, like a Fela Kuti vibe” or “something Miles Davis-y” or he would just listen to the words and just start playing. The whole point of the show is to encourage spontaneous collaboration so, no rehearsal. Just a few words about the theme of the poem and sometimes, just starting with the poem and meeting in the middle.
I really enjoyed this experience. I usually get nervous about collaborating with musicians because it could easily throw me off but Mpumi and I clearly work great together. We have to do a show together or something one of these days. I mean, the host even said that our collaboration has been her favourite in the history of the show. What a compliment!
Below, the podcast has been split into parts and I think that’s great because you don’t have to hear adverts, news and cricket updates. Enjoy and let me know what you think.
I didn’t know that so many poetry lovers would find their way to us. With it being the 5th of January, I expected the city to still be in holiday, ghost-mode for at least another week and yet, we had a full house. We held the BornFree poetry reading last Friday evening at African Flavour Books in Braamfontein with the organiser, Belinda Zhawi, Katleho Kano Shoro and I on the line-up. We first performed together at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London in May so it was really special to have another gathering in our home country and to watch how beautifully Shoro incorporated her nieces into her set.
This was my first reading in the country in a long while. I’ve been immensely busy with my other projects and I have wanted to just take a break from the spectacle of it all. I had become weary of being seen. Many of my poems are about sadness and romantic relationships gone horribly wrong. It had become harrowing to be on social media and have people tag me in quotes of their favourite lines because it could easily alter my mood negatively, because of the memories. I was trying to breathe through my life and just become well in my mind and heart and the biggest deterrent to that were my own words. Funny how that works. I had sat in that exact same spot a few weeks ago and had an interview in which I spoke about how I’m starting to be at odds with reading work that I wrote a few years ago, it’s themes and the effect it has on me to constantly reach back and reiterate the dark moments. At a time, this poetry saved my life. I just think my spirit is starting to move beyond, in this time.
The audience was kind, attentive and affirming. We shared a few laughs and it was immensely enjoyable yet it was a somewhat difficult reading because the words hurt leaving my body. It was strange. I was seated throughout. I appreciated each moment and how the words would travel around the room, reaching people in particular places and yet I was visibly uncomfortable. I told the audience a few times how tiring it was because it felt like a space in which I could be honest in that way. I was fascinated by the physical exertion it took for those words to make it out of my mouth. I felt like my body, mind & spirit had fortified themselves in service of my wellbeing or, it was just a signal that ya boy should write new poems. Either way, I’m listening.
The Q&A section was interesting. I’ll expand on the responses that I gave, here. The one question that was addressed to me was about my devices; how music is one of them, how lyrical my work is and whether I’ll ever use any other devices. My work reflects music because that’s what I use to survive this life. My poetry has always been a way for me to get over, primarily. I write because I need to; often no more and no less. Music is a device in my work because it is a device in my life. Will I ever find anything more powerful? I’m open to discover that. I also think that writing for children is a way of writing differently. In my world, all of my writing comes from the same place so the children’s book is the next frontier within the same vein of poetry. Lately I have been thinking on this great desire I have to be productive: to go beyond my work being a space of shared pain and healing, and to manifest other more joyous and celebratory ways of gathering. That’s exactly what Mpumi’s Magic Beadsis.The entire project is my way of being more imaginative, daring and expansive than I have ever been. This is how I ascend.
Another question was about language and whether I do not feel “mentally colonised” by choosing to work in English. It’s a question that irritates me (I have been doing poetry Q&As for a long time, trust me) but I answer it any way. Colonisation has done many, irreversible things to Africa including changing the dynamics around what credence particular languages are given in the public. I write, dream and work in English – this is a fact of my upbringing. This is a fact of my primary school that hired a white woman to teach us Sepedi and refused our corrections because she was raised on a farm with African workers. I speak my home languages easily but having the proficiency to write in a language to the extent of being a poet is another matter altogether. I’m not willing to short-change myself or my work with those deficiencies. Am I embarrassed in any way? Absolutely not. I’m proud of my work and my abilities. I am exactly where I am supposed to be, doing exactly what I need to be doing.
Funny thing, after the reading, someone stopped me and spoke in a tone that heavily conveyed his disappointment at my lack of shame in not working in an indigenous language. The truth is, I don’t care. I don’t lose sleep at night. We all have our purpose and our paths. There are those who have an unyielding passion for preserving our languages through their work and just as they have their place in this vast creative landscape, so do I. I am very intentional about my work reflecting my reality. It’s necessary that I always remain authentic instead of being a parody of an essentialised version of other identities. There is no one way to be an African poet. There are many and this is mine.
I concluded by reading from Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile‘s This Way I Salute You, a book of poetic odes to creative peers such as Hugh Masekela, Nina Simone and John Coltrane. The great, intellectual left us on 3 January 2018. He was a bridge between the generations of creative thinkers in this country. He was always supportive while also remaining critical of bad work. He was an important force in Hip Hop, in the struggle for liberation and in South Africa as a whole. May our National Poet Laureate rest in paradise.
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Thank you, Belinda for your warm invitation to share stages with you.