On living, loving and learning

IMG-20190208-WA0008

On Curious Cat, it comes up often for people to ask me either about loving myself or about my productivity. I understand that I am asked a lot about my productivity because I share a lot on social media about my work and its progress. It’s interesting that the perception is that I am so methodical and diligent. You know, every now and then, I actually wanna tweet: “Oh my god, where can I buy some focus because it’s lit!” but I don’t because my social network includes people with whom I have some kind of deadline at any given time. So, there are some things that I don’t share with as much ease as the next person, that’s all.

Another thing is that I do share about my disappointments, although minimally. I allude to being up all night and crying over drafts and things not going my way but I’m never going to sit there and be self-deprecating on social media. I don’t like to give light and energy and oxygen to those parts because I would rather use as much as I can on the good. When my work isn’t going as well as I would like: I leave it alone. I rest, I go to my favourite restaurants, I pick up a book to read or my colouring book, I build a puzzle or I watch television. I stop and process that I need to get battle-ready for this next thing and maybe I’m not in the mood today or the next two days but eventually, I will get back to it and give it my all. So, that is the ebb and flow of my self-love. I am always giving myself room to feel and do what feels necessary in that moment. If today isn’t the day to get it right then perhaps tomorrow will be.

I also think it’s interesting that self-love and productivity are the things I get asked about often because for me, they are the same thing. It’s important for me to always put my humanity to its best use and my work in Anthropology and with children is exactly that. My work is a testament to loving myself. Doing my work, all the work, is how I love myself. Me being productive, me being creative – it’s all the source giving back to the source. I suppose I am fortunate that my work happens to be exactly what I came to do on this planet. Some people have also asked me: “when or how did you learn to love yourself?” and my answer is usually the same about how all I have in this world is myself and so it follows that I should treat myself with an abundance of goodness. But the question kept tugging at me. I kept thinking: “Is my answer incomplete? Is there something that even I’m missing?” Eventually, I got up and went to my bookshelf, thinking. Continue reading “On living, loving and learning”

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.

***

 

(In)Fighting For A Cause

Graphic by Leigh Luna

Fighting for justice must undoubtedly remain a priority, but we should try, as much as possible, to not allow the injustices of the world to harden us to the extent of behaving in toxic ways to the people with whom we claim community. Like intersectionality, worthiness of empathy shouldn’t be ranked on a scale. I totally get why empathy isn’t a person’s first priority when confronting injustices, but we gain nothing by seemingly aiming to misunderstand one another.

We should remember, especially in our communities within the larger global movement of feminism, how easy it is to ignore someone’s humanity and relate to them as the representative of an ideology.

Rookie Mag’s theme for May is “Growing Pains.” Please head over there to read my latest essay on intersectional feminism, online conflicts and the lessons I’ve learned about how we hold each other through the difficulties of our politics. I am really proud of this.

* * *

Thank you, Tavi Gevinson. Your patience and thoughtful critique while editing this really challenged me in the best ways.

This Way I Salute You, Professor Kgositsile

“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.

* * *

Robalang ka kgotso, bagolo. It has been an honour to walk in your light. Thank you.

A reflection on poetry and me. 

Photographed by Qhakaza Mthembu

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.

Photographed by Thandokuhle Mngqibisa.

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 Beads is. 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.

* * *

Thank you, Belinda for your warm invitation to share stages with you.

The Best of 2016.

Postgrad life keeps me intensely busy. There are so many cool projects that I couldn’t participate in and so many stages that I couldn’t stand on because of this priority. On those occasions that I was able to take some time off, it was and still is an honour to have had different groups of people entrust me with their labours of love and invite me to contribute to their vision with my gifts. Thank you to every one of you. So, not only is this a glimpse of some of my favourite moments of the year, I hope that this also serves as an introduction to exactly what I mean by “my dreaming and doing life.”

1. #JetLoveYourself 

I’m a gif! Made by Nomali Cele.

The year started off with Jet Store’s #JetLoveYourself body positive Valentine’s campaign! I joined some awesome South African women – who are also not models – in wearing beautiful underwear and confidently celebrating our bodies in their different sizes and shapes.

 

Photographed by Merwelene van der Merwe, 2016

Continue reading “The Best of 2016.”

Take Control of Just One Thing: From 2016 into 2017.

I often sit and work on umbhalo: the Ndebele blanket my grandmother’s friend gave her to gift to me, because she had given one to her friend to gift to her granddaughter too. 

Flustered by life and overwhelmed by the aching worry that I would not pass my Honours year°°, I stood in the Anthropology office and cried. The door stays open, literally and figuratively. It’s a safe space. Before the tears, I had shook my head intently: “I’m not gonna make it. I’m not gonna make it. I mean, I guess I could go to UNISA? God knows I can’t re-do Honours here. The shame would eat me. I couldn’t face you all…” Andrea, our beloved administrator with her beautiful grey-streaked hair and kind eyes, shook her head back at me and said: “You know, Lebo, life will always happen at the same time as school but you have to remember why you’re on this journey. I promise you! Take control of just one thing…” Continue reading “Take Control of Just One Thing: From 2016 into 2017.”