Even during the apartheid years Yeoville was a place of freedom when it came to music and poetry. Today, it continues to be a free space for the power and importance of expressing anger, pain, loss and love.
Young artists dedicate their time to reflecting their feelings about everyday social issues. They make their music real and hope to take the young generation of Yeoville out of the streets that are growing with criminal activity as well as drug and alcohol abuse.
Twenty-year-old Mkhululi Michael Thabetha started writing poetry and rap in 2009 when his older brother was shot dead on the streets of Yeoville. His brother was 26 and worked as a security guard in a local shop. He was shot in the leg and heart by a robber who subsequently shot himself through the head.
Writing poetry and music was Thabetha’s way of expressing himself and the anger he felt after his brother’s death. The anger was fuelled by the fact that the killing of his brother was never properly resolved. Thabetha said he did not believe it was an ordinary robbery because a robber would surely have tried to escape.
Known by his artist name MK-47, Thabetha is tall and thin. He wears oversized pants and jerseys which slouch on him when he walks. He fidgets constantly and, every five minutes, lights another cigarette. He struggles to make eye contact and when he does, it is to say, “Can we not talk about that please?” particularly when asked about his mother.
Originally, Thabetha wanted to be a DJ but his brother wanted him to finish school first. After his brother’s death, Thabetha abused cocaine and alcohol, dropped out of school and rebelled against his mother. In 2012 he spent time in a rehabilitation centre, but has picked up poetry and rap again this year, inspired still by the memory of his brother’s death.
Thabetha is not the only teenager who has lost a relative because of crime on Yeoville streets. And many express their loss by turning it into music or poetry. They want to express how they feel about their community and the problems they and their contemporaries face. Some see the spoken word as a tool to address the personal and the social issues in their community, while for others it is a way of releasing the pain and distress. Often it’s a combination of the two.
The history of protest poetry
Words boomed through Yeoville as far back as the ’80s and ’90s but, in those days, the verses were less about alcohol and self-identification, and more about anger over oppression. Poetry and music were the platform to express their discontent with the system:
“No state power shall legislate me not to love man, do something to facilitate change in Africa, do something to flee the doors of Pollsmoor, Robben Island prison open. Do something favourable for the exiles to return home. Oh Africa let all this be done before dawn. Oh peace loving South Africans let it be done before dawn.”
The Day Shall Dawn by Mzwakhe Mbuli was first published in 1986. Mbuli used to spend time in Yeoville, though he did not live there. Yeoville was one of the few areas where artists of all colours could express themselves without much fear of apartheid laws. His poem is an example of protest poetry, produced when Nelson Mandela and many activists fighting apartheid were imprisoned.
Mashudu Churchill Mashige, professor in the school of applied languages at Tshwane University of Technology, has written essays on African Renaissance and on culture, identity and politics. In Politics and Aesthetics in Contemporary Black South African Poetry, published in 1996, he said: “Protest and resistance poetry was amongst other things poetry which is against repressive police activity, the squalor of urban slums, the indignities of migrant labour systems and of passes and the more absurd feature of racial classification.”
Junior Sokhela’s rise to fame
Musician, music, TV and film producer Junior Sokhela produced resistance poetry and music during and post-apartheid. A short, Zulu-speaking man, he has a deep voice and thick dreadlocks beneath a black beanie. Sokhela stops and greets people on the Yeoville streets with a smile. His mini catch-ups always last a minute or two.
“My granny used to tell me to humble myself. What you are and what you do is not mine. It’s a gift from God not to use it against people but to use it to help and advance other people as well.” He now helps other artists in Yeoville and Johannesburg to get their music careers going. Sokhela believes one of the major challenges new artists face is remaining the same grounded people they were before they got into the industry. That is one of the reasons he works with Yeoville artists: to help their transition to fame without losing their sense of self. “Artists struggle a lot with that – not being able to handle the fame and the attention. [People] use the attention to gain things [they] did not gain when [they] were young.”
Sokhela started writing protest poetry and songs as a teenager, drawing his inspiration from the protest poets and artists of his time. When he was 16, Cape Town hip-hoppers Prophets of Da City (POC) recruited him and his close friend Ishmael Morabe into the group after seeing the number of people they attracted on the streets and in the clubs of Hillbrow, Berea and Yeoville.
From the age of 14, Sokhela and Morabe had captured the crowds with their unique way of dancing and singing, and through the words and lyrics. They spoke about the political situation, mentioning activists such as Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko.
In his essay, Mashige says artists aim to mirror the circumstances they have been going through in their neighbourhoods. “These circumstances are largely shaped and instructed by the political decisions enforced in the communities which these poets are part of.” Sokhela and Morabe were no different.
Yeoville in the ’80s
At the time of their street performances in the ’80s, Yeoville was a different place. It had a bohemian culture and was the only Johannesburg community where black and white South Africans mixed and lived together openly – despite apartheid laws. Yeoville was originally a white area but, because of the culture of music and poetry, black artists flooded Berea, Hillbrow and Yeoville, where there was the possibility of late-night poetry sessions and music concerts.
William Dewar, co-author of the book Yeoville, a Walk through Time, says: “Many musicians of the time identified themselves as being above the racial segregation of apartheid. It may have been that they were united by a common language of music.” Famous Yeoville artists were Oswald Mtshali, Sinclair Beiles, Lesego Ramopolokeng and Mbuli and all these artists were united by their music and poetry and their resistance to a racist South Africa.
Sokhela and Morabe started performing in concerts and local clubs and restaurants with the POC. One of the main hubs was Yeoville’s still-buzzing Rockey Street. With its street lights, music, poetry, restaurants, nightclubs and residential flats, this was (and still is) the beating heart of Yeoville.
Dewar writes: “People feel safe at night in a place that is small, active and well lit and has an array of activities such as bars, clubs, restaurants etc.” The House of Tandoor was one of the places to be. It was and still is a place for Rastafarians, a place where people can sit on the open rooftop and enjoy a legal or semi-legal smoke in the open air.
Sokhela and Morabe started travelling with POC to Switzerland for the Montreux Jazz Festival and to concerts in London. “My grandmother was used to me being away from home for months. We were gone for six months for my first tour, but she was never worried, as long as I was still alive,” he said. “No one at home knew that I had gone out of the country. All the paperwork was taken care of by my boss, [Lance Stehr].”
Late 1993, Sokhelo recorded the song It’s About Time under the name Boom Shaka and gave the demo to Oskido and DJ Christos to work on and release it. “I had recorded Boom Shaka on the side with Lebo Mathosa and I never told my boss about it. Only Ismael knew.”
On tour with POC, Sokhela had no clue that Boom Shaka was gaining recognition in South Africa. “There were rumours that Boom Shaka was a band from London or somewhere foreign,” he said. No one knew who they were when Boom Shaka was asked to perform for the first time at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in 1994. Producers Oskido and DJ Christos asked the entertainment manager to put Boom Shaka on the line-up after the song became a hit.
While Prophets of the City went to Cape Town for a concert, Sokhela and Morabe remained in Pretoria for the inauguration. They received an overwhelming response. “It was my first time [that] my family, who have never thought being an artist was a job, saw me on TV and started believing in me,” Sokhele said. “My boss was so angry but I did not care, I had already decided to leave POC and start concentrating on Boom Shaka.”
Boom Shaka’s popularity grew rapidly.
No one could define their music, it was something new. “There were elements of reggae, kwaito, hip-hop and maskhandi in our music,” Sokhela said. It was truly Yeoville and multicultural. Some of their songs and music videos were banned because they were political. In one dance video, the group took a picture of PW Botha and placed it inside a refrigerator, to show that he should “chill”.
They named other apartheid figures such as Eugene de Kock, who was an apartheid assassin. The video was never released. It was 1994 and South Africa was just beginning to come out as a newly democratic and united country. The video was seen as going against the ideal notion of a united nation.
The rise of rhythmic poetry
Since the end of apartheid, Yeoville has changed. There has been an influx of other nationals and most whites branched out of Yeoville when the space became crowded and crime increased. Despite the fact that different races no longer enjoy poetry and music there together, it still remains a place with “vibrant street life, cosmopolitan community, metropolitan centre, cultural activity and intimate community”, says Dewar.
The African community is now the largest and the area remains multicultural, multinational and filled with both the rich and the less fortunate. Very different from other parts of Johannesburg, Yeoville is a small version of Africa: “I could reach a Namibian guy, from just being in Yeoville … We have fans from every single country represented in Yeoville. So it’s easier for me to reach out to their countries,” Sokhela said.
Protest poetry became less popular after South Africa became a democracy. Around 1998 rhythmic poetry gained popularity. Artists such as Brenda Fassie started producing lyrics that reflected back on the apartheid era. Sokhela worked closely with Fassie, who stayed in nearby Hillbrow for a number of years and spent much of her time in Yeoville.
“Bangitholile (memeza ma, memeza ma) They found me (calling out with an outcry)
Abanganaxolo (memeza ma, memeza ma) Those who do not have forgiveness
Bangikhomba (memeza ma, memeza ma) They pointed at me
Ngezibhamu nemikhontho (memeza ma, memeza ma) With guns and spears”
This is from Fassie’s Memeza, released in 1998. It shows how artists switched from addressing the oppressive apartheid regime to expressing their sad memories of those days.
“We are targeting the grassroots, the people themselves, because those are the people that are [still] affected by the same system [apartheid],” said Sokhela. Rhythmic poetry was like musical poetry, he said. Artists were expressing themselves more creatively to make a louder noise and a bigger impact.
Artists who started out as poets incorporated other forms of art to their work: drums, beats, melody, rhythm, dance and music. Poetry became too narrow and the poets branched out. They became rappers, writers, dancers, singers, musicians. Yeoville artists such as Thandiswa Mazwai and Oscar Appleseed from the kwaito group Bongo Maffin and Simphiwe Dana are some of the artists who grew to incorporate melody and drums in their work.
When Boom Shaka stopped recording after four albums because of financial problems with their record label, Sokhela decided to help upcoming artists struggling in the industry. As a music producer with 20 years of experience in the industry, he assisted many successful artists such as Lebo Mathose, Thembi Seete and Molemo Maarohanye, otherwise known as Jub Jub.
“I have been in the industry for a long time and what I have noticed is that many of these kids struggle with adjusting to the fame and they don’t know how to handle the social issues at home and those experienced by their peers,” Sokhelo said. “Some lack empowerment.”
He has worked in Yeoville for the past 10 years and still occasionally goes to Tandoor to look for new talent and to help the upcoming artists in Yeoville make a better future for themselves.
Thabetha has not yet worked with Sokhela. He said he felt uncomfortable sharing his personal work with anyone but his small circle of rapping and poetic friends, since he was just starting out again after a long break. However, he shared a small verse unrelated to his brother’s death. It speaks of his beliefs and his protection by God. He said the song was about evil trying to follow him, but being unable to get him. He was still standing today, he said, because he escaped it through God’s protection.
“I’m talking about the son of men,
Son of trinity, bathi, [they say] egameni likayise nelonyana nelo moya oyingcwele, [In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit] ndaguqa ngamadolo ndabheka eMpumalanga, bathi [I went down on my knees and prayed before I went to Mpumalanga] abathakathi befikile izolo ebusuku. But I escaped that shit, [the witches came last night] they couldn’t touch me, I’m still standing.”
Thabetha has a tattoo on his left arm of a tombstone, in memory of his brother. The tombstone reads RIP John 13, Rest in Peace John, which was his brother’s name. The 13th is the day he died. His family could not afford a tombstone so he tattooed one on his arm in respect and in memory of him. Thabetha continues to write poetry.
He said he hoped to be the modern Shakespeare, writing meaningful verses which would inspire the younger generation to think, to question and to be conscious of everyday politics.
Young men in Yeoville find support through rap and each other.
FEATURED IMAGE: Rhythmic poets of Yeoville (l to r), Bukhosi Mncube and Mkhululi Thabetha have been friends for six years and they’ve grown closer through a passion for music and poetry. Photo: Lutho Mtongana
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