Heads Collideby Masauko Chipembere / 21.06.2011
Last year at the Grahamstown festival Masauko Chipembere, one half of the pioneering acoustic hip hop duo Blk Sonshine, did a long interview with Durban MC and poet Ewok Robinson about his roots, theatre, being white and into hip hop, body image and performing in prisons. It makes for a fascinating read. Jump in.
Masauko Chipembere: What was your first hip hop moment. For me it was hearing KRS 1’s, “The Bridge is Over”. I had heard and loved hip hop before but that was the moment of no return. I was a head from there on out. What was your entry moment?
Ewok: Yeah, I know the feeling. I had had plenty of initial introductions to hip hop through various forms, but there is always that one moment. It was also musical for me. Cypress Hill, Black Sunday album, track one “I Wanna Get High”. I heard it one Friday just before I left school to go home for the weekend, on a cassette tape. I was totally hooked. These big wet tropical rolling drums man, and this nasal attitude coming through the rap, I was completely in awe of its effect on me at the time. By the time I left that school two years later I was a devotee man. Hip hop carried me through some uncertain teenage years. It’s where I first learned about what a movement was, what a social conscience was. I learned how you could be connected, beyond your immediate environment, to this whole bigger scene just through interaction with art..
You are an MC but you have chosen to create the play, iainEWOKrobinson is LIVE! for the stage. What is it that attracts you to the theatre?
Theatre taught me about lyricism, and theatre taught me about music. We didn’t have TV when we were young. Not that we couldn’t have, it’s just my folks weren’t into it and didn’t really want us to get hung up on it. So we spent a lot of time reading and drawing and listening to music. My favorite albums from my parents’ vinyl collection were these musicals with all of the lyrics in the liner notes and all of this really powerful operatic accompaniment and scoring. Shows like Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, most of the Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice stuff. My parents met on stage so I guess it’s been in the family for a period before I was even around.
Theatre is an incredibly malleable medium of communication and interaction. You can literally construct whatever space you feel suits your message best. It allows you the freedom to discover exactly what barriers might exist around you, and then lets you completely dismantle them. Theatre gives you the ability to choose your own battlefield as it were, and when you are into arts activism, this becomes a solid foundation to build on.
*Photo © Nicky Newman.
One of the things that I really like about your work is that you are obviously well read. When did you fall in love with words?
Again, the early influence of wise heads in the form of Grandma (or Gammy to the lighties) and Mom and Dad, led me and my sister to literature and art. I was mostly into drawing. Before books came comics and from there I started to dig different forms of written speech like dialogue, monologue, prose and poetry. The thing about listening to the lyrics of Tim Rice (the man behind my musical fetish) was that they all rhymed. So this got me into rhyme very early. Before I even heard rap I recognized the skill inherent in writing rhymes, and not just any rhymes, rhymes that communicated clearly, that told stories. I was also a hyperactive kid, so when I learned how to read I essentially discovered a whole new way to keep myself occupied.
Who are the novelists or thinkers that influence the mind frame of your work?
At the moment these people spring to mind: Naomi Klein, Chomski, Zack De La Rocha, Derek Jenson (environmental philosophy and activism), James Michener (historical fiction), Terry Pratchett (political social satire), various social historians and philosophers like Martin Meredith (State of Africa). I also read a lot of general history books, study encyclopedias and I really love maps and atlases. Of course, I still maintain a very active collection of comics and graphic novels, and I make sure I follow the news in its various forms, print and online.
While you are a part of the hip hop movement. You seem like one of its biggest critics. Why do you feel the need to question hip hop as well as participate in the culture?
I think if you are going to pursue what might be considered your passion, this means that you are actively going to involve yourself in its development in your life, so you start thinking of it like it’s a relationship with another person. You give it characteristics and personality traits and you interact with them on a daily basis. In this way you discover its flaws, you come up into contact with its weaknesses, you find yourself being antagonized and provoked by it, just like an older sister or maybe a best friend or an adult authority figure. You position yourself and your identity in relation to it, and so you need to understand it fully to properly understand yourself, so you question and you examine and you pull it apart to find out what it truly means to you to be together with it. I guess my questioning hip hop is my participation in the culture.
As a white South African in a predominantly black medium how do you cope? There must be times when your voice is silenced before you get to speak. Is that a correct assumption?
So, here’s the thing right? I don’t consider rapping to be a black thing, not anymore. There was a point early on in my career when I totally bought into the whole “rap/hip hop is a black thing” and actively worked within that paradigm to stake my claim. I used the attention I got as a white kid rapping to let people notice me and give me a chance to do my thing. I have never been actively shut out of the culture because of my race, and while I have definitely come across antagonists who used race as an attempt to discredit me, it was always through hip hop that I overcame that kind of ignorance. While I know that the majority of mainstream hip hop and rap music is represented by black Americans, I have had the privilege of accessing the culture beyond the mainstream. So while most people think black American when they think rapper, I get to think Palestinian Arab rapper, Korean breakdancer, French Algerian writer, White Australian Turntablist, Pakistani British Spoken Word, and so on. These days, as a student and a casual kind of hip hop philosopher, I have come to realize that the essence of self-expression is colourless, sexless and classless, and I have adopted the responsibility of making sure that this essence is maintained for the benefit of myself and of current and future heads.
You are South African through and through but outside the country people often see the issues in SA in purely racial terms. Is it difficult to speak for your country to the world as a white South African artist?
Nah. My race doesn’t change the truth. Corruption is still corruption, violence is still violence, social ills are still social ills. People who use race to discredit my ideas or opinions are just attacking the messenger and avoiding the issue. Classic move: if the head is too hard, go for the legs. I also make allowances for people who might not have a clear idea of what is actually happening on the ground here. I know plenty of people who are victims of media hype and misrepresentation so I can’t blame people for their lack of insight into what the real situation in SA currently is. I think my work needs to rise to the challenge of changing people’s perceptions and misconceptions about SA. Once again, being a white artist from Africa tends to make people listen harder, and once they are listening hard the ball is squarely in my court.
One of the things that grabbed me about iainEWOKrobinson is LIVE! was an interaction you had in there through samples. There was a black man saying, “sista I like your body.” The sista responds flirtatiously, “why do you like my body.” But the scenario seems to point to the fact that the body has become more important than the mind. You seem to be questioning the nature of how relationships are being formed in South Africa. Can you speak on that a bit?
That’s a Watkin Tudor Jones sample. My DJ and I are big fans. The fact that it sounds like a black man is interesting, but unintentional from our side. The real intent was solely the comment on body-politics. The world as a whole has reached a point of consumerist saturation, a tipping point if you will, when we have weighed our societies down so heavily on a capitalist consumer trip and as a result economies and “civilized” society are starting to tilt further towards complete crash. Our relationships have come to be heavily negotiated within this context of surface-level aesthetics and consumer ideologies e.g. “body beautiful”. As much as I would like to claim it, not all of the interpretations of our show are completely intentional or considered by the creative crew behind it. We try and cover all of our bases but people come at us with some crazy elevated theories on our stuff. That’s the point I guess.
Your music tends revolves around issues and relevance. What are you working on now?
In a world of instant-gratification (fast food and Facebook) even our activism craves convenience. I have started working on a new track in support of Wikileaks. I wanna make music for all of the causes I support. That’s my mission.
Lastly, while we were in Grahamstown last year, we took a trip to the prison with Kito and Andile and I threw you into a room full of black African convicts. You were the only white face. But, when you started spitting all the barriers came down and all of us had a humanizing moment. What was that moment like for you?
To be honest bro, I was pretty comfortable. It wasn’t the first time I had done similar work in a prison. I tend not to notice the racial demographics much when I’m presented with the sheer inhumanity of the prison system. The fact is, the social status of those men as “prisoner” completely outweighs perceptions of their personalities, so characteristics like race and age (in the reality of the moment, in the actual moment of interaction) tend to be sidelined next to this glaring reality of “these men are not free”. It’s kinda like: whether I am black or white, male or female, young or old, the fact is I am walking out of here and you are not. And that is some stone cold sober realization right there. The strangest thing for me is how completely separate they stood from their crimes. When we were actually chilling in the room with them and talking to them, I never thought about what they might have done but thought more about where they might come from or who their families are and what their future might be. It was only when we left, and I kept thinking about it, that I began to chew on the actual circumstances of their imprisonment. When someone is reduced to a statistic it becomes easy to think of them as one, but when that statistic has a face and a name and a personality, suddenly they become like you and you start thinking of yourself in that situation and the bigger questions start to form. The prison industry is the product of a sick society, there is no question. It’s another typical capitalist approach to a problem: treat the symptom, not the cause, coz when you conquer the cause then you chase away the capital. Cures don’t make money, treatment makes money. Treatment is about constant symptoms and continued cases. Cure means eradicating a disease, and in a capitalist industry, like the prison system, that doesn’t make any cents.
Thanks for taking the time to tell Mahala what is on your mind. As a last question, what do you think the significance of 2010 was in real terms for South Africa? What do you have planned for 2011?
2010 played a big part in highlighting once again the gap between the haves and the have-nots. I think at a subliminal level this fresh recognition of the modern class-war has entrenched itself in the minds of many South Africans, and it is going to be easier to ignite and justify any kind of popular uprising or action with so many clear symbols to stand against. People get pissed off quick when their lights go out. Mindsets have shifted. It is easier now to talk about real corruption and blatant mid-level mismanagement of our collective social welfare when we have so many clear examples to draw from. It’s just not going to be so easy to control the groundswell. I don’t know how long it might take but the fact is this is a revolutionary country and people are serious when they remind each other that the struggle continues. People are not just asking questions anymore. They are starting to demand answers.
Biggup to Mahala, biggup yeself, best wishes to all readers, meet up!