Shooting With Khuliby Ts'eliso Monaheng / 31.01.2014
Number 15 Siemert Street is one of Johannesburg’s many rare gems. ‘Marcoza House’ reads the letters carved in black steel above the entrance guarded by a man dressed in all black. It’s a rather depressing exterior; dull, inanimate, uninviting; tucked away in the innercity, the concrete as its lawn, the edge of Joe Slovo Drive as its dull view, and the stench of piss from where the flyover meets Siemert as its air supply.
It’s as far away from a “thriving prop rentals and sourcing business” as the very idea of anything thriving in the CBD is to, say, someone from the Northern suburbs. Khuli Chana, arguably the biggest hip-hop artist in South Africa over the past eighteen months, will be shooting the video for ‘Hape le hape part 2.1’ in this building. Joining him will be Da Les – at one point a member of the group Jozi – and Magesh, the widely-revered member of the era-defining kwaito group TKZee.
Four floors up, Marcoza House adopts a new persona. A film crew criss-crosses the vast studio space, carrying heavy objects such as lights, props, and steel rods to secure the lights and props in place. It’s a delicately orchestrated process, intricately-woven and executed with striking precision.
To one side of the space are Thato’s make-up and Storm’s wardrobe departments. With time, I’ll discover these to be the two spaces where women will frequent. And there are lots of them, these women; closer to the shoot, most would have shed a considerable amount of fabric off of their bodies.
Da Les is first to arrive. Before disappearing from music and re-emerging as a millionaire, he was part of the quartet-turned-trio-turned-duo Jozi, and had a buzz of his own churning out hip-pop songs to tweenies whose rap references floated liberally between Lil’ Wayne’s ‘Lollipop‘ and Wiz Khalifa’s ‘Black and yellow‘.
He’s no longer the skinny skater kid who rocked Ama-kip Kip gear and questioned people’s attitudes; he’s a grown man who’s finally showing hints of coming into his own as a lyricist.
When Khuli’s publicist asked if I’d be interested in capturing behind-the-scenes shots a day earlier, three things came to mind: getting to share the same space with Tokollo, one third of TKZee, the group which formed a formidable part of mine many other people’s childhoods; finally getting to sit down with Khuli Chana to break bread about how sacred the nineties were; and interacting with women from various areas around Johannesburg. All three happened, albeit to varying degrees.
Khuli arrives along with his sparring partner in Morafe, Towdeemac. Before the notion of Khuli Chana being the biggest artist in South Africa was even conceivable, Khulani Morule was ingesting a steady stream of nineties music, later on forming the group Jazzadazz with KayGee before Towdeemac and Mo Molemi joined. “We’re living HHP’s dream!” he’ll later tell me, referring to those heady days in Motswako, the genre they re-invented with their debut album Maru A Pula – The Anticipation in 2005.
For now, Khuli greets a couple of familiar faces before heading to the wardrobe/make-up area. For his scene, two scantily-clad women gallop in the background while a sleek-looking don-dada busies himself with enchanting the camera with his complex-yet-smooth Setswana flow.
Da Les, who’d already finished off his part and is now waiting for the closing scene, is shooting hoops with rolled up bits of paper, getting elated everytime he lands a clean shot. Tokollo, already waiting to shoot his scene, is in his own zone. Zwai, his partner in TKZee, hangs around in the vicinity. After three different scenes and a finale where everyone in the video is seen at an exclusive party, it’s time to wrap up the day.
By the time I leave, one thing is abundantly clear to me. South African hip-hop is rapidly ascending corporate South Africa’s ladder in much the same way American hip-hop did in the early nineties. Just in the past three months, various brands have, to varying degrees, used hip-hop to advance their cause, to make sure that their brand is visible and seen to be cool among discerning and gullible consumers alike.
It’s inherently a good thing – artists get paid, which translates to them being able to support their families through their art, and hence being motivated to produce better art to advance their cause (and better their livelihoods). What’s worrisome, however, is that this enterprise-funded industry escalation appears to be the dominant narrative in as far as mainstream hip-hop is concerned. Artists have ceased becoming formidable men and women; rather, they’re turned into cookie-cutter replicas who come in neatly-packaged boxes and use the word ‘Brand’ without any sense of irony. It’s the age-old art versus commerce debacle. This is not only a South African issue; artists in West Africa, for example, live off of brand endorsements.
While the euphoria is still palpable, the movement should side-step self-importance in order to inspect its independence. Will this branded industry of malleable mannequins exist once commerce’s grubby hands find the next genre to groove to?
* Images © Ts’eliso Monaheng