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Ghetto Narratives

by Ts'eliso Monaheng / Images by Warren Talmarkes / 05.09.2012

“How many people here have the first Reflection Eternal album that I put out with my man Hi-Tek?” asks Brooklyn emcee Talib Kweli in front of a capacity audience at club Trinity. A myriad of people raise their hands; the pessimist in me dismisses the validity of their claim. In retrospect, this judgement might have been due to my predisposition as a sometime-serial pirate. Hours earlier when listening to that very album (“Train of thought”), I was transported back to more than ten years ago. I remembered having to wait patiently for the cassette tape as it made its rounds through the music circles in Maseru; I remembered the thrill of eventually receiving that Sonotech-90 (or was it a TDK-60?) cassette tape, of having to rewind it to the beginning and hearing an impersonation of Nelson Mandela as the intro. Years later, I dismissed Dave Chapelle’s Madiba impersonation as a mild one, more so in the context of his rolling ‘r’ when pronouncing Johannesburg.

My relationship with Talib has been an arduous on-and-off affair. Upon discovering that he was coming to South African shores, the status read a mild ‘on hiatus’; I was more interested in jiving with the scenesters at the Biscuit Mill than head-nodding to the discography of a self-proclaimed ‘Prisoner Of Conscious’ whose track record stretches back close to twenty years. Still, for all my self-absorbed cynicism and laconic disposition, I found myself mercilessly anticipating his ascension onto the stage; like a love interest that refuses to subside, I went back for more.

Cape Town’s weather has been moody for the better part of August. The queue of people standing out in the rain spoke of a yearning to indulge in the musings of an emcee whose lyrical mutterings have run the underground railroad (Jaylib, Dilated Peoples, etc.) and collided with high-brow trendsetters (Kanye West, Jay-Z) in equal measure. Tonight, the city is a resplendent collage featuring the aforementioned Biscuit Mill bump-jive on one side of town, Afrika Mkhize’s jazz inflections on the other, and this sometimey-love-interest smack in the middle.

True to form, DJ Raiko’s blend of true-school hip hop provides the desired build-up for host Reason to flex some skill on the mic in anticipation of openers Ill Verse, Youngsta, and Hemelbesem. Reason’s run-down of South African hip hop staples such as Proverb’s ‘Home sweet home’, Skwatta Kamp’s ‘Rau rau’, and Tumi’s ‘People of the light’ is gobbled with aplomb by the audience. Ill Verse, part of the new crop of Cape Town emcees, gives an underwhelming performance which Youngsta does very little to salvage. Youngsta has had better nights, where the crowd effortlessly digested his self-effacing brand of ghetto storytelling mixed with dollops of pop culture references. Tonight is, unfortunately, not one of them. He does manage to get some momentum going at the tail-end of his performance. The veteran emcee, Hemelbesem, capably ventures forth in the same vein with a firebrand selection of taal-inflicted rhyme schemes replete with call-and-response phrases which elicit unhinged crowd participation.

Kweli, looking dapper in a navy blue blazer, shades and a fitted cap, emerges from the shadows flanked by a four-piece outfit consisting of a bassist, drummer, keyboardist, and deejay. As they kick into ‘Listen’ from his Eardrum album, I catch myself disappearing down a virtual time-line of memories, etching closer to reality then momentarily sinking back into the abyss of stolen promises and half-fulfilled dreams. “Wait, wait, wait just a minute” the lady to my immediate right hand side sings. She is a fan, and for the next hour that I contemplate talking to her, she raps along to almost every song, pleasure oozing from her face at every turn. But before I initiate intellectual conversation about the significance of Black Star and the social discourse Reflection Eternal helped drive forth during backpacker-era hip hop, she has disappeared; gone into the smoke-filled wilderness, lost and never to be seen again.

The first part of Kweli’s set consists of songs from his most recent offering, Gutter rainbows. He performs a Sean Price-less ‘Palookas’, rummages through ‘So low’ and punctuates the run-down with a dedication to MCA before launching into ‘In on one’. Hands, fists and anything mildly resembling limbs get raised up and manage to stay up. He delves into Yasiin Bey territory with his rendition of ‘Umi says’, then undercuts it with ‘The blast’. Everyone, including the guy who just lit a blunt below me, loses their shit!

Crescendos of applause super-impose on each other, the space narrows in from every corner until the room feels compact. The band re-directs the mood and shifts into Reflection Eternal II material – ‘In this word’ and ‘Strangers’, the latter seeing Kweli reciting Bun B’s verse with the swagger of a bonafide Southern rap general. More renditions of old school soul classics; my mind drifts. DJ Juju brings the focus back with his triple-splice of Buju’s ‘Murderer’, Junior Gong’s ‘Welcome to Jamrock’, and Dawn Penny’s ‘You don’t love me’. The band re-assembles, capably backing Kweli through some Black Star in the form of ‘Definition/re-definiton’ as well as ‘Knowledge Of Self’; echoes of the past, songs which shall forever prowl in the deeper recesses of a true school hip hop fan’s memory.

Talib Kweli

Talib is angry. “There is no motherfucking fighting at a Talib Kweli show. I’m the one with the mic, so pay attention!” he declares. A mini fist-fight has ensued, and noting the minimal impact of his efforts to quell it, he declares “real hip hop does not come here quite often” as his band walks into the crowd in an attempt to keep the peace. The scenario resembles a prequel to a critical beat-down, complete with the rowdy dreadlocked characters and mandatory steroid-munching giant guy straight out of any early 90s movie posing as portraiture of black America. “People have died for this hip hop shit”, continues Talib after everything has settled. He then does a dedication to the late great J-Dilla – ‘History’ and ‘Raw shit’.

Nearly two hours later, the show is over. The band has proven their worth, the keyboardist is even handing out Heinekens to a select few in the audience during the encore. Kweli, still as wordy an emcee as ever, weaving tapestries of ghetto narratives with black power messages and an acute awareness of shifting global dynamics, has rekindled my hopes in his worth as an emcee.

Talib Kweli

*All images © Warren Talmarkes.

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