Young, gifted and bragging

2007-11-12 00:00

HE'S young, he's educated and he's got a smile to weaken knees. But what impresses most about local hip-hop artist Brian Khoza, aka “Tha Playmaka”, is his commitment to Pietermaritzburg. “I'm trying to build something here,” he says about his shows, which he organises under the banner of his closed corporation called Rhyme Pedigree Entertainment Services, which showcase local hip-hop talent. He also wants to bring international artists to Pietermaritzburg.

“I'm committed to the city,” he says. “But I also do it for selfish reasons: Pietermaritzburg is my home.” Well known on the Pietermaritzburg hip-hop scene, Khoza is ambivalent about fame. “I don't like shining,” he says. “Obvious success often comes with bad things.”

He takes his cue from his favourite artist Nas: “He's private and he makes good albums. For him, it's not about the fame. He even turns down album offers.” Born in Caluza in 1980 to Ruth and Sithembiso who divorced six years later, Khoza had little success when it came to fading into the background.

After getting places in coloured primary schools by using his Christian name “Brian” instead of “Siyabonga” and changing his Zulu surname to Rangan, a derivative of a cousin's name on his Xhosa mother's side, he started to excel academically.

In his second year of school, by which time he was attending Raisethorpe Primary School (now Forest Hill), Khoza was at the top of his class. But success, even at that age, came with a price. “Teachers would say to my friends from Woodlands: ‘Why can't you be more like Brian?' Meanwhile, I just wanted to be cool with the guys.” In his final year, he was made head prefect.

When he started at Carter High School in 1994 - among the first black pupils to attend formerly white schools - he shone at Afrikaans. “That amazed my teachers and I'd get attention. You can imagine - the black guy who tops all the others in Afrikaans.”

Khoza's school memories are largely about being different. “At the coloured schools, I never felt I fitted in,” he says. Although he describes Carter High as “the best school led by one of South Africa's greatest”, he also struggled to belong. Back at home in Imbali, he had to contend with people ripping him off for being at a “white” school.

But it was at high school that Khoza discovered a talent for rapping, which tapped into his existing interest in poetry. He met classmate Mhlo Ntshangase, later known as Mylowe, who hailed from a musical family and shared many of his interests.

In 1998, their last year of high school, the duo was making songs. Rhyme 'n Reazon was formed and in 2000 recorded its first album, PMB style, with help from Mylowe's father.

At one stage, the group expanded to include local rapper Nash and Khoza's younger brother Siyanda, now known as Stylez, who is currently based in Johannesburg and has recently released an album. Together, they left their mark on the fledgling Pietermaritzburg hip-hop scene.

When he graduated, Khoza told his university lecturers he wouldn't be back until his music career was going well. Next year, he starts his honours degree in politics. In 2005, while doing an internship as a sociologist at the Department of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs, Khoza organised his biggest gig - Ngithol' ePhenduka Rapping in the ghetto - which drew hundreds of people to Imbali Stage One.

He has plans for another, bigger show in December. With the help of local author Mongezi Ngidi, he's hoping to publish his poetry collection and his album, PMB Poison, should be out by his birthday in May. Khoza's also been working on a Journal of PMB Rap, a historical record of the Pietermaritzburg rap scene. But reaching this point hasn't been easy. Khoza still flinches when he remembers his time at university, where his financial position was “perilous”.

“There were times when I was nervous about going to tutorials because I might be thrown out for not having paid all my fees.” At the same time, he and Mylowe were grappling with the demands of fame after the recording of the album in 2000. Khoza dropped out for a semester. He returned to university in 2001, but two serious car accidents - the first involving his older brother Buhle in Johannesburg and then one involving himself and his mother at the start of 2003 - and a failed nightclub venture continued to set the family back financially.

With the help of his politics lecturer, Laurence Piper, he secured some part-time research work, continued his studies and finally graduated in 2004 with majors in politics and human resource management.

Today, Khoza works largely on his own, but draws on an international community of like-minded friends and musicians for support. He says fame took its toll on Rhyme 'n Reazon, stretching the bonds of friendship almost to breaking point. Following the group's collapse, word on the street was that, as an artist, he was finished. Even to Khoza, it seemed they might be right.

Then he met the late producer Skholiwe Tsukudu who recorded Khoza's EP A Taste of Poison. “Skho was encouraging about my commitment to Pietermaritzburg and the local hip-hop scene,” says Khoza. But there was still nowhere to perform. Then a campus-based poetry group called the Poetry And Urban Activism Society was formed. Once a week, the group met to share poetry and essays and to plan events. “It was life-changing,” says Khoza.

Now he applies his planning skills to organising gigs and balances his time carefully between his research work and music. “I've got economic pressures,” he says. “I'm the first in my immediate family with a degree, so there are expectations.”

When Khoza looks back over his still-young life, he says he's a better person for his experiences. “I'm not perfect. But I've been taught to make my own happiness, rather than pursue it.”

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