Mandoza, Tupac and black life

2016-09-25 06:07


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When rapper Jay-Z asks, “Can I live?” in his song of the same title, he offers a poignant question about black life.

Last Sunday, kwaito legend Mduduzi “Mandoza” Tshabalala met his untimely death as a result of a brain tumour.

In tribute, fans on social media burst into song, many posting their favourite Mandoza lyrics.

“Ngangena ejele ngaphuma / Ngangena kuma drugs ngaphuma / Ngoba impilo yam ngiy’nikeza uMdali / Hloniph’ iLife boy [I went into jail and got out / I was on drugs, got out / because I’ve given my life to the Creator / Respect life, boy],” from his song Respect Life seemed to resonate most.

Mandoza’s death comes less than a week after the 20th anniversary of the untimely death of rap legend Tupac Shakur from a fatal shooting at 25. Some say Tupac prophesied his early death in songs such as Death Around the Corner. “I see death around the corner / (But having respect, that feels even better) / I see death around the corner / (When we were kids, belonging felt good).”

Mandoza’s kwaito finds its roots in Zola, one of Soweto’s most destitute sections; Tupac’s rap in the projects of the Bronx in New York.

Like rap, kwaito often presents an unwelcome image of black youth culture, particularly controversial for unflinching depictions of violence.

That this “concern” has endured in the more than 30-year existence of the genres is evidenced in Trevor Noah’s recent interview with rapper T.I. about his latest video depicting police brutality.

Noah asked about the apparent hypocrisy in rappers glorifying violence while being quick to call out injustices.

T.I. gave a stumping response: “Hip-hop traditionally has always been a reflection of the environment the artist had to endure before he made it to where he was. So if you want to change the content of the music, change the environment of the artist...”

Through kwaito and rap, black young people have been able to exercise a sense of agency by narrating the pleasures and pains of the hostile ghetto, chronicling its daily experiences to speak directly to identity, recognition, legitimacy, status and culture in a context of dispossession, poverty, homelessness, unemployment, violence and the general undoing of black life.

Kwaito and rap are fixated with thinking through the meaning of life in a context where it seems that death has triumphed over life. This contemplation of black life and death can often seem ambiguous and contradictory.

At times, Mandoza and Tupac sing about life in optimistic and celebratory ways, from respecting life to livin’ it up while young and black.

In these moments they are triumphant, declaring themselves “iNkalakatha” or “The Don”. When Mandoza asks his fellow young black people, “Uzoyithola kanjani uhlel’ekoneni?

[How will you get what you want by sitting on the corner?]” and Tupac tells young, black women to “Keep ya head up”, they deal with the resilience and survival that black life demands.

Other times, kwaito and rap tell of a complex nihilism and death.

Mandoza’s Bafa Bafa, Mshoza’s Heat Of The Night, Gommora’s Ukufa, Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready To Die and Nas’ Life’s A Bitch all testify to the anxieties faced by young black people as the reality of death in their communities bears down on them.

The optimistic and nihilistic views of life and death are different sides of the same coin.

In both views, we see the expression of a hyperawareness that each dance, each hustle, each breath could be the last.

It is tempting to say both Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. prophesied their untimely deaths, but it would be more accurate to say that they were merely being realistic given the balance of grim probabilities that determine the longevity of black life.

At this time of, among others, the first anniversary of the Lily Mine tragedy, the fourth anniversary of the Marikana massacre, #BlackLivesMatter protests, resurgent HIV/Aids infection rates, increased reporting of black lesbian murders and femicide, it would be accurate to say that “untimely” in reference to black life is an oxymoron and self-contradictory.

The reality of black life is that you can die at any time.

As long as this is the reality in and outside of the ghetto, Jay-Z’s question will resonate: “Can we live?”

Until that answer is an unreserved “yes” for all black people, we will continue to find solace in the music of Mandoza and Tupac.

Read more on:    mandoza  |  black lives matter

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