King of kwaito still on his throne

2012-03-16 12:19

It’s 1995. South Africa is still on a psychedelic high following the watershed general elections of April 1994.

But the shaky foundation on which the racial honeymoon is built soon come crashing down when a rising kwaito star gets racially abused in Pietersburg (now Polokwane) by being called a kaffir.

The horrific incident spurns a national hit when he releases his emotions on the song of the same word. In it he pokes fun at the white man by calling him “baas” and goes on to say “nee baas, don’t call me kaffir” repeatedly.

He continues: “I don’t come from hell/You would not like it if I called you a baboon/Even when I try washing up/ You still call me a kaffir.”

Overnight, Arthur Mafokate is the talk of town. The provocative lyrics capture the nation’s imagination and the walls of pretence are broken down as we collectively ask ourselves: “Is racism really dead within a year of democracy?” “Am I racist?”

Others dismiss Mafokate as a gimmick, pulling a stunt to gain publicity with a song title like that.

Whatever position you took, you couldn’t ignore the juggernaut Mafokate was becoming.

He gained a reputation as a provocative rabble-rouser with controversial lyrics and jaw-dropping dance acts on stage?– think Sika Lekhekhe and Amagents Ayaphanda.

Besides the mortar and bricks of the house and studio in Vorna Valley, Midrand, it’s on the back of hits, scandal, tragedy, controversy and personal drama that 999Music was built.

He points out that “discipline, hard work, clever marketing and perseverance” also counted. Indeed, Mafokate was known to sneak in a klap or two on an ill-disciplined band member or truant protege who just won’t listen.

Of slight build, Mafokate is a famous cap wearer and gum chewer with uproarious laughter. But today he left all three at home as we settle for a touching retrospective of the man who birthed kwaito.

Initially it looked like he would be a champion show jumper. And then it seemed his calling would be chasing male beauty titles after he won Mr Soweto. It took a radio talent search to seal the fate of the scrawny kid from Soweto with ears that stuck out.

“I loved horses but I was scared of heights and I never saw it as a career. I tried modelling and I found it took too much of my time attending castings and shoots.

“I always loved music more and was part of a dance troupe called Fame and later became known as Vivace.”

In 1992 Mafokate submitted a demo tape for the nationwide Coca-Cola Full Blast Music competition, where the public voted for their favourite song. After six months he emerged the winner with the song Com Com featuring Joe Nina.

Mafokate says he didn’t know what he was doing, neither did he have a business plan or a strategy.
“But my gut feel was saying I was doing the right thing.”

Mafokate regards the birth of his son, Arthur Junior, 18 years ago, as a turning point in the 999Music journey.

“I knew there and then that something had to happen. And when my brother passed on I knew my family was now looking up to me for comfort and to provide for them, which then translated to more hard work.”

Born Sello Arthur Mafokate at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, he grew up in Pimville and Chiawelo in Soweto and also lived in Polokwane and Hillbrow before setting up home and office in Vorna Valley.

Mafokate named his record company 999Music, inspired by the address of his house in Chiawelo, when he registered it at South African Recording Rights Limited

Mafokate’s stable carved a niche for itself as the dance craze masters.

From the days of Abashante, Mafokate churned out dances, each one more hip-twisting and gravity defying than the previous.

The critics have been unkind to the pioneering musician. In all his years in the industry and the newspaper headlines, Mafokate has not enjoyed critical acclaim for his work. He has only won one South African Music Award, which was voted for by the public.

It’s the general public and fans that have given him the thumbs up, with the massive sales of his earlier releases and later his artists such as Chomee.

Mafokate says his love for music was born out of the shebeen his mother ran in Pimville where he saw the merriment music brought people. And then his brother started a band, of which he naturally became a member.

Now comfortably in his 40s, Mafokate remains relevant, whether in caricature and ridicule, or genuine praise and admiration by 18-year-olds who were not even born when he established 999Music.

He continues to make new fans and spark curiosity in the youngsters who see him as a star whose parents grew up listening to. He is the cool uncle, and in other cases the hip grandpa.

His secret is adapting to change. Over the two decades fads and gimmicks and charlatans have come and faded, but Mafokate still manages to trend on Twitter, a concept that was non-existent back in 1992.

“Remaining relevant means being able to adapt to change but also introducing innovation in one’s brand, being in touch with music lovers, finding out what they love most about us as musicians.”

Mafokate influenced, shaped or boosted the careers of more than 50 artists in South Africa, including the likes of Lira, Mandoza, Joe Nina and Jeff Maluleke, teaching them what the industry is about, what it takes to survive, how to perform and also how to stay relevant even in the dark days of no hits.

“The fact that 999Music turns 20 this year caught me by surprise. I wasn’t aware. It’s exciting but a challenge because I keep asking myself whether we’ll reach the 25th or 30th milestone.

“This numbers thing puts you under pressure. The fun and exciting thing about all this is that my son releases his debut album on the 20th anniversary of my company.”

“Artists like Lira, Mandoza, Joe Nina and Jeff Maluleke and many more were taught what the industry is about, what it takes to survive in this volatile industry, how to perform and also how to stay relevant even in the dark days of no hits. I do meet them on occasion.”

In all the guises that he wears Mafokate says his children will always come out tops.

“The fact that 999Music turns 20 this year caught me by surprise. I wasn’t aware. It’s exciting but a challenge because I keep asking myself whether we’ll reach the 25th or 30th milestone, this numbers thing puts you under pressure.

“The fun and exciting thing about all this is that my son releases his debut album on the 20th anniversary of my company.”

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