Teargas and world domination

2011-06-17 15:36

Teargas is probably the most unappealing and unsexy name any group can call itself – especially given the painful history of its use to quell toyi-toying crowds during apartheid.

But Teargas has morphed into an essential part of the local music lexicon. The three-member hip-hop group took the local music scene by storm in 2006.

Clad in Ama Kip Kip T-shirts, baggy jeans sagging under their butts and bright sneakers, the newbies walked away with an armful of trophies and music accolades in their first six months in the business.

Their story is a classic tale of “overnight success”.

After releasing their album K’Shubile K’bovu, members Ntokozo “KO” Mdluli, Ezee “Ma-E” Hanabe and his brother Bantu “Ntukza” Hanabe were almost immediately nominated for four MetroFM Music Awards, winning three on the night.

They had arrived.

Their tale now takes a sensational international twist as they leave South Africa this week with the hope of bringing home a BET Award for Best International Act (Africa).

The awards are organised by the BET (Black Entertainment Television) network, which can be seen on Top TV in South Africa, and will be hosted by comedian Kevin Hart in Los Angeles next Sunday.

This year, a category to honour African musical talent is a first for the awards.

Teargas will compete with Nigerians D’Banj and 2Face Idibia, the DRC’s Fally Ipupa, Ghana’s D-Black and legendary Beninoise singer Angelique Kidjo.

But the strong West African contingent doesn’t faze our lads.

“It’s an honour for us just to be nominated in the same category as the iconic Angelique Kidjo. Now the rest of the world knows we exist.

“Can you imagine how many artists there are in Africa and we’re one of the top six?” comments Ezee Hanabe.

I am sitting with Hanabe in one of the busiest coffee spots in the The Mall of Rosebank. Mdluli arrives a little later as he took a detour to the barber shop, which they all apparently visit twice a week.

After excusing Ntukza’s absence, the two sit down to give me their full attention.

The first thing they mention is how excited they are that they received their visas for their trip to Los Angeles.

It’s already clear they are looking forward to the trip and just when I was still busy assuming that they plan to party, Mdluli disabuses me of that notion.

“This is an opportunity for us to make some serious contacts in the US. African music is going to take over,” he states confidently.

“Some of the guys in our category have been doing big things with some of the most respected international artists. For example, D’Banj recently signed under Kanye West’s label and collaborated with Snoop Dogg on his remix. 2Face also recorded a song with Akon,” says Hanabe

Mdluli adds: “In the past, the world had adopted genres from other countries. There was reggae from Jamaica, Native American influences, Spanish, Caribbean music and electro from Europe. I believe it’s now time for African music to make its mark.”

He adds when legendary Public Enemy rapper Chuck D visited South Africa last year, he told musicians during a conference that “the world is starving for a new sound and Africa has long been neglected”.

Mdluli says: “So when we get to LA, we’re not just going to play and sight-see. We’re going to work hard to make sure that people sit up an listen.”

Just from talking to them about their music ambitions, it becomes clear why this multi-award-winning group are the first result on Google South Africa when you search the word “teargas”.

It has only been six years since they dropped their first album, but already Teargas is a force to be reckoned with on the continent.

Mdluli, from a small town called Piet Retief in Mpumalanga, met the two brothers from Soweto while they were all in college.

“We met and became friends because of our love for underground hip-hop, which we still enjoy,” says Mdluli.

The three completed their studies and went on to work in their nine-to-five jobs while pursuing music individually.

It was only in 2005 that they decided to form one group.

“We realised it would be better to join since we were already good friends who knew each other’s rhyming style,” says Mdluli.

Simply watching the group on stage or on video, it’s clear to see that there’s no “Beyoncé/leader of the band”, who is most typically the flashy-dressed one and always in the front.

Granted, there are some flashy elements, mainly from Mdluli who sports a chunky diamond-encrusted pinky ring and a bling fashion item, whether it’s shades or a necklace, at any given time.

Then there’s also Ma-E, whom one can tell enjoys looking good in the latest trendy clothing, a la Kanye West.

His brother – the absent one – is the more laid-back of the three, which brings up the mystery of their ages, which, they absolutely refuse to tell.

“I can give you an average, which is about 30,” says Mdluli.

Besides all that, it is clear in the way they look to each other before responding to any question that theirs is an equal partnership.

Teargas has amassed a number of awards over the years since their debut album. This may be attributed to their diverse rhyming style, which is a mix of isiZulu, English and Setswana, and has proved to be a winning formula in a period where the Motswako movement had already made inroads in the local hip-hop scene.

“We actually didn’t make any conscious decision to rap in any particular language. We’re just being ourselves,” says Hanabe.

He adds: “We’re all from ekasi and we’re not going to suddenly start sounding American and rapping about drugs and things like that. We only sing about our life experiences and things that happen in our hometowns.”

Mdluli agrees, and explains that many people are asking why they don’t use English so they can crack the international market.

“I don’t believe that’s necessary. If Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Miriam Makeba and others could win Grammys and have fans overseas, why can’t we do that?

“I’d rather we remain ourselves than try be like them because there’re already many other US artists trying to make it,” says Mdluli.

Whatever it is that Teargas is doing right, they don’t intend to stop doing it any time soon.

As I leave the interview, the one thing that sticks with me are Mdluli’s words: “The rest of the world is starving for the next big thing and we’re there to give it to them.”

» The BET Awards will air on Top TV, channel 190, on July 3

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