Magazine editor-turned-crooner and songwriter talks to Percy Mabandu about his not-so-easy road to success Only the attentive few and perhaps some Joburg party scene veterans remember that the city’s favourite crooner and member of the Twitterati, Kabomo, was once a regular feature on the underground slam poetry circuit. In fact, way before the 34-year-old entertainer was the voice of choice to serenade date nights across university campuses, he was also the editor of Y-Mag, the print platform of Gauteng youth radio station YFM. He remembers those days, except with none of the usual sentiment. I observe his cerebral posturing during our interview in Rosebank, north of Joburg. The man born Kabomo Vilakazi is now a one-name star, sports the ever-present hat, a baggy pair of denims and a slightly worn-out T-shirt. The hat, in fact, looks like the same Irish cap he wears on the music video to his hit single Uzobuya, the remix version on which he features Dineo and Khuli Chana. As our conversation unfolds amid the noise of hooting cars and delivery trucks chugging up and down Tyrwhitt Avenue, Kabomo appears very guarded and self-aware. One gets a sense that every answer has been rehearsed a few times over. It figures, though – the Daveyton-born singer-songwriter didn’t simply stumble into the limelight. He’s had a while to reflect as he watched and waited for his star to rise. There have been some false starts and letdowns too. As the editor of Africa’s hottest youth magazine, who performed regularly at arts festivals with his verses, you’d have sworn he had arrived. But it wasn’t necessarily so. To insidiously get past his guard, we both start by acknowledging that many stars have a kind of story they tell both themselves and the world to make sense of their journey through life. There’s the Mike Tyson type of a tragic figure that has survived beyond his expected demise, albeit in the limbo of meaning. There’s the rags-to-riches narrative of many stars. Then there’s the tragic tale of shining lives cut too short, such as of Brenda Fassie’s and Lebo Mathosa’s. So I ask Kabomo what he thinks his story is. He wraps it up in one word: tenacity. He says: “I think my story is about the idea of tenacity. It’s about the tenacity of this gift that I have through all these challenges and tough times in my life when I could have given up on the dream. The gift stayed alive.” He tells me that it was during those homeless days on the streets of Joburg that, as he puts it: “I had to finally acknowledge that I have this gift and I had to embrace it. It was all I had.” This episode in his life was on the back of the failure of Y-Mag and he unexpectedly found himself without a job or a plan. He explains: “I lost everything. I was out. But in retrospect, at no point do I remember that it was the end of me.” That’s in the past now. Last month, he headlined the annual Poetry Africa festival in Durban. He read poems alongside South African-based Italian poet Raphael d’Abdon, the inimitable Lesego Rampolokeng and Nigeria’s Kole Oluwatoyin, among a host of international voices. It’s all part of preparing to publish a book of poems that his friend Kojo Baffoe, the editor of Destiny Man, is helping him edit. Slipping into some reminiscences, he credits “the person I was dating at the time” for his discovery of poetry. “She really encouraged my writing. She used to edit my work and recommended poets to read.” He then grows grave when I press him on the muse’s name. It has been widely reported that Kabomo was romantically linked to poet and spoken-word artist Lebo Mashile. So I digress to ask him about his new-found outlet. He is now making forays into the world of acting. Kabomo plays a troubled accountant called Herbert in the hit Mzansi Magic series, Zabalaza, alongside Baby Cele and Seputla Sebogodi. His combative guard ebbs as he lights up again. “I’m really enjoying it. I also like that I’m not playing a musician. The idea is that when people see me on screen, they should be able to actually see the character transformation. “I have great respect for the craft. I shouldn’t just be me on TV,” he says, before proceeding to credit the support he receives from old hands like Cele and Sebogodi, who’ve been at it for more than 20 years. Kabomo has also built himself a reputation for being the hardest-working man in the industry. It’s a status he’s happy to embrace. “Well, you must remember that after I finish recording my own album, there’s about three to four months of serious marketing and hectic touring, then things sort of slow down. Besides, I never want to stop making music because my own project is done. I like working with other musicians. It keeps me creative and busy,” he says. The credits speak for him, too. In between recording and releasing two successful albums, All Things Grey and Memory Remains, Kabomo has also found time to be involved in shaping other musicians’ projects. He has produced and written tracks for Gloria Bosman, Wanda Baloyi and Sibongile Khumalo. He has also collaborated with the likes of Zonke, Nothende and ProVerb. Apart from regularly taking up duties as a session musician, to rap or croon, he is also Unathi Msengana’s musical director. Just before our chat approaches its natural end, Kabomo indicates that he is due for another meeting as he takes the last sip from a now empty bottle of still water. He then dashes off.