A perfect storm

Johannesburg - The vocal force and feminist fist of King Tha will meet the pulsing Afro-rock blender that is the BLK JKS to summon in the new year at Afropunk Joburg. Charl Blignaut spoke to them about the future.

Rock guitarist Mpumelelo Mcata has lovely handwriting. I know, because I ask him to write down the correct spellings of the other members of Afropunk Joburg’s headlining collaboration King Tha vs BLK JKS: “Thandiswa Mazwai (vox), Tshepang Ramoba (drums), Molefi Makananise (bass), Gift Nkomo (sax), Tebogo Seitei (trumpet, absent) and João Orecchia (synths, absent).”

In my messy scrawl below I describe The Moral Kiosk, the new vinyl, coffee and accessory shop in Melville we’re at, my 80s eye snagged by LPs of Debbie Harry’s KooKoo and Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm that are on display.

Pioneering misfits

Mazwai – King Tha – arrived in the culture first, in hit group Bongo Maffin in the mid-90s, at the forefront of the kwaito revolution. By the time she went solo with her inimitable blend of traditional Xhosa sounds, kwaito, mbaqanga, jazz and funk, the BLK JKS had been around for two years. For the first of those, the churning, experimental, rock, funk, folk band holed themselves up in a year-long rehearsal.

Molefi: So we wanted feedback and we entered a competition, a battle of the bands.

Tshepang: One of the judges wrote, ‘You guys, you’ll never survive here. In fact, you’re going to starve!’

Molefi: With an exclamation mark.

Tshepang: Everybody around us felt there was no space for a band like BLK JKS – except us.

Mpumelelo: What we were doing at the time, to a lot of people seemed nihilistic.

Thandiswa: Ja, with Bongo Maffin we were also just kind of f*cking around because we were kids. We were making noises and actually, generally, nobody liked the sounds we were making when we started.

Mam’ Busi Mhlongo said so

Although Mazwai and the BLK JKS had met several times, at home and while playing overseas, it was the iconic Urban Zulu, Busi Mhlongo, queen of revisionist mbaqanga, maskandi and marabi, who insisted they hook up. It was 2010. She had cancer and was on her death bed.

Mpumelelo: We were there to visit and she asked for her phone and put it on speaker and she called Thandiswa ...

Molefi: She said, ‘I’ve got your brothers here. You need to fly down here now cos they’ve got a gig; we can all go together to the gig.’

Thandiswa: I had just visited her two days earlier and she was frail when I left her. When she called I just started crying because I couldn’t believe how lively she sounded, so alive ... I think she just thought, this makes sense, us coming together. And it does make sense, we’ve been doing this for a while. Our first gig was in a bar in Braamfontein.

Tshepang: Remember when we were doing that show in France and Thandiswa was there, backstage somewhere? We were playing with Vieux Farka Touré, two bands, one stage. And the crowd was going, ‘One more, one more.’ So I went to call Tha and I said, Yo Tha you know Too Late For Mama? She said, What the f*ck are you talking about? I got it here and she pointed at her feet. She was wearing All Stars. And we did it.

Charl: Are you doing Brenda at Afropunk?

Thandiswa: We gotta, we gotta, we’ll drop a little Brenda.

Mpumelelo: We have mam’ Busi, we have us, we gotta have Brenda.

Dreaming the Afro future

I wasn’t at the launch of Afropunk Joburg, but King Tha vs BLK JKS were, on stage, delivering a set heavy with struggle songs. Founded as a space for alternative expressions of black life in music and the arts in 2005, Brooklyn, Atlanta, London and Paris are home to Afropunk festivals. Joburg premiers this year with what has to be the party of the year. What can we expect from the King Tha vs BLK JKS set on December 31?

Mpumelelo: I think it will be nice to just turn the whole situation upside down. That’s the ambition. To grab the stage. Because what is Afropunk? That is the question, so let us answer musically by writing the dissertation.

Charl: I interviewed Laura Mvula the other day. She believes in Afropunk as a movement, a safe space for black expression.

Molefi: For sure. But for us, it’s still an imperialist structure. It’s still American.

Thandiswa: Even as I am on that stage there’s part of me that’s protesting against the idea of someone else coming to create a space that I need to fill up.

Molefi: And it’s not a fight. It’s a conversation. We can improve each other.

Thandiswa: If it was a fight I wouldn’t be there. But, because it’s family, because I like Afropunk, I will say it. And maybe it’s not even as much about them and what they’ve created as it is about us and what we’ve created – or haven’t – for ourselves. But I do also like that it’s an international space. Wherever you go you can identify with Afropunk and you can find kindred spirits. But we will have to define for ourselves what it means for Joburg, the audience and the bands.

Charl: So what does this Afro future look like for you?

Thandiswa: I’m trying to find an Afro future where my assigned gender at birth does not confine me to being in danger or to be a lesser human being. So that’s the voice that I’m pushing, that speaks against this idea that my gender, my race, defines me intrinsically. It’s about subverting these norms that society imposes. Even as an African woman. You must have a particular set of morals, a particular body shape. I have chosen my identity for myself, not because I want to be accepted. In terms of the name King Tha, I was trying to define myself as whatever I want to be and take whatever position I want to take. And I can behave in whatever ways I want to behave, even in ways that have been socially deemed as masculine.

Molefi: You know, when we were young, there was a popular phrase: Keep it real. That’s the key for me.

Martell Cognac has partnered with Afropunk Joburg and are offering one City Press reader a chance to win entrance for two to the Afropunk Festival at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg on December 30 and 31 to discover and enjoy the Martell Cognac experience at the Martell Village, valued at R1 800.

The cognac house will have its own dedicated area at the festival. It will feature an elevated viewing deck for direct sight of the main stage, and guests can enjoy the newly launched Martell VS Single Distillery and special cocktails.

Terms and conditions

The prize is not transferable and cannot be converted to cash;
Transport to and from the venue is not included; and
This prize is valid only for the Afropunk Joburg fest on December 30 and 31.
Enjoy Responsibly. Not for sale to persons under the age of 18.

To win

SMS the keyword AFROPUNK, your name, surname, email address and delivery address to 34217. SMSes cost R1.50. Free SMSes do not apply. Terms and conditions apply.

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