Mshoza Yi Bhoza, dead at 37: A reflective glance at the artist's legacy

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(Photo by Gallo Images / Sowetan / Busisiwe Mbatha)
(Photo by Gallo Images / Sowetan / Busisiwe Mbatha)
  • Kwaito star Nomasonto Maswanganyi, popularly known as Mshoza, died on 18 November 2020.
  • With a career that began at 15, with her discovery on Jam Alley, the 37-year-old first rose to prominence for her hit song Kortes.
  • Taken from the book Born to Kwaito, below is an essay about the artist’s lasting role in Kwaito. 

Prologue: Writing Nomasonto into history

Yesterday, on 19 November 2020, it was reported that Nomasonto ‘Mshoza’ Maswanganyi had passed away at 37 years old. In the report her manager, Thanduxolo Jindela, confirmed that Mshoza died after being hospitalised due to a complication with diabetes. Mshoza is an artist who finds herself at a special disadvantage in a tradition of already inconsistently documented black South African music history. It is for this reason that I wanted so badly to profile her on mine and Sihle Mthembu’s Born to Kwaito.

A star whose power is cemented firmly in black South African music history and collective memory largely by the strength of one song. Kortes! I say it often that not all Kwaito music has endured time and the evolution of our musical sensibilities. Hit songs that dominate our consciousness are also often cloying, dated, and held together by bits of our collective nostalgia. But Kortes, that’s one thread strong enough to hold together our nostalgia, evolution and dance. And Hlaba Lingene.

My memories of Mshoza as a child are very different from my memories of her as an adult. To the child, Mshoza is the lady in the hat, surrounded by children whose dance moves point to their heads and to their temples as they act out the lyrics to the chorus. The child cannot speak fully well but she stands in front of the TV and sings “isgqoko! wen’ uyang’hlanyisa” — and she will do it over and over again as the popular hit song keeps being replayed on SABC 1.

She will remember these moves and lyrics well into adulthood. Where as an adult, Mshoza will become the kwaito lyricist whose tone and cadence could run with the very best of them. She is the young beauty queen turned rapper whose place as a young woman in kwaito history is unique, defiant of mainstream expectations of fashion and song. She is the young artist who occupied the more ‘masculine’ corners of kwaito music and softened them with romance. Kortes, with Mzambiya, is a song that takes up the rough space of kwaito music and turns it into a space for kasi luv and romance.

Johannesburg, South Africa - April : Mshoza on Ap
A teenage Mshoza backstage before a performance. (Oupa Bopape/ Gallo)

In our constant efforts to have an interview with Mshoza, the closest I would get to meeting her would be in an impromptu Whatsapp video call. She was kind and relaxed and I was frustrated — we had been going back and forth for a while and somehow could never find the time to meet and talk. I just wanted to know when I could come down to Durban to get things done. Mshoza was laying in bed and in that room was a young child and another woman who I remember to have been her assistant. Mshoza took the time to introduce me to everyone in the room.

It was a disoriented engagement, and I left the video call of two minds, — frustrated because no solid outcome had emerged from the call, but excited, because a whole Mshoza had invited me into a video call. Mshoza and I never did do the interview, but my compulsion to recognise her as a significant, towering figure in kwaito history would have me at least make mention of her in a chapter about Women in Kwaito. Thabiso Mahlape, the founder of Blackbird Books and our publisher would explain these efforts best when she called them, “a reminder of a capsule in time. A nudge for us to do more, in terms of archiving the moments and the memories that continue to define us”. 

Mshoza Yi Bhoza

A defining moment for young women in kwaito was Mshoza’s entry onto the scene. From the moment she got voted into first place by Loyiso Bala on Jam Alley in 1999, Mshoza would come to solidify herself as a formidable female lyricist in kwaito music – able to hold her own in songs with kwaito lyricists as talented as Mzambiya, who was also signed to BullDawgz Entertainment.

And all this while she was still a teenager. Mshoza had already made her first million at fifteen. Her song Kortes, from her album BullDawgz’ First Lady, is still a largely referenced kwaito classic today. I, too, fondly recall being a small child in my rural home, with my terribly unkempt, relaxed hair that desperately needed treatment, doing the choreography to Kortes as seen from the music video. 

Johannesburg, South Africa - April : Mshoza on Ap
Bulldawgz' First Lady, Mshoza

With her deliberately ‘deep’ voice and street mannerisms, Mshoza showed that girls are not a one dimensional stereotype, as she deviated from the female kwaito artist’s image that had previously dominated the scene. Her stage name gave notice of this intention to rewrite the rules, to be fair.

A ‘mshoza’ was supposed to be the female equivalent of a pantsula, although the term would later be diluted to mean the women who chose relationships with pantsulas. Mshoza refused to fit neatly into the existing narrative of female kwaito artists (as far as imaging herself in revealing clothing) because her persona did not centre on how she looked or danced.

Instead, she spat bars on a beat and made a hit song. She still remains the only female kwaito artist to be clothed by Loxion Kulca. Wandi Nzimande, the co-founder of Loxion Kulca, recounts for me in a conversation we had about women in kwaito, that Mshoza was often referred to as a ‘tomboy’. 

This was a deliberate, perhaps even surprising image for her to have chosen, considering that she had previously taken part in local beauty pageants. Despite this departure in how she presented and comported herself as an artist, to the young women in kwaito who had come before her, Mshoza still chose to celebrate them as aspirational figures.

The young Mshoza hailed Lebo Mathosa and Brenda Fassie on her song Mshoza Yi Bhoza, singing, ‘Bang’biz’ uSuperwoman njengo Brenda Fassie noLebo Mathosa’ (They call me Superwoman, just like Brenda Fassie and Lebo Mathosa). 

Born To Kwaito considers the meaning of kwaito music now. ‘Now’ not only as in ‘after 1994’ or the Truth Commission but as a place in the psyche of black people in post-apartheid South Africa. This collection of essays tackles the changing meaning of the genre after its decline and its ever contested relevance. Through rigorous historical analysis as well as threads of narrative journalism Born To Kwaito interrogates issues of artistic autonomy, the politics of language in the music, and whether the music is part of a strand within the larger feminist movement in South Africa.

Born to Kwaito is published by Blackbird Books.

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