'I'm living my f***g dream' - Bongeziwe Mabandla refuses to play the underdog

Bongeziwe Mabandla's iimini is his third album. He describes it relaxed and casual.
Bongeziwe Mabandla's iimini is his third album. He describes it relaxed and casual.

“The Greek word eros denotes ‘want,’ ‘lack,’ ‘desire for that which is missing.’ The lover wants what he does not have.”
Eros, The Bittersweet by Anne Carson

When we speak of the underdog, whether in support or in opposition to their existence, what do we see? It’s a character in unappreciated toil. Their work is accepted to be of high standard - that is generally accepted - and yet something (fate, circumstances, systems set up by people in power) stands in the way of the character achieving what their supporters believe is their right: an undisputed success in their endeavours.

The character in question is Bongeziwe Mabandla, a singer, songwriter and actor who was born in Tsolo in the Eastern Cape. When one reads about his trajectory thus far, it is steeped in opposition, both explicit (how does one become a successful artist in the world when they are born in poverty in rural Eastern Cape?) and implicit (he has released three albums with three different labels). And yet with his new album, iimini, this road of encumbrance seems to be clearing out in his favour.

To be fair, this removal of the albatross seemed to start with his last album winning the South African Music Award for Best Alternative Album. The irony, of course, is that as much as that award is to be celebrated, it is also the award most emblematic of the underdog. Its mere existence is in opposition to the other more mainstream categories.

What happens though when David’s stone hits Goliath square on the forehead, and he wins? When iimini was released it reached number one on South Africa’s Apple Music Charts. This means, for however long it stayed on that spot, it was the most successful album in the county according to that particular chart.

Bongeziwe, however, doesn’t see himself as an underdog. On our FaceTime chat we laugh as he shares his views on success: "I see some people comment - maybe on my videos - that I’m underrated. It’s weird when I hear things like that because I feel like I‘m living my dream. I’m like, I’m balling. And like, growing up in the Eastern Cape, all I wanted was to get a record deal and sing to people, and travel the world, and when people tell you that you’re not doing well enough… I’m living my fucking dream! Don’t underestimate it. People sometimes have one view of success. People make you think, 'Oh, am I not doing well enough?'" He let’s out a guffaw before taking a swig from his mug.

He’s right. Success and its measures are manifold. But regardless of the arguable barometers of what it actually means: self-actualisation or commercial viability (these seen as the binaries); one can make an easy assumption that the man himself feels successful. Speaking to him, he comes across as much more comfortable in his skin than he did in the past.

He looks back:

“My first album didn’t do so well. And with my second album I was nervous, and I think you can hear that nervous tension…especially in my voice. With this album I wanted to be relaxed and casual.” He draws out those last two words. We laugh again. “I wrote this album when I started to tour a lot more…I wasn’t so much a struggling artist like I was on the previous albums. Like, I remember [with my first two albums] being in the studio being creative, while inside I would be thinking, ‘I wonder how I’m going to go home’”

This casualness was first seen in the rollout of iimini. It suggested ease, it seemed to say that he could make a move and show no sense of exertion in his actions. Let’s look at that album cover. He looks so comfortable in it that it could be read as candid, or perhaps, intimate. It was indeed shot in his flat, but - as he points out to me - was not in any way candid. The press photographs followed suit. Gone are the angular and hi-top haircuts, the African print suits. In their stead is a crop of hair with a blunt hairline, left to grow untouched, and a simple, white, slightly creased T-shirt. "I feel like this album is very me. With my first album I was thinking about what other musicians were writing about. And then I’d follow that route…mimicking topics."

"I feel like this album is very me. With my first album I was thinking about what other musicians were writing about. And then I’d follow that route…mimicking topics." (Photo: Lidudumalingani Mqombothi/ Black Major)

In the press, the album has been described as a cycle. The Mirriam-Webster dictionary defines a cycle as "a group of creative works treating the same theme".

The theme of this album is love, and with the aforementioned definition the audience is asked by the artist to listen to the album in its entirety. Even if I had not read the press release or the many articles about the album, I would have understood that this is not just a bunch of singles strung together. It’s a complete work. Songs segue into each other, or into field recordings and spoken-word cogitations. We hear cars, disembodied voices, rumination on love. The results are contrastive. While the hero of the story sings of Eros (the desire, the obtaining, and then the letting go), while he sings his inner dialogue, there is a world out there impassive to the enormity of occurrences between his walls. It’s a collage of music, thought, the recorded outside world that goes on in spite what’s going on in your head or your house, and it’s rendered in 12 tracks.

WATCH| Bongeziwe Mabandla's Jikeleza

An opening door and field recordings of rain are the first things we hear. It’s a theatrical move. It’s story-telling. He’s letting us in. But before we are allowed the opportunity to lead ourselves through that open door, his voice begins to sing the most understated song of the album. Ambition is met with heart. Throughout the album the production is spacious, yet meticulous.

ndanele begins its journey as an ambient chant, before unfurling into gritty, quasi-marching band snare drums. It then descends into a piano ballad, with a field recording of group-singing mixed into back of the song. It’s ingenious. The song takes flight again towards its end, a keyboard sub-bass making sure it doesn’t fly too far from the ground. It’s an extraordinary showcase of Bongeziwe's constantly maturing songwriting and Tiago Correia-Paulo’s slyly outré production style.

Bongeziwe is making a demand of his audience with the cycle. But it is treated with a light hand. He is not humourless. A cursory look at the title may seem simply descriptive of the album’s objective: the days that make up a cycle of a relationship. This is true, but not the entire story. It also draws inspiration from a very popular American soap drama, Days of Our Lives; colloquially referred to as Days.

Soapies only operate on level 10 drama: big feelings and an aversion to subtlety and nuance. To the parties involved, falling in and out of love may seem like a personal soapie. So much has been written about those feelings, and a lot of it is in quick brushstroke style. In iimini, the emotions are treated with pointillist detail. When that door closes after ndiyakuthanda has ended you may be emotionally fatigued, but you won’t be spent. You’ll go back to the begin and open that door again.

Stream iimini here

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