Spoek Mathambo looks the rainbow nation in the eye

Tales from the Lost Cities of Azania is Spoek Mathambo’ first hip-hop album. Picture: Nikki Zakkas
Tales from the Lost Cities of Azania is Spoek Mathambo’ first hip-hop album. Picture: Nikki Zakkas

Spoek Mathambo’s latest hip-hop album Tales from the Lost Cities of Azania speaks truth to power. And according to Rofhiwa Maneta, it will matter long after a Spotify algorithm has bumped it to the bottom of the charts.

Spoek Mathambo – born Nthato Mokgata – is one part of an electronic music act called Playdoe. His music has been called everything – from “neo-electro”, “Afro-futuristic” to “post-genre”.

All those labels carried a certain kind of Pitchfork pretentiousness that’s become common in the internet’s modern-day creative economy.

Each adjective-laden phrase seemed engineered to convince you, even before you heard the music, that this was different, that you’d heard nothing like it before, that this right here was the shit the rest of the internet hadn’t caught up to yet.

In this case, it was true though.

Spoek’s music defies easy classification. Sure, he wears his influences on his sleeve: a little bit of industrial music and noise in the melody, some jungle on the drums and lots of kwaito in the basslines.

But the real magic comes in how he blends these divergent sounds so seamlessly. At any rate, he’s not too bothered by genre labels.

“I’m not too sure I care what people call my music,” he says over a crackling phone line. “I enjoy the experience of making things, you know. Just making shit for the sake of it.

“People know my work, mostly from the dance and electronic music I’ve made over the years. But I’ve always been a hip-hop head. I’ve been rapping since the late ‘80s but I’d never made hip-hop beats or a hip-hop album before. My new album was me trying to figure that out.”

I was in a dark place when I recorded it. I was broke, depressed and I guess I needed an outlet to process everything that was going on around me
Spoek Mathambo

The album in question is Tales from the Lost Cities of Azania, an expansive 14-track hip-hop offering that examines and deconstructs the myth of the rainbow nation – from the first to the last bar.

“Tales from the Lost Cities of Azania was my response to everything that’s been happening in South Africa’s political arena over the last few years,” he says. “I was in a dark place when I recorded it. I was broke, depressed and I guess I needed an outlet to process everything that was going on around me.”

Umhlaba Wethu, the first track on the album, opens with interpolated lyrics from our national anthem.

The refrain of “our beautiful land” sits under a wobbling bassline and piano keys before Spoek launches into a lyrical assault about the failings of the post-apartheid project and land redistribution. “We’re living in a delusion. The rainbow nation is a mirage, an illusion that’s slipping away and everybody’s losing.”

Similarly, Kroonocyde is a propulsive bass-heavy number that’ soundscape and subject matter bring to mind the politically driven work of US rapper and producer El-P.

“If you happen to be rich / then your problems can be fixed in an instant / it doesn’t even matter who you killed / If you happen to be broke then you have to wear the yolk and the sweat of slaving until the day crows,” the Johannesburg-based musician raps in the opening bars.

“I was broke as fuck when I made that song,” he says.

I tell him I find that hard to believe given his international status as a forward-thinking tastemaker and the size of his following around the world.

“Imali iyahlupa [money is a problem] no matter who you are in this country. That’s the point of the song,” he says.

Tales from the Lost Cities of Azania feels like an album specifically made for our current political moment. If that sounds like a music journalism cliché, then it is what it is.

South Africa has reached something of a national impasse. We’re often cited as “one of the world’s most politically corrupt” countries, the rape capital of the world and Cape Town recently came 11th on a list of the world’s most dangerous cities. Add to that, the fight for free education and former president FW De Klerk’s recent assertion that “apartheid was not a crime against humanity” and it becomes pretty clear that optimism is quickly waning in post-apartheid South Africa.

To that end, Spoek’s omnidirectional offering feels like an album that’ll matter long after a Spotify algorithm has bumped it to the bottom of the charts in favour of a newer release.

The Greedy Always Want More, the fifth song on the album, is a jazz-infused number that satirises the ridiculousness of Parliament by employing Willie Madisha’s famous “hong-hong” parliamentary meltdown.

Anatomy of a Campus Rape Riot, with its sparse drum work and bass guitar groove, lays out the extent of Spoek’s musical and intellectual ambition. The title alludes to the seismic #FeesMustFall protests of 2015 and everything that followed in the campaign’s wake. He addresses the student’s marches and list of demands to government as well as the campus rape culture. He also addresses the accusations of sexual assault levelled against some of the movement’s top male members. It’s an astounding creative achievement and, to my mind, one of the only rap records that tackles #FeesMustFall from the inside out.

The writing on Tales from the Lost Cities of Azania brings to mind the work of American writer Raymond Carver.

The author was known for his direct, minimalist writing style. Whatever horrors his characters faced in his low-rent TV dramas weren’t embellished by dramatic descriptions and overwrought turn of phrases.

Similarly, Spoek’s album is full of songs that simply say what they mean. Whatever emotional import they carry comes in the knowledge that he isn’t spinning out fanciful tales of fiction: the nightmare is happening in real time, all across the country.

“There aren’t that many features on the album,” he says. “That wasn’t a deliberate creative decision. That’s just a natural result of insulating myself during the making of it. I reached out to [hip-hop legend DJ] Raiko for some cuts on the album and Spizzy, who features on Jimmy comes to Jozi and Kings and Queens, had been hitting me up for a while on Facebook asking to collaborate.”

The only low point in an otherwise solid album comes in the form of Slay Queen. The song, an attempt at critiquing the “blesser” and “slay queen” culture, opens with the voice of self-proclaimed “international blesser” Serge Cabonge defining the blesser culture. “You take them to restaurants, pay their rent and help them with whatever they need.”

The song tells the story of a woman, with a chaste mother, who eventually falls for “fuckboys” and “shops in Dubai” before cashing out with ANC cadres when the cash runs low.

The story ends with her waking up, probably raped, in a tavern backroom.

It’s a nasty item masquerading as a cautionary tale against the pitfalls of transactional sex. What the song fails to consider is that not everyone who enters into these transactional relationships is poor and desperate.

In a society where men routinely capitalise on women’s beauty, what’s the problem with women upending that narrative and cashing in on their looks?

That aside, the fact that we have somebody willing to construct a nuanced protest album such as Tales from the Lost Cities of Azania deserves applause.

To that end, the album feels like the hip-hop version of Phaswane Mpe’s seminal novel Welcome to Our Hillbrow.

Like the novel, Spoek uses Jozi as a microcosm of South Africa, indexing the different existential crises that threaten the promise of an ill-conceived rainbow nation. And, like Welcome to Our Hillbrow, I have a feeling the album’s impact will stretch for years.

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