Words: Mercia Tucker
Photography: Odirile Seageng
Cover design: Khabazela “Artvillain” Mahlangu
Khuli Chana begins “Endurance” – the opening track off his upcoming album, Planet of the HaveNots – with the lyrics “’Ha o tshwere Chana go ka palang?’/ the confidence was colossal, no sekala se se ka e kalang/ had to learn quick or hung out to be dormant/ flipped a couple of pages, learned all about endurance.” Where the lyrics contrast extreme self-confidence with reluctance, he mirrors the sentiment in his flow. Letting the beat ride for half a bar before he begins rapping on the second half of it, his cadence almost speaks to the idea of hanging back for a bit; that of self-doubt.
Having released his sophomore album in 2012, it’s been a long road to his third solo release, Planet of the HaveNots. He says, at the time of the interview “This past Saturday I had one of my best shows, one of the best shows ever. Like how you know it’s working, how you know ‘OK cool they love the new shit,’ how you know ‘OK, it’s Khuli Chana season again,’ you know what I mean? I haven’t felt this confident and excited about my music in a while.”
To me, the person who included Khuli’s Motswakoriginator in my list of ten of the best debut albums, seeing an artist of this magnitude grapple with the concept of relevancy and what it means to him at this stage of his career has me blurting out, perplexed, “But, you’re still Khuli.”
His response? “And who, what is that dude? Who is that dude? Because what I experienced on Saturday was just… I mean – and that’s what I said to Farrah and them when we had our first meeting – I wasn’t aware that I’ve been away for so long, right? Because I was just also making other moves. So in this gap, you know, maybe I became a little corporate-y. I found a new hustle and I also found, I also discovered, that there’s life after music. That was always my fear, like if there’s life after music, right? So became a bit of a creative entrepreneur. The stuff I was doing with Absolut really moved me into interesting spaces. From winning that gold Cannes award and a couple Silvers and Loeries and Bookmarks and then, you know, did some more traveling, did a lot of speaking. All of a sudden I was a speaker. I was making double what I make while performing so you know the scale had tipped a bit. But it was interesting because it introduced me to another world of creatives. You meet a guy who’s like a musician but he’s also like a venture capitalist but he’s also like, you know?” He motions with his hands to express the vastness of the possibilities he’s trying to convey.
“So you could diversify, right? But I still felt this void; this, like, I miss the streets. And then like how people still say ‘But when are you dropping new music? We see all of this, yeah, great, but give us the music.’ And I realized oh shit, that’s my main thing. That this is the thing that got me to this place. So I’m gonna start taking care of number one. And that’s when I started focusing on the music. And it took us a while. I mean when I say it took us a while, it took me a while to actually be confident that it sounds good.”
Being an artist who isn’t exactly old enough to be considered an OG, or young enough to be a newcomer, he still has his stripes. I’ve labelled him a middle child, as described by J.Cole. He concurs. “I’ll be real with you, I was so conflicted by that for the longest, right? Because you know how they say rap is a young man’s sport and here you are in your 30s still rapping, and you’re starting to catch a complex. And the minute I started like embracing my age, and being a grootman to some and still being like a student and being like a ntwana to a Stogie, and yeah… Also, I’ve just got a young spirit, you know? But also got an old soul. So, yeah, I think you said it, you hit it spot-on. I never knew how to actually define exactly that, I’ve actually always been stuck between these two worlds.”
Navigating those worlds musically has come with its own challenges. His last solo release made at a time when rap in SA sounded quite different from the current soundscapes, he says of it “I draw a lot from somebody like Nas. And I was just like ‘Fuck! Nas is celebrating 20 years of Illmatic. I got a long way to go.’ And Nas, what makes Nas, is just that we love Nas’s style.” He adds, “I think my winning formula is in making timeless kind of pieces. I like that. And I gave myself time to also just kinda test the music. So last year, I started something called Unreleased Thursdays, and that was for me to just test if they like it.”
“It was like sparring for a boxer and I got… I was like, oh shit, you know what? They’ve always loved my style and just how I do it and I’m going to stick to that. And somehow how I do it is universal. I’m gonna start believing in my own dope. I’m gonna get high on my own supply.”
Again, I’m thrown. Before the fan in me blurted out again “But you’re Khuli Chana!” I explain that a decade after his debut solo release, it’s incredible that he had to start believing in his ‘dope’. “I’ll be real man, I went through… You know, self-doubt is the fucking devil, right? It’s the worst thing ever. And I’ll be real, I reached out to… I feel sad for anyone that goes through that and does not pick up a phone and holla at somebody that’s doing well and say ‘Yo I’m like, you know… I’m in a bit of a bind.’ And I’ll be real, so I reached out to Cass and I think Cass when he’s done with this music stuff he must go be a preacher. Like, he must open a church. Because, real talk, we were on the phone for about an hour, and he might not actually know it, he just kind of said some things that just triggered something and it was done.”
“And that hour we had on the phone, it changed something. Musicians go through a lot, and I think anyone creative, anyone that uses their mind as a tool is so susceptible to depression, anxiety, and all that shit. You know what I’m saying? Like, that’s the thing. And so believing in your own dope, getting high on your own supply, is the only way. Self-belief is like the jewel, it’s like the currency, especially as a hip-hop head. But I’m so glad I went through all of that. More than whether or not this album is gonna sell a hundred thousand copies, I’m glad I’m in a fucking good space, and it’s dope.”
I’m curious if he approached Cassper to reach out to specifically because he’s one of the biggest artists in the country – and likely one of the best sounding boards on balancing the peaks and pitfalls of hypervisibility – or if it’s because they’re both from Mafikeng and there’s a connection there.
“You know, we come a long way. So our mothers are friends, but our relationship was always… My relationship with Cass was not the most stable relationship for years. And I needed to talk to somebody who wouldn’t be biased, that’s not gonna gas me up. And I needed to speak to somebody who’s younger than me. And I needed to speak to somebody who’s also been a fan of me. So, yeah. And because our relationship was just like [he motions with his hands again], let me reach out to him, you know? Because I just also kind of picked up his narrative had also switched up where he was kind of being a bit more positive and blah blah blah. He was preaching that stuff on his timeline. And then I hit him up. We were just talking about some music we were gonna do together, but I then just kind of opened up about where I’m at, and it was just like… After that conversation I felt like ‘Fuck! I thought I had problems!’ I thought I had some issues in my life. This guy’s dealing with the most, but his self-belief in his faith and his resilience is just on another level and that that inspires me a lot and that motivated me.”
As the conversation moves to the positive changes in his life, there’s a glimmer in his eye as he starts delving into a discussion on his current music. “So the album is titled Planet of the HaveNots. And that’s after so many titles. And why that, for me, it’s actually inspired by a song. So there’s a song I do with MDB, MDB is a My Throne – which is the record label – representor. And that’s a kid I’ve been moving with for a couple years now, and he’s doing his thing, he’s also about to drop. And I don’t know why man, that just spoke to me so much because I realised with everything that I’ve been through, you just gotta find new purpose. And when you find purpose, that pumps you up.”
“For me, it was just like, money doesn’t give me a buzz anymore, a guy like MDB gives me a buzz. Watching him go from zero to a hundred makes me happier, because he comes from that. He comes from one of the roughest neighbourhoods ever, understand me? His fans are like the drug dealers, his fans literally, they tat his name on their arms, you know? But his idea, his perspective on life and success is just mind-blowing. So Planet of the HaveNots is not really speaking to the guy on the intersection, it’s just speaking to the guy who comes from the worst circumstances and they want to make it out. They’re cool, they embrace it, but they’re not letting the situation get them down.”
In 2013, after stopping at a petrol station en-route to a performance, Khuli and his entourage were shot at by the South African Police Service in what the SAPS described as a case of mistaken identity. The incident, and the resultant civil case that he pursued against the cops threw him off his professional kilter as his life was consumed by the incident for years thereafter. Asking if he took a deliberate step back from making music because he was – simply put – scared to, he says “Yeah. But if you asked me that question then I would have probably said something else.”
“For me it was a bit of a delayed reaction, that whole thing, right? Because after it happened what I was more scared of becoming… of the situation overshadowing me. I was just worried. What sucked for me the most was that the narrative had changed. Because I’m at the peak of my career, I don’t need this shit right now. Every interview is about the cops, every interview is about how much money did you make off that. I was just like ‘I’m screwed,’ right? And then what I did was I tried to get back to it [with the One Source collaborative album] just so that I don’t become, sort of, forgotten. But I wasn’t myself. I hadn’t even realised – when I look at my old pictures – I’m just like ‘God damn! I don’t know what I’ve become.’ But I knew that I wasn’t myself for a while and I just, I was just moving different. And I had also become like super super super isolated, super isolated. I had trust issues.”
Was he isolating himself just from the music and the industry, or from everyone in his life? “Yeah from everybody. But I was also not aware of it, I had become super paranoid as well. It wasn’t the same, you know. So it kind of took me awhile and that’s the thing that a lot of people did not know, it was like they thought the situation was done and dusted. It took like three or four years. It was, I mean the actual case went on; after 2013 it went on for like another four years. We literally just wrapped it the other day. So, you know you just have this issue that’s lingering and you feel like – I don’t know if you’ve ever been through something like that – where there’s this thing that’s lingering and you feel like once this thing is sorted then I can, you know? And I’ll be honest, I was a bit stuck but also very blessed that at a time when I had no mojo, somehow Modimo also just kind of moved me into another space. I got to experience how I could also use my creativity in other ways and learn how to make money in other ways, you know what I’m saying? And I’m just glad I came out of it stronger.”
We talk about Solo, about his album C.Plenty.Dreams, and about how his definition of success is that of balance; of juggling family, personal life, health, and career, and making sure that none of them suffer in extremity at the expense of one of the others.
“Can I tell you a story? Right after I got shot I spent about a month with my mom, my daughter, my sisters, my cousin, and that was the longest time I’ve ever spent with them in years. And that’s what I took from the situation was just like… I’d become like a machine. So I’d become- because I was so scared of losing it so much, because my fear was [that] I’ve seen guys hit the top, I know the ceiling in everyone’s career, and I wanted to outlast. And it took that situation. Next thing you know, I’m at home with my mom, my uncle and it hit me. You know how many weddings and christenings and funerals…? I was always that guy my family where it’s like ‘Aah, he’s working.’ To a point where it starts to kind of hurt you a bit when they don’t even holla at you, and they be like ‘Yo, we just thought you were working.’ And I got to appreciate that more, and exactly that. I had to totally relate to what Solo says.”
I ask if – considering that he’s getting back into releasing music, and the craziness of the music industry, after a few years break – he feels like he’s better equipped to keep that balance now? “So, you know, my life has changed so much right now. I’m with somebody new. I’m with somebody new that is so family orientated, and we’re in the same business. So her love for her family also just also changed the way I move. I’ve learned to make time. I’ve learned to also bring my kid into my world and my family, you know what I mean? I was more the ‘make some guap, send some money home’ guy.”
But money doesn’t cure all ills. “It doesn’t. And thanks to her, you know, she’s also brought this balance so effortlessly. So I think everybody needs that kind of person in their life. I’m not good at it, but because of her it’s become so much easier.”
He adds “I think I’ve grown so much. Not only do I enjoy spending time with family, I enjoy the music, and my worlds have kind of… There’s no… The imbalance was coming from [the fact that] I used to like kind of, how do I put it?” He pauses.
“There was always a gap between Khuli Chana and Khulane. Much like ‘oh shit, switch it off now.’ Or ‘switch it on.’ And I remember talking to somebody who was just like ‘Yo man, that’s gotta be one thing. They’re one and the same person. Stop living this kind of double life. And ever since, I feel like there’s this balance in my life”
Planet of the HaveNots is an album with a host of features from Stogie T to A-Reece. “Dead in the middle of two generations/ I’m little bro and big bro all at once,” Cole’s assessment fits Khuli perfectly. With the 10 year anniversary of Motswakoriginator’s release, he says “I was so afraid of celebrating my successes because I used to be the type of person that moves on to the next thing so quick. And I’ve learned to celebrate anything that’s monumental that I’ve done, without even waiting to be praised. I never used to do that and ever since I’ve done that I think I’ve become more grateful and I start to value what I’ve done for the game.”
After the few years of self-doubt that’s plagued him, Khuli’s moving differently. He’s on his “This shit gon’ be different, I set my intentions/ I promise to slap all that hate out your voice” shit, and we’re here for it.