Words: Mercia Tucker
Photography: Philly Mohlala
Styling: DNA Styling Agency
Fashion Assistant: Lerato Matlhatsi
Creative Direction: Nick Kaoma
Make-Up: Mbali Nyikazi
Cover Design: Justin Kaoma
More than Kwesta, the musician endears himself to you as Senzo Vilakazi, the man. Never one to enforce the stereotype of ‘celebrity’, it’s his boy next-door-charm that has garnered him supporters that feel more like a community than a fan base.
It’s this sense of community – imparted through the late Linda ‘PRO’ Mkhize – that inspired him to begin rapping. “I was always a fan of hip hop and rap but I was listening to it, bumping it, and we’d learn lyrics with friends and everything like that. But to rap? Why I rap was because I heard him rap, and how he rapped, and the way he did it, and what he represented in his raps. I thought that identifies with me because half the raps I was listening to were mostly about American stories and the come-up of the American rapper, which I didn’t really connect to. And there were rappers at the time that were from South Africa rapping, but me, as Senzo, I couldn’t connect to them the way I did when I bumped PRO for the first time.”
“No one knew I rapped for a long time. I rapped in secret for a very long time, for like at least two years. I played soccer, I was a soccer player, and none of the guys I was playing soccer with knew that I rapped.” He adds, between laughter “I burnt a friend of mine a CD with Nero – it was this program where you could burn CDs, Nero – I burnt him a CD and it had this little intro ‘Yo, I know you don’t know I rap but this is just something…’ and he played it and now his mind is all sorts of messed up like ‘When? Why? What are you doing?’ But he thought it was dope.” His rap community had grown to include Leroy Khoza, a childhood friend of his who is one of the four owners of Raplyf Records.
After a stint of leaving his CDs in taverns and handing them out to people in the area to listen to, he met with Slikour and Shugasmakx at Buttabing, and was signed to the label. He was becoming a household name in the hood, and was overwhelmed by the positive response. “As soon as I got the importance of what this culture could be to the youth of Katlehong, of Thokoza, of Voslo, of Kathorus generally, the love got deeper and then I started understanding more of it.”
“I coulda just did those Nero CDs and carried on with the rest of my life, but the feedback was… When you start feeling like you’re gonna disappoint some people, then you wanna do it a bit more. And when you start feeling like you’re gonna disappoint yourself, then you decide that you’re gonna do this for the rest of your life.”
Wanting to know how Buttabing shaped him, he responds “I’m a dropout, I didn’t do this whole full school thing, but I didn’t get lost in it all. I think the best school I went to was Buttabing. My time at Buttabing was the most educational part of the type of artist I am today.”
The environment fostered a fear of failure, but also a drive to succeed. “They were the same people you grew up around, even though you were meeting them for the first time, but you could associate them with one person that you grew up with. So these were normal people. And these normal people gave a shot to some kid who’s just rapping. It’s not even because I’m somebody’s nephew, or somebody is my uncle, it’s not even about family ties. It’s just based on the fact that we think you’re dope and we think you deserve a shot. As small as that sounds, that takes a lot from any human being, to just give an opportunity to a stranger.”
One of the relationships the label also fostered was Kwesta’s relationship with Nhlamulo ‘Nota’ Baloyi. Part-owner of Raplyf, he handles more of the business’ responsibilities which allow the artists to focus on their music. Why take on the added responsibility of starting up their own label after being privy to the machine that a label requires? “Because I saw it happen to me. It wasn’t something I could run away from. I had to pay it forward.”
“I feel like I must; solely because I’m a product of that mentality and that thinking. I must do everything I can to create these platforms and make sure that it creates this machine that produces a whole lot more rap lives.”
Where he had long-standing relationships with Leroy and Nota, what made him want to work with Kid X – the final addition to the ownership structure of Raplyf – specifically? “As soon as I met him, I saw [that] he was the type of person I was.” A kindred spirit, he naturally gravitated towards him. “It’s very difficult to keep being a human being when there’s girls screaming your name when you’re walking in and when there’s guys who just wanna be around you… Well, fame, and whatever fame comes with. And X was one of the people that was almost never bothered by it, and I admired that. It was something to admire and generally what I was pushing to be.”
“If I’m gonna partner up with anybody, I’m gonna partner up a person that I feel like is through all this whole thing, is a human being and is not a puppet of the game. An independent thinker; a standalone, stand-up guy.”
The long term vision of the label is that of legacy. “The whole thing is about ownership, of the product, of the artists, of the songs, of the IP. And that’s the whole thing so we can pass that down to the rest of our family, to our kids.”
Although TLT and Makwa are on the roster, they’re not in a rush to sign new artists. “That’s the bigger plan eventually, but we’re small, we’re a small company. What I don’t want us to do, and what we don’t wanna do is end up with 15 talented artists and only be able to cater for two every two years. Then that means there’s a person that’s gonna wait for 30 years. So we don’t wanna take in too much without understanding how much we can do for the artist. It’s very easy to decide you wanna work with an artist, but also, as the person that gets to decide that you wanna work with an artist, you need to be realistic about what you can actually do for the artist and your resources.”
“So that’s also the honesty that comes with noticing the power that you might have to the person that wants the deal but also noticing the weaknesses you have as whatever it is that that person thinks you are. We’re small. We’re really, really small. We can’t do as much as we’d like and that’s a reality we can’t avoid.”
Their planned projects included the rollout of Kid X’s debut album Thank Da King this year. Kwesta dropped his single, Vur Vai, the following week to the chagrin of Ntukza – of Teargas fame – who tweeted “Hope I ain’t stepping on toes! If I am it’s all good! Kwesta shouldn’t have released no Single almost concurrently while X was putting his Album out! I think that’s a sign of selfishness!”
Speaking to Kwesta about the decision, he said there were delays encountered in getting some of the work out. “There’s also contractually binding things, like what you just mentioned, with Telkom. That was gonna be the new campaign and we weren’t gonna use Spirit anymore, they’d already gone on with wanting to use Vur Vai.” They pushed out the drop of Vur Vai as much as they could, because of X’s album release, but when the Telkom campaign came out the following Tuesday, Vur Vai needed to accompany it.
“We all knew what was up. A lot of people thought I kinda snuck in, which was weird, because if people had followed me or known me for just who I’ve tried to be, they’d know that the furthest thing in my head would be to intercept a push by my brother.”
“People need to stop thinking that Thank Da King is just X running [alone]. Thank Da King is ours; it’s as good as my album. I love it like its mine, it’s a baby. It’s like if X were to have a child, that would be my child. And he does, and the child is Thank Da King, and that’s my baby. So for people to even assume that there’s any way where I wanted to not let this child have the best life possible, then they’re crazy.”
DaKAR III, however, will be dropping in 2019. “The recording never really stopped, but I wasn’t recording to work on a project, I was just recording to keep fit. It’s what players do on an off season. I went to training, I went to gym, I still train. You gotta, to make sure everything is still sharp when you want to get into the project.”
He specifically wanted to have the DaKAR series roll out as a trilogy. “Who knows? When I’m done with the DaKAR things, fuck it I might wanna do a house album. I might wanna do a jazz album. I might learn an instrument here and there. I just feel like [DaKAR III] is the perfect closing.”
“But because I haven’t started working on it as project, I’ve just started working on the artist I’ll be once I make it; what I’ll be, where my headspace is at, what I’m comfortable rapping about, things like that. But to do all of that, I need to just keep rapping.”
On the direction the album will take, he offers “It’s not gonna be like anything else that I’ve done. I’m gonna try to not make it too much like anything else that I’ve done. I mean there’ll always be familiarity on the arts… But then that means I didn’t challenge myself, that means I tried to do what I did and tried to relive moments. I don’t wanna relive anything, I wanna create new things, I wanna speak about new things, I wanna create new stories when I work on the album.”
An introvert at heart, he found it difficult to adapt to the limelight of his chosen career path. He recalls a conversation with Slikour earlier in his career, urging him to show a bit more personality to the public as it will set him apart as an artist. The personification of Rudyard Kipling’s “If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch, […] Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it” to me, I venture that what sets Kwesta apart as an artist is the ability to be himself no matter the circumstance.
“That’s what made me work harder on the songs rather than try work on my personality because then I woulda changed it to fit whatever was expected of me by the game and I don’t know whether it was a conscious decision or not, because I don’t remember an actual day of this realisation, but I decided I’m fine the way I am. The raps are gonna talk.”
His career required him to navigate varied social settings, particularly the opulence of the Northern suburbs. “You come to Joburg because this is where the companies are set up; this is where the media houses are… You come here, you do the work, but you don’t rap for these people, you don’t rap because of these people. You rap because of those people [back home], so now if you become them then you’ve lost the part of you that represents them.”
With the identity enveloping Kwesta being one of community, he’s become a flag-bearer of sorts for the East Rand. “I don’t want to be a guy that raps about a life I found, I want to be the guy about a life I grew up, that I know like the back of my hand.” What he’s made evident in his determination to live out the truest representation of himself, however, is that home is not a place, it’s a people.