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Tokollo "Magesh" Tshabalala

Rest In Peace To The Greatest Kwaito Lyricist, Tokollo “Magesh” Tshabalala

“For me, when I write I try to keep it personal but also make it relatable. I bring the language of the streets into every verse because personal encounters are so important to me. Connections with people drive everything I do in my music, so I try to give back the inspiration that has been given to me.” Tokollo ‘Magesh’ Tshabalala, (Born To Kwaito, Ndabeni & Mthembu)

The de facto leader and one third of the iconic kwaito group TKZee, Tokollo “Magesh” Tshabalala, has died. The 45 year old, a long sufferer of epilepsy, suffered a fatal epileptic seizure, resulting in him dying in his sleep at his home. He was discovered by his family on the Monday morning of 15 August 2022. Magesh is also the son of South African football legend, Screamer Tshabalala.

Finding his early steps in music with the M’Du Masilela assembled kwaito group Mashamplani in the early to mid-90s, the allegiance would prove to be short lived, as the then youngster fell out with Masilela and unceremoniously left the group. Soon after, he banded together with two of his high school friends, Zwai Bala and Kabelo Mabalane, and unbeknownst to them, the three were at the cusp of kwaito royalty with their novice group TKZee.

TKZee went on to release their first project in 1996, a four-track EP called Take it Eezy. Released under their very own TKZee Rekordz, the project was certainly an experimental one, with the trio testing the waters and trying to find their groove in the newly formed kwaito world. Glimpses of their brilliance is evident early on in the EP, with Tokollo particularly shining as the astute tacit leader of the group, given how he emphatically attacked songs with his signature stop-start flow and impressive cadence. Zwai’s musical background found expression in the hooks and harmonies, while Kabelo was the intermediary who sang/rapped.

While Take it Eezy didn’t break the group as they had hoped, Tokollo spoke fondly of the project. In an interview with author and scriptwriter, Sihle Mthembu for a book he co-wrote Born To Kwaito, Tokollo said of those Take it Eezy, “We were still young guys really unsure of what we were doing and what we wanted to say. I think we learned a lot from the album about how to collaborate with each other. It also forced us to refine our sound and rethink how we could take hip hop influence and make it work in a South African context.”

Palafala was their next offering in 1997 and it’s officially recognised as their first full length studio project. This is the album that stamped TKZee as a formidable entity within the South African music landscape. They found their voice and their identity. The hip hop influence abounded throughout and one of the hallmarks of this was the group’s sampling technique, which would go on to be part of their musical DNA – as a group and as  solo artists.  Their first mammoth hit, the title track “Palafala” sampled Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”, and aside from the brilliant compositions, as well as Kabelo’s wit, it was always Tokollo’s dexterous lyrical contributions that formed the bedrock of virtually all TKZee songs.

“Masimbela” is a cult favourite from the Palafala album and once again, Tokollo is at the forefront of why the song even exists in the first place. Story has it because Tokollo and M’Du had a falling out when the former was part of the latter’s group, Mashamplani, a beef started brewing. Tokollo being who he was, roped in his boys – TKZee – and they crafted one of the most fun yet scathing diss tracks to ever be made in South African music. One can only imagine how audacious Tokollo and company must have been to go at one of the foremost kwaito pioneers on record – and not miss! “Masimbela” may have not ended M’Du’s career – I doubt that was the intention, but it certainly served its purpose, which was to show the game that Tokollo and his boys were not afraid of nobody. TKZee was nothing to be played with.

Arriving in 1998, sophomore album Halloween firmly established the group in the annals of South African music history, as it is widely and almost unanimously regarded as the greatest kwaito album of all time. It was also the crowning moment of Tokollo as the greatest lyricist in kwaito – a title he now takes to the grave. The TKZee brand would expand with affiliations with the rest of the Bala brothers, including S’bu Bala, leading to the formation of TKZee Family, with kwaito legend Dr Megeu joining the roster. Great songs and even greater projects were released by the group of friends and brothers.

In the turn of the new millennium, the groupmates explored solo endeavours, and naturally Tokollo made the first foray. He released Ndabezitha, his debut solo album in 2000. The album spawned the hit single “Ndlovu Iyangena”. While never ascending to the levels of popularity and reverence as the previous TKZee records, Magesh still enjoyed critical acclaim for putting together a great album that continued shining a light to his lyrical prowess.

In the following year, 2001, he was unfortunately involved in a car accident while in Botswana that resulted in the death of a Botswana citizen. For nearly a decade, he would have the impending case over his head as he avoided being extradited to Botswana to stand trial until 2007. He was eventually acquitted of all charges in a Botswana court of law but this incident remained a watershed moment in his life. His life was never the same. While he released a slew of critically acclaimed solo albums – Gusheshe (2002), All In One (2002), Waarheid (Is’kathi) (2004), The Longest Time (2006) and Heist (2012) – and exceptional songs such as “Do It Again”, “No.1 Tsotsi” with TK and Thuli-Thulis, “Sdididi”, “It’s Alright (I See You)” with Kabelo and Mandoza, “Phez Kom Hlangano”, “Sikhathi Sewashi”, “Sgub’ Sam’” etc. he never received the full scope of plaudits his talent warranted, whether solo or within a group.

Now that he has passed away, in reflecting on Tokollo’s life, it’s not difficult to see that he had to contend with a lot. Being born to a famous father who is a popular soccer star surely presented its challenges to him as a son meant to make something out of his life. Having gone to one of the most posh private schools in the country and choosing to pursue kwaito was also a bold decision that must have been met with a lot of criticism and scepticism in equal measure. Having to prove that he and his friends belonged in the world of kwaito, replete with the turmoil that comes with the music industry, filled with drugs, alcohol and a host of other ills, must have been some life.

Nonetheless, Tokollo remained a revered lyricist until the very end. And as if almost by design, Kabelo Mabalane recently sang his praises during an interview with podcaster MacG, saying about being in TKZee with Tokollo, “I always knew my place. And it was just sitting in the pocket, learning. Learn! Like, I learned from the best. I walked with the best to ever do it in this country.” His body of work is testament of the immense contribution he made in South African music. Not to mention, he and the Godfather M’Du reconciled, even collaborating on the beautiful and reconciliatory song “Ekhaya” off Mageshe’s The Longest Time.

Rest in peace Magesh, may God have mercy on your soul!

Rest in peace Thuli-Thulis, T.K., Moses Molelekwa and Mandoza.

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