23-year-old rapper, Zakwe, is a young man with a steep road ahead of him. He has chosen a path that is littered with casualties. He has chosen to venture into a world that applauds shallow thought and rampant avarice. He has chosen to be a rapper!
The journey to Hip Hop stardom is a perilous one. Most get booed until they dissolve into a puddle of tears and the rest get strangled by dismal sales or pummeled by the rising cost of looking like you have money, or all of the above.
So just by jumping into this precarious world Zakwe already has his work cut out for him. But instead of just going with the swagerrous flow he has opted to swim against the tide. No frills, no funny dance-step and no lies about BMWs. What you get from a Zakwe track is a whole lot of lyrics, mountains of verses and some words sprinkled over all of it. The beat seems to be an afterthought. It’s clear where he wants your attention focused. The brother is not trying to make you dance or dream of riches. He wants you deep in thought about…um…to be honest, he lost me in the vernac.
The torrential downpour of Zulu washed my attention away instead of drawing me in. I found the verbiage to be quite cumbersome. But what do I know? I’m quite the girly-girl when it comes to Hip Hop. I like my Hip Hop well-marinated in bass, deep-fried in swag with a side order of dance. Rick Ross, Drake and J. Cole are my people. When I want to get ‘deep’ I turn to my bookshelf for the treasured company of Tolstoy, Marquez and Morrison.
Fortunately for Zakwe the number of people who suffered the same fate as me seems to be a small one. Overall, his appearance on the scene is being met with applause and respect. His single ‘Benzani’ is enjoying a generous amount of attention on radio. It even reached number one on Yfm’s Hot 99 Hip Hop countdown. He sees the role of rapper in today’s society as being, “To paint a picture in a rhyming format and be the mirror of the concept of a track.” Pretty vague, but it seems to be working for him.
Zuluboy, Pro, Proverb, Abdus, Mr. Selwyn, and AKA make the list of his favourite rappers. There is a theme running through this list. These are guys who have tried to carve out their own identity in the music scene, as opposed to regurgitating what is already being done. It’s no surprise then that his advice to young rappers is, “Don’t do what sells, sell what you do!”
That may be the key to surviving the perils of the Hip Hop world. It’s a recipe that’s working well for Zakwe. His decision to turn his back on the fluff and produce music of substance seems to be paying dividends. He kindly answered some questions for this Hip Hop Girly-Girl.
Tell us about your beloved KwaMashu?
I grew up in a place that was feared a lot, and arguably still is. The people there take pride in where they come from. The township is separated in sections; some are dangerous, but when we meet in town, or in other areas, it doesn’t matter which section you’re from. We are one big family – it’s a very supportive and sensitive community.
The place has inspired me a lot, especially when drafting my lyrics. I used to work at a call centre and I never wrote anything until I quit my job. I’m writing again, and that proved to me that the environment you’re in plays a huge part in your music. That’s why I write about black consciousness, my hood, the struggles of being born and bred ‘eKasi’, the night and the partying life that we experience in the hood. I’m happy to see people relate to it and want to know more – my music is a mirror of the Kasi Nation (townships).
When and how did your career start?
I started rapping in 2005, attending sessions where we would form a cipher and spit from the top of the dome (freestyle). I only started writing lyrics in 2008; that’s when I released my first mixtape titled ‘Headlines’ and in 2009 I released my second mixtape titled ‘The Red Tape’. I attended a lot of Hip Hop shows around Gauteng and KZN and connected with other rappers and promoters who helped push my music. In 2010 I met Zuluboy and did 2 joints with him for his album ‘IGODA.’ After the second song, while in studio, Sipho Sithole (Founder of Native Rhythms) approached me to join the family and that’s how it all came to this.
What effect do you want your music to have on people? What must be the first thing that comes to mind when we hear the name ‘Zakwe’?
The first thing that should come to mind is, ‘here’s this rapper from Durban’. I know for things to move faster, there is this perception that you must be in Joburg. I want to make waves from Durban and be remembered for that. I want to bring hope to people who can’t make it to Joburg to get signed, and prove that no matter where you are, music speaks for itself.
What can we expect from your debut album?
I speak about personal issues that people who aren’t from eKasi want to know about and what people from eKasi want other people to know about them. I read a lot, because the only way we can move forward is to know where we are coming from; I paint a picture from what the elders have told me about their past and what I have read, and add that Native feel in those songs. I even sampled Johnny Clegg, who contributed a lot in preserving the African sound and made a song titled ‘Scatterlings Reloaded’ from the hit song ‘Scatterlings of Africa.’ And of course, I brought the Hip Hop essence back through those hard punch-line songs, also added my Kwaito guys, Big NUZ and Dj Tira to sprinkle that Durban Music feel in the album too. The album is self-titled, so I give you nothing but ZAKWE, undiluted. How I feel, what I think and who ZAKWE is, is what you will find in the album.
Do you freestyle or write or both? What is your creative process?
I used to freestyle but when I focused on writing, I lost that freestyling touch and managed to make good music too, so I do freestyle but I’m not as strong as before. In terms of making a song, its either I get the beat, go home and write or I first brainstorm, give my producer an idea and then while he makes the beat, I write on the spot.
Is ‘battling’ still relevant in the local Hip Hop context? Do you battle? Who would love to battle against (local and international)?
I think it is vital. It is part of Hip Hop and this genre is mostly about skill, and battling is one of the ways to showcase your skills. I wouldn’t say I battle – I don’t enter those competitions – but I wouldn’t mind the challenge.
Why have you chosen to rap in vernacular? Don’t you worry that maybe you will lose some fans by rapping in vernac – or does it work in your favour?
Yes, it does work for me. Whenever I write a song, I go with the idea that comes to mind at that time. I don’t choose a language to rap in, it just happens. I believe that if I was to sit and think what language to rap in when drafting my lyrics, I would lose that music feel. I do rap in English too, but music is a universal language, it speaks for itself.
Do you think it’s important for SA rappers to rap in vernac?
Not really, it’s good we are all different. Why rap in your language when you don’t even use it? That’s why people start doing what sells and forget to sell what they do. It’s vital to be comfortable with your music.
How was the recording process? Which producers did you work with? What challenges did you face whilst recording the album?
I worked with Dome, Amu (both produced for Zuluboy, Pro etc), Kay Master, Esphi, and Trey to name a few. I had difficulties trying to get beats from other well-established producers because they didn’t know me and they may have been focusing on bigger albums. I recorded the whole album with Ngane in Durban, and Mpho Hlahla at Native Rhythms mixed it.
Zuluboy and Danger? What made you gravitate towards them?
It was a blessing! They gave me a very warm reception. They both believe in me. They went into the studio without me asking them to, which shows how much they felt about the song. The song was powerful, and they did justice to it – it was very exciting.
How did you feel the first time you heard your song on radio?
That’s one of the biggest highlights of my career. I felt motivated and wanted to do my album and get it out there, and I did it.
What has been the overall reaction to your music?
It has been a very warm reception. People asked to feature in the album, proving that my music is being felt, celebrated and appreciated. The stations are playing my music. ‘Benzani’ has been number one on the charts of major radio stations like Metro FM, Ukhozi FM, YFM, and Gagasi FM etc. I was invited to perform at the Metro FM Awards. The music videos are getting airplay. I love how people are reacting to my music.
What can we expect from a Zakwe live performance?
The energy you hear on CD is delivered twice as hard. I believe performing is my strongest point, but I don’t want to blow my own horn.
His debut album ‘Zwake’ is now available in stores.