Interview: Spoek Mathambo – Acts of Musical De-Colonialism (March 2020)

It’s been 15 years since Nthato Mokgata, better known as Spoek Mathambo, began composing, producing and releasing music and in the 15 years of doing so, he has also brought the South African scene forward. We don’t like to make extensive use of words like tastemaker or trendsetter, but in this case, you can hardly find better terms to introduce the artist, producer, singer-songwriter, MC and beat-maker from Soweto.

Since 2006, while exploring, experimenting and playing with influences and styles, he has been helping to connect Soweto’s sound with the present and guide it towards the future, always asserting a deep and bittersweet bond with his native country, as his latest release Tales from the Lost Cities shows.

A few weeks ago, before the Corona-madness hit all of us, we reached him by phone in Johannesburg and we had an extensive chat about the ‘lost cities’, the inspiring energy of his country and his multi-faceted artistic projects.

Tales from the Lost Cities was the first subject we covered. The album is indeed crucial if you’d like to understand Spoek’s perspective over South Africa’s present.

The concept behind the album was broadly to do kind of a cross section of a particular moment in South Africa. I had a lot of things that were bothering me, from conversations that I was having to newspaper articles that I was reading. Also, a lot of  public commissions. Like commissions of inquiries. A lot of public issues from land redistribution to political corruption. So, it was in watching and engaging with those commissions that the content came marching.

I guess the concept was to say if in 200 years,  a hard drive system is going to scan for information on ‘South Africa in 2019’, this project will be able to elucidate a lot of very social, economic and political information.

Musically speaking, Tales from the Lost Cities suggests a sort of “brand new era” in this South African artist’s career, and at the same time, a throwback to his early musical years.

Since I was a small child, I have been really into hip-hop. However, in my professional musical career, I’ve never really produced straight ahead hip-hop. Only recently, I’ve found myself listening to a lot of music that I listened to as a child. But I was also listening to podcasts of music that I never heard as a child and things that I didn’t understand. I mean, how beats are made or really technical breakdowns of how the things that I love were made. And, from following those podcasts, I was inspired to try and make hip hop beats, which I’d never done before.

So, I just started doing it for fun, and I had a good time. Then I was inspired to write also by the Laliboi album. Some of the tracks on it were also supposed to be on my album. But then he visited me one day and he expressed how much he liked the music and wanted to rhyme on some of those beats. That’s how we split up the project and he took some of the tracks. Then, I built and completed my album, and I built and completed his album. So, it kind of came out from researching something that I never understood before and then trying to figure it out.

This also explains why Spoek’s latest release is enriched by an instrumental version too. The reason behind it is indeed to highlight the creative essence and spark of the project: the beat.

I consider a moment like the late 90s, or early 2000s where beats could really speak for themselves and people grew to love hip hop and grew away from loving rap. Different genres come out of that, from trip-hop to breakbeats, to the extent of electronica that uses hip-hop production methodology. Because I made all the beats, I wanted to express fully what the beats are saying alone and to express fully what a rap version of that also is.

While, considering his career at large and his creative trajectory, Tales from the Lost Cities fully fits and makes its way along the path that the Sowetan musician undertook more than 10 years ago…

I guess the album follows the path of inspiration. It’s really following the path of things that compelled me to write and make music. In my first album, Mshini Wam, I had a similar theoretical or rhetorical foundation, like a concern about what was happening in South Africa politically in 2009 and used all the conversations that had  taken place. I chopped up some parliamentarian arguments and conversations. That was a model of my first album. While on this it went to another place.

I think the line that I’m following is just responding to things that inspire and compel me to create or write. I’ve been rapping and writing rap since I was 10 years old, but I often take years and years when I don’t write, when I’m not really inspired or compelled to write. So, I think the album popped up with compulsion and opportunity.

As it happened for the previous chapters of Spoek’s discography, also Tales from the Lost Cities can boast many interesting collaborations and features. As he told us, there’s no golden rule behind them, but they simply follow the natural course of things.

Most of the time it’s just a moment, an opportunity, as it happened with Spizzy, who sings on a couple of the songs. He’s someone who’s been writing to me on Facebook for years. I never really listened to what he makes. And then I heard it one day and I realised, oh, shit, you know…I want to do something with him. While, on the other hand, I worked with Carla [Manteiga, the other half of Batuk] on so many things from visual art to stage to film to…so many things. So much so, that we collaborate together almost every day and we find it very natural.

Then there are people like Daev Martian and Mark Mushiva, who I’d never met before. I just bumped into them one day and they invited me to a studio session. I played some beats for them. They dug it, and then we just got busy. It’s not really like reaching out to people. It was a really personal process. There was a high chance that there were going to be no features on the album. It was just a kind of natural development with other people that came about.

The aforementioned Batuk is another way in which Spoek Mathambo expresses his creativity. The project, run in partnership with South African-Mozambican Carla Fonseca (Manteiga), is ready to give life to a new album as well.

There’s a full Batuk release that will be coming out later this year and that’s already completed, we finished it last year. The project itself is a kind of historical analysis of African women. It’s a kind of celebrative series of people from all over the continent. It kind of pushed us more into visual art because, for each of the songs, we made paintings. That project’s definitely going to come out and we are going to exhibit the paintings in Johannesburg.

Batuk’s single Daniel was the first work published by TEKA Records, the label launched by Spoek Mathambo in 2016. After four years at its helm, we wanted to know more about the experience and his point of view about the music industry.  

I started TEKA Records out of necessity. I was tired of being robbed by the other people. Yeah, it’s as simple as that. I’d been doing music professionally for 15 years and didn’t have anything to show for it and that can be pretty depressing.

I think right now the moment is for independence. I don’t think anyone should be signing to anyone else. Besides the value of a financial investment from someone else, I really think people should just use the energy to promote and put out their own stuff. In that way, they can benefit from it directly, immediately and month to month, as opposed to having to wait for someone else’s accounting process, which is like once a year or twice a year.

Having said that, I’m not running a label. TEKA Records is a publishing platform for me to release my work. I’m running it as a way for me to release my work into the world, and that is amazing. But it is an independent production platform. It’s really not about going out and looking for people. It’s for me as an artist to be able to finally enjoy the fruits of my labour.

Between TEKA Records, his albums, side projects and wide-ranging collaborations, Spoek Mathambo has developed an all-encompassing angle over the South African music scene. So, we tried to grasp some secret and new names who are jazzing up the scene…

When it comes to Johannesburg it’s tricky, because it’s like London, you know. If you’re in London, you’re not necessarily from London. In the same way, the Johannesburg music scene is made up of scenes from all over the country and that communication is always happening. There are incredible bands always coming out and I’m always amazed and impressed by what’s happening.

For example, the guy who features on the last song on my project, “Kings & Queens”, Daev Martian. He has just released a rap album, but he’s more like a producer and he makes really great beats. He did a really good version of Bill Withers‘ “Lovely Day”. He’s got a very nice sensibility. There’s also a group called Urban Village. They just collaborated with a French label called No Format and released their debut album with them and an interesting collective called Charles Géne Suite.

On a more housey vibe, there’s the genre called amapiano. There are a lot of people really digging it at the moment. That’s been the hit sensation for the last summer. A lot of people feel like gqom’s time is finished. That’s what happens with things that become too much hyped. People get sick of them because in a sense they get exploited. Everybody tries to make it and that gets a bit irritating.

At the same time, his focus has never been limited to South Africa. For example, until a few years ago, Spoek Mathambo was living between Johannesburg and Gothenburg in Sweden. That helped him to refine a detached and independent perspective over his country.

I’ve been living in Goteborg, but it’s been seven years now since I’m solidly back in South Africa. Still, one of the main differences that I encountered is that Sweden has a lot better support of music from the government. I mean, arts are supposedly Sweden’s fourth biggest industry as far as foreign exports. So, they support it. While here in South Africa, arts are not really supported at all. The infrastructure really sucks. A lot of times artists, filmmakers and musicians have to rely on foreign institutions, like the German Institute, French institute, British Council…

Still people are pushing on all fronts and there’s an incredible amount of music. I think even though there is as much music I know in South Africa and Johannesburg, I’m years behind people. There is always a lot of really fresh new stuff.

Then, South Africa is also a very intense society where so many crazy things happen all the time. I think that’s also inspiring. People dance to celebrate. People dance to be relieved of pressure and stress and the intensity of it is very different from Scandinavia.

On the other hand, Sweden is no different from the rest of Europe, where you can find immigrants from all over the world. Anyone, from South America to North Africa, from West Africa to the Arab area as well. For me all major European cities are like that, you know, mixed world music places and you can find all those cultural influences also from modern music and classical music.

When it comes to his plans for future, Spoek Mathambo is an inexhaustible hotbed of ideas and projects that fulfil themselves in a wide range of art forms.

We’ll see what happens. I’m really interested in exploring more visual art. From this album, this new series of paintings has come out, new artworks have come out, and they are different ways to relate with music. We are doing all the artworks, both Claudia and me. We both come from different kinds of arts and performance backgrounds. So, there’s that, then later on in the year we will be putting on a stage performance at the National Arts Festival, which is going to be a visual art movement music piece. I’m really going to push for that this year, and I hope it’s going to reach all quarters of the world. That’s kind of the point: to produce the stage show to present in June and July, and then to push it out into the world.

Being constantly involved with other art forms and intersecting his music with them, has brought Spoek Mathambo to gradually shift his approach towards the music industry and the way he relates to promotion. Or even, as he revealed us, to reassess his relationship with music at large.

I really despise the corporatization of music consumption. I’ll give you two examples. I think streaming is a big killer and it puts control in very limited places. I was happier with the Internet pre-streaming and I was happier here with the YouTube pre-algorithm being so aggressively capitalist. Before, if I spent a bit on a video, I could put it out and it could move on its own. Now it requires quite a lot more things.

Then, on top of the streaming and YouTube being cut down, I think Facebook and Tumblr have also killed a lot of music blogging. In 2007-2008 there were infinitely more spaces for people. As the technology brings things together and centralizes, it strangles and kills a lot of means of communication. The reason why I’m saying that is that right now, if I invest the time and energy and effort into videos, as I did before, it’s kind of blocked off and then I need to pay Facebook to further promote it, then I need to pay Instagram to further promote it, then I need to pay Youtube to further promote it.

I don’t know if there’s a solution. Actually, I had a very big artistic problem. A problem in creating, like a block, where I felt like I was finished. I felt like I lost the essence that I enjoyed in making music. I wasn’t happy with what I was making and doing. I wasn’t really concerned about the audience. I was more focussed on trying to re-find my inspiration. It’s been over the past few years. Different iterations based on different things.

What I’m trying to say is, I think people who have followed me for a long time and were into my stuff, I think I was disappointing them in a lot of ways and a lot of things. My interest now is really just to rebuild a cohesive artistic vision that I’m fully happy with and from there I will definitely move to create more contact with people. Because it’s a pleasure now. I’m playing more shows in Johannesburg, more shows in South Africa. Performing with Laliboi, I also get to interact with people. There are people in Jo’burg who think I’m still living in Scandinavia even if it’s been 7 years since I moved back. So that’s important for me to be just face to face with people in that way. Exciting and important.

Also, when it came to our usual final question and we asked Nthato to introduce himself and his music in a few words, his answer arose from his country.

I’d say you’re very welcome! South Africa is a huge cultural crucible, a huge cultural melting pot. Our position in geography means that we received a big influence from the Indian Ocean and the East coast of Africa. But also, from the Atlantic Ocean where the Europeans came from. That’s another influence. Then you’ve got our north, east, south, west of Africa’s influences. We are really in a crucible of cultures, and I think my music production concept is based on that shameless and diverse crucible of cultures. Many different points meet and many different codes, languages, rhythms, instrumentation and sensibilities as well as the politics of that huge mesh. That’s what causes a lot of tension, a lot of political tension as well. But the fact that it’s that huge mash also creates the musicianship and the sensibility.

My name is Nthato Mokgata, my name isn’t Thomas Jefferson or Pablo Fernandez. So South Africa still really tries to retain its cultural essence, it’s a process of de-colonisation . While, if you go to Kenya or Zimbabwe, a lot of the people there have English first names. At the same time, we tried to keep elements of our indigenous culture, music and religion. Still, it’s 2020 and South Africa is a technological hub in Africa as well, and that is reflected in our electronic music sensibility.

Anyway… if anyone comes to see the show in London, we’d like to have some transcendental fun. We really want to be fun and loving, for people to dance, sweat and go above their problems.