When we were woke

Johannesburg - Woza Moya, the final track on Lebo Mashile and Majola’s instantly collectable album, Moya, is not what it seems. It starts off as a lofty hymn, restoring the refrain “woza moya” (come, holy spirit) left out of the national anthem, presumably because it was too Christian for a multifaith society. It ends with your ears ringing.

As the track builds, Mashile spits fire, ricocheting off Nelson Mandela (and flaming Jacob Zuma) the “visionary vanquisher” and “snake charmer”, the “black Jesus of investment”, “Coca-Cola communist” and “paedophile king”. She asks the president: “What will we speak of your deeds when your chest no longer heaves?” And she warns him: “The hills never forget.”

A few days after we had met for an interview, I text Mashile to ask about the piece.

“The poem in Woza Moya was written just months before Madiba died ... when he was gravely ill,” she replies. “I was invited to perform at an event honouring his life in July of 2013 in London at the Southbank Arts Centre, alongside Lemn Sissay, Sindiwe Magona, Pamela Nomvete, Gillian Slovo and Linton Kwesi Johnson.”

Seriously? This was written in 2013? And performed at a high-profile Mandela event?

It was, she replies. Jesus, I text back.

The thing about the nation’s spoken-word darling is that she was woke long before we got woke again.

“Where was I going to perform a poem like that at the time in this country?” she texts. “I performed it a few times at artsy gigs: poetry sessions and art exhibitions. I once tried to perform it at a big awards ceremony I hosted and the producer of the show asked someone to gently encourage me to do something else. Hahahah!”

It was in 2006, on the stairs of the Johannesburg High Court, that the Woza Moya fire sparked, when Zuma was found not guilty of raping a 31-year-old woman who used the name Khwezi to shield her identity.

“The rape trial literally sent me into a depression for a decade,” says Mashile today. “The groundswell of support for Zuma was terrifying.” And – for her – the rainbow nation bubble burst.

The time of our bruising

“This album with Majola has been a breakthrough for me,” says Mashile when we meet on an early winter’s day in Joburg in the time of our bruising, of #MenAreTrash and Gupta corruption leaking all over town.

“The last 10 years have been extremely difficult, although in the last two years, wokeness has become more fashionable, palatable. #FeesMustFall shifted the political landscape in this country, and mainstream political discourse,” says Mashile.

We take photos at Bassline in Newtown where she and Majola have been rehearsing with their band ahead of the launch of Moya. The grass is fading, the famous statue of Brenda Fassie stands lonely against a backdrop of fencing securing the once lively cultural precinct. But Mashile’s decade-long depression is finally clearing.

“I hadn’t published or released in almost 10 years.” But here is her second studio album about to be launched and she expects her third book to be done this year too.

We get into a car – she, Majola and I – and head to lunch, fellow vegetarians in pursuit of curry.

The conversation turns to the state of the artist in 2017.

“After the revolution, we were offered money instead of a way of being free,” says Mashile. “Now we don’t taste our freedom, we don’t know how to be free,” says Majola, finishing her sentence. They do that a lot.

Around the corner from the restaurant is Sophiatown, where Mashile’s ancestors once lived. “My great grandfather was a court interpreter. My great grandmother was a housewife, a property owner, ran a shebeen, managed the back rooms, brewed alcohol, had a washing business ... She was a hustler.”

It’s only once we’re settled and are munching on papadums dipped in coriander chutney that I learn why Mashile’s delivery on Woza Moya is so extra fierce.

Mashile: Ai, we had every kind of issue making this album. Money issues, crime issues, spiritual issues...

Majola: I remember the day her house got broken into, she came to studio.

Mashile: I was so depressed and I was pumping. For the first three to four months of recording this project, I was still pumping breast milk for the baby, you know. So, I was sitting there on the floor in the small booth at Downtown Studios and I was sitting there feeling sorry for myself.

Majola: And I don’t even know how you ended up in the booth ’cos we were gonna record that night without her. And that is the take she did for Woza Moya. One take. We never took that song again. So all those emotions, feeling hurt, disappointed...

Mashile: He said we should call the album Moya ... I have two little boys aged six and one. Moya is my eldest son’s name. It means breath, air, wind and spirit. It is one of the only words that means the same thing in all of our indigenous languages in South Africa.

It’s a tension present throughout the album, between celebrating and ranting, breaking and healing, the past and the present, the singer and the poet. They say they were destined to make Moya together.

When Mashile performed Woza Moya in London, she reconnected with Nomvete, once the greatest villain on South African TV when she was Ntsiki on Generations.

“That reunion led to me writing and acting on stage in Pamela’s Ngiyadansa.” Which is how she met Majola, who was doing the music on the play. Their track Soweto from the production made it on to their album. It’s pumped by Kofifi jazz and celebrates our freedom. For what it is.


“I wouldn’t have produced Boet/Sissy had I not survived homophobia,” Majola once told an interviewer about his 2014 debut album. It has gay love songs sung in isiXhosa, and is all about self-acceptance.

Majola – real name Khanyisa Buti – ended up working with Mashile again when he was hosting a platform for black womxn and queer men to find common expression. Woke seeks woke.

As our many curries arrive, I ask about his first 31 years on the planet.

“I’m originally from Zwelitsha, which is a township in the Eastern Cape next to King William’s Town. I was raised there by my late grandmother, Nobanzi. My mom had to drop out of high school to help my grandmother raise her younger siblings. So when we were born, she wanted to go back and finish her matric.”

His grandmother, he says, has a raised verandah with a nice lawn. “I would stand there and imagine that was my stage, my safe space. Then it was Luciano Pavarotti and these big voices. I learned to use my voice in church. I joined a gospel group Heroes of Faith in Zwelitsha ... but it was a toxic environment as well. I remember after one rehearsal, the leader of the group said, “You must not end up like those men we see on The Felicia Show. I went home and I tried to think, who are these men. And the next time I watched the show, she was interviewing these men about homosexuality. And that planted a seed of self-hate. I identified myself against those men. I shouldn’t look like those men, I shouldn’t sound like those men, the effects.”

As we chat, “woohs” and “hmms” circle the table. I’m expecting an “amen” any time now as the three of us share stories.

“So many people say to Majola, your album healed me, your album is like medicine. These things save lives,” says Mashile.

I know Boy George and James Baldwin saved mine, I say. There it comes, the “amen”.

Majola would do whatever it took to be a singer. He entered Shell Road to Fame and Idols before studying at then-Pretoria Technikon’s acclaimed performance school that also bred the likes of Tamara Dey and KB.

“I travelled overseas doing musical reviews, mostly on cruise ships. I was 21 and I came back, worked at the Joburg theatres and tried to get enough gigs to produce Boet/Sissy.

Raising the dead

“South Africa, can you hear the voices of the dead?

The rush of blood spilling daily in your breast...

We, the living dead,” speaks Mashile on a track called Thina Sizwe.

It’s one of the grand themes on Moya: the ancestors. The freedom fighters who lost their lives and whose spirits are restless because their work was never completed. The effects of colonialism and migrant labour. Mashile relates it to her own life story, which, at first, vacillated between the US and South Africa. Today, raising her sons, she relies on her family to be there for her boys.

“I am the breadwinner, I live out of a suitcase, I’ve performed in 24 countries around the world, I earn a living on stage,” she says. Without her mother and eldest sister she would not have been able to take the eight months it took to collaborate on Moya, which is also self-funded.

Mashile: I feel like I never escaped the migrant labour trap.

Majola: You have helped me, made me understand my mother’s pain that she had to leave us to go and work. Now my relationship with my mother is better because of you.

Mashile: My mother sent me to the other side of the world. I was born in the US and got sent to Soweto at 18 months. I could never understand it. It was only when I found myself in the exact same position with my eldest son that I realised, omigod, this stuff is systemic. It’s a system. And you don’t end up here ’cos you’re stupid or ’cos you don’t love your kids or you don’t have a plan or you don’t work hard enough ’cos you don’t have your shit together. ’Cos it’s systemic. It’s 200 years of breaking up black families.

When she was about to begin school, Mashile was ordered back to the US. “The South African government wouldn’t renew my visa ’cos I was an American and I then spent the bulk of my childhood in the US. I grew up in Providence, Rhode Island. It has one of the largest proportions of immigrants in the US. I’d be bused out the hood to go to school with mostly white people...

“Then we started transitioning back in the early 90s. Eventually, we moved back home to South Africa in 1995. I was 16. I finished up high school at Sacred Heart.”

When we were woke

It was when they returned to South Africa that Mashile’s family had to deal with her father’s abandonment.

“My dad had gone AWOL. He had come back in the early 90s to pave the way for us to come back...

“He passed away at the end of 2015. We had an estranged relationship. At some point when I became known, he started rocking up at gigs drunk. He became that guy. Somewhere inside of there is that other guy who took me to ballet and taught me how to cook, but I was like, now it’s too much work to find out where that guy is. The situation sucks. I do feel his presence now. But feeling him as a spirit, there’s much more love,” says Mashile.

“At 21 I handed my mom my degree and said, I want to figure myself out as an artist. That was in Yeoville. I had been studying at Wits. I fell in love with the Joburg underground and Yeoville,” says Mashile.

We talk about Fassie, Nomvete, Lebo Mathosa, Miriam Makeba and the role these women played in her conscientising.

We talk about the literature and music. Queen Latifah, Public Enemy, Bra Hugh, Letta Mbulu.

“I read The Color Purple and that’s where literature changed my life. That book kept me alive. I wouldn’t be here if that book hadn’t come into my life.”

We talk about Maya Angelou, Tsitsi Dangaremba, Audre Lorde, Bessie Head.

Our curries are getting cold.

We talk about the Yeoville scene that ignited Mashile’s artistry. Bongo Maffin, Blk Sonshine, POC. “Already there was that woke current that was in the pop culture. I also needed the space to write back to the kind of ideological crap we were being fed at Wits as well. What you had to say to get an A. When I saw people on stage using their voices to speak about their own lives and the climate in the country, man, the personal became political like that.”

She snaps her fingers.

“And it was a time when if you’ve got a flat and a Tazz and you’re making your art and you’re travelling, you’re all right, you’re made. It was cool to be smart, it was cool to be conscious, it was cool to be making a creative contribution. It didn’t matter, then, how much money you had. The money pressure came in quickly thereafter and that scene dissipated. It had everything to do with BEE, with the pressure that was put on black people to use materialism to get out. As a sign of freedom. Instead of learning to be free. I think my entire artistic life I’ve been chasing that mood. That’s what taught me to be an artist.”

Can we talk about masculinity?

Both Majola and Mashile have worked on unpacking toxic masculinity in their lives and in their country. Moya is dense with the theme. Mashile’s previously published Praisesong for men is one of the tracks on Moya. Again, it isn’t what is seems at first:

“The caring, daring, soul-bearing, god-fearing men disappearing, the child bearing, road-clearing men...

What will it take to break the mould that seeks to break men?”

There is an urgency, on the album, to talk about and with men as the country reels from daily accounts of harassment, assault, rape and femicide. It’s been a long journey for Mashile, from the steps of the High Court to Moya.

It’s only after our long, lovely lunch, that I realise there’s something I had meant to ask. Given the state of things, how is Mashile responding to raising two boys?

She texts back: “Lord. Where do I start? I am terrified for my children. I ask black men in my life when they first became conscious of being threatening to white people, and they say between the ages of seven to 10. I am terrified that my children will conform to South Africa’s toxic masculinity. It’s a nice cushion to fall on. It helps to buffer the blows dealt by racism and other forms of oppression that men experience.

“I pray every day that my children are outsiders. I pray that my kids are the kind of men who see through the facade of patriarchy. That means that I have to see through it. Letting go of fantasy patriarchal family formations has been one of the hardest things for me to do personally. My children’s family includes me, their fathers, my mother, my sisters, and all of our extended families. It doesn’t fit neatly into a Grade 1 exercise book example of what a nuclear family looks like, and it does not have to.”

*Moya will be launched at the end of June.

(Photos: Tebogo Letsie)

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