Interview: Kwesta and The ‘Ghost of DaKAR’
While making his latest album 'g.o.d Guluva' during the 2020 lockdown, Kwesta opened up to vulnerability and, as a result, left some parts of his old self behind.
As fans continue savouring Kwesta's fourth studio album g.o.d Guluva, released at the end of April, his label Rap Lyf is imploding. He doesn't feel in control but is managing nonetheless. "It's a conversation that affects one personally. That's why I've kind of chosen not to talk about the nitty-gritties of it all, because I'm certain that it still affects me and everyone involved personally," Kwesta opens up.
While awaiting Kwesta to wrap up a telephonic interview, I chuckle at the contrast of his kasi raps, heavy with street slang and disposition, getting written in his suburban home. "Well, during lockdown, I couldn't go back to K1 (Katlehong)," he says when I finally pose the question to him. "That's what I used to do. I'd just go back there and just rap from that space."
With not much activity allowed in 2020, Kwesta found himself at home a lot. Some heavy reflection took place, he says, before launching into a detailed explanation. "As soon as you open yourself up to lows, you realise how many of them there are, because you had blocked them off for a while. And when you open up, they all just come. That's what 2020 was to a lot of people. It was a low, generally. Because you're in your space and mind most times, you suddenly see all these things that are, or were, bothering you," he explains. This, he adds, was the inspiration behind "Eyes", the second last track on his latest album. Additionally, he dealt with the emotional battles of losing loved ones to COVID-19, and being robbed of his main revenue stream, live shows. "All those things culminated into an existence that you just couldn't block anymore. Which is why, right before finishing the album, I decided to open up to those and embrace them on some: 'yeah, those were lows for real.'"
"Eyes", the emotional nadir of g.o.d Guluva, finds Kwesta introspecting — if not self-loathing — over haunting strings enveloped by atmospheric pads. Emerging singer Umzulu Phaqa, who Kwesta found on Instagram, contributes to the song's intensity with a soulful hook. In the song, Kwesta expresses feeling defeated, betrayed and like a burden to loved ones.
"It's all love for a damn fee, the real cost is your well-being, fool me 10 times, it's just me, and everybody wins against me"
However, on songs such as "Dulas" and "Phuma Sathane", Kwesta swears by his greatness and justifies it with superb raps over combative beats. For instance, on the latter Gobi Beast-produced track, Kwesta raps lines like "Spent hours in the booth, found a fountain of cool, got me lookin' at these rappers like 'ah, they cute'" over a screeching electric guitar anchored by sturdy drums.
Summing up the conflicted feeling that prevails on the album is the line "I'm still a king, just a lot of shit to figure out" on the introspective "Who I Am", which concludes g.o.d Guluva.
Kwesta - Fire In The Ghetto (Official Music Video) Feat. Troublle www.youtube.com
Kwesta hasn't lost his confidence though. He still believes he's DaKAR ("Da King of African Rap"), a statement he touted twice — on his 2015 sophomore album of the same title and its popular 2016 sequel DaKAR II. "[With] this one, as much as I've embraced my position or where I'd like to be, I really wanted to take in a lot, and really let things happen to me instead of going, 'yeah, I'm going to crush every door.' And that's how I feel personally," he says.
g.o.d and Guluva
The "g.o.d" in the title has two meanings. "The 'g.o.d' part of it is the vulnerability. There's a part of the album that is more spiritual — it's finding self and being on this self-knowledge quest. And I think that's just God speaking and moving through you," explains Kwesta. "g.o.d" is also an acronym for "ghost of Dakar". As he evolves, Kwesta is leaving some parts of his old self behind and ridding himself of the pressure of replicating the feel and success of DaKAR II, an album that reportedly went seven times platinum. Astronomical numbers by South African standards.
"And 'guluva' is uguluva (a thug)," he says, further breaking down the title. "That speaks to the 'Kubo's and the 'Ma Se Kind's and Katlehong and the taal (slang)." It's on these songs that Kwesta raps in eloquent tsotsitaal, with kwaito swagger and cadences. He sounds like the Kwesta who captured the mid-2010s, and the remainder of the decade, with monster hits such as "Ngud'", "Spirit" and "Vur Vai" that referenced kwaito and house, speaking to his kasi roots.
Image courtesy of artist.
Similarly, he taps into amapiano on "Kubo", "Ma Se Kind" and "Hamba", which all make use of the popular genre's omnipresent log drum and trumpet stabs. The beats to "Kubo'' and "Hamba" were both produced by Makwa, while for the John London-produced "Ma Se Kind", Makwa only contributed the log drum and kwaito feel. This signature sound is typical of Makwa, who produced most of Kwesta's hits from the 2010s which referenced kwaito — amapiano's ancestor. Makwa has previously claimed, a few times actually, that he's been using the log drum from as early as 2011 before it became an amapiano staple.
"I couldn't picture working on an album without Makwa," says Kwesta of the first few years of the two of them working together. "There's a sound that he came with that was just a natural fit for me. It felt and still feels very natural. And you always want to work with people whose energies create the sort of vibe where you don't have to try too hard to like anything they've done. The beats just speak to me immediately."
A well-rounded human experience
One-dimensional — that's something Kwesta has never been. Just like all his albums, g.o.d Guluva delivers a well-rounded human experience. Love songs such as "Nobody", "Hamba Nawe", "Daai Deng" and "Favorite Song", chest-punching rap songs such as "Snakes in the Club" and "Dulas", and the social commentary on "Fire In The Ghetto", all conflate to show different facets of Kwesta.
All these elements are visually portrayed by world-renowned South African fine artist Nelson Makamo, the creative brains behind the album's artwork. "I gave him the music and he let it speak," enthuses Kwesta. "Uyabona nawe lo wuguluva (you can see this man is a thug)," he says, pointing to the main subject on the artwork. "Nelson didn't even know the album title at the time. So, he kind of interpreted the music. The artwork background is a representation of ubulokishi (township life) and the people the main character leaves behind to go get it. He's a traveling spirit, just like I am."
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