JimmyWiz. Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela.

Interview: JimmyWiz Quietly Released One of the Strongest South African Hip-Hop Albums of the Year

We chat to South African rapper JimmyWiz about his debut album, Accordin' to Jim.

JimmyWiz channeled his life story into his biographical debut record, Accordin' to Jim. At just nine songs, the album is a self-portrait of the artist as he shares the stories that contributed to how he makes sense of the world. Even the accompanying music reveals an aspect of Jimmy's childhood.

In his chat to OkayAfrica below, the MC from the East Rand of Joburg, explains that sonically, Accordin' To Jim was influenced by the music he grew up with. The project is built on smooth jazz samples and compositions by SP Dubb, a prominent producer in the East Rand and the rest of the country.

JimmyWiz is part of a huge network of South African lyricists who may not be on everyone's radar, but have built solid niche fanbases and are striving in their own way and own terms. JimmyWiz just happened to get a boost that a very few young up-and-coming rappers are afforded.

In 2015, the rapper appeared on the reality show The Hustle on TV channel Vuzu. His class included the likes of Bigstar Johnson and ShabZi Madallion, the latter who is still a close friend and frequent collaborator of Jimmy's. JimmyWiz has stuck to his path—instead of jumping on the trap bandwagon, he has always shown a liking for production that leans towards traditional East Coast hip-hop, multi-syllable rhyme schemes and rich lyricism.

In the interview below, JimmyWiz tells OkayAfrica about his take on popularity waves, witnessing gender-based abuse in his household as a child, his plans for the future and many other topics.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Break down the meaning of your album title Accordin' to Jim.

When I grew up, man, I used to love watching According to Jim, with Jim Belushi. It was just dope in the sense that its title is all about Jim and the life of Jim. So the whole thing behind it, the whole play was: I want to create an album where I'm allowed to tell my story. It's all about me and everything that I've been through.

Why did you feel like making such a personal album?

Firstly, man, I've always been one to go left and to stand on my own. I've always been a guy that's always believed in the whole thought of deciding who you are and sticking to who you are, as opposed to following the wave. The things about waves is that they crash, bro. You might get drowned out if it's not who you really are. I wanted the album to be authentically me—what I grew up listening to and my influences, hence the whole jazz influence. I think the other reason... is really just because when I think of all of the greatest artists you can ever imagine—‚whether it's Jay-Z or Nas—you can tell me their backstories from just listening to their albums.

When going through such intimate details of your life, do you ever feel like you are oversharing?

I don't think I ever got to a point where I felt like that, specially because you have people you chill around the whole time, and they know my personal life beyond the music. I mean, [my producer] SP Dubb's been there for like over 18 years now, and for somebody like that, who knows that my brother was a junkie, who knows the stories of me seeing my aunt get abused....

Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela.

What draws you to the boom bap sound?

The funny thing is when I listened to ATJ, even after making it, it didn't feel so boom bap to me because, when I think of boom bap, I automatically think of something like [my song] "Wizmatic." When I did "Return of the New Old School," that was more boom bap. With this, I really took a more musical approach. The base of it, I could say is really just hip-hop, though. You can still hear the basic elements of hip-hop. But even with tracks like, "Getting Mines," there's still an 808 there, you know what I'm saying?

When I make music, bro, it's more of, when I finally put it out, can I maintain being me? I've never been one to say "I'm going to do skhanda," and then next year, there's a new wave of country trap. Now I've got to leave skhanda, travel and do country trap. What this is, is it's authentically me and I can do me forever and ever. There's no way that I'm going to die out because this is what I do. This is my true form.

What challenges have you faced, just being kind of an artist that you are?

I think the biggest challenge is really just breaking down the barriers of the gatekeepers. That, I think, is the biggest challenge. And I think I figured it out, man. I've really spent the past month just on radio runs. Every week is an interview and drive time slots, breakfast slots, which kind of means the album has gotten to a place where it's finally living on its own without me.

"This is authentically me and I can do me forever and ever. There's no way that I'm going to die out, because this is what I do. This is my true form."

The Kaygizm feature on "Sacrifices" surprised me. How did that come about?

Funny enough, man, I've got a lot of relationships in the game. When putting together this album, like I said, it was so personal that I couldn't find people who could tell the stories the way I wanted to tell my story. After all, it was my story. I then sat back and I remembered one time when I was performing, it was just after a performance at Kool Out. Khuli Chana and KG were there, and Khuli Chana, just as I was about to go, he's like, "Yo, yo, you're going to perform that 'Return of the New Old School'?" He's like, "Yeah, I love that joint." After the performance we were leaving and KG ran up to me, he's like, "Yo, bro, if you ever need anything, I don't care what it is, anything bro. You're super talented. You're that talented and I'm down for whatever." He gave me his numbers, and I think it was six months later, I hit him up like, "Yo bro, you remember what you said?" He's like, "Yeah." I'm like, "I'm going to send you something now. Tell me what you think." I sent it to him and he's like, "Dawg, this is beautiful." He took about two weeks, he sent me back the vocals. I mixed it and mastered it. After I mixed it and mastered it, I sent it back to him and he was like, "Nobody's mixed my vocals so perfectly."

Tell us about your relationship with Shabzi, how it started and what it's like.

What's funny is, man, I never knew Shabzi from a bar of soap up until The Hustle. And it happened that, just the week before I got the call, I was on social media and I ran into a video of him with a white bucket hat performing. He was performing for students and he was just going crazy and they were going wild. Luckily, a week later I got the call for The Hustle, I met him at the hotel. Then after that, he just came up to me and he's like, "Dawg, I don't know what it is about you, but your aura just says you are a dope cat, and you're a dope rapper." And we just kicked it from there, bro. We never looked back. We got to hang out.

After The Hustle, the first thing he did, I think the week I got kicked out, he gave me a call. He's like, "Yo bro, I actually got this joint that I'm doing on that 'Dreams Money Came Buy' by Drake. I want to call the song 'Real Life,'" I was like, "Listen, don't even say a lot, just send me that record and I got you." He sent it to me. The next day, I sent back the verse.

He was just like, "Yo, since you work as fast as I do, let's shoot this." And then two days later, we shot it. We shot the music video and we put it out. We put it out on the season finale.

JimmyWiz Feat. Gugu Zwane - A Woman Scorned (Official Music Video)

What would you say you took from The Hustle?

I think I took away mostly, man, the ability to network and to meet people. And to realize that the music on its own is really just never enough. It's walking into a room, being comfortable with who you are, being confident with who you are, and telling somebody what you do, and expecting to get a yes or a no—being persistent enough to tell people like, "Look, I'm really amazing."

Most important, one of the other things that I took away was the reality of the industry; in its nature it's very cold. But there's times when it can be very beautiful. The biggest thing is to always stand your ground. I mean, there was a time I almost got lost in trying to do different type of music, because you can understand, I'm surrounded by all of these guys and they are doing this music and it's like, "Wow, am I feeling left out?" You know what I'm saying? Eventually, bro, it was like I learned who I was and I learned to be proud of who I am and stand my ground. That's one thing that I definitely learned.

How many of the stories you share on Accordin' To Jim are true?

Every single story—from track one to the last joint—is true. Everything I've ever experienced and everything I've ever observed around me.

The song "A Woman Scorned" is quite heavy.

That shit is deep, bro. I think what sparked it for me, I wrote "A Woman Scorned" about a year and a half to two years ago. And at the time, Karabo Mokoena had just passed away. So, I'm reading this whole story on my phone where the beat was playing. All you can just hear, "It's not right, the way you treat me." I thought about this situation where I was in high school and I was sitting watching TV, and by the window, car lights are flickering. I push the curtain to the side and there's my uncle. He walks out of the car to the passenger door. He opens the door and he starts beating my aunt. My mom was sleeping and there's no time to go wake her up. So I ran outside.

I open the gate, and then I hold him and I try to talk to him. She comes out of the car, she tries to smack him and everything. I let him go... and try take her to the house. He goes to the back of the car, opens the trunk and he pulls out a gun. In that moment, obviously it's, "Yo, man, am I dying or what's really good?" Then I started talking to him. Luckily my mom at that moment came out because she heard the commotion. She came up, she started talking to him and everything, and then he just got in the car and drove off.

That is hectic.

It makes you realize that this thing happens every day, bro, every day. And that's why I don't think anybody can ever really tell me they can't relate to a song like that, because we all see it at some point. Whether it's through a friend, whether it's through a family member, or whether it's you personally. This is something that really happens on the daily. For me, when making music, I reference the fact that every music genre I've ever listened to told stories, bro. They spoke stories that resonated with people.

What's next for you?

I've actually shot four music videos for the project already. I'm going to be shooting a music video for each and every song. So, there's five more left pretty much. I'm going to be shooting a short film. From then on, it's just really pushing the project. Me, personally, I want to at least push this project for the next year and a half. Max, two years, maybe. I really want to give it a life of its own.

Stream Accordin' To Jim below.

Follow JimmyWiz on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Collage by Ta'Ron Joyner

I Would Rather Breathe Than Think Outside the Box

South African artists were already working for little to no pay, but the pandemic has unleashed a flood of exploitative work requests right when we need money the most.

This essay is part of OkayAfrica's SA Reframed series, featuring personal writing from some of South Africa's best young writers edited by Verashni Pillay.

On the radio the other day, I heard a small business owner of a costume design company being interviewed and asked how they have managed to:

a. Reinvent themselves during this period, and

b. Think outside the box while doing so.

Their conversation made me think about how I have not managed to wrap my head around any sort of future, or reinvention outside any kind of box—beyond the one that wraps itself around my immediate reality. When the lockdown was announced, three friends and I withdrew to a remote area where internet access was dubious and, most times, simply not available. I would need to walk a bit of a distance to locate a spot under a tree or up a mountain to be connected for thirty minutes, or so.

Then I would do a basic comb through my emails and respond to work or requests that were already underway pre-lockdown. I only responded to new requests that either afforded me the opportunity to earn an income or those that allowed me to be productive on my own terms.

I was tired, lowkey grateful for the global pause, and no longer interested in the overly productive, overloaded nature of my previous normal. Something about the forced halt made me realise that I was on the edge of everything—myself included. I turned down anything that required me to join the endless online festivals, zoom panel discussions, Instagram takeovers and live readings. I refused all opportunities that needed me to grapple with any sort of forced normalcy. The ones that offered data or airtime or solidarity as compensation or assumed that I had gone pro bono. I needed a moment. I needed the space and time to re-bargain with the point of it all.

The pause was both useful and scary. It brought to the surface fears and revelations about the shortfalls of our industry and how creatives are positioned within the productivity machinery and economy of South Africa, or rather all the ways we fall outside of it.

As Minister of employment and labour Thulas Nxesi mentioned in a briefing two months ago, "On the issue of freelance workers—unfortunately with the current legislation they fall outside. Maybe what we are going to do is that after this we will have to re-look at it in terms of our legislative amendments and start a debate about that." Why are there laws that have gone unchallenged? Who should be challenging them? Why are artists hearing, out loud for the first time, of convenient loopholes that render us outside of an economy that taxes us like everyone else, and consumes us and our work. Yet, in times of crisis, this same economy engages with our art and our productivity and our products, but still deems us on the margin, outside, and non-essential. If we are not assisted financially, how can we be productive, how can we acquire the resources to produce? How can we apply our minds to anything else outside of survival and scrambling to stay afloat.

Pandemics do not mean that artists have gone pro bono

When you approach an artist with the assumption that they have gone pro bono during this time, when you draft an email to request a collaboration, a commission, a participation, a productivity of any kind, please bear in mind that artists are up against an unconcerned and corrupt government that has failed to provide aid and assistance to their sector during this time.

Theatre critic Sara Holdren says "Art is hard and most of it fails—either in small ways or catastrophic ones." In South Africa, the process of making art is hard, sure, but more than that, the conditions and the context in which we make work fails us in catastrophic ways that will require more than a debate and amended legislation. It will need, for starters, a minister who cares about the arts and understands its soul and mechanisms. This pause has brought about more questions and concerns for me than inspiration to reinvent or think outside the box. I have questions about the box itself and why I feel asphyxiated and trapped by its design.

I would rather breathe than think outside of the box

This pandemic has made me question what my career, livelihood and stability have been built on; what has been propping them up all this time, and what has been allowing me to appear valued and valuable in this economy? What does and will the spectrum of value look like in a normal that has been disrupted and now sits in a near distant future that may or may not be near?

Then I find myself vacillating between hope and concern. My hope is that when the pandemic is no longer with us, artists can have a come-to-jesus conversation about what has contributed and exacerbated this attitude and disrespect toward our practice and industry, I hope we can challenge the legislations that we have been dared to challenge, I hope we can be productive in ways that serve us and make sense for our well-being, that we will be paid our worth and that our society will realize that without the artist producing, there will be no art, or music, or films, or books and things that have kept people entertained and creatively nourished during this time.

My concern is that the "free"content artists are currently creating and the free access to art or performances, will not make this realisation possible, and that this kind of access, that was already undervalued and exploited, will be irreversible. The exploitation dialogue is tiring. Being treated as non-essential is tiring and terrifying too, and while most of the world can slowly start going back to work, most artists will probably have to hang tight until 2021, maybe even 2022.

While artists deal with a hoax of an arts and culture department that is dead to us and a minister who tweets more than he does his job, in an ideal world, I wish that artists could afford to indulge uncertainty, and fear, and pause, in ways that allow them to heed the call made by Nicholas Berger in his piece The Forgotten Art of Assembly [Or, Why Theatre Makers Should Stop Making] "We must lean into this pain. We must feel the grief. We must mourn. Mourn the loss of work, the loss of jobs, the loss of money, the loss of life. Mourn the temporary loss of an art form that demands assembly. Lean into the grief. Lean in. Lean in. Lean in. We must remind ourselves that mourning is a human act, not a digital one."

Koleka Putuma is an award-winning poet, playwright and theatre director. Her bestselling debut collection of poems Collective Amnesia is in its 10th print run and her play No Easter Sunday for Queers Sunday for Queers won several awards.

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