The Pretorian Prog-Rap Revival

The New York prog-rap movement of the late nineties found a new home in Pretoria.

Photo via Dynamic Shapeshifterz

Ideas have the incredible ability to resurrect themselves in foreign contexts. The New York prog-rap movement of the late nineties managed to capture the attention of a select group of discerning heads for a brief moment then briskly evaporated into oblivion when philosophical rap fell out of vogue with its nerdy suburban following. That’s an all too common narrative in our bullet-paced age; modern sub-genres have the life-expectancy of plankton and are equally as copious; multiplying at viral velocity; leaving us hardly any prefixes left to classify them all. Music genres used to be indelible inherited monuments patiently waiting to be discovered by the listener. Now they haphazardly float past our ears like densely scattered sonic bubbles, each popping soon after it’s noticed. Such was the dreaded fate of the prog-rap genre, with only a few of its last apostles like Aesop Rock, Busdriver and Death Grips keeping its flickering torch lit today.

Yet quite unbeknownst to the martyrs of this short-lived cause, a potent seed had been sown on distant soil. It all started in Brooklyn, New York, the birthplace of Definitive Jux, a prog-rap label founded in 1999 by producer/rapper El-P. It housed a fellowship of hip-hop pioneers including Aesop Rock, Big Jus, Cannibal Ox, Atoms Fam and Company Flow. They sought to provide a more figurative voice for the urban music of their generation. They incorporated elements of prose and academia with street slang and ghetto bravado... the result was radioactive. Aesop Rock became hip hop’s T.S. Elliot, unabashedly conveying the moral toxicity of industrial progress. Big Jus became our Karl Marx, debunking the intrinsically exploitative nature of the capitalist system. Their music was a much needed counterweight to the club-rap which came to dominate the era. Which is precisely why when this brand of hip-hop reached its point of extinction, it left a noticeable vacuum. As a universal law of physics: Energy never dies, it’s only transferred... and this energy would be transferred to the most remotely obscure of destinations: Pretoria, South Africa.

The climate of South African hip-hop early to mid 2000’s was one intoxicated by a general preoccupation with battle raps. The majority of local emcees would astound the audience with content that was nothing more than a collage of punch lines stitched together with a-b-a-b rhyme schemes. The lesser evil was the black consciousness hip-hop of the time, most of which was delivered in a prosaic and unimaginative fashion– that was what was deemed as the revolutionary rap of the time. Pretoria was a distinguished arena for both styles with the Sammy Marks’ Square ciphers being the epicentre and forum for many unsung heroes in the scene as well as some sung ones, including Mycbeth (The Anvils), Tumi (from Tumi and the Volume) and Disco Izreal (PHFat, Sedge Warbler). The only problem was that the city hadn’t developed its own signature sound. Joburg hip-hop was recognisable from a mile away, as was Cape Town’s. Pretorian emcees, though, blended into the background with no unique quality or style to set them apart from the swarm.

This all changed when the PTA prog-rap movement was born, when acts like Audio-Flux Modulation and Dynamic Shapeshifterz emerged onto the scene glistening with a refreshing new aesthetic. They rapped on time, stretched arrhythmic jazz loops and touched on virgin subject matter from post-colonial ails to theoretical physics. They portrayed their concepts with a new non-representational method. The subtext was now carefully veiled behind the rhetoric, profound treasure buried deep beneath the surface as if to mask it from those unworthy of its beauty. This new army of artists armed with camouflaged truths represented a tectonic shift in the urban African psyche. The focus now was to construct a new methodology; a new encrypted language in which to document African history; one more based on imagery than syntax; like a verbalised version of hieroglyphics. Their verses should form the syllabi that the next generation of young South African intellectuals could rely on to discern the real story behind the 'Rainbow Nation’ fairytale.

But alas, the chances are the vast majority of them will never be signed and their music will never reach its predestined audience. Like their American predecessors, their greatest possible prospect is to have their subversive genius embraced in eccentric locations like Europe and Japan. The two movements would become like soul mates doomed never to meet– parallel lines constrained from ever converging. Both movements seem to have been born out of wedlock and out of sync with their societies. They both preferred to live in the abstract rather than the tangible, detaching themselves from reality in order to become its objective lyrical narrators. The funny thing is, although both movements were always perversely undervalued and misunderstood by their local audiences, I can’t help but believe that if they somehow had found each other... that would be all the applause they’d ever need.

Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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