M.I Abaga & Stogie T Offer 2 Approaches to Becoming an African Hip-Hop Legend

A look at the juxtaposing views of two African hip-hop legends, Stogie T and M.I Abaga, in their new releases.

On their respective projects, two of Africa's elite MCs, Nigeria's M.I Abaga and South Africa's Stogie T reach a fork in the road. Though they're on opposite ends of the continent, their musical journeys have resulted in legacy more than status forming a large part of the conversations around them.

Both M.I and Stogie have extensive catalogues and serve as label heads, at Chocolate City and Motif Records respectively. These shared facets are brought to their new music; conceptual works which merit analysis. M.I's A Study On Self Worth: Yxng Dxnzl and Stogie's Honey and Pain address the human condition from opposing perspectives. One extols listeners to appreciate their worth, while the other examines the complexities of life.

Incidentally, both artists have literally taken on roles to do this, making these projects performative in many senses. M.I's embodiment of a young Denzel Washington is as significant as Tumi's evolutionary incarnation as Stogie T. These are two different reactions to growth in an artistic and personal sense.

Where M.I looks inward to grapple with existential questions, Stogie examines social issues outwardly. You can either "Take Some Time And Meditate On You" or see the world through "God's Eye." These songs are emblematic of the functions each project seeks to fulfill. The palpably vulnerable Yxng Dxnzl embraces introspection while Honey and Pain surveys the lives of others.

Stogie T – God's Eye

Love, Deceit, Romance, Lust

Where interpersonal relationships are concerned, there's a hopefulness in M.I that seems absent from Stogie's lens. Love is a solution to strife on Yxng Dnzl while Honey and Pain treats emotions quizzically. T's Lucille Slade-assisted "Reckless" for instance, tackles a man's infidelity with regretful lyrics ("Wrecked a home and built it back with all these Ls, like Tetris"). That dysfunction is mirrored on "Side Chick" which sees rapper Rouge and singer Ayanda Jiya voice the "other woman."

In contrast, nourishment-personified greets us as Tay Iwar croons on M.I's "Love Never Fails But Where There Are Prophecies Love Will Cease To Remain." That hopeful tone continues on "Last Night I Had A Dream About a Hummingbird" where M.I poetically advises us to spread our wings and "ignore all these Mockingbirds sitting and gossiping about you ." M.I is as empathetic as therapist Caryn Solomon, who he confides in throughout the album. This puts the listener at ease, a privilege Stogie actively denies us. Instead, he highlights the uncomfortably grey areas, eschewing neatly packaged resolutions. Resultantly how we view lust, love and romance depends on our vantage points.

The idea of perspective is fleshed out on "Numbers Game," which explores the plight of gangsterism in Cape Town; the home of YoungstaCPT, who Stogie features on the track. The veteran rapper contends with witnessing violence while simultaneously feeling admiration towards its perpetrators when he raps, "They don't follow Tutu, this ain't Noah's Arc/ There's animals here that shoot you and pour a cup/ but it's also love, they share their last plate of snoek with you over lunch."

Similarly, the precariousness of "Johazardousburg" is addressed with the line, "We seen the replay over and over/ Something 'bout Johannesburg that breaks moral codes up." The pursuit, and even attainment, of success can ultimately end in pain in this cautionary song, where Stogie locates the threats outside of our person. M.I's "+-," in juxtaposition, zeroes in on inner peace as Odunsi sings, "Why you dey hate like Antichrist o?/ Wicked person dey kiss the bible, too. Say you gotta know what's real."

Assisted by Lady Donli's declaration of "positive vibes," M.I explores the attainment of inner serenity by practising self-care and discernment. The track closes with M.I revealing his professional frustrations and dealing with jibes from over-confident critics. These lamentations may be a result of heated conversations, crystallised in a 2017 spat with Pulse Nigeria Editor-In-Chief Osagie Alonge.

Industry, Loose Talk, Legacy, The Culture

M I Abaga, Loose Kaynon, Osagie Alonge u0026 AOT2 on the Greatest LooseTalkPodcast Ever Episode 8

Stogie T and M.I have both had storied careers, and a smidgen of disillusionment may be inevitable as the values of the game change. Stogie addresses this on the Anita Baker-sampling "Rapture" featuring Jay Claude. "Sometimes you be walking through the scene. Just feeling like; I'm not even sure if I belong out here anymore... I can't even recognize the game," he says towards the end of the song. Continuing this theme on the delightfully titled "Big Boy Raps," he spits, "Not playing if there's no deposits/ Rap game just a soap opera, pocket change and a broken promise."

He explores this more conceptually on "Pretty Flowers," which features rappers from distinct generations in J Molley, Kwesta and Maggz. The track serves as a reminder of Stogie's influence and contributions to South African hip-hop in a general sense. M.I expresses a similar sentiment on the soulful record "Another Thing! Do Not Be A Groupie," calling out trend-hoppers by stating, "I'm sticking with the family till the day I die." That rebuke is coupled with what serves as an ode to Chocolate City's role in Nigerian hip-hop. Proudly listing the label's successes since 2008, he's drawing attention to his achievements as a label head that he feels are too lightly dismissed. This is more than just M.I flexing; it's a preoccupation with legacy and being unseated from the throne.

Stogie T Ft. Kwesta - Pretty Flowers (feat. Kwesta, Maggz, J Molley)

It's something the Motion Billy-directed "Pretty Flowers" video touches on; where the self appointed Leader of The New Wave kills the other rappers. This is a symbolic representation of how a new generation of artists treats the OGs that paved the way for them. It also brings to mind Caryn Solomon's words on "+-" when she says:

"The people who are most likely to shoot you down are often your protégés. Once they've sat at the feet of the father they need to shoot the father down, or the mother. And that's what happens. It's not really personal; it's a way of empowering themselves. Just expect it, get yourself ready."

Lines, Words, Bars, Lyrics

Again, the parallels between the artists' approaches are highlighted in their attitudes towards industry backlash. Stogie surveys the game holistically whereas M.I lists the accomplishments of Chocolate City. Where these two rappers might diverge topically though, they converge where lyricism is concerned.

By and large, the essence of the lyrics is inline with each artist's respective subject matter. M.I is concerned with the I, in relation to the we Stogie prioritizes. The rappers also reveal the duality of their personas, interspersing witty lines between contemplative lyrics. On "+-," M.I is both playful and braggadocious ("If I'm in Cali then I'm killing Cali/ Till typically, even Cali critics will be feeling M.I critically") as opposed to the more heartfelt lyrics that occur on "You Are Like Melody, My Heart Skips A Beat" with a profound grouping of words:

"Letting you into places only homies allowed/ I've been lonely alone, I've been lonely in crowds/ And real love is proven it's hardly announced."

At his most visceral, Stogie does his share of bragging on "Big Boy Raps" spitting, "Bring the cakes, nigga I got the icing/ Follow back, cause she swallow that/ Yeah… shawty sippin' on high tea (T)." Turning it up a notch, he proves his pedigree on "Honey and Pain" with a stanza that encapsulates his entire project. The sheer weight of these lines is enough to appease the staunchest of critics:

"Life ain't fair, you can kiss the ground and the ring/ Think it's a breeze? That's only 'cause the pendulum swing/ This is honey and pain, both struggle and gain/ Gold mining in vain, if you can't shine with a chain."

As is evident, the more contemplative moments on both these projects address the sociopolitical and personal in skillful ways. The divergent standpoints the artists start from produce music of a differing texture, but equally remarkable. Where they differ in approach, these juggernauts of African hip-hop are aligned in achieving longevity, perhaps because both came to their fork in the road and went straight.

The journeys of Stogie T and M.I Abaga now continue, and as withering as these may seem; it's reassuring that there's always a dollop of honey for Yxng Dxnzl's pain.

Download Honey and Pain and A Study On Self Worth: Yxng Dxnzl here and here.

Photo courtesy of Sam Soko.

Interview: Sam Soko is the Kenyan Director Behind Sundance Hit, 'Softie'

We meet filmmaker Sam Soko who has made a stirring documentary about the Kenyan protest leader Boniface Mwangi

Filmmaker Sam Soko didn't intend on making a documentary about Kenyan photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi.

The original idea he had was to make a manual of sorts, a short video guide, on how to protest, the do's and don't's. Soko, himself an activist artist who cut his teeth convincing friends to let him create political music videos for their apolitical songs, knew Mwangi's experience on the streets both photographing protests and staging them meant he had a lot to share with others.

But then came the blood. A thousand litres of it, to be precise. And the pigs. Dozens of them, with words like MPigs written on them. Like the graphic photos Mwangi had become known for taking—it was a sight you couldn't look away from. It was a protest Mwangi organized, in 2013, to decry corrupt members of the Kenyan parliament who had decided to increase their salaries, 2 months after taking office. And at his side, through the thick red liquid of it all, was Mwangi's wife, Njere, ready to be arrested with him.

"Once I was witness to his relationship, I started seeing him as a family man," Soko tells OkayAfrica. "Because he's planning a protest and all, but when you look at the footage, you start seeing the kids and you start seeing Njere. That's when it started hitting me, in the sense, that she was with him in such a crazy space."

Soko formed a creative and activist hub, called PAWA 254, with Mwangi, as they became part of the groundswell demanding democratic reforms in a country still left scarred from the division sewed between Kikuyu and Luo people by British colonizers. "We had a new Constitution at the time, and there was this hope that we finally could picket without being tear-gassed or being beaten, Like, our civil liberties could be held up." Instead, the government strengthened its police force into a notorious organization condemned by human rights activists. "That's very salient in the film," says Soko. "If you see how the police dress, for instance, at the beginning, it's very different; they become more militant towards the end."

Soko's debut feature-length documentary, Softie, which became the first Kenyan film to ever premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, earlier this year, is at once a love story between Mwangi and his wife and their three children, but also between Mwangi and his beloved Kenya, under president Uhuru Kenyatta. Central to the film is the tussle between how these different loves bump up against each other: what comes first — love of country or love of family?

We spoke to the Nairobi-based director about making the film, which opens in virtual cinemas, starting this Friday, September 18th.

Boniface Mwangi with his wife Photo courtesy of Sam Soko

OA: Early on in the film, we learn how steadfast Boniface Mwangi is — he talks about being willing to die for the ideals he believes in, which made me think of Nelson Mandela and his Rivonia Treason Trial speech. Boniface is someone in the present day who still shares this belief?

When we were working on the edit, and kind of crafting and thinking about what the story was going to be, something that we found that was really, really interesting is, with a lot of the stories, like the story of Nelson Mandela, you'd never see the other side. That's something we see later, up ahead, as a retrospective. We'd hear about Martin Luther King and then we'd read about Coretta Scott in, I think, 1990, like, 'Oh, this his was her struggle.' That sort of thing. But for me, Boniface and Njere represented a present day reality struggle that showcases what Mandela was going through, what Martin Luther was going through. That was kind of like unravelling the curtain; when you see Martin Luther marching, Coretta's at home, trying to help their kids do their homework. And this is the reality.

OA: And the film poses that question of love for your country versus love for your family, and which one should come first?

Exactly. They see it in different ways. Boniface sees it that if you improve the country, you improve the lives of those who you love. Njere's like, you have to have your family's back first. And that means everything else comes second. And she's right; she's not wrong. And he's not wrong.

OA: The film really is privy to some really private moments in Mwangi's life — how did you gain his trust?

When we started filming the short video, he was really involved with the protests, and we started doing the protests with him. So we were—quote, unquote—in the trenches with him in the protests, and somehow that's how he kind of welcomed us to his home. When you've been with someone in the streets, and you're tear-gassed together more than once, you already have a common bond. But then I started developing a relationship with him that was beyond the streets. Just checking up on him and asking, what's going on, what's taking place? That sort of thing. I think it took a while. And I think even from Njere, we kind of developed a kind of camaraderie that was separate from my relationship with Boniface, because I would actually be like, 'Hey, he said that, how does that make you feel?' And not necessarily on camera. But over time, he kind of accepted us to be there with a camera. At some point, I kind of felt like they were talking to me, and not necessarily the camera; like, the camera is kind of this thing that's there, but not there. That kind of trust, again, was built on a respect that I have for them and their values and what they're doing. I think that's something they saw. It made them trust me with their story and trust me with their family.

You're the director of the film, but you're also producer, writer and cinematographer. Did Boniface's own style as a photojournalist influence you in any way?

The film has three cinematographers, and a lot of my cinematography is within the intimate moments, because that's when they would only engage with someone they trust. But him being a photographer actually, to a point, made the work a bit hard because he's constantly looking at how you're doing it. He's in your face about the angle. He's like, 'Hey, why are you standing there, you should be there.' But in some places he did help 'cause he's been filming in the streets and filming protests for a very long time. So when you're there filming, he'll easily tell you, 'Dude, don't stand there. They're about to start tear-gassing. Go to the other side.' And it's weird, when you're on the other side and you're filming, and all of a sudden you see tear gas, you wonder, 'How the hell did he know?' You do that 234 times and you start knowing yourself, 'Oh, this is how,' and he was really helpful in that sense.

I can imagine that filming during the protests must have been one of the big challenges of making this film but what else did you struggle with? There were death threats for Mwangi, did that happen to you as well?

It's so funny, when you're filming and when you're in the protests, it's adrenaline talking. So you're not really thinking about whether you're going to be okay. This one time, I got arrested because the cop said I was a spy for the protesters. [We had everything] from cameras breaking to sound equipment messing up, but when it became a more political story, with death threats, it became scary even for editing the film. Because you don't know who's watching you. This one time, I was with him in the car, filming, and we were being followed. So we kind of had to be very careful who we are telling about the story. It was a very deep secret that we were making this film and there are people who are watching it now asking, 'How could you keep this from us from all these years?' Because we had to do that. Especially when the family was in the US. We had to do that for the sake of safety for him, Boniface, for his family but also the film team. I remember doing the pitches with different names. But then we were also lucky that we had our co-producing partner in Canada, Eye Steel Film, so they were able to house the edit there. I went to Canada to edit and that kind of also gives you a kind of freedom to think and work and create. That was the reality, and now I think we have PTSD from the film. I can't film another protest. I'm sorry. I'm out. Like, it tapped me out.

There are similarities to the Black Lives Matter protests here in the US, against police brutality and violence but the slogan takes on a different resonance in places like Kenya, where the police force is particularly heavy-handed. How do you see these protests as being similar but also different?

There are two things that you learn with the film. One, our voices can never be silenced. They will try, but I think humanity is like a pressure cooker. The more you boil us, the more you put that heat, the more explosive we become. And through people like Boniface's life, you see that there are human beings who exist, who do extraordinary things.

The other thing is the idea of activism doesn't necessarily just speak to the person who's on the street. It doesn't necessarily speak to the person who's holding the placard. An activist is someone like Njere and her life, and her family. And Khadija [Mohamed, Mwangi's campaign manager]. She's such a strong and powerful activist in her own right. She was Boniface's campaign manager for free. The work they did was so powerful. And you have these other people in the background who are doing such incredible things. The sum total of what they've done is [to] instigate… We have an election next year, but I am so sure that we are going to have so many candidates who are going to be like, 'We want you to donate to our campaign. We have these values and beliefs; this is what we want to do.' That is how we need to go about change or add on to the conversations of change.

The same thing that's happening with the Black Lives Matters movement. Yes, there are people going to the street and we should keep going to the street. But we need to push people to engage in policy and make sure these policy changes are made.

We need to stand for what we believe in, as filmmakers in spaces where we feel oppression exists. Like the rules that have come out with the Academy Awards, these are rules that should be celebrated because they add on to that conversation of diversity and representation. All these things—that sum total—is what makes the difference. It's going beyond the streets and going beyond our Tweets, going beyond our Facebook messages, making films and sharing films. We just need to keep pumping up the volume, keeping the heat up, keep pushing. It's gonna take a while, but we'll get there.

Photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi during a protest in Nairobi, Kenya Photo courtesy of Sam Soko

That's where you as a filmmaker come in—this film was the first Kenyan film to get into Sundance, where it won a special editing prize.

There's another film I'm producing and, and, yes, I had my film at Sundance, that's great. But there's this other filmmaker who's making another film, and it's so cool, and this is the thing—we need to keep bouncing off this energy and this light and this vibe, and just keep pushing and making sure that the wheels keep turning. That's what we're all about.

How do you renew your strength, as a filmmaker but also as a Kenyan and as an African?

Being a Kenyan is hard. I think being an African is hard. Like, it's hard. There's a line I heard Boniface say once: 'I love my country, but I am afraid of my government.' But the way in which, personally, I find energy is when I meet new filmmakers, or you know, people who are like starting out and they want to make films that sound totally crazy. And they believe that they can do it. And I'm like, 'yes, yes, keep going!' We are planning to do a premiere. We have not confirmed the date yet but we're thinking it's around going to be early October in Kenya, because Kenyans haven't watched it. The government gave us an adult rating. They're putting us on the same level as porn.

This is the same government that banned Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki because of its homosexual theme…

Exactly, that's what we're getting but the lemonade that we've made out of all this is, 'Guess what? This is cinema!' We're going to take it to a cinema. People are going to come to watch it in a cinema or watch it at home or watch it in the best way possible. And the people who've watched it have appreciated it as a film and a story, and their story. They've seen a reflection of themselves. That gives me so much joy because the Kenyans who've watched it, when they give you feedback, they say, this is truth; this is our truth. And they don't see just an activist. They see a couple struggling with love. They see our history in the last 10 years. And they're like, 'What the hell, we lived this?' and they see the things that are unresolved — and many things are unresolved. Seeing that reaction gives me so much strength and hope. But it's hard. It's very hard. Because, you know, you have to wake up and see the policeman getting a bribe. And you're like, 'Homie??'

"SOFTIE" Movie Poster

Watch the trailer for Softie here.

Softie | Official Trailer | A film by Sam Soko

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