Interview: Mshayi & Mr Thela Are Reviving Cape Town’s Gqom Scene With Their Unique Take on the Genre
Cape Town duo Mshayi & Mr Thela on their sound and latest EP 'Make Cape Town Great Again': 'People have named us the pioneers of "gqom gospel" and we love that.'
Gqom is synonymous with the city of Durban and its vibrant club culture. As the genre rose to mainstream prominence around 2016/17, deejays and producers from other South African cities began to play it in their sets and subsequently, produce their interpretations of the genre.
Cape Town producers have flirted with the genre many times, but were sometimes criticised for imitating their Durban counterparts. For instance, Distruction Boyz's 2017 mega-hit "Omunye", one of the biggest gqom songs ever, was composed by DJ Mphyd from Khayelitsha, Cape Town. However, there was a copyright investigation claiming the song had striking similarities to DJ Lag's "Trip to New York".
Since then, they have found and refined their own gqom sound. "Emotional gqom" or "gospel gqom", as it is casually known, is distinguishable by its use of dynamic basslines, lush strings and saws, leads, pads, and other synths, all syncopated with drums to create melodies that are akin to South African charismatic church hymns. It is widely popular in Cape Town and the Eastern Cape.
Mr Thela, one half of the duo Mshayi & Mr Thela, was one of the early adopters of the sound. His peculiar production has landed him a placement on Babes Wodumo's latest album, Idando Kazi, and is what assembled him and Mshayi, after working together on the songs "Shaya" and "iParty".
The duo's recently released EP, Make Cape Town Great Again, showcases what the pair and Cape Town have to offer to the gqom palette. OkayAfrica caught up with the duo to discuss the gqom scene in Cape Town, their sound and new EP.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Your EP is titled Make Cape Town Great Again. Can you tell us what you mean by this phrase and how you intend on making the city great again?
The "Make Cape Town Great Again" phrase is driven by how Cape Town has lost its reverence in so many ways and we want to bring that back, and currently music and entertainment is the only way we know how to. We are fighting to get our city into the mainstream lines alongside Joburg and Durban for people to see what Cape Town has to offer. There's so much talent in Cape Town that's not getting the necessary recognition nationally.
The cover art of the EP shows the contrast between the townships and suburbs in Cape Town. Why did you choose to show that aspect of your city as the cover?
We wanted to show where we come from and to also inspire other people from the same backgrounds as us that where you come from doesn't determine how your future will be. You don't have to have a rich upbringing in order to make your dreams come true.
Also, we wanted to put it out there that Cape Town is not only about V&A Waterfront, Table Mountain and Robben Island, but that there is life and talent in the ghetto streets of Samora, Khayelitsha and other townships.
Image courtesy of artists.
For someone who has never been to Cape Town, how would you describe the gqom scene there? What are some of the places that play, support and provide a platform for gqom deejays?
Gqom is the most dominant sound in the Cape Town party scene. You hear it at night clubs in town, townships... everywhere. Gqom brings life to the party scene and a night is not complete without gqom sounds.
You have a distinct gqom sound. Growing up, what genre of music did you listen to and who are some of your influences?
Mshayi: I grew up listening to soulful house and afro (house) beats until I got introduced to the gqom sounds by Mr Thela. There was something special about his sound that made me fall in love with the genre.
Mr Thela: I'm a PK (pastor's kid), so I grew up in church listening to gospel and playing the keyboard at church, hence my sounds have a touching melody infused in them.
You have influenced the sonics of gqom in Cape Town and the Eastern Cape, people refer to it as emotional gqom or gqom gospel. Do you have a name for it?
We don't have a specific name for the gqom that we produce, people have named us the pioneers of gqom gospel and we love that, after all we are for the people.
People on social media are always comparing "Cape Town gqom" with "Durban gqom" and some claim Cape Town gqom is better. What do you have to say to such claims?
We don't like the comparison because we all are doing the same thing, which is producing music that makes people happy. Yes, our gqom is different because it has a special touch to it, but we still regard ourselves the same as other producers.
Some people may know Mr Thela as a solo artist or from when he used to work with uBizza Wethu. When and why did the two of you decide to become a duo?
It was towards the end of last year when we were working on [the song] "iParty". Our love and drive for music was in sync and we decided to join forces, and the rest is history.
Mshayi, Mr Thela & Bethusile- Ngekhe Badaniswe www.youtube.com
The "iParty" instrumental was first released under the title "Sul' Inyembezi". What was the creative process behind the making of "iParty" and how has the reception of the song been?
The beat "Sul' Inyembezi" was a nice beat on its own, but we knew it wouldn't go as far as it has now without vocals. We saw an opportunity to make a hit out of the beat and we jumped on it.
The reception has been amazing, the song is still one of the best gqom songs from when it was released in late January until now. Radio airplay and social media have been going crazy, and even the charts on digital music stores can back up what we're saying.
The lyrics of "iParty" say, "Noba kungavalwa thina songena kuvaliwe'' (we will enter even though the doors may be closed). Would you say you have been able to do that, and made people pay attention to your music?
Definitely. Our struggle has been heard, and with this song, we have opened doors that we have never thought we would and we believe a lot is still to come. We will fight until this song becomes the next "Sister Betina" (one of SA's most loved dance songs from the mid 2000s).
Your recent single, "Ngeke Badaniswe" features renowned gospel artist Betusile. Why did you decide on collaborating with him on a gqom song?
Our gqom has a special gospel melody to it. We decided to collaborate with Betusile since our target market loves him so much and he thought it would also be great for the older age group to know that gqom is not only about the night life, drugs and alcohol, but is music that can actually soothe and revive your spirit as well.
For any one who is not familiar with you or your music, why should they check out the EP?
The music we produce is special and diverse. It's not only for the youth but also touches the heart and can be listened to by anyone, anywhere, at any time.