"There's no space for nuance in this social media era."
South African veteran rapper Stogie T—also known as Tumi Molekane—is a bitter OG according to South African hip-hop fans, some of whom may be familiar with his work as a solo artist, or with his now-defunct band The Volume.
All it took was him, at the South African Hip-Hop Awards last month, mentioning some artists who once recorded at his studio, in an attempt to remind the game of the role played by not only him but others of his generation, too. This was after Bradley "DJ Bionic" Williams' acceptance speech for his Lifetime Achievement award at the South African Hip Hop Awards was cut short. Stogie T, who is Williams' business partner, felt it was the best time to remind the game what role him and Williams played in the growth of hip-hop in South Africa like recording many artists before they blew up at his Motif Records studio.
Cassper Nyovest, who is currently one of the biggest rappers in the country, was among some of those mentioned by T. Probably owing to some criticism the veteran rapper has had about Nyovest's music in the past, the 27-year-old rapper didn't take kindly to T's words. "Tumi, you ain't done shit for me, bro," said Nyovest during an acceptance speech at the awards. The audience roared in both shock and amusement.
"He just made it about him," says T, a few days after the award show, as he sits for an interview in a boardroom at the Universal Music Group offices in Rosebank, Johannesburg.
After the awards, Twitter weighed in on the incident, with many expressing that T was jealous of Nyovest's success. The rapper Riky Rick, who's a Cassper Nyovest affiliate, chimed in. "I got respect for Tumi, but he needs to stop claiming niggaz' success," he tweeted.
Bro @CassperNyovest you may have heard wrong, @TumiMolekane didn't say he assisted you, he said WE (YOU) are all OF the same movement, what you are today is a part of what he is, to quote he said: “even Cassper and Riky recorded at my studio, as did others..." it's a fact.
— Bradley Williams (@bionicjozi) 14 December 2017
Riky and T have a history. In 2012, an up-and-coming Riky Rick signed to Motif Records, Tumi's label. Motif was then home to some of the most exciting left-field musicians in South Africa at the time—Reason, Samthing Soweto, Zaki Ibrahim, Perfecto, and of course T.
Riky left Motif shortly after releasing the hit single "Nafukwa." According to a 2016 interview with The Plug, T had to let Riky go because the music he had started making didn't resonate with him. "I didn't get some of that [Boss Zonke] sound," the rapper was quoted as saying, referring to Riky's Durban kwaito-esque mega-hit.
"I paid a lot of money to get out of the Motif contract. He should have left it there, instead of tryna bring it up in every track he puts out. Let it go," read the second part of Riky's tweet. The "every song he puts out" Riky is referring to is a line from the 2016 DJ Switch song "Way It Go," in which T appears alongside young rappers YoungstaCPT and Nasty C. T, then rapping under his real name, says:
"I want nice things/
Lil white fence with a nice swing in the back for my laaities/
And the Nikes they don't sell outta Sandton/
But you keep taking me back to that one thing:/
What happened with Riky?/
What happened at Back To The City?/
What numbers you shipping?/
What car is you whipping?/
You Hello Kitty, nigga, fuck is you thinking?"
The line "What happened with Riky?" was singled out by a lot of fans, as a shot to Riky.
Because, you know, hip-hop.
Riky Rick and Reason would then go on to give their side of the story on "Le Mpitse" by Cassper Nyovest and "Flavors" by Big Star, stating why they left the label. T cleared the air on his song "Clean Stuff."
But if you listen to T's whole verse on "Way It Go," you can pick up that he was mentioning questions people kept asking him–for instance; what was up when he released his most criticized song "Hello Kitty," what car he drives, and of course people were asking why Riky left Motif.
No Place for Nuance in Hip-Hop Commentary
This is where T's trouble begins. "There is no space for nuance in this social media era," says the rapper. "It's either black or white. For instance, you go, 'I haven't listened to the Shane Eagle album, and Shane goes: 'No one gives a fuck, you're not even verified.'
The veteran rapper is referring to the young rapper Shane Eagle's Twitter clap-back to respected hip-hop head, radio and TV presenter, Scoop Makhathini from November.
"It's like, what?!" T exclaims. "He's not saying, 'dawg, I will never listen to Shane Eagle's album, I'm not even bothered.' It's because we are kind of wired [for conflict]; everyone is on edge. And also, just the lack of nuance."
About a month ago, I wrote a scathing piece on how Cassper Nyovest is the poster boy for biting in South African hip-hop. I cited examples supporting my claims. I also mentioned how important of a voice the rapper is in South African hip-hop. I was, however, mostly labelled a hater in the comments section.
Well-intentioned criticism isn't generally well-received. South African hip-hop is special in this respect. Rappers will blacklist a whole publication for one journalist's opinion. For instance, AKA swore he would never again give an interview to the City Press after they had mentioned his name in an article about the rapper OkMalumKoolKat, who is still living with the consequences of his actions.
T has always been opinionated about rap–he gives both praise and critique. Recent examples aren't hard to find. For instance, in November, he insinuated Priddy Ugly's E.G.Y.P.T was a contender for album of the year.
In 2010, before Twitter and blogs conflated to sensationalize people's statements, T released a song called "Victory," which featured Zubz. On the song, which is a hidden track on T's sophomore solo album, Whole Worlds, the MC shared his thoughts on South African hip-hop at the time.
The genre, which had been struggling to win South Africans' hearts since the 80s, was gaining momentum with artists like HHP, Khuli Chana, Teargas, Pro and ProVerb as the front-runners. On "Victory," T opined that ego was ruining the motswako subgenre, and stated that the industry was "awarding the slow turtles." He held nothing back, and even name-dropped the likes of Da L.E.S, Pro, ProVerb, Khuli Chana, and more. He rapped:
"Skwatta went solo/
Flabba made porno/
Slikour went Patrice with that Ventilation logo/
He's more business than flow, so/
I'm feeling like a show off; too fast for the races/
When I go off, it's so wrong"
So, what he's doing now is nothing new. His tweets and ongoing Verse of the Month vlog on the website Slikour On Life are a continuation of his criticism. So it's ahistorical short-sightedness to simplify the rapper as a bitter OG who doesn't want the new school to flourish. There are plenty of bitter OGs—we all know of the friction between the old and new generations. We've heard Pete Rock wholesale dismiss new school rap many times. Earlier last year, he was asked if no artist in the new generation was making potent hip-hop. His answer was, "No." This as he was seated a few metres away from Vince Staples.
This is, however, not the case with Stogie T.
Out of the few rappers from his era that are still active, T is the most visible to the new school. And as much as he criticizes them at times, he also gets the beauty of new school rappers, which a lot of OGs don't. T has collaborated with AKA, Nasty C, YoungstaCPT, Emtee, Da L.E.S and a lot of other new school artists.
Of course T's commentary can't be taken as the gospel without being scrutinized and challenged (not even Kool Herc gets that pass). But it is necessary, and, if taken for what it actually is, should create needed open conversations, and keep hip-hop from becoming a free-for-all for anyone who has access to FL Studio and autotune, and the ability to imitate their favorite American rap star.
A lot of artists and respected voices are currently quiet. Which has resulted in South African hip-hop being a mess. It's the silence of artists and commentators alike that allows artists to get away with blatant biting, lying about numbers, and thus distorting the genre as it grows. Those few who call bullshit out are always dismissed as haters.
T is aware of how important the strides hip-hop makes through Nyovest's "cultural moments."
"I've never been to any of the Fill Ups," he says. "I have never been in the country when a Fill Up was happening. But I bought tickets to all of them. My wife attended [Fill Up] The Dome. Even me going to the store and buying a bunch of items for me, my kids and my wife… like, let's support the dude."
Noticing how his opinions on music are always taken out of context, the veteran rapper tried to explain himself at the biggest hip-hop gathering in South Africa, Back To The City in April of 2017.
Right before inviting Emtee to join him for a performance of their hit song "By Any Means," T made a disclaimer, "Shout out to Riky Rick, shout out to Cassper, shout out to Emtee, shout to Reason, shout out to Youngsta. I love the game. I know you guys might think, these OGs are funny, they don't like these young bucks. If you've ever said some shit like that, let them know right now, I love all' em motherfuckcers, I fuck with everything they do. If something is trash, I will call it trash, because that's how I live, all right. if something is dope, I'ma call it dope, that's how I live, all right. I don't hate nobody. I don't talk on people's personal shit. I just talk about rap music."
Asked how he feels about how hip-hop takes his criticism, his response is, "It's difficult. And I understand that one must just shut the fuck up, or keep these kinds of conversations in-house, which is so tragic. I understand I'm not adding anything really when I say, 'yo, your song is trash.' Especially just that line. You are leaving too much room for interpretation. Even that disclaimer still leaves much room." He goes on to add that even if he were to break down the whole song he's criticizing, it would still be taken out of context, and he be reduced to a hater.
The Evolution from Tumi to Stogie T
Tumi's transition from an MC/poet performing "conscious" songs with a band, to a cigar-smoking bourgeois rapper has divided his fanbase. He has lost some of his old fans, and gained hordes of new ones, most of them not familiar with his earlier work.
It's not an uncommon thing to hear a Stogie T song on the radio in 2018. That was unheard of just a few years ago. Tumi and his band The Volume were celebrated more in Europe, where he signed a deal with the French indie label, Sakifo, which saw him and the band touring in Europe while South Africa turned a blind eye.
Songs of Tumi and the Volume's such as, among others, "76," "Yvonne," and "People of the Light" were staples in the underground circuit. So, when he rapped, "I'm evolving, so keep calling me conscious/ I'm eating four courses at the Four Seasons resort," on "Big Dreams," one of the first songs he released as Stogie T in 2016, it was confusing for a lot of fans who liked Tumi for his socially-conscious lyrics.
"I feel like people loved me for my message, not because I'm a great rapper," he says. "I did a show at The Lyric Theatre with [the band] The Rebirth of Cool a few months ago. When I performed "76," they were like 'oh jah, uyabona manje Tumi..., so they want that Biko stuff. But when I performed a straight rap joint, still fucking potent…" he whistles and looks away, imitating the audience's disinterest.
Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela.
This is the same impression I've been having of how I see some of my friends and people I follow on social media responding to Stogie T's transition, especially the self-titled album. The album got written off by those who judged it at face value; for the rapper's choice of production, its cover art, and his boundless subject matter.
What Tumi did with Stogie T was to free himself from the confines of being seen as just a conscious rapper, and shared his reality with his listeners.
"I'm in a different place," he explains the transition. "I'm not worried about who won [the] best rap [award], I'm worried about: is there a discount at the Diamond Walk? That's where I'm at, bro. What these Bitcoins looking like?
"Also my politics have changed," he continues. "I used to look at power with suspicion. And I would look at the poor as righteous, [but] I don't anymore. I'm grown up enough to know that there are shit people on either end of the spectrum. And there are beautiful people, too. So, you look at things on a case-by-case basis. You acknowledge that you must be vigilant of power, that it doesn't become pathological. Also, poverty doesn't make you righteous at all. It makes you poor, bro. Makes you vulnerable."
But is he a lesser rapper than he was as Tumi? Hell no. Stogie T has more flair and personality compared to Tumi. And his rhymes are less wordy and more accessible, with subtle but brilliant wordplay you are highly likely to catch after several listens.
His politics have changed, yes, but he isn't as divorced to social consciousness as many make him to be. On songs like "Going Gorilla," "Honey and Pain," "Sub City," "We Own This Bitch," "Pray for Us," he touches on social issues with impressive eloquence.
He's aware of the mixed reactions from his audience. "Everyone goes, 'you know this Stogie T thing is weird.' Bro, ask me why," he says. "You know what's happening, they're assuming the why. They're assuming, 'he wants to be relevant.' He pauses before continuing, "Ask me why. No one cares. I've subsequently had discussions with some people, and they're like, 'this fake cigar Rick Ross thing you're trying isn't working. Then I do a video like 'Son of a Soldier,' and they're like, that's more like it."
The transition from Tumi to Stogie T felt sudden. It came a year after the release of Return of the King (2015), his stellar third album as a solo artist. It was announced in that same year. We just didn't catch it, because T's music is a Holy Grail of some sort.
"The Journey," he says referring to his 2016 EP, a collaborative effort with the French trio Chinese Man, "is literally me announcing to everybody that this Tumi thing is dead."
He quotes the line, "Warriors without a war/ Soldiers without a cause," from the song "Ronin" off of The Journey. "I'm saying, 'I don't think there's a place for this guy anymore; this guy who's this skillful MC, this passionate MC-artist. He's looking out and he's like, 'they don't want this anymore. There's no place for me,' and with that album, I was like, 'I'm done.' And, at the back of that, there was this thing that came."
This thing is not what the fans who have abandoned him think it is. Being Stogie T is more challenging than being Tumi. "It's like you literally go, 'okay these are the parameters,'" he says explaining the technicalities behind his one-year-old moniker.
"You put…" he draws a small square on the table, "and say, 'now, innovate. Make the room smaller, and innovate.' People think I dumbed down, and I explain to them that it was actually so difficult to not just spray [all over] like I used to." He says this as he raises his hands like an artist spraying on a wall, referring to his versatility, a trait he's been known for, his whole career. T would rap over almost any type of beat–pulling different flows, and work with artists of all genres.
So, would he go back to being Tumi? His answer is a resounding "no."
"I am very happy with what I did," he says, "and right now [going back to being Tumi] is of no use to me. I definitely want to do this a bit more. To just kind of explore the Stogie thing, maybe insert a little more of the stuff that I do know. With the Stogie T album, there was really a balance of making it sonically cohesive, getting to the point sooner, but still not compromising the quality or the dexterity of the skill."
The rapper is talking to me about all these things that should make him bitter–being misunderstood can be stressful. But he assures me he sleeps well at night. "Like a baby, bro."
His calm demeanor makes me believe him. "Right now, as I'm looking at your tweets, I'm walking my dog, smoking a cigar," he says as if talking to the people on Twitter. "Who's worried about this shit? I, [however], always interrogate my role in things. Like, okay, maybe a bit more grace or decorum would have sufficed [in this particular case]. 'Don't be too reckless,' and I think I need to follow that advice."
We also seriously need to start viewing people's opinions and criticism for what it actually is. It doesn't always boil down to jealousy, hate or bitterness. South African hip-hop is at a critical stage where it could either explode or implode, and logical commentary will play a huge role in the genre's longevity.