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Tellaman. Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela.

Tellaman’s ‘God Decides’ Explores the Ups & Downs of Love While Dream Chasing

Tellaman's debut album is a nod to his devout Christian upbringing, but remains secular in its content.

Any religious sentiments from an artist known for his overtly sexual lyrics was always going to raise eyebrows. Regardless, a conceptually-driven album guarantees a spin over here, ever more so when you take into account South Africa's Tellaman's impressive roster of collaborations including DJ Speedsta ("Mayo"), Kwesta ("Act Like") and frequent work with Nasty ("Don't B.A.B.").

God Decides is a nod to Tellaman's journey, as well as the trajectory of his personal relationships. The new album serves as the Durban native's latest opportunity to exhibit a body of work after Lucid Dream and Mind vs Heart. The 27-year-old singer, producer and songwriter, born Thulumusa Samuel Owen, breaks down the album's concept via an e-mail to OkayAfrica: "God Decides is about Tellaman meeting a girl he loves while trying to make it as a musician, and trying to make both work. But at some point, she fails to understand that the industry gets the best of me. Being in a relationship and trying to make it as a musician is a very hard thing to pull off, and as a matter of fact I haven't figured it out yet."


Accordingly, the album is based on a previous relationship and incorporates skits from different vantage points, lending it a balanced perspective. What Tellaman achieves throughout this listen is maintaining an uptempo vibe despite exploring varied subject matter. Tracks like "Extra," "Calm Down," "Contemplating" and "Own Up," for example, tackle the hardships faced in young relationships. These songs still manage to be bops while addressing infidelity, feuding, temptation and accountability.

Read: The 10 Best Tellaman Features

Tellaman's sonic touch, meanwhile, is pretty clear on the ditty "Cross My Heart," which shares its tropical orientation with the opening half of "No Sharing (The Distance)." The radio friendliness continues on the compelling "Whipped," which features Nasty C and Shekhinah. That sunny disposition is traded for the dim lights of the club as the bass-heavy "Hit Me Up" sees Tellaman croon the risqué lyrics; "Thinking 'bout excuses for your daddy and your mum/ I will touch you so good they'll see it in your strut."

Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela.

That sexually charged energy is matched on "If I Had A Type," another visceral banger. In keeping with his influences—Kehlani, London, Young Thug and Future, among others—Tellaman evokes emotion by not shying away from any topics, explicit or not. It's something he believes is central to R&B and a trait espoused by older artists he admires like T-Pain and producer Darkchild. At many moments of God Decides Tellaman gets introspective and ties the album's undertone of pre-destiny together.

"Note To Self (UDI)" is a self-reflexive ballad featuring Rowlene. It's perhaps the song most emblematic of the album; expressing views on life and love in the same breath. It also lets us into the personal nature of God Decides. "I talk about a lot of different things in my music, good and bad. Those things are what's going on or what has been going on in my life," Tellaman reveals. On "Perfect Ain't Coming," the artist addresses the translucence of fame with the lyrics: "No halos above me, just my bros beside me and these flaws I got."

These lines are symbolic of Tellaman's self awareness, but more especially, display the rhythmic flows he employs throughout the project. This is where Tellaman's versatility shines through, informed by his exposure to multiple genres. "My sound is R&B," Tellaman says. "I just love exploring and trying to find and learn new things, so I feel like if you put a specific style or genre to your music, that's when you start being in a box. This is just the way I feel about me and my music." It's definitely R&B with a smidgeon of house, Afropop and hip-hop. "Are You With It" makes a solid case for the album's standout record. The sample of Keith Sweat's "Twisted" is simultaneously current and nostalgic.

Perhaps that's the best thing about God Decides: it's sonically-varied yet conceptually tight and draws from tradition while remaining atypical. And although no one can control every aspect of their lives and God ultimately does Decide, this project proves that Tellaman has a firm grasp of his musical talents. Now let the church say, "Amen!"

Download God Decides here.



Follow Tellman on Twitter.


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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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