In his memoir, one of South Africa's revered lyricists ProVerb and his co-author compromise his rich story with trite motivational talk.
The Book of Proverb
ProVerb has had a strange relationship with the SA hip-hop scene. Albeit being one of the most gifted lyricists the country has ever seen, he has grown to flow less and hustle more. Despite this, his name still comes up when the greatest (South) African rappers of all time are mentioned. MTV Base placed him as the 7th in their list of the greatest SA MCs of all time in 2018 for example.
The rapper-turned-media personality dedicates a paragraph of his memoir, The Book of Proverb, to explaining his complicated relationship with hip-hop. "Although I built my brand as a hip-hop artist, I never enjoyed full support or success from it," he writes. "Music is and always will remain a passion, but it stopped being viable when it stopped making business sense to me. If I was given more support, I might continue, but for now, I'll focus on my other hustles."
On the cover of the book which was released towards the end of 2020 by Penguin, Verb is wearing a charcoal blazer and sporting a white ball cap, so one can be forgiven for getting into it expecting both sides of his story. This memoir, however, is too vague to be a worthy read if you aren't necessarily reading to get motivated but to be simply informed and inspired.
While a few of The Book of ProVerb's chapters touch on his rap career, most of the book is about ProVerb the man, personality and businessman. Not so much one of the country's finest lyricists. This omission is a huge slap in the face for his fans and SA hip-hop fans in general.
Verb of Advice
Ironically, every chapter of the book is named after a ProVerb song while a majority of the chapters themselves don't place his music at the epicenter. The first chapter titled "Microphone Sweet Home", a name it shares with one of ProVerb's most memorable songs. The chapter begins just as the main microphone in ProVerb's life is about to become the one he uses as host of Idols SA and his other TV presenting and radio gigs. The Book of Proverb thus begins as Verb makes the pivot from rapper to TV presenter.
The book is being marketed as a "hustler's manifesto," and Verb and his co-author Paballo Rampa fill its pages with trite motivational talk. While there's nothing wrong with motivation, especially coming from an accomplished hustler like Verb, that kind of writing simply doesn't make for a great memoir. It's not a memoir's job to tell the reader to trust the process, or that it's up to them to define success for themselves, or that life is about evolving—actual thoughts shared in The Book of ProVerb.
Inspiration is necessary, but it's more meaningful when inferred—it's up to the reader what lessons they take from a story. A good artist memoir spends a lot of its time archiving not just the artist's life but their art, too.
Proverb Microphone sweet home www.youtube.com
Verb and his co-author make it a point to counter every pitfall mentioned with preachy advice. As a result; years of the man's life and career get squeezed into a few pages, stripped of any fat as Verb rushes to share the moral of almost every story told in the book.
Even some parts of the book that promise to be engaging end up nowhere. For instance in the chapter fittingly titled "My Vers'd Love"—dedicated to Verb's music career—he tells the story of how he and the late Pro were pitted against each other, leading to Verb battling Pro unprepared during an event at the Rand Easter Show. The story lacks the details that could make it a valuable anecdote, especially as told by the main subject. It is, instead, treated as one of many vaguely described events ProVerb brings up as he briefly reminisces about his rap career.
I read The Book of ProVerb just after reading Rakim's memoir Don't Sweat The Technique: Revelations on Creativity from the Lyrical Genius (2020). In the latter, Rakim devotes chapters to his raps, breaking down his thought process and telling stories about his life and career. The book's format is almost similar to Jay-Z's Decoded—it's half narrative, half lyric explication. A format that could have worked perfectly for The Book of ProVerb.
It's why one begins to question if ProVerb chose the right team to tell his story. I couldn't help but think of the several journalists and writers who know ProVerb and South African hip-hop's story well. The likes of Simone Harris, Fred Mercury, Helen Herimbi, Tseliso Monaheng, Mercia Tucker, etc. have observed and, some of them, written about ProVerb's music and career for years. Any one of them could have steered The Book of ProVerb in the right direction.
How does ProVerb write a whole book and not share meaningful stories about working with Nyambz, Battlekat, D Mongz, Zubz, Stogie T, Outrageous Records and more of the SA hip-hop royalty he is part of? Not even a young chapter dedicated to Outrageous?
The book feels ahistorical at times and at others misrepresents its subject. For instance, in "My Vers'd Love", Slaghuis gets mistaken for the festival Back To The City—an error that, on their worst days, none of the aforementioned writers would make. It's just an unacceptable mix-up, the kind that's almost inevitable whenever the establishment overlooks its storytellers and tries to tell hip-hop's story itself.
Out The Box
What's a source of confusion is that ProVerb is well aware of what he means to his core fanbase. How then does an artist's memoir just smooth over his art and fail to treat it with half the reverence fans attach to it?
Prior to the release of The Book of ProVerb, ProVerb shared detailed bits and pieces of his backstory in a YouTube series called Out The Box. In the series, which ran in 2020, he tells stories of performing at the SAMAs in 2007 (a hilarious tale that speaks to hip-hop's well-documented mistreatment by mainstream platforms), feeling small around Zubz and Stogie T during the recording of "Performance of Your Life", touring with Mr Selwyn and many more exciting moments.
Out the Box EP 1 - The Samas 2007 | ProVerb www.youtube.com
The Book of ProVerb doesn't attempt to treat any of the rapper's albums or songs as bodies of work at all. Just like many rappers from the 2000s era, ProVerb didn't achieve substantial commercial success with his music, and maybe The Book of Proverb, The Manuscript and all his other albums never went gold or platinum, but does that make them any less important? It's the story of many classics—Illmatic isn't one of the best-selling hip-hop albums of all time, but it holds a great place in hip-hop history and, most importantly in the hearts of Nas fans.
In an episode of Out The Box, Proverb beautifully breaks down the line, "It took me long like a bout with Tyson, no doubt/ The heavyweight bites, but it was finally knocked out" from "Microphone Sweet Home". While, of course, the brilliance of that line is known to Verb fans, it's the backstory he shares that adds yet another layer. According to the emcee, "heavyweight" can also be flipped to "heavy wait" as, he explains, "it took long to release this album—it was heavy to wait, and it bit, but it was finally knocked out."
Proverb - Rise of the underdog www.youtube.com
In another episode, he shares the backstory of finishing his "Rise of the Underdog" verse on the way to the studio. It's one of Verb's most memorable performances and appeared on the Joburg underground rap collective Landmynz's mixtape Perigo Minas Vol. 2 and also Hype Session Vol. 12 in 2007. With such illuminating anecdotes, verbatim transcripts of Out The Box episodes would make for better reading.
Some parts of The Book of ProVerb are grabbing, owing to the sincerity with which he shares the stories—"Marry Me", the chapter about his highly publicised divorce, "Women", one about his mother, and some anecdotes like buying the masters of his album The Book of ProVerb only to learn it's impossible to clear the samples and release it on streaming platforms. The story of hopping from Outrageous to Creative Kingdom and, as a result, having to change a line from the song "Say Something" (the line "Until Creative get rid of me" was originally "Until Outrageous get rid of me"). All beautiful.
Flipping the first page of The Book of Proverb, silly me was hoping to read similar recollections about his art and, of course, the rest of his other ventures. Unfortunately, there are very few of those moments in the book as ProVerb and Rampa choose to incessantly force motivation down the reader's throats. Maybe this is really what ProVerb makes of his story, and he has every right to choose how to frame it, but South African hip-hop and ProVerb himself deserved better.
The Book of ProVerb by Tebogo Thekisho and Paballo Rampa is out now everywhere.
This piece is part of Sabelo Mkhabela's South African hip-hop column. He's happy to debate you on Twitter: @sabzamk.
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