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Return of the King: Tumi Molekane Reflects On 10 Years In Hip-Hop

In the lead-up to his third studio album, 'Return of the King,' Tumi Molekane reflects on 10 years in hip-hop.


For 10 years now Johannesburg-based emcee Tumi Molekane has been putting pen to paper and prose to performance. From his debut album Music From My Good Eye and his time with The Volume, to perfecting his solo act and selling out New York City's historic Apollo Theater, Tumi has undoubtedly earned the right to call himself hip-hop royalty. In the lead-up to the Return of the King (Tumi's third studio album), we checked in with the controversial wordsmith to talk identity, legacy, and iconic images from throughout his decade-spanning career.

Shiba for Okayafrica: Who is Tumi Molekane in the world, when no one is listening?

Tumi Molekane: A father, a husband, a son, an entrepreneur, a visionary, a leader, a king.

OKA: How does that version of yourself parallel the public’s various ideas of you, especially in conjunction with the release of "In Defence of My Art" and subsequently Mr Nice Guy?

Tumi: Through the art I produce. I don't put on a mask or switch on a swag or dress up in a hip-hop suit. I speak from the position you might hear a vet or a doctor speak from, a member of a community with a different gift.

OKA: Your words, which clearly you have to choose carefully now more than ever, have reached academics (like, Professor Adam Haupt analyzing "76" in his book Stealing Empire), heads and even your daughter’s ears. Isn’t that a lot for one person to negotiate in one’s head? Can you tell us the beauty and the curse of something like that being your life?

Tumi: The beauty is I am a considered and highly conscious human being. One is acutely aware of pain, joy, discomfort, love and hate. The darker side to that is one can become shackled by this knowledge, harder to be impulsive, move lightly, freely. It can frustrate the child in you.

OKA: 140 characters or less doesn’t seem fair, so let’s get into it a bit more. Tell us about what the goal was behind "In Defence Of My Art." Even if the mark was missed, give us the grit on your attempt to comment on the violence, the misogyny, the tribalism and all of what makes SA what it is today.

Tumi: We wanted to reflect the gun culture that extends from freedom fighters loving their instruments to boers who fought the British and feel the same. I held an AK47 years before I held a toy gun, I could tell you that Rambo's gun was an R1 and that MR T's preferred weapon was the Uzi not because of television but because my mum would routinely tell me these things. I gained most of my black consciousness awakening through the stories of patriarchs, men who fought other men and disregarded their women's rights, people who became the very ills they sought to eradicate. I live in a rape country. Where most of my female friends and family are victims of violence. I have been a cheat, a dog, a chauvinist more times than I have been checked for it. I know powerful women who fight other women for their men. This is the motif we presented. There are other subtleties that I haven't spoken on but this as well as Kyle's [Kyle Lewis] edgy and race visual style informed the video. Also, I might add, it's very disappointing to have to explain an explanation.

OKA: What would you want to ask someone who's just heard your music for the first time?

Tumi: “How does it make you feel?”

OKA: At one point Madala Kunene was booed off stage at a concert because the crowd wanted Culoe De Song, Meanwhile, folks online think they can say we should stop caring about Lauryn Hill. What are your thoughts on music becoming something for the people rather than for the artist him/herself and that dynamic between audiences and artists of a shared experience like music?

Tumi: I think it's an interesting phenomenon, one that I am sure didn't start recently. I think a vanguard is still important, Madala Kunene is the tree from which a talent such as Culoe picks from. The problem I think might be that the two aren't in a cultural landscape where they can coexist. I mean I am sure they can, it's as easy as Culoe inviting him on stage but for them to present their respective creations, those spaces are quickly disappearing. Also there is the issue of what do we do with a Madala Kunene who doesn't have the space anymore, cuz Culoe doesn't have that problem. I think we treasure a Madala by creating systems that promote and support the passing down of his genius.

OKA: In all your 10 years, what has been the most difficult challenge to overcome?

Tumi: Relationship management. It's a highly self-absorbed life and it can make you turn everyone into an audience even your kids. It needs you to keep emotionally intelligent people around you.

>>>Click through for pt. 2 of our interview + 10 photos hand-selected by Tumi

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Cover of Isha Sesay's 'Beneath the Tamarind Tree'

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***

"We should burn these girls!"

"No, let's take them with us!"

"Why not leave them here?"

The men were still arguing, dozens of them trading verbal blows while Saa and the other horrified girls looked on. None of the men seemed particularly troubled by the fact that the lives of almost three hundred schoolgirls hung in the balance. Amid all the yelling, the girls had been divided into groups. Each batch would burn in a different room in the school buildings that were aflame just a few feet away. Tensions were escalating when a slim man with outsize eyes suddenly appeared. Saa had never seen him before. Like many of the insurgents, he too looked young and was just as scruffy. But when he spoke, tempers seemed to cool for a moment.

"Ah! What are you trying to do?"

"We wanted to burn them!"

"Why not take them with us, since we have an empty vehicle?"

His suggestion triggered a fresh round of quarreling. The same positions were expressed, and the newcomer continued to calmly repeat his idea of taking the girls with them, till he finally got his way. The girls later discovered his name was Mallam Abba. He was a commander.

"Follow us!" the men shouted.

None of it made any sense to Saa. Why? To where? As the insurgents shuffled her out of the compound, she felt as if her whole life were on fire. All Saa could see was the ominous orange glow of flames consuming every one of her school buildings. With every step, the fears within her grew. She struggled to make sense of the competing thoughts throbbing in her head. This isn't supposed to be happening. The insurgents had asked about the boys and the brick-making machine; they'd systematically emptied the school store, carrying bag after bag of foodstuffs and loading all of it into the huge waiting truck. With everything now packed away, Saa had thought the insurgents would simply let the girls go home. After all, that's what had happened during their previous attacks on schools—they'd always let the schoolgirls go, after handing out a warning to abandon their education and strict instructions to get married. Saa had simply expected the same thing to happen once more, not this.

She scanned the crowd of faces surrounding her; the creased brows and startled expressions of the others made it clear that everyone was equally confused. Whatever the turmoil they were feeling, they kept it to themselves. No one said a word. Saa fell into a sort of orderly scrum with the men corralling and motioning her forward with their guns, each weapon held high and pointed straight at the girls.

Saa and Blessing moved in unison, along with the hundreds of others, snaking along in the dark through the open compound gate, past the small guard post usually occupied by Mr. Jida, which now sat empty. Yelling came from nearby Chibok town. Saa could smell burning, then heard the sound of gunshots and people running. It was bedlam.

Just beyond the compound walls sat a crowd of bushes. As she and the men moved out into the open, Saa felt their thorns spring forward, eager to pull at her clothing and scratch and pierce her body. Careful not to yell out in pain, she tried to keep her clothes beyond the reach of the grasping thicket with no time to pause and examine what might be broken skin.

Saa retreated into herself and turned to the faith that had anchored her entire life. Lord, am I going to die tonight, or will I survive? Desperate to live, unspoken prayers filled her mind and she pleaded, repeatedly, God save me.

She was still praying as they walked down the dirt path away from the flaming school. The shabby-looking men with their wild eyes gave no explanation or directions. They simply motioned with their heads and the sweep of their rifles, making it clear to keep moving. As the reality began to sink in, Saa felt her chest tightening. Her heart was going to beat its way out of her body. But she couldn't allow herself to cry or make any sound. Any kind of display would make her a target, and who knew what these men might do?

The insurgents walked alongside, behind, and in front of her; they were everywhere. Every time Saa looked around, their menacing forms filled her view. Initially, all the girls were steered away from the main road and onto a rambling path overgrown with bushes; the detour was likely made in an attempt to avoid detection.

Parents lining up for reunion with daughters (c) Adam Dobby


***

This excerpt was published with permission from the author. 'Beneath the Tamarind Tree' is available now.

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