Op-Ed

Tumi Molekane is the Only OG Releasing Albums We Care About

Sabelo Mkhabela talks Tumi Molekane's new Stogie T album in the latest edition of his South African hip-hop column for Okayafrica.

Welcome to the fifth instalment of Cape Town-based music journalist and radio host Sabelo Mkhabela‘s South African hip-hop column for Okayafrica.


South African rap OGs like ProVerb and HHP are still releasing albums. Which is a great thing. But their music just doesn’t have the same impact as it used to in the mid-2000s and early 2010s. Maintaining a rap career, especially in South Africa, is tough. The lifespan of an artist in the mainstream is scarily short. Skwatta Kamp, Teargas, Pitch Black Afro, all had their time.

Then there is Tumi Molekane. He has maintained a rap career that spans more than a decade. And, unlike his counterparts, his music still matters. When he releases an album in 2016, it’s still a thing. His latest album, Stogie T, opened at number one on South Africa’s iTunes.

The rapper recently changed his name to Stogie T. The music is a little different, too, sounding more mainstream than his previous releases. One way T has been able to remain relevant is by understanding the game and his position in it. Also, by staying true to himself, while still progressing; by not sticking to one sound and telling the same stories.

Tumi understands that music changes. He might not be entirely happy with the direction South African rap music has taken (as expressed on his song “Too Long”), but unlike the average OG, he understands that new school rap isn’t all trash.

“Just because people are not rapping as prolifically as they did before,” he wrote on Instagram a few weeks ago, “doesn’t mean hip-hop has gotten worse. I actually believe there is magic in how young artists can catch a vibe or wave and build something you can feel without a clear formula or science.”

It reflects in his own music. Even though, he remains the potent lyricist he was on his earlier projects, T is constantly changing. His first solo album Music from my Good Eye (2006) had its own character, as did his second, Whole Worlds (2010). On the latter, he featured the kwaito star Brickz on the lead single “Bambezela.” That was way before working with kwaito artists was a thing for hip-hop.

Return of the King was pure genius. It had a sound that tied it together, and featured an array of guests. And it still didn’t sound like a DJ compilation. Live at the Bassline (2004), Tumi and the Volume (2006), Pick a Dream (2010), the three albums he released with the band The Volume, all sound different. And let’s not forget The Journey, his 2015 collaboration with French producer trio Chinese Man.

Stogie T is another coherent body of work. T always knows what he wants from an artist when he features them. He will put lyricists such as AKA and Nasty C only on the hook (“Miss Joburg,” “Clean Stuff”), and have Da L.E.S just talking crap and not rapping (“Freakend”), because he feels that’s what they are good for on that particular song.

Tumi doesn’t force change to fit in. Neither does he try to create the same album over and over again, which a lot of rap artists who have been in the game for years usually do. And it’s not just in South Africa; in the U.S., an artist like The Game will either feature whoever’s hot at the moment and end up with a scattered project or tell the same stories over and over again with another iteration of The Documentary.

On Stogie T, Tumi is giving us his reality. He isn’t a struggling up-and-comer borrowing money from his mother anymore, like he was on the song “Breathe” from Music from my Good Eye. He now has rich people problems. He is eating four-course meals at Cape Town’s Four Seasons Resort (“Diamond Walk”). On “By Any Means,” he raps, “It was hard for my bae/ We struggled to pay/ She stuck it out with a nigga, now it’s hard to figure St Tropez or Champs-Élysées.”

A rapper like ProVerb (one of Tumi’s peers) is also pretty good at giving us his reality. But it’s the music ‘Verb chooses that kind of lets him down. Recently he has chosen to produce most of his stuff, which hasn’t helped much. With Tumi, however, the music is forever exciting. And that feat comes with challenging himself, failing if he has to, or roping in young talent—such as the producers Tweezy and Tru Hitz—and having them work out of their comfort zone to achieve his desired sound. He’s the type of artist who would rather fail trying to progress than play it safe with the same tried-and-tested formula.

T was trying something new on “Hello Kitty,” a song which didn’t work for his fans. “I was leaving an incredible legacy with a band,” he told me last year. “I was like, ‘It’s new, guys, I’m now shooting in the dark and I’m reaching, and it’s important for you to see that process.’ And when you get to a track like “Broke People” you’re like, ‘Oh now I get it, the strokes are finer now’.”

It’s also his approach that sets him apart. While most artists collect beats and write to them, Tumi sits down with musicians and gives them his vision. On Return of the King, he had the Swiss producer, Fred Hirschy, design the album’s sound. The uniformity wasn’t a coincidence. It was craftsmanship at work.

The new album is another example. The emcee worked with musicians one wouldn’t picture him collaborating with, such as Nadia Nakai, Yanga, Da L.E.S and Emtee. Unlike that of most old school hip-hop heads, Tumi’s judgement of talent isn’t clouded by nostalgia; he recognizes talent for what it is. It explains why he signed Riky Rick to his Motif Records stable a few years ago. At the time, Motif’s roster included lyricists like Reason, Nova and Perfecto. Riky seemed an odd signing to many fans. He wasn’t half the lyricist Reason was, but that didn’t mean he was a bad artist. Tumi understood that. Riky is now one of the most successful artists in South Africa.

As an artist developer, he also catapulted an artist like Reason into the mainstream. Reason had released his debut album, The Reasoning, a few years prior. It made no impact, partly because of the nature of the music—it was nothing innovative. Tumi was the executive producer of Audio 3D, Reason’s first album under Motif Records, and the best of his career thus far. Tumi sat in on sessions and was involved creatively, pushing Reason to work out of his comfort zone. Most of the music on Audio 3D was electronic and EDM-related, a great departure from the tired boom bap production of The Reasoning. It goes to show what a genius Tumi is—he has the ability to craft progressive music without being a parody of what’s popular.

It doesn’t stop with music. Another way Tumi has been on people’s radar is through rap battles. He’s the only mainstream artist to participate in Scrambles For Money, South Africa’s biggest battle league. Most of the participants have been underground rappers. It takes guts to put yourself in that position as a reputable artist (ask Drake). T entered. His first battle was with the backpack rapper One-L. Losing that battle could have tainted his reputation. But T doesn’t play it safe. He’s forever progressing, rapping alongside new talent like Youngsta, Nasty C and Ginger Trill and thus ensuring his presence is felt by the new generation his peers fail to impress, and end up sneering upon.

It’s because of all the above, and probably more, that out of all the OGs who are still releasing albums, it’s Tumi’s that we genuinely care about. Not just for the legacy, but the actual music itself.

Sabelo Mkhabela is a writer from Swaziland, currently based in Cape Town. He also drops award-winning tweets as @SabzaMK.

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

'Beneath the Tamarind Tree'—an Excerpt From Isha Sesay's Book About Remembering the Chibok Girls

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Below is an excerpt from the seventh chapter in Sierra-Leonean journalist and author Isha Sesay's new book, "Beneath the Tamarind Tree," the "first definitive account" of what took place on the ground following the abduction of 276 schoolgirls by Boko Haram in 2014.

Continue on to read more, and revisit our interview with the reporter about why it's important for the world to remember the girls' stories, here.

***

"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.

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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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