South African Rapper Uno July On His Triumphant 'Skelem' Music Video

His first solo music video for "Skelem" is a work of art and singles Uno July out as a standout name in South African hip-hop.

Uno July is half of the revivalist South African hip-hop collective Ill Skillz and, months into his solo career, the eccentric rapper is claiming to be South Africa's best kept secret. The Cape Town MC dropped his first solo EP Best Kept Secret this past May, which he describes as "an avant-garde approach... drifting towards left field from the centre," that boasts an energetic manner and desire to merge old-school hip-hop with "new age textures" in a way reminiscent of Kendrick Lamar.

Uno July's first solo music video for "Skelem" is a stylish and recognizable work of art that displays youth simply enjoying being alive in the streets. What sets this video apart is the supreme editing skills and artistic vision of Tashinga Mutakwa combined with the undeniable charisma possessed by the rapper. Alternative angles, sporadic jump-cuts, aesthetically pleasing color palettes, futuristic silhouette shots and countless eye-catching filters are carved throughout "Skelem" making you want to hit the replay button if you blinked.

Below we spoke with the South African rapper about the meaning behind "Skelem," what it was like to shoot in his hometown of Gugulethu and his plans for the future.

Okayafrica: What does "Skelem" mean? How does it relate to the video?

Uno July: "Skelem" is an Afrikaans word directly translated as a thief or a villain, often insinuated in our local slang. However in the context of the song it alludes to a popular phrase often used as a ghetto slang/phrase when someone refers to another person as "buying face." So it has more to do with lambasting weird dynamics I normally come across within our society especially around impressionable people. It so happens that I have some famous friends and whenever we hangout around functions or in public, I cannot help notice how they receive proper treatment based on their stature or position while I would get undermined. Seeing that I had an opportunity to tackle this issue and bearing in mind the impact it would cause, I used this platform to reflect and throw some childhood memories and monumental references based on our hip-hop culture and South Africa's racial disparities, also not forgetting how I call out the music industry for attempting to black-ball the existence of my beloved crew Ill Skillz.

OKA: The editing is on-point. Did you get to work with Tashinga Mutakwa in editing and directing the video or did you leave it all to him?

UJ: Thank you. I let Tashinga handle the entire production including the editing with the assistance of his producer Des Dlamini. All I had to contribute was the primary concept which they took to a whole other level. They were definitely a great team to work with and I enjoyed the intimacy throughout.

OKA: Give us a bit of background on the video. Where was it shot? What was the concept behind it?

UJ: As it is portrayed, it is performance-orientated and artistically-driven. Initially I felt like I should work around my strengths and advantages in order to convey the song the way I want to, such as my performance ability and also the distinctiveness of my image, hence you see me appearing as a silhouette performing the song throughout. I often explain how I maintain a dark image, but my music portrays colour as displayed and ever-changing within the scenes, and we managed to execute that with this particular scene. Furthermore I relied so much on the landscapes and the gritty locations around my neighbourhood in Gugulethu and some parts of the city to complement the references I've used in the song.

OKA: What can you tell us about the upcoming album? What's been the inspiration behind it? What are some of the musical influences behind it?

UJ: My forthcoming album is entitled Uno n Only and it is slated for a release around October. Essentially it follows suit to the Best Kept Secret EP title, where I aim to reveal in-depth personal stories. I come from a position of struggle as you would understand our nation's background, so as a source of healing and improving my way of life introspection is my key for overcoming my past and creating opportunities for a better living.

And I know people may wonder what to expect out of it musically, but my approach maintains a soulful sound, synth- and groove-driven. Lately I've been influenced by a lot of indie music and I enjoy the fact that it has no boundaries. I'm aiming to adopt that by creating more weird song structures and fusing various soundscapes and textures.

Check out the visuals for "Skelem" and a behind-the-scenes gallery from the music video shoot above. Look out for Uno July’s upcoming ‘Uno n Only’ full-length, due in October. For more, revisit Ill Skillz’ Cape Town In Your Earbuds mixtape.

Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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