Intriguingly, aside from his hometown in South Africa and his current base, Sweden, many may only know him by his artistic moniker Spoek Mathambo. The man behind the artifice is the witty and eloquently spoken Nthato Mokgata. He first conjured up the character of Spoek Mathambo in 2003 whilst enrolled in medical school, the name originating from a character on a popular South African sitcom, Emzini Wezinsizwa. From there though, it was all Mokgata, as he took creative license developing the folklore of the character based on the idea of a musical graphic novel. Spoek Mathambo, which means “Ghost of Bones”, is a township kid growing up in Sophiatown, South Africa, during the 1940’s. Following a deadly paraffin fire that kills him, he comes back to life, only to find himself in the future, in a world where he exists as an Afro-futurist musical soothsayer.
We hope that his charm, self-reflection, fresh bravura and storytelling will carry you through to the end of a “somewhat” lengthy interview. It is sure to bring a chuckle or two whilst offering a glimpse at one pretty savvy African kid who certainly could tell us a thing or two about what it means to JIVE!
MISSLA LIBSEKAL: Do people often mistake Spoek Mathambo for your real name?
NTHATO MOKGATA: Yeah, it is really irritating at airports when I finally check my booking, and it’s booked under that name.
ML: Do you think there is much difference between Spoek and yourself?
NM: It’s weird. It feels like Spoek is cannibalizing and eating Nthato, and Nthato is slowly dying. It’s a really weird feeling. More and more people know me as Spoek, and my dad has started to call me Spoek sometimes. I wonder if I am going to get to that age where I am a man and I want a man’s name! I don’t want to be Spoek Mathambo. I don’t want a jazzy jokey name. I want my name! My mutha fuckin’ name and my surname. Sometimes I feel like that.
ML: You have been called the post-apartheid glam-rap prince and mention your royal lineage in the Nike AM90 video. Are you really a prince?
NM: Being an urban South African and Johannesburg kid, all the aspects of your lineage and culture feel super fantastical, including the stuff that your parents and grandparents would tell you about yourself. My great-grandfather, Solomon Maraba, has a town in Pretoria named after him, Marabastad. We learnt about it in history class; he was the chief of the Ndebele’s. So that is the lineage! Back home there is the royal house, and the family runs it. My great-grandfather sent my grandmother Maggie to school, to learn to read and write. She was the first person in the tribe to learn to read and write and the Western stuff, so she became a really key figure in the tribe – the super intelligent princess who was helping to make big decisions. The idea of royalty is so different; unlike European monarchies, it’s more like the King is a father or grandfather of a vast family – like the chief patriarch. It’s just a different sense, but people in Europe like to think, oooooh, it’s the prince! Oooooh, like Prince Charles, oooooh (laughs) like, no!
ML: You are living in Sweden now, but do you miss South Africa? Are you still traveling with a South African passport; is that difficult?
NM: There is a lot of stuff that I hate about South Africa, but there is so much good shit also. I went through a phase thinking that I was an international citizen of the world, and fuck borders, and I can be anywhere. But the hostility I have taken in other places has made me realize how much South Africa is most definitely home!
My passport is South African. Yeah, it’s difficult to travel with, or to even get visas to certain places. But the inverse is that for other people to get into South Africa, you can hop onto a plane and get into our country, and that is fucked.
During the Nike AM90 project, we shot photos with (American photographer) Shawn Mortensen. He was a big example, having met all the stars and been to all the places, but he kind of instilled in me the idea that it’s all nothing. It’s all bullshit unless you do something with it and make an actual difference. Before he passed away, I was supposed to get onto an AIDS awareness project in South Africa that he was working on.
So the point is, yes, I miss South Africa, because I need to go and do some work there!
ML: What was it like growing up in Soweto?
NM: Soweto’s a very big town of about two million people, made up of about ten areas, all very different from shantytown to super middle class, regular working class and then super rich. During Apartheid all the areas were separated. Zulus lived here, Xhosas lived there, Sothos lived there, Shangaan lived there (as he points in different directions); it was like the divide and conquer methodologies!
So when I was coming up we lived in quite a mixed area, Rockville. My grandmother is Xhosa, I grew up in a Sotho neighborhood, and my dad is Ndebele, so we grew up speaking all of these different languages. When I turned ten, we moved from this kind of cushy ghetto. Well, not really a ghetto, but one day my dad got shot. Life is really mixed up.
I was coming home from this school dance. I always considered myself this sexy kid (laughs), but when I was four or five I got paired up with the most spastic girl in our year, and I was just so disappointed. UB40’s Red Red Wine was playing, and we were dancing, and I was pissed off the whole time, spinning her around. I was a rambunctious kid, and a lot stronger than she was. My mum gives me the talking to. She says never in your life do you treat a woman like that! And if I ever see you treating a woman like that I am going to kill you! You have brought shame on our family and on yourself! This is the talk that we are having going home and I am feeling really, really bad you know. It was that split between ego, because that was the thing – my ego took over. I was so disappointed with getting this partner that I forgot everything that I had learnt at home and I acted the fool.
So we are driving home and as we get into the driveway, she is giving me the last little bit of the talk and two gunshots ring off. One whizzes by my head and hits my dad in the leg, but that was because he was trying to be all like mutha fuckin’ G.I. Joe. He was running a neighbourhood watch thing, because the neighbourhood was super safe, and then these twins moved in. They were stealing cars and shit, so my dad was trying to kind of get them thrown out of the neighbourhood.
ML: What are your childhood memories relating to music?
NM: I guess the top ones are of my older brother and I, when I was six, and we had posters of Father MC and Ice T and N.W.A. We would sit around the tape recorder and write out the lyrics. That was before lyrics.com, so we’d always be rewinding just so that we could sing along. Another memory is of my cousin and I, when I was nine or ten years old, when we finally got the Internet, and we’d find songs and think that they were really obscure. And then we would learn them, and we’d get to school and pretend that they were ours. But then the song would come up. We didn’t know that Wu Tang Clan would do that well (laughs)! Next thing we know it was on SABC 1, the biggest TV channel, and it was embarrassing because a month ago we said that was our rhyme.
My family is really into music. Growing up, my dad wouldn’t go to church. He would just chill on Sundays. But my mum sings in the church choir, so I’d have to go to church with my mum, vaselined up, greasy meat, and my dad would just chill at home and listen to jazz and his reels. He’d have Malcolm X speeches on reel-to-reel and all kinds of stuff. When he started working overseas, I inherited his whole record collection – it’s cool…
ML: Looking at your style, you look like you could be right at home in say Tokyo, New York or Paris. It may even be hard to tell that you grew up in Johannesburg. Can you tell us about your style?
NM: I have always kind of championed people, things that are “Anti”. For example, if everyone was wearing Doc Martens, then I would want boots, but the shitty, cheap, crap ones you know. South African culture is so Americanized. Not in a super malicious way, but just the fact that growing up, 85% of content was American. We grew up on American TV shows, American movies, and American music. So the one side is to go totally that way, but I have something inside of me that says, “No”. I have to work with where I am from as much as possible. It is like a desperate last thing so that we don’t forget where we are from.
Because of the Americanization on the one hand and English colonial culture on the other, my parents thought that the best thing to do for me was to send me to an English boy’s school, where in my year there were only 7 black guys out of 120, in South Africa, which is 80 something percent black. So the way that I make music, and the way that I make art is a public show of me trying to understand where I am from and who I am, yeah. And a lot of it is kind of desperate. There are a lot of mistakes made. I over-make things: super clunky, sticking together a bunch of descriptive terms, trying to streamline, but then it not working out.
Mokgata left medical school and instead completed his degree in graphic design, creative communications and marketing. His focus on music has left little time to develop his graphical ambitions for the time being. Far from being a naysayer, he has nimbly moved from the humble beginnings of making music with headphones made into makeshift microphones, to embracing then trailblazing myspace to spread his Afro-futuristic and Township Tech beats.
His numerous projects to date include PLAYDOE, with South African producer SIBOT, a.k.a. Simon Ringrose; H.I.V.I.P. with Big Space to whom he sends a shout out, “Big Space I still love you!”; SWEAT.X, collaborations with German DJ’s Schlachthofbronx, Gnucci Banana, Zaki Ibrahim and Symbiz to name a few. Mokgata chose to set his sights beyond the local market, and promoted himself online as a means to sidestep the local South African media whom he had seen shun his peers and predecessors. The stratagem is paying off; three years later he says, “The big thing that I would encourage everyone, is that nothing needs to stop you, because you can speak to everyone all the time, at any point because there are so many doors, though it is complex and not easy”.
We can only imagine that it was a sort of sweet homecoming this past June during the South African World Cup tournament when he and his band Mshini Wam were invited to perform for the Nike Pitch Perfect festivities along with Seun Kuti, DJ Cleo, and Tumi & The Volume. Mshini Wam includes fellow South Africans Richard the Third, JakobSnake and Nicolaas Van Reenen. Mokgata has found the talented yet underrated producer Richard the Third to be the perfect collaborator to efficiently produce tracks despite typically being on opposite hemispheres, with pieces often beginning as sound bytes and sketches recorded in airport lobbies. Mokgata laments that his band mates have not received the credit they deserved for their work on Mshini Wam, which was released this past September on the BBE label. This point is sure to begin self-correcting itself following their latest tours this past November, where they toured alongside front man Spoek Mathambo.
In this later segment of the interview, we dig deeper into Mokgata’s creative tendencies, megalomania and thoughts behind naming his band Mshini Wam, translated to English meaning “My Machine Gun”, the method to his creative madness for the girl gang anthem “Don’t be Scared”, to the band’s cover of the new wave standard “Control” by Joy Division.
NM: It’s become kind of a problem; there comes a saturation point if it’s not focused. Also, a lot of the stuff that I was doing before was different, but my focus now is Mshini Wam. SIBOT from PLAYDOE is the first producer I ever worked with. I used to run a Johannesburg youth culture magazine, and I interviewed him for that. Since then we’ve been teetering on coming up with really great shit, because we’ve worked together for so long. So I’ll take any opportunity I get to spend time with him, whether it’s eating his amazing food or playing a show with him. But all of these different projects are all based on relationships. Some of them are based on my megalomanic side, where I was like, “Fuck this shit, I’m gonna fuckin’ take the whole world!”, and the other side is me and my friendships. My friendship with Marcus Wormstorm, that’s SWEAT.X; my friendship with SIBOT that’s PLAYDOE. The groups are based on our friendships, based on conversations.
ML: Mshini Wam seems to have some political undertones, perhaps even some cynical jests with the reference to an ANC military anthem, South African President Jacob Zuma, and perhaps other codes…. There are a lot of jumps needed to figure out your take on things. Can you tell us a little about this?
NM: There are a lot of “jumps” that people don’t get – even people who are submerged in the context. Like my mother; she doesn’t get why I called it Mshini Wam. She doesn’t get that it’s not a sarcastic gesture. It’s almost like the Mshini Wam title should have a question mark. Like, “What the fuck?!” It’s not a political satire. It’s just me trying to grapple with what is going on.
I have this friend – she’s an Afrikaans girl. She hasn’t heard the new music, but she’s heard of it, and she is used to me making old electro fun music. And she goes (Mokgata puts on an Afrikaaner accent), “Yah man, now you’re making Jacob Zuma music” (Mokgata breaks out in laughter). ‘Cause you know she doesn’t understand anything about the context. It’s rather stupid.
For me, the single sentence that explains it is: What the fuck!?! It’s me not getting why shit is the way it is, and expressing my question. How did this guy become President? Why do so many people support him? Is he better than the last President who I kind of like, but is also a big fuck up, but is that better than Presidents who were five Presidents before that who were also big fuck ups? Is anything ever going to get better? (laughs) Is everything doomed? It’s all of these questions.
ML: Who are the female vocalists in Mshini Wam?
NM: Yolanda Fyrus Xashi and Avuyile Tosa. The story of meeting them is insane. I once did this SWEAT.X show where we hadn’t rehearsed enough. Se we decided we needed a stage show, because the music was going to be really shit, at least the audience would be distracted. We decide to get dancers, as many as possible, fourteen dancers. Then we decided to recede our stage, so the audience could never really see us, and we had the dancers all around us in uniform. It made us feel like we sucked a lot less.
Anyway, Yolanda was in that dance line-up with Avuyile, but I didn’t really get a chance to speak with her. A friend worked with them quite a lot, and gave me their number but all I knew is that it was for the head of a dance school. I’m imagining it’s this fifty-year old lady because Yolanda sounds quite official and she calls me “Big Brother”.
I think it’s going to be this official dance school, and I have to look as official as possible because I want to get some kids. I wanted to put some girl energy in my band, always touring and performing with guys is creepy. I thought if I show up looking kind of weird, people would think that I was dubious. So it’s fancy shoes, pants and shirt. I’m invested in this whole meeting to make a good impression. And when I get there it’s just kids, no fancy dance school or rehearsal space. It’s Yolanda, she’s really young and they’re rehearsing in front of this house on a mat, with a bunch of dancers. I was like whoa, kind of taken aback. I was kind of disoriented, but I thought I had to get involved.
I linked up with the two of them, because they have such a great attitude, and Yolanda is so ambitious. They rap and sing on the song Gwababa (Don’t Be Scared). That is such a gangster song. Avuyile wrote that lyric. I asked her if she had ever rapped before, and she was like, “I don’t have any raps of my own, but I can do Zola’s rap”. Zola is this big Kwaito star (he mimics her rapping) – “So gangsta, so gara”! I was sold. I gave her complete creative control. She does this girl gang anthem: You’re scared. Where are your friends? Where are your friends? You’re afraid. Come here girl. We’re going to fuck you up. We are not too lazy to fuck you up! You’re scared. It’s so creepy (laughs).
ML: The Mshini Wam album includes a cover of Joy Division’s Control. Do you have any have new wave influences or does Joy Division speak to you?
NM: A big thing that influenced Mshini Wam is the post-punk new wave angst in the house music coming out of South Africa. MASTERCASH, a dude who influenced me big was playing this music that really racked my mind. It’s not like Euro house, it’s this dark base, deconstructed and really dark. That’s why doing Control made so much sense.
Joy Division speaks to me, to us in a big way. Richard made the music and we were both determined to do it. It made more sense than doing a cover of Sugar Hill Gang, or Run DMC, or Snoop Dog or any other rapper. I am into Joy Division more than rap, so it’s really not unexpected. I went from being super into rap my whole life, to a point where I was specifically anti-rap, and then into obscure and avant-garde jazz. When I was probably twenty-one, I got 10GB of music which opened me up to this world of white music that had been hidden from me my whole life. I recently played this show in Luleå, Sweden; this promoter gave me all these heavy metal documentaries. I’m thinking this is insane that all this information hasn’t really been available to me.
During the late eighties in South Africa, the Apartheid government was super Christian conservative. Liquor stores were closed, television broadcasting was off on Sunday at a certain time. Everything was closed off. So the idea of heavy metal to me was about young white kids painting pentagrams and writing Satan all over Johannesburg. I always felt this eerie thing about heavy metal and Satan, dungeons and dragons; those people. I found it really scary, and it was a really foreign thing. I relate to it now more than ever, and I really enjoy it.
ML: At the rate you are going, do you think that might stop pursuing music and move on to something else?
NM: The people that I look up to were super prolific: Stevie Wonder, Prince, Iggy Pop, Fela Kuti – people with tonnes and tonnes of albums who spent time to expand on ideas, and just got better and better. If you were to think about Stevie Wonder’s first album in the early sixties, that’s where I am now with my first album. That’s just the beginning of the journey; there is still such a long way to go. So I don’t think I will stop until I’m pretty dead, ‘cause I’m not where I want to be yet, and that is what doing it is based on: trying to articulate an idea.
Introducing The Talented Mr. Spoek Mathambo
The following is a compilation of various tracks featuring Spoek Mathambo and various collaborators such as Symbiz, Gnucci Banana, Schlachthofbronx, Big Space and his own projects SWEAT.X, PLAYDOE and Mshini Wam.
Track List – Click on track names to see related music videos.
4. Pop Like This – PLAYDOE (Spoek Mathambo & SIBOT)
6. Gravy Yard – PLAYDOE (Spoek Mathambo & SIBOT)
Many thanks to Hiroshi Egaitsu, Mari Kamada & Gewet Tekle for their contributions to this interview.
Feature image photography by Nico Krijno.