Zola 7 is more than a brilliant conscious rapper. He is a versatile artist who has consistently lived his truth. Understanding that he comes from a country where black people are dispossessed; he has made it his life’s mission to fight oppression, be it through fighting false narratives about his home -Zola in Soweto- or helping young black children receive an education.
He has been a UNICEF ambassador, a speaker at the UN World Conference in New York in 2006 ; where he addressed them on the Arms Control Bill. He has received multiple awards for his music, including the World Soundtrack Award for his popular hit song Mdlwembe which he performed for the film Tsotsi. The movies and TV shows he appears on are almost always educational. His lyrical content is always a meditation on blackness, an honest reflection on the women he’s hurt and the women who’ve hurt him and the struggles of fatherhood and fatherlessness. Of course, this is just a formality. If you’re a black child, you know all of this already. Although he has not stopped living his life, he has opted for a more private life. But somehow, he agreed to an interview with me. A true philanthropist.
The time is 12:50 and I wait outside his home with George Mnguni who has taken time off his excellent sketch comedy to be my photographer for the interview- if Zola 7 will allow. I note that his address has the number 7 in it. How prophetic. We speak to his guards who then go in to call him. We wait for about five minutes and then we hear the gate open. My heart is in my throat. He emerges in a red t-shit written “TSOTSI YASEZOLA”, what we call a bucket hat today and a pair of denims. Very laid back. I relax. We get out to greet him and he explains that the interview will be at a restaurant. We follow his car and on the way, a passerby notices him and waves.
When we walk into the shopping centre, a young woman shouts “Hello, bhuti!” from upstairs and he warmly responds, “Hey! come give me a hug!” I would swear that they know each other. Later, I learn that they do not. He is just warm. We sit down, not after he practically greets the whole restaurant. I am nervous because it’s Zola 7. But I am not nervous. Because it’s Zola 7. He has never been known to be a man filled with airs and graces. He familiarises himself with me- asking me about what I study and so forth. He informs us that he just returned from the Back to the City Festival and has had an eye infection since. Then we have a chat about matters ranging from his name to the state of film in South Africa:
You call yourself Zola 7- which is not the name you were given by your parents. Could you start by telling me a little more about that?
Okay. Igama lam uBonginkosi Thuthukani Nhlanhla ka Dlamini. uZola is the place that I come from. I think I wanted to dispel the myths; a lot of people used to argue ukuthi iZola idangerous…I think iZola is like any other neighbourhood and I mean, that was in the media. I later on understood what the media was about. I had already been called uZola but I still didn’t understand what the media was about. I was never going to be really part of the media- I was just here to sing. The media forced itself into my life and my career. How they twist things, it looks as if it’s the same twisting they’ve been doing since Apartheid. I mean, people were rallied as criminals and they would hang them just because the media said so. It only made sense later to say ‘okay, using uZola is appropriate because I can dispel the myth and tell the story of the people la ng’phuma khona and what they’re about. So eventually, I took a lot of media to eZola. I think people, even eEurope, know more about Orlando and Zola. Zola being a place of Superstars, then Orlando being a place of politicians. Later on, I fancied tourism into my neighbourhood because the real fight actually started eNaledi -ekaJune 16. It was later corrected because it didn’t start eOrlando. Naledi is part of my neighbourhood. We are still on that project of stretching tourism from Orlando to eZola. So as a Zulu boy, mawulalel’ umbhaqanga ne; the boys there will always talk about the rivers they drink [from] basakhula, the mountains they came from and the villages they came from. They’ll even mention kings from where they came from on their songs. So it came naturally because even ihip-hop, first line on top “DETROIT” (chuckles). It’s a thing of iimbongi; the rappers. They’ll always insist on everyone knowing where they came from. It came naturally.
I understand that your first break into the music industry was through Yizo Yizo 2, where you played Papa Action [taking over from Ronnie Nyakale who resembled him] . How did you find yourself on the soundtrack?
I think my first break, we need to stretch it to high school. There was a film called Teens on a Tightrope. It was like Yizo Yizo but for teens. Then there was a loong, terrible, break before I got into Yizo Yizo. But that was pure accident, the song. We used to rap on set, uyabon’? mas’blomile. Angus [Gibson] would ask “what are these guys doing?” One day he decided to take us into the studio and that was the birth of Ghetto Fabulous.
Your entry into music and entertainment; was it more politically motivated or was it just out of your love for the arts?
Nah, it was just passion. I’d always been umrappa, I’d always done ikwaito and to tell you the truth- the money that I was earning kuYizo Yizo was the money that I was going to actually [use] to go back to the studio and finish my album and then go shop around for a record deal. Yizo Yizo paid for Ghetto Fabulous noMdlwembe- the song, not the whole album. The rest was taken over by Ghetto Ruff so I used that money for other things.
Your mother played a big role in your upbringing, being raised by a single parent-
I was raised by a pack of women. My aunt, my grandmother, my older aunt, my mum, my aunt from my other side of my dad, Mavis.
I remember in an interview with Sakina Kamwendo, during the #ForumAt8, you spoke about how the first time you understood your mother’s treatment at work was through watching Sarafina as you didn’t understand why this young white girl had the authority to send your mother around before…
I think the kasi kids did not know the suburban kids and our mums worked for the suburban kids. At our expense. You can only understand it if your mum takes you to work. You get there and you see people calling your mum by name on some ‘Mavis, this. Mavis, that’ and your mum is running around. At home, she’s a person of authority.
Your mother’s name is Sebenzile.
Sebenzile. Sebenzile Mavis Dlamini. So she’s a person of authority ekhaya. She’s the one that calls the shots. You end up in another space and she’s being sent around by kids. You don’t grasp it because umntwana. You don’t really refer, most of the time, to your mum by name even though thina besimbiz’ uThiza, uyang’thola? And you will not understand it. You won’t even get the distance that you guys are traveling [to work from the township]. You don’t even get why uphiswe umchamo but you have to walk a shit distance to find a toilet because there were toilets for blacks and there were toilets for whites. So if you said ufun’ uk’yocham’ edrobeni, you had to hold it until she finds a black toilet. Unless she finds a mantshingilane somewhere, amvulele quick. You don’t get those things when you’re a kid. You get them much later. So here I am watching uSarafina and I’m like “oh, this is how it works”. Which also fuels Sarafina’s anger because the mum was supposed to be a strong person. But she was older, so she took offense. Mina, I was a child…I was just…I remember myself kwitrampoline and I remember the size of the yard, and the green lawn. But I still didn’t grasp the fact that white people are living very nice. Amabhunu mayefik’ elokshen’, the story was different. People ran, so we ran. We were kids, you know. But amabhunu sometimes would give us amachocolate. I don’t know why. Maybe they didn’t wanna eat them. At some point we’d run but at some point we’d end up kwiCasspir. Casspir’s this moer car that oppressed us- huge car with huge tyres. I think, to a certain extent, kids were allowed to see inside. Then you see that film.
How do you think South African film has fared in telling our stories today?
I say it’s good but because there’s no money, there’s no justice to it because we don’t release movies as quick as other countries. I think Nigeria is the leader of the pack right now. Ours need more money. The industry needs a hectic injection of money. Most people who can fly around actually rely on the Canadian Film Foundation. It’s slow because…I mean, I have interviews were people talk about Tsotsi as if we did it yesterday, they talk about Drum like we did it yesterday. So there’s very few highlights in our movies. The rest are really shelved. There is a reasonable amount of movies but they are shelved.
What kind of movie would you like to see being pushed?
I think we should shoot e’Lollipop again. I think Shaka Zulu was bullshit, it needs to be shot again. From our side. There’s enough historical events to go around with movie houses and we still need to do those. Like Jewish people did with the Holocaust. They did it over and over and over again…it got into everybody’s heads. I don’t think the Nazis can shoot movies. I’m happy to see movies about ooKalushi but it’s not enough. The kids don’t know the depth of it. They don’t know about aboDorothy Nyembe, aboLillian Ngoyi, aboHintsa…There’s a lot to be shot and there’s a lot of money needed to shoot that.
To go back to the music, I want to talk about the song Ghetto Scandalous. In that song, you critiqued the use of American slang elokshini, words like “nigga, motherfucker and hoe” you spoke about, specifically. Today, the language has made its way to the core of South African hip-hop. How do you think that hip-hop, a genre which has emerged out of America, can be balanced in a way that South African artists still stay true to their context?
Well,historically, hip-hop came from Africa. The slaves ported rhythm and drum and later on, it became hip-hop. It’s been anthropologically proven that it came from Africa. Different versions because everybody had rhythm. When I say Jama ka Sjadu, (sings his ancestors’-ooDlamini- praises) that’s hip-hop. I think the slaves didn’t forget that- it just evolved into something else. Maybe for a while into poetry and then eventually became hip-hop. They argue, the other people, ukuthi they use the word “nigga” so that…when they mock themselves, how else are you going to be able to mock them? But there are a lot of societies in America that say that the word “nigga” should be laid to rest. But it flies around. I don’t use it for the same reasons I don’t use the word kaffir.
Understanding that although hip-hop started here in Africa, it moved to America and kind of became something that repackaged itself-
A super country can do that. Things of a super country tend to dominate countries controlled by them.
And how do you think, in that space of domination, South African artists can bring back their own narratives still using the sound?
I don’t know. I mean, we did hip-hop differently. Now there’s all forms of hip-hop- there’s trap. I don’t know where they come from but I suppose they are relevant to this youth as much as our hip-hop was relevant to our youth and still is. Maybe something else will come in a few years from now. It will still sound like hip-hop but it will be something different. Maybe it’ll have a bit of rock ‘n roll. Kwaito had a lot of rock ‘n roll.
Yeah. I don’t know. I wouldn’t be able to answer that one. I think this generation would have to explain what they are doing. All the [hand] signs, and if they know what the signs mean. Did they become cool? Do they know the origins of these signs or do they just throw them around? because this is something else (shows the sign of the horns) this is something hectic.
What does it mean?
This is Satan. People throw it around all the time. If you look at the hand signs that come with hip-hop, they actually come from gangsters in America. Those gangsters…you take a blood oath, it’s called Blood in, Blood Out. The only way you can leave that gang is when you die. When the boys become famous eAmerica, because they come from those neighbourhoods, they throw signs around. Apparently, sometimes for protection. Ukuthi “yo, by the way…”. The people who watch the videos know exactly what’s going on. “He’s from our neighbourhood.” So this (does the 7 hand sign) meant that we come from Soweto. This was always holy. Other societies use it differently, ’cause it’s also a number ejele. Thina we use it from more of a religious point of view. There are a lot of sevens, if you look into the Quran, Torah, Bible…It’s a number that’s been around. I think that’s why everybody understood it quickly. The other signs became part of hip-hop but they are hectic to explain. But they are hectic to explain […].
I’m interested to know which side you feel you best belong to- kwaito, hip-hop or is it one thing to you?
I will be an artist. I’ve picked up painting as well. I have a theatre background. I’m a writer. I’m an MC. I motivate. I do it all.
So you don’t feel inclined to associate yourself with one thing?
Yeah it’s like how today, most people associate hip-hop with music. It’s not music; it’s food, it’s graffiti, it’s how they dress, it’s poetry…It’s like how a rasta lives his life. Somewhere along the lines, other things fell off. At Back to the City, they all showed up. There was a graffiti session, there was a poetry session and I was like “yeah, this is what hip-hop is supposed to be about”.
Among some of the most remarkable of your work was the show Zola 7 where you traveled the country, helping people where you could- building libraries. What do you think was your proudest moment?
We built a library eMthatha. I’m not done with that library. I’m talking to a few companies about the possibility of another network because I intend to build two in every province of the same design.
To what extent do you think that artists have a responsibility in our sociopolitical context, to contribute- do you think there’s any space for just being free or do you think that artists have a responsibility to some political work?
Not necessarily. Artists handle different genres and they speak about different things. Some artists are just all about dancing, some artists are all about romantic, poetic music. Artists have an influence over people but influence is dangerous. Christ had the same influence. Hitler had the same influence. Madiba could have decided for us to go into a civil war. So, we all carry the same energy with politicians, we just use it differently.
Earlier, you said that you use the number 7 because of its holy connotation. Throughout the Torah, the Quran and the Bible, 7 is symbolic. Do you understand God as something that somewhat transcends religion or do you stick to Christianity in practice?
All black people automatically assume that they are Christian…I’m not exactly Christian, man. I know God and I read into a lot of religions. I lean towards Jesus Christ, yes, because he was a black man but there were a lot of things thrown out of the modern religion for control by the colonisers. Many things have been put into Christianity which look pagan, who the hell is Father Christmas? […] Those who’ve decided to take Christianity need to know that there are some things which are questionable that they have a choice to either practice or not practice.
So, if I’m hearing you right, you don’t think that decolonisation is about ridding ourselves of Christianity- you think it is about changing it?
I think it’s about understanding Christ-
[At this point, two fans interrupt. One is the young woman who I thought he knew. He politely declines to take photos. Because, well…even celebrities have the right to say no. He tells them that he can give them hugs though. The other lady notes his eyedrops on the table. She starts to tell him that using a tissue on his eyes will further agitate them and gives clear instructions on what to do. “Thank you, doctor. I love you!” he shouts as they walk away. Then he returns to our conversation.]
Mama, I don’t know if human beings are obligated to religion. But those who feel they are need to know exactly what they worship. I mean, the Bible says “behold, for the angel of darkness shall emulate itself as the angel of light.” That’s why there are so many churches, people are trying to find God. Maybe they’re trying to find God in all the wrong places but they go. Once you seek God desperately, it’s game time for Satan to pop up in all franchises that look like Christianity and they’re not.
You’ve collaborated with artists ranging from Unathi to Mandoza- what do you think has been the most challenging collaboration?
They would all be challenging because you’re dealing with human beings. When I’m gonna do a collabo with a person, I need to know the person first so that I can tap into their energy and allow them to tap into mine. I haven’t had problems with collabos. The difficult one for me was being stuck in Germany for almost two months. Less the music, more the environment I was in. I was supposed to do music and I was cold. I think I was the only black person in that village. I wanted to go home. It was the environment. This gentleman, a guy called Peter Maffay, wanted to redo Don’t Cry.
Considering that not much has been written about these experiences that kwaito and old hip-hop artists had, do you think it necessary to go back and do it?
I think that’s what Back to the City just did. I’ve started writing more my life. If there are other things that need to be corrected, I definitely will. Back in the day, we used to just get interviewed by a lot of white…not even white South Africans but Europeans and they would just write things however they wanted. When we started our own companies, we realised that certain things needed to be done differently. That’s why I stopped doing interviews. Films were edited differently. The stories will be told but I don’t know how far I can go with it.
Where can we find you these days? Should we expect an album anytime soon?
Eish. Is an album always expected? I record everyday of my life, if I can. I’ve just compiled an album called iGoduka. I haven’t dropped it yet, I don’t know why. I am shooting everything I do around me. I’ve been archiving. There’s a new radio station called Massiv Metro. I’m handling their afternoon show [4pm-7pm]. This is good for me because I get to come home. It gives me a chance to go and sleep in my bed, except for Fridays where I might go on tour.
So these videos, we’ll never get a hold of them?
No. They are the intellectual property of my kids. Black people must learn ukuthi white people will always tell our stories unless we buy our own cameras and start shooting ourselves. And deny all interviews if we can. Just control the interviews and then the rest is your story […]. Tupac always had a camera around him, Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye…I’ve seen a lot of rappers now, having cameras. I tell them all the time, “always shoot this and give it to nobody”.
For you, the documentation is not about being sold but just to own the narrative?
To own first. Maybe I’ll even sell to another country, not this one.
There’s been a rise in the sampling of kwaito artists. Do you think of that as continuation or, what’s your stance on that?
How many times have white people done the Swan on stage? They keep it alive. So, if kwaito boys remix our songs, our songs stay alive. That’s why people in theatre still wanna do aboWoza Albert. Their own interpretation of it. If these boys do this; it stays alive another generation. You can listen to white people’s music…It’s 800 years boring, okay? They play the same shit. I will not go buy a ticket mina ngiyobukela something because bathi someone wrote it in fucking 1652 and they’re still playing the same chords today…but that’s how they keep things alive […], their Beauty and the Beast and whatever else is out there. They make new versions of it. So these boys have found a way to make new versions of it. They take a trap beat from some high producer, throw in hip-hop lyrics and come up with a kwaito verse. Somehow, I don’t know how- they mix it though. You hear it. First week, you’re like “this is weird” and the next week it’s in your ear. The other week, it’s a hit. Six months time, they’re picking awards on that shit. So I don’t know, our songs are picking awards again. I’m okay, it’s like an inheritance. I’m sure there are things of your grandmother, that you still want to keep. If you can, you could pay to have them re-polished. I have a sewing machine. I’ll kill people if they touch it, it came from my grandmother. It’s that. It’s beautiful, though.
We conclude the interview. On our way home, I remark to George that he “is not as strange as I thought” and he responds “actually, he’s stranger than I thought.” Well, yes he is; but it’s a cool kind of strange. The kind of strange that changes your life. Will I ever be the same? I don’t know.