Storymoja

Celebrating East African Writing!

Musical Empires

The voice-overs on Pan African Metro FM were in an American accent. On the day Nelson Mandela died, Ngcane listened as the radio deluged the car with sounds clips of an American man paying homage to a hero whose name, “Rolihlahla”, he could barely pronounce.

 

“Ag, you’d think they would have stopped this nonsense by now” she said to her brother, who was sitting next to her in the passenger seat as she drove him to university.

“What nonsense?” Nande asked.

“This American voice speaking for an African radio station” she answered curtly.

“I think it’s dope.”

“Why didn’t PAN FM get someone who can at least pronounce his name properly?”

“Please, not the US contemporary kingdoms talk again. Americans don’t even listen to this station,” he said as he put his headphones on and drowned his ears in a new rap song he had written.

So many songs dead over the years

Before they had a chance to reach any ears

I know they won’t get them

So rather death, than the pain of rejection

 

He knew the conversation would soon turn personal and Ngcane would accuse him of “US worship” because of the music he listened to and the way he dressed and any other behaviors she felt conflicted with “African-ness”.

 

Ngcane looked at her brother with disappointment. She knew the conversation had ended and that now, the music in his ears had taken him from Johannesburg to New York or “Chi-Town” depending on which rapper he was listening to at that time. She could not understand how he could identify with a land so far and different from their lived reality. And consume all of its products without question.

 

She remembered the day they had gone down to Bizana for Malume Gweja’s funeral. When they arrived, they found tat’omkhulu, their grandfather, sitting in his wheelchair outside the house.  His FM radio was on the floor next to him like a tiny companion telling him stories about people long gone and far away. The sun had its hand firmly on back of the dogs and they lay lazily in pockets of shade trying to ease the heat. Even the pigs were quiet as they rolled in mud to cool off. But tat’omkhulu sat outside in a jersey, roasting memories of his late son.  

 

“Wassup granddad” Nande said greeting, him. He had to hold the back of his jeans so the denim wouldn’t fall as he bent down to greet the old man. Despite her chastising he had decided to wear baggy jeans that fell below his buttocks as though they were there to hold it up. He wore a vest to show off some of the work he had been doing at gym. Premature muscles stuck their heads out from his thin frame. And he wore the Timbaland boots which made him walk like he was climbing a mountain even on level ground.

 

Tat’omkhulu looked at him, silent but threatening. “Yekwedini, awundihloniphi? Thula lom’nqwazi”

Nande looked up at his sister with a confusion that had washed out the smile he had used to greet grandfather.

“He says you can’t greet him with that cap on. It’s disrespectful,” Ngcane rescued.

“Akakwazi ukuthetha nah?” tat’omkhulu asked, his mouth gaping after the words, expressing new disappointment for a grandson who could not speak his family’s language.

“I can speak a little bit of Xhosa tat’omkhulu.” Nande said and offered a fresh greeting. “Molo Tat’omkhulu”

Tat’omkhulu turned away from Nande. The small roads of wrinkles etched on his face did little to change his expression. But Nande knew he was disappointed.  Nande slouched and then put his headphones on and drowned his ears in a new rap song he had written.

I know what they’re gonna say,

It’s all supposed to be words,

It’s all supposed to be how I see the world

But if I ain’t like everybody else

Then I just ain’t real

 

She remembered the night Nande took a girl out on date, and when it was going well, he said, “If I was in New York, you’re the typa person who’d be in New York with me.”

It was the running joke in the family that Nande charmed women by using alter-universes.

 

She thought of how quickly he had grown up to this person with his own thoughts and music. She remembered how Nande and all his friends would fill up his bedroom until they were breathing only the air coming out of each others bodies. They all huddled over notebooks with folded edges, reading lyrics and rap lines they had written. Nande would spend the night before making beats for them to rhythmically place their words on.

 

Ngcane remembered how he had taken all the clothes out of his closet and piled them into an old chest of drawers. Flaccid arms and legs of different colours, climbed out of the drawers. Some clothes lay clumsily on the floor and the bed.

Then he had taken one of his mother’s duvet comforters and blanketed the inside walls of the closet with it, sticking it down and against with tape. Then he hanged a thin microphone from the rail. Ngcane only realized when she saw one of his friends stepping out of the closet screaming about a great line he had just “dropped”, that the closet was now a recording studio.

 

The soundproofing with the duvet and shreds of cupboard boxes worked well to keep the sound of the dreams of young African boys wanting to be American rappers. She couldn’t hear their music anymore.

Maybe if I can resuscitate the songs

Breathe life to them with the breath I speak

But they’ve been dead so long

Is there anyone they could feed?

Who’s hungry for something unique?

 

 

The day Nande received an invite to a live audition downtown for a hip-hop television show, he’s excitement was contagious. For a moment Ngcane thought that maybe his obsession with the foreign music didn’t mean he was a victim of modern American empires built through music, but that he really may have born in the wrong country.

 

He practiced for days before the event. Closing himself in his closet, recording until Ngcane worried that he would pass out from a lack of oxygen. He didn’t study. His friends were invited over only as far as they could contribute to his musical mission.

 

On the night he was set to perform, Ngcane offered to drive him to the club. He wanted to be early to get a chance to test the sound and measure the competition.

 

As they walked up the dimly lit path to the club the air was thick with the smolder of “weed”. The herbal smoke tinted the air with a screen of grey that made the whole night seem mystical. The club stood opposite a small dry field where a mass of tangible shadows of young men and women stood huddled in small groups, chanting rhythmically over drum beats from human mouths. It all looked like little churches worshiping rap music. They all looked just like Nande. Jeans sagging from flat bottoms, some times full bottoms. Oversized t-shirts printed “GAP” and “I love NY” and oversized caps printed “DC”.

 

They all spoke a similar language, something you would find on US streets. If Nande were in New York, they would have all been there with him. Music from another world had brought this one together.

 

The club was warm inside. The screen of smoke was thicker and the sound of the worshiping louder. On stage was a young girl with short hair coloured a bright blonde. She was breathing words over a slow beat with her eyes closed, completely transported to another world. She held the microphone with both hands as if it was the only thing keeping her rooted in this one. For the first time, Ngcane felt like a counterfeit. She wondered what statement she had intended to make wearing a fitted t-shirt with the clichéd Africa map printed on it.

 

When it was Nande turn to go up on stage, she felt like her nerves had sunk into the pit of her stomach and were now dissolving with an acidic sizzling. Nande took to the stage and soon he was stomping on it, drawing the audience into his world. He sounded like an amalgamation of the rappers he listened to.

 

Maybe that was the problem. Because when the judges gave their feedback, they asked why he hadn’t “dropped” any words from his isiXhosa language. They said the crowd loved him, he sounded like the best but nothing like himself.

 

“But everyone here listens to American rap. No one likes their own indigenous sounds” he had tried to rebut.

“The people in this world will find it difficult to connect with you” the judge said.

Then he put his headphones over his head and drowned his ears in his songs.

So many songs dead over the years

Before they had a chance to reach any ears

I know they won’t get them

So rather death, than the pain of rejection

 

I know what they’re gonna say,

It’s all supposed to be words,

It’s all supposed to be how I see the world

But if I ain’t like everybody else

Then I just ain’t real

 

Maybe if I can resuscitate the songs

Breathe life to them with the breath I speak

But they’ve been dead so long

Is there anyone they could feed?

Who’s hungry for something unique?

©Andiswa Onke Maqutu 2014

One comment on “Musical Empires

  1. nisii19
    November 4, 2014

    Well done!

    Like

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