Spoek Mathambo Interview

by Thulasizwe Somdyala

The theme of this month’s issue is #TheOther. We wish to reflect varied manifestations of our Blackness that are othered within a hegemonic society.

One of globalisation’s attempt was a leap at making the world smaller by painting it through a similar stroke. Looking at the 90s and prior, the era before mass consumption went through a hegemonic process; the idea was being different within the crowd. Different layers of expression revealed themselves, with artists finding their own voice and palette. A kaleidoscope of different colours came together to reference the same humanity.

The othering process however, started long before the chokehold of globalisation. Centuries of ostracising had lead to a point were the commerciality of it could take full embrace. Centuries of varied plantations took hold to uproot one from themselves. Therefore, leading to a normalisation of a certain aspect that entertained the powers that be. We now living in a climate of fitting in and assimilating to be seen. Dull dull dull.

We got in contact with Spoek Mathambo, born Nthato Mokgata, to digest the othering. 13 years deep professionally in the creative world, we have seen him in varied mediums that transcend the basic idea of what is “supposed to be…”

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Thulasizwe: So most struggles of self identity and ownership have been lead by people from the middle class and fought in the frontline by those with nothing to lose. The middle class usually knows both ends of the spectrum; they know how good things can get and relatively how far those oppressed are from the good. This accessibility to both worlds however, usually others the middle man in a boxed society, due to not fully prescribing to either ends. Looking at the Black struggle in terms of positions and roles to play, how do you see the othered playing a decisive role within a collective identity?

Spoek: Essentially, i think we should all work to uplift each other in whatever ways we have at hand. The world is big, and we all have skills and opportunities, but we also have family and community to share those skills and opportunities with. i’ve always tried to work within that mindframe. i don’t other myself, you are doing that.

The feesmustfall protest is in full swing again. Again, the other stakeholders who are to benefit from a non-commodified and decolonised education are not showing solidarity with action to realise this want. i am mainly referring to parents who work in different sectors that sustain the system that in turn oppresses them. How can we better connect the dots of our common struggle, to move as a unit rather than an incomplete puzzle where the bigger picture is not captured?

Solidarity would come from people agreeing on the problems in order to agree with the solutions. We can’t expect everyone to agree/understand without the necessary engagement, workshops, focus groups… communication. In this case, the student movement has been fighting a struggle for the whole country and our future, but without linking with all stakeholders in this future, it’s hard for everyone to see that.

i think the answer is better and more extensive communication with the unions, schools, businesses, sports and cultural bodies, and obviously legislative bodies etc. To ensure everyone understands, relates to and supports the grievances.   

Watching Future Sounds of Mzansi that you made with Lebogang Rasethaba, Nozinja said Shangaan electro is complimented by the dancers and completed by them. The music alone will not fully capture the experience without the dancers conveying it. i somewhat think your music is fully cyphered by your music videos; together the experience becomes fuller. What advise do you have for people to physically manifest what is inside them in a filling way?

My primary communicative mediums are music, graphic art and film making. i use all of these avenues of to express ideas. The best advice i could give is not to procrastinate because of resources. The first magazine i made was from a printer and photocopy machine; the first video from a rubbish camera; the first microphone was headphones in a mic input… make the most of what you have at hand and don’t make that an excuse for inactivity.

What is your creative process and who do you have in mind when you create your music?

There are many creative processes. Sometimes a conversation can spark an elaborate 2 year project. Sometimes i will meet someone or see something that sparks an idea. Inspiration can come from anywhere anytime… and with anyone. With beatmaking, i usually have a feeling in mind. But sometimes i just feel the urge to make something and it’ll come out completely different from the plan.

With lyrics i usually have a theme/story in mind or sometimes just an urge to write. Sometimes i collaborate with friends and family to make work… i did the score for a dance theatre production called Rebellion in Johannesburg last year, and that creative process of collaboration with a choreographer is obviously very different than my album making process.

For my album cover the creative process started with an underwater dream, which resulted in me working with a friend to create a mould of my head which we dropped in an aquarium and photographed.

In the beginning i saw you and Okmalumkoolkat as cut from the same cloth. if you were twins, OKMKK would have been the one who grew up elokshini and wena in the burbs. Which is a factor that i believe marginalises your sound in mainstream South Afrika. How do you navigate being othered within your home but being viable outside of it?

What does “cut from the same cloth” mean? We were both born in the same era in the same country, and so we share a lot of experiences. But i think what we do is very different and for different reasons. Different inspiration and what we enjoy is different. i say that as his friend. i don’t think ilokishi has anything to do with it. i was born in 1985 and my experiences of SA are far and wide, from kasi to rural to coastal places.

i have spent the last 13 years releasing music around the world, experimenting with left field sounds. That is what has marginalised my “sound”. The fact that i have done a lot of different stuff in quest of a sound (i’ve worked within the styles of classical, rock, juke, electro, afrobeat, house, metal, ambient, rap, kwaito, jazz, techno, experimental, tropicalia and more). Only in the last 2 years have i found what my sound is and that is due to producing a lot of my music myself… or at very least having a hand in the composition, arrangement and mixing of my music. 

i cannot complain about being othered. i’ve been a professional artist for 10 years and have been able to see the world and uplift my friends and family. i exist as an independent entrepreneur, and get to make my dreams come true daily. Not many people get to say that.

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What initiated the formation of Fantasma? 

The point of Fantasma was to collaborate and create something fresh from blending Eldorado Park, Jozi, Atteridgeville, Dweshula and Kommetjie. Different languages and generations of SA music in one group. A fusion of ideas and perspectives. i have had for a long time dreamt, of collaborating with a maskandi guitar and bass player. When i met multi-instrumentalist Vukazithathe/Bheki, his open mindedness and creativity made it an obvious fit. 

i noticed you very collaborative. Has not being boxed allowed you to share more of yourself or is there a deeper underlining to that trait?

People talk about my collaboration like it’s an anomaly. Do you not think Miriam Makeba, Mdu, DJ Cleo, Abdullah Ibrahim, Bjork, DJ Tira… collaboration is a function of music. The terms band/group/clique all infer collaboration. And so i have spent the last 20 years working with my friends and family on music.

You ventured out to capture South Afrikan sounds from our indigenous tribes with the Vodafirst initiative. Please dive into that experience, what wealth did you unearth while being at our root?

Gaining more knowledge of the riches of our country and continent is always a blessing and a lesson. It’s important to explore and expand on our roots music in order to decolonise our own minds as to what we deem cool/interesting/fresh.

i feel this new you in the Fantasma-Batuk era is more human. Like before the sound was very electric, machine, robotic. But with Batuk its more human with still having an electronic root-nyana. What fundamentally changed within you as an artist and as a person, in reference to the new age you in?

i’m not sure what music of mine you know… but i can simply say that i have learnt a lot and like i mentioned i produce a lot more of the music now. i’ve been very proud of the last two albums from Fantasma and Batuk.

Watching the Batuk Gira video, it clicked what you said somewhere, forgot now. About how just as Hip-Hop overlooked the copyright constraint and was able to sample from what inspired them to create something uniquely of their own. Artists are now sampling videos and editing it in a way that tells a story in a unique way i.e. Gira music video. What stood out the most about the video though, were the subtitles. The lyrics took me to the DRC warfare. Vivid imagery showing the extent generations have been displaced of their humanity for minerals/material. i personally have envisioned the deliberate cultivation of feminine energy as a way to tame and balance out the destructive energy we enticed in globally. What cleansing and new behaviour is needed to mainstream a culture again that sees oneself has an extension of the other, in that way making sure our lives matter?

You keep talking about othering. i think less othering and a more inclusive mentality disregarding ideas of tribe, gender, class need to be cultivated. We are too quick to shit on each other… and make “othering” excuses. Because “she’s a whore”… because ”he’s a kwerekwere”… because “he’s a fagot”… because “she’s a dirty xhosa”. First and foremost we are family. i think we need to be more respectful of one another as such.

But that becomes hard when certain groups gain from from the confusion, violence and unrest, and fuel and promote it for the sake of their interests (business or cultural).

Final word out. Having seen and been in so many different spaces, what is your word for the youngings..

i say trust your greatness and the greatness of your land. Delve into what makes you unique, explore and enjoy that. Work to grow into yourself and build a legacy for future generations.

It’ll be a shame if Mzansi turns into coke can and plastic littered, twerk and dab, confusion.

The worst part of being enslaved and debased for so long is that we have a detrimental group thinking mentality. Where we believe that we all have to be the same, or have the same goals and aspirations. i say to my peers, elders and young ones coming up, that they should look to explore difference… and find their niche there.

Right now in a SA musical context, everybody wants to be exactly the same as the next person. The same beat sounds, the same flows, the same music video directors. South Africans have low self esteems and right now prefer to be Yankee-light.

Plans for the rest of the year, any special projects to mention…

i am finishing up my next solo album to release in February. i am currently working on a film with my friend Lebogang Rasethaba, it’s called Mutant and is about so-called “coloured identity” and is set in Cape Town.

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