With five minutes left for me to get to the location for the interview, I rushed over to Bean Republic coffee shop in Rosebank, all while repeatedly checking my watch and praying that Tumi hadn’t arrived yet. Thabiso and I sat down and waited in anticipation.
Tumi Molekane arrived 15 minutes later, carrying an orange backpack, rocking a flat cap (back to front), a camouflage jacket and a black shirt. His timing was perfect because it gave me the opportunity to gather my thoughts and calm my nerves. The thought of sitting down with one of the greatest musical assets to come out of South Africa was quite unnerving. The man has shared stages with some of the greatest artists from across the globe including singer Norah Jones and Jamaican dub poet Mutabaruka.
Born in exile in Tanzania, his family moved back to South Africa and settled in Soweto in 1992. I wonder if young Tumi could have ever imagined that he’d grow up and become such a legend. From lead vocalist of the group Tumi and the Volume (which was disbanded in 2012) to poet, artist developer and businessman, Molekane currently runs his own record label called Motif Records.
Away from the industry, he is a husband and father to a two-year-old daughter and a seven-year-old son. “I probably do that the best [being a father]. I do that better than I rap,” he adds as his face lights up.
Prior to this interview I had heard a lot about Molekane on social media with regards to his arrogance. I must admit that a small part of me initially expected that to play out during the interview but then again, I’ve never been one to listen to opinions. I prefer to experience things myself.
As he arrives, I stand to greet him. He gives me a warm embrace and apologises for being late. If you have been a fan of his music, you would know just how conscious he is about African affairs. This even comes across in the venue he chose for the interview – an African owned Coffee Shop.
The night before the link up, I was seriously considering postponing the interview because his album had been pushed back but I decided against that.
“We were on track, but we realised it was just going to be very frantic so we were like ‘you know what? The year is done for us. We have a couple of other projects lined up before the end of the year…’ so we decided that there’s no rush. I just dropped a single and the video is about to drop, so at least there’s that to keep the angry crowd happy,” he says, jokingly, with a bit of guilt in his voice.
South African Hip Hop has been growing at a rapid rate of late. It’s safe to say that this is the first time – since Pitch Black Afro’s Styling Gel – that we have seen the masses buying physical copies at the rate that we are currently experiencing. For Tumi, although making sales is essential, it is not the main objective. “At Motif, it’s not so much about the sales but the reach, you know? It’s important for the work that we do to reach the critical mass. You can do that in different ways. I’ll accept 250 000 downloads because that’s reach,” he emphasises.
Rob the Church is the name of his upcoming album. And no, he’s not talking about robbing the church in the literal sense.
“I think what you can gauge from Music from My Good Eye and Whole Worlds is that they are not really literal. It’s not like I’m saying ‘go and literally rob the church folks’. It just means the church as a symbol of power, as a symbol of something greater that was meant to inspire people and how it has now almost been robbed of its essence. Sometimes by scandal after scandal. It’s not so much ‘church’ as in ‘Christianity’ but its ‘power’ and all I’m suggesting is to reclaim yourself and own those things again and the essence of them,” he explains.
The title of the album gives the uneasy sense that it could be too conscious: one of those controversial albums that don’t get airplay. Remember Tuks Senganga’s Monopoly? Which was a great album by the way. Anyway, it turns out that this is actually the idea behind the album. “I wanted people to feel a little nervous and uneasy when they were listening to the stuff and I think I achieved that while still leaving something there,” says Tumi.
Artists have different creative processes and Tumi is no exception. “I write the titles before I even write the songs. I do like, a mock album, I do 11 to 12 songs, I write the titles and then that becomes my guide. So, based on these titles I go and write songs. I know the sound I’m going for and so it becomes easier to go to a producer,” he explains.
Molekane admits that deciding on the features for the album was probably the hardest part of making the music.
He lists Zubz, Reason and Ziyon as the people he trusted to feature on the album while the rest were more of a collaborative effort. A surprise appearance on the album is singer, Kelly Khumalo, which I’m sure nobody saw coming. She actually features on the title track “Rob the Church”. I personally cannot wait to hear it.
“Can you imagline me and Kelly Khumalo in studio?” he asks as he chuckles. He then continues to explain, “she was like ‘what are you talking about guy? You know I’m a church girl,’ and I was like ‘but is everything peace at church?’ and she was like ‘nah not really’ and so I was like ‘yeah exactly that’s what I mean, that’s what I wanna speak about’”
Another stand-out feature on the album is American writer, poet, singer and actor Saul Williams. “This feature came after eight years of trying yo,” he says looking exhilarated. That included getting to know each other, being at the same shows and hanging out until Williams felt comfortable enough to collaborate.
The latest single off the album is called “In Defense of my Art “and it features Mr. Bump-the-Cheese-Up himself, Reason as well as one half of Liquid Deep, Ziyon. “In Defense of my Art” is just literally patting myself on the back… But also, just giving context to a lot of young people or new fans of hip-hop who might not know a lot or care about the history of who I am or where I come from. This is just to say ‘yo this is what it is, this is what I stand for’” he explains.
Directed by South African Music Award-winning director, Kyle Lewis, the video for the song was dropped on 3 November 2014 and premiered on MTV Base. “There were parts of this video that were incredibly difficult to shoot and partake in but I trusted Kyle with this vision. I grew up in a household ran by a woman with a gun. I slept in a bed with an AK47 under the bed, that’s not some kind of cool fantasy for me. That’s what made a lot of us in South Africa,” Tumi said in a press statement.
Tumi is no stranger to the international music scene, he has travelled across Africa and Europe. He just got back from a three week European tour with French hip-hop collective Chinese Man across France, Belgium and Germany. Followed by a trip to Harlem, New York where he graced the stage of great Apollo Theatre alongside other South African artists including Simphiwe Dana, The Soil and the legendary Hugh Masikela.
“Performing at the Apollo was crazy considering that it was my first performance in the states,” he says. This was after several demands to perform in the United States. He adds “it was big for me, man. Remember, James Bond [and] Outkasts names were across here. It just meant a lot to me…” While in New York, being the rapper that he is, he took a pilgrimage to the projects where Nas and Jay Z grew up as well as Notorious B.I.G’s crib. “People were like ‘yo when are you gonna see the Empire State building’ and I was like ‘man f*ck the Empire, I’m gonna go see Big L’s mural,’” he chuckles.
Apart from releasing music, another project that he had been working on, during his travels across Africa, is a documentary titled Afrique. “I worked with a guy called Vincent Moloi, he directed it. Basically we’ve been travelling across the continent for the past two and a half years meeting former collaborators and trying to get some music done. We are trying to tell stories to South Africans specifically about the rest of the continent in a cool way. In a way that you see me and M.I in the studio working on a song. We trying to get people to see Africa in way that they never would that close. I think the way to experience that is through artists because artists are mirrors right?” he asks.
Afrique comprises of two parts; are a series and a feature film. The series is due for release early next year but the channels on which it will be aired are yet to be confirmed. The feature film is also due for release in 2015 and it will be screened across various festivals.
Tumi is one of a few artists who have managed to succeed, stay in the game for a long time and stay true to himself. Today’s hip-hop industry sees a lot of artists who are here today and gone tomorrow. There is also a notion in the hip-hop game that to succeed and attain success you have to sell yourself short and “dumb it down”.
Tumi is a testament to the fact that it takes more than having that hit single to be successful. He is reaping all the benefits from staying true to his art.
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Photography by @Ric3hard