Like God’s eye, T’s rap sees all

Some see his work as a form of jour­nal­ism but it’s to beats that weave be­tween boom bap and trap

Mail & Guardian - - Music - Sa­belo Mkha­bela

One day be­fore Youth Day, rap­per Sto­gie T (Tumi Molekane) re­leased God’s Eye, 14 min­utes of raps and beats. The re­lease con­sists of bite­size songs, most of which are one verse long, cu­rated into one long song that cov­ers var­i­ous sub­jects — con­nect­ing them are skits that give con­text to the songs.

T has al­ways had in­ter­est­ing ways of tack­ling the sub­jects he cov­ers. God’s Eye opens with the rap­per ad­dress­ing the hypocrisy of peo­ple who make jokes about peo­ple’s hus­tles, when they could be chan­nelling that en­ergy into bet­ter­ing their own lives. Im­me­di­ately af­ter, though, he throws jabs at rap­pers who be­lieve that they are the in­cum­bent kings of rap. With no names men­tioned any­where, it’s up to you to guess who he’s re­fer­ring to.

You can just see him sneer­ing when he raps: “It’s re­ally awe­some, I’m happy for your small run/ You turn tired 16s into a 4x4, son/ But clue­less to the stan­dards/ It’s usu­ally em­bar­rass­ing to wit­ness the pubescent hubris and ar­ro­gance/ I was tu­tored from a dif­fer­ent school of grad­u­ates/ If we don’t see eye to eye, that’s the view from where I’m stand­ing.”

The mood in­ten­si­fies af­ter the first two songs, as the MC belts out so­cially con­scious rhymes through­out the re­lease. Weav­ing im­pres­sively as an ob­server about African im­mi­grants in Libya (on the song Melila), the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment (Ur­ban), the Is­lamic State (Al Raqqa), the pur­suit of money (As­pi­ra­tional Lives), the in­ter­con­nec­tion of his­toric events (Evo­lu­tion of the World) and a flawed ju­di­cial sys­tem (Leeuhof Prison), the sto­ry­teller com­ments and analy­ses with­out preach­ing.

But in the songs James Fort and Al Raqqa, T writes from his sub­ject’s per­spec­tives. The rap­per spe­cialises in this tech­nique, evok­ing a chill­ing em­pa­thy — and it al­ways has a telling ef­fect. It’s al­most like act­ing, but it’s over beats.

In James Fort, T plays the char­ac­ter of a slave mas­ter in The Gam­bia. He is writ­ing a let­ter to his wife, giv­ing her grue­some de­tails of what he’s seen of the coun­try thus far. His writ­ing is con­vinc­ing — the white per­son at­tributes en­ti­tle­ment to black bod­ies to God. He raps: “I am stilled by the scrip­ture that we are not con­demned/ For ’tis the right of man to reign over beast here.” Like a true racist, he is im­per­vi­ous, un­able to see his own evil, and in­stead lament­ing the na­tives’ re­sis­tance to sub­servience.

A com­pelling ex­am­ple of this tech­nique was in the song The Now Rich, from his 2006 de­but solo al­bum Mu­sic from My Good Eye. He raps from the per­spec­tive of a black per­son driven by cap­i­tal­ism and greed, who now looks down upon poor black peo­ple and has adopted the “boot­strap men­tal­ity” of white racists.

What T ac­com­plishes in some of the songs on God’s Eye, and in many others from his pre­vi­ous work (such as Sub City, Vil­lages and Malls and I Came Home), is sim­i­lar to jour­nal­ism. This may seem like a reach but even Chuck D (of the crit­i­cally ac­claimed rap group Pub­lic En­emy) once called hip-hop Black Amer­ica’s CNN. Ice Cube also once called him­self a “bru­tally hon­est jour­nal­ist”.

In Leeuhof Prison, T, like a jour­nal­ist with a sharp and un­con­ven­tional eye, tells the story of a dis­traught prison warder. He tells us that prison isn’t just a deeply toxic space for pris­on­ers but also for war­dens, who have to watch young (mostly black) peo­ple’s lives slowly de­stroyed in a fa­cil­ity that’s meant to re­ha­bil­i­tate them. T’s tone in this song is the op­po­site of the lofty, slightly de­tached one in the first two songs on God’s Eye. In Leeuhof Prison, he’s in­tense, emo­tional and sym­pa­thetic as he raps: “In­mate given time to make it fit the crime, it’s a lie/ ’cause ain’t no fu­ture in this present tense.”

God’s Eye re­veals a breed of MC that is rare in the 21st cen­tury — one whose scope is wider than him­self and his im­me­di­ate sur­round­ings. This pro­ject re­minded me of just how much hip-hop has taught me. It made me re­mem­ber that there are many im­por­tant peo­ple’s names and events that I first heard about in a rap song when I was grow­ing up. As a young teenager, I wouldn’t have known about Amadou Diallo, Louis Far­rakhan, Rosa Parks, the New York crack era and a whole lot more if it wasn’t for hip-hop. Hell, I even first heard about the Black Pan­ther party in a hip-hop song.

T had me hit­ting Google for some of the names he drops — the way other like-minded MCs such as Lupe Fi­asco, Black Thought, Talib Kweli, Ken­drick La­mar, Jean Grae and many others have done.

He makes ref­er­ence to cur­rent af­fairs, which most rap­pers, es­pe­cially in South Africa’s main­stream scene, hardly ever do. If they do, it’s be­cause they are us­ing it in a punch­line. But T of­fers com­men­tary on the Syr­ian city of Raqqa, once the Is­lamic State’s strong­hold. Who would have thought you’d ever hear the word “caliphate” be­ing chanted in a trap song hook?

In the same song, T spo­rad­i­cally de­ploys the triplet flow that’s now a sta­ple in rap and what makes it spe­cial is that he is tack­ling a dif­fi­cult sub­ject. You know what they say — telling the truth (or at least, a truth) is not easy.

God’s Eye shows us that T is get­ting bet­ter as an MC. His flow is still the tight­est this side of the equa­tor, his vo­cab­u­lary is un­matched and his word­play goes beyond metaphors and sim­i­les — dou­ble mean­ings are the or­der of the day. And he doesn’t just rhyme “sneak­ers” with “speak­ers”, he rhymes in syl­la­bles and, at times, even gets to rhyming en­tire lines with each other. All this while still stay­ing on the topic. So even when he raps about rap, which can get tir­ing at times, there’s an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the grandios­ity of his bars. Like po­etry.

The al­bum may have no place on the top 40 charts — you won’t hear any singing or stan­dard pop song struc­ture — but it is a cu­ra­tion of raps over pro­duc­tion that segue be­tween boom bap and trap, courtesy of the pro­ducer, Tru Hitz and Co Kayn, who pro­duced most of Sto­gie T (2016), T’s first al­bum un­der his new moniker.

God’s Eye is a fit­ting ti­tle. It is, of course, a play on words where T be­lieves he’s a kind of god MC. But it can also be in­ter­preted as the man who seems to know about so much that’s hap­pen­ing around the globe, who sees with God’s eye, which we are told reaches all cor­ners of the uni­verse at once. And, just like God’s word, the pro­ject is a rid­dle of some sort — new mean­ings to the songs come to the lis­tener with ev­ery suc­ces­sive lis­ten.

The al­bum may have no place on the top 40 charts but it is a cu­ra­tion of raps over pro­duc­tion

Smokin: Sto­gie-T pushes the en­ve­lope of the rap genre by his in­tel­li­gent ref­er­ences to cur­rent af­fairs, which most rap­pers, es­pe­cially in South Africa’s main­stream scene, hardly ever do. Photo: The Plug

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