The mark­ings of Zulu rap

Manelis’s al­bum part of quest to find his own sound and lan­guage that’s woke to the street and lit­er­ary

Mail & Guardian - - Music - Kwanele Sosibo

In the mid­dle of Manelis’s al­bum Air­cuts, there is a snip­pet of de­ceased Dur­ban em­cee XO rap­ping a verse. He is trans­posed on to the pro­ceed­ings from an old mix­tape put to­gether by Mea­sure­ment, pro­ducer for Touch Is a Move.

The 45-sec­ond snip­pet em­bod­ies the street-level cool of XO, who was mur­dered in 2004, im­mor­tal­is­ing him with the elec­tric­ity of Big­gie Smalls’s now famed Ful­ton Street freestyle.

If you lis­ten closely, you can hear Manelis’s in­cred­u­lous laugh at the ge­nius of XO, whom he had ac­com­pa­nied to the record­ing ses­sion at which the rhyme was laid down.

“In terms of cre­ative writ­ing back in the day, XO rep­re­sents this idea of a very thugged-out per­sona but with, like, a re­ally in­tel­lec­tual abil­ity to ex­press him­self and his view­point with gram­mat­i­cal di­ver­sity,” says Manelis. “He had this abil­ity to twist gram­mar and at the same time ap­ply all these aca­demic rules. That was some­thing that was re­ally not known to, like, a dude rap­ping nge­siZulu. And he was, like, a re­ally street dude, not street as in hip-hop or kwaito but, like, is­nxadu [a real live wire]. His abil­ity with the pen was not even based on, like, ‘I'm lis­ten­ing to ‘Pac,’ which was a sim­i­lar thing with me. This is why his style res­onated with me.”

Manelis, whose in­volve­ment in hip-hop goes back to the mid-1990s, was in­tro­duced to the arts by speech and drama classes at school and fell in with the more sto­ry­telling-driven side of hip-hop.

The 17-track Air­cuts is a con­tin­u­a­tion in that vein, pur­pose­fully re­ject­ing the stric­tures of genre and chan­nelling his rap­ping abil­i­ties down paths less trav­elled.

Be­ing im­mersed in the al­bum has the feel­ing of be­ing in an ex­tended dream­state, where artists do not com­mu­ni­cate in mere rhymes and beats but in ad­vanced, mal­leable forms that are built from the foun­da­tions of these rudi­ments.

“I don’t do this thing of get­ting mu­sic, rap­ping on a beat and call­ing it a song,” Manelis says. “If you give me mu­sic, it’s still an idea that must be worked on. Be­cause I’ve been try­ing to find my own na­tive sound so that I build on some­thing. I’ve been try­ing to find my own air­cut space where I can stretch my­self .”

Manelis de­scribes “air­cut” as a men­tal out­look, a bright flash of in­spi­ra­tion for one’s ears or that feel­ing of beauty that per­me­ates the at­mos­phere, re­gard­less of the re­al­i­ties of daily life.

In his long ca­reer, Manelis has spent time pi­o­neer­ing a unique form of ex­pres­sion nge­siZulu, try­ing to bring that to peo­ple with var­i­ous for­ma­tions of live bands. He’s also tried to fig­ure out how to mon­e­tise his in­ter­ests by build­ing a mu­sic pro­mo­tion and artist man­age­ment brand with his wife, Mar­lyn Nt­sele.

The pres­sures of fam­ily and run­ning a mu­sic busi­ness have re­sulted in a soft­en­ing of Manelis’s mu­sic out­put and the na­ture of its pro­duc­tion.

“Even though I am con­stantly record­ing, putting de­mos aside, I can­not be reck­lessly loud now,” he says. “There is a kid in the house, the mu­sic is more calm now be­cause it is recorded in a house where it's not just me and it is recorded on late nights. [As a re­sult,] I have been try­ing to find a sound to ride rather than to screech dope rhymes.”

In many ways, Air­cuts is a leap of faith into murky wa­ters. Manelis speaks about the process as be­ing laced with won­der­fully un­ful­filled ex­pec­ta­tions. “Some­times you could look for some­thing only to find that you can't find what you are look­ing for,” he says about the sonic pal­ette. “Say you are look­ing for Soul II Soul, Back to Life-type of sen­si­bil­ity in the sound, a Dan Nkosi sen­si­bil­ity in the sound. If you keep look­ing, look­ing, look­ing, you'll find that the feel­ing of go­ing back is good enough. You can find some­thing fresh, but you won't ex­actly get that sound be­cause the key­boards they were us­ing then, no one's got them any­more, but the in­ten­tion be­hind want­ing to go there is good enough for now be­cause it's fresh.”

The un­in­tended ef­fect of all this sonic ad­vance­ment has been a dumb­ing down of Manelis’s word­play. While op­er­at­ing as some kind of a mod­ern-day com­men­ta­tor on all things so­ciopo­lit­i­cal, Manelis was evolv­ing into an aes­thete too, build­ing his own lingo from var­i­ous so­cial con­texts as well as lit­er­a­ture pro­duced in the Zulu lan­guage.

The end re­sult was a slang that seemed woke to the ways of the street yet si­mul­ta­ne­ously versed in the ut­ter­ances of yore.

“I don't write in text­book Zulu so I wouldn't say that I bor­rowed from Zulu writ­ers,” coun­ters Manelis. “I used to read a lot of Zulu books back in the day, but a lot of the stuff is like pe­riod pieces. A lot of lit­er­a­ture yesiZulu is, like, it only goes up to a cer­tain point. My thing is peo­ple, study­ing peo­ple and lis­ten­ing to mu­sic it's based on, like, a Kwazulu-Natal en­vi­ron­ment, but not try­ing to be like I hang with iy’nk­abi [gang­sters].”

Manelis may down­play the lit­er­ari­ness of his ap­proach, but what is un­doubtable is that he has in­flu­enced sev­eral em­cees work­ing within what is now a mod­ern tra­di­tion called igeba, a form of Zulu rap mix­ing mod­ern man­i­fes­ta­tions and con­texts of the lan­guage with more cul­tural it­er­a­tions. He has done so with a flair and poise that is yet to be sur­passed. What he does lament in the pre­vail­ing con­tent mostly framed as kasi rap is that the sub­jects tend to hover around the same pre­fab­ri­cated top­ics: money, love, sub­stance abuse and feuds.

“Who is writ­ing about ukuth­wasa [ini­ti­a­tion for san­go­mas] and what it ac­tu­ally means?” he asks. “Why are there so many nowa­days and how much do they charge?

“And if you want to talk about medicine, what type of plants are there and what do they do? Who uses this medicine? You can have a dope story there with love and tragedy. These are some of the typ­i­cal things that were go­ing on in my head to get out of the norm of ‘this is what we write about’. Zu­luboy once wrote a song called No­ma­langa. It was about a love story in­volv­ing a guy cross­ing over into ex­ile. No­body writes about that. There are plenty guys like that run­ning around like that hold­ing up cash-in-tran­sit ve­hi­cles.”

Among the note­wor­thy things about Air­cuts is that it is shrouded in com­mu­nal en­ergy and a bal­anc­ing force brought by the women col­lab­o­ra­tors, in­clud­ing those he has worked with for years such as Zoe the Seed, Ninja X and Skye Wanda. By bal­anc­ing out the za­ni­ness of the pro­duc­tion, han­dled mostly by SO & SO and Vu­lane Mthembu, and the ac­ro­bat­ics of Manelis’s ever-mor­ph­ing flows, the al­bum’s sup­port­ing cast keep it afloat in that “air­cut” zone.

Air­borne: Rap­per Manelis says his new al­bum Air­cuts is about his jour­ney to­wards find­ing a fresh new sound. Photo: Ro­gan Ward

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