An artist who sings back on behalf of abused women

In telling the story of a woman who fights back, Kanyi Mavi’s ‘Umsindo’ highlights South Africa’s extreme levels of femicide and domestic and other abuse against women.

The anger in Kanyi Mavi’s voice is apparent in her latest single, Umsindo.

It tells the story of a woman abused by her partner, with Mavi rapping in the first person from the perspective of the protagonist, and her determination to get herself out of the abusive relationship. In the opening lines, the rapper reveals the character as someone who has had enough of her partner’s abusive ways:

Ba ucing’ukba uyawzuphinde undenze lamasimba,
Uzukhumbul ukuba andinguy’unina, and’shoti nganimba
Ayikho kulomzimba, lonto iyaziwa

(Loosely translated as: You won’t do that shit to me again, I’m not your mama.)

The song’s story arc doesn’t necessarily reflect reality. In South Africa and many parts of the world, women often find themselves in abusive relationships that end up killing them. The familiar story usually involves the woman staying, as society has conditioned women that tolerating and forgiving unacceptable behaviour equates to strength.

Statistics speak volumes. Four in 10 divorced or separated South African women reported physical violence, according to Stats SA’s Demographic and Health Survey 2016. Additionally, Stats SA notes that the rate of murder of women increased drastically by 117% between 2015 and 2016-2017.

In Umsindo, however, the victim decides to put her foot down, refusing to buy into the perpetrator’s apology:

Namhlanje ndivuke ndingafani nayizolo
Akho nzolo, akho nalo molo
Uth’ uxolo, uthi ‘uxolo’, uthi ‘nyolo’
And’funi noyivha, v’tsek, cima longxolo

(Loosely translated as: Today, I woke up different to yesterday. You are asking for forgiveness, voetsek, cut the noise.)

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Mavi said the song was inspired by a series of tragic, domestic abuse-related events in the country and the rest of the world.

“The number of women being killed in domestic violence has escalated to such heights that it is no longer a shock,” she says. “It has become an ordinary part of our lives. This song was also inspired by the hundreds of women serving jail time for killing rapists, paedophiles and domestic abusers. The most notable case in South African hip-hop being the death of rapper Flabba and the arrest of Sindisiwe Manqele.”

Manqele was sentenced to 12 years in prison in March 2015 for the murder of her rapper boyfriend Nkululeko “Flabba” Habedi, who was a member of seven-member hip-hop group Skwatta Kamp.

Manqele admitted that she stabbed the rapper intentionally in self-defence. According to her, Flabba pinned her down and stabbed her five times in the stomach. “I wanted to hurt him so that he would move from me and I could get out,” she said.

Art that reflects our time

Umsindo wasn’t made with prime-time radio slots in mind. Apart from responding to a hot topic with unapologetic rage instead of a motivational anthem recycling clichés, the song’s structure doesn’t fit the Top 40 radio format.

Instead of a repetitive chorus nested between short digestible verses, Umsindo contains one verse that’s separated by beat switches and an indistinct vocal sample loop. United Kingdom-based Swedish producer Ludvig Parment sampled legendary Benin musician Le Roi Alekpehanhou’s music for Umsindo and placed the ominous sample over electronic music instrumentation.

“I had been playing around with this concept for some time,” says Mavi. “It is hard not to when every second day you hear about some young girl who was killed and stuffed in a freezer, or murdered and burnt by the very same men who claimed to love them. The beat got me feeling all kinds of emotional and was, therefore, a great vehicle for this message.”

Such is the music of Kanyi Mavi. Her art has a high entertainment value; her command of the Xhosa language, her facile tongue and natural and vicious delivery are all traits that not many rappers possess. However, she does not stop at the point of entertainment, instead making art that always reflects our times.

Reality, not perception

Mavi’s previous single, Ngqangqa, tells the story of organised crime in townships and the lifestyle around it, covering its effect on residents and the individuals involved.

The music is elegant, minimal and contemporary. Its styling longs for luxury raps about the finer things in life, a mode more central to our mainstream imagining of contemporary hip-hop. Instead, Mavi chooses to reflect the realities of many South Africans living in the townships, just as she does on Umsindo.

“The song is about the thoughts of a woman in an abusive situation,” says Mavi about Umsindo.

“Desperation and pain can lead a woman to very dark places. This song is just letting you know what goes on in the mind of the abused woman. She might not kill you herself, but she wishes someone would – maybe a freak accident involving a bus. Some would have thoughts of setting the house on fire, or poison in his food. Other women literally snap, shoot, stab and kill after years of dealing with an abusive man.”

Blaming the victims

Coincidentally, Mavi and her collaborators released Umsindo at around the same time house music superstar Babes Wodumo was assaulted by her partner, kwaito star Mampintsha, live on Instagram.

As usual when a similar case gets reported and is covered by the media and discussed on social media, especially Twitter, the opinions are mostly disturbing. The responses point to a grim present and future, in which women are still not safe.

A large number of people asked why Wodumo didn’t simply leave, which shows little to no understanding of the complexities that lie within abusive relationships and point instead to the culture of victim-blaming that we have cultivated. In many instances, women fear leaving and speaking out because it could lead to more abuse and even murder, not to mention that some victims don’t report cases of abuse because speaking out and opening a case doesn’t guarantee protection.

In the wake of the clip, which went vital, Mampintsha’s close friend and collaborator, DJ Tira, incurred the wrath of the internet when he posted a clip of himself jamming to an unreleased song by Mampintsha referencing the incident caught on Instagram.

“The saddest thing is that men are out there protecting each other,” says Kanyi, generalising. Men aren’t doing enough, if anything, to stand against the abuse of women. Our society places the responsibility on women; we ask why she didn’t leave instead of holding the men accountable for their actions.

Mavi has proposed a solution: “Teach your daughters how to protect themselves, teach them how to use weapons, teach them how to fight for their lives.”

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