Beyond Kortes: A journey into Mshoza’s Bhoza

A deep dive into the late artist’s 2005 sophomore album Bhoza, which was intentionally centred on women, and, of all her catalogue, her most focused body of work.

Like most artists whose breakout songs are mega hits, Mshoza was largely defined by Kortes (Kasi Luv). The single is equal parts gentle and vibey, as is the fashion with kwaito songs. It is a perfect blend of kwaito, R&B and hip-hop. And, upon its release in 2003, it hit all the right spots. Over time, the song found itself stitched into the fabric of kwaito and South African music at large. 

Far from a one-hit wonder, Mshoza (real name Nomasonto Maswanganyi) would go on to release a slew of singles: uMshoza Yibhoza, The Return, Hlaba Lingene, Abantu Bam and more. And would later release three albums: BullDawgz First Lady (2001), Bhoza (2003) and The Return (2005). She never lost her way as an artist.

Like most kwaito artists, she was swept to the fringes when interest in the genre dipped in South Africa in the mid-to-late 2000s. But she remained sonically sharp throughout her whole career. As recently as 2016, she released the heat song Abantu Bam.

However, her albums are not frequently discussed in the same orbit as the likes of TKZee, Zola and Mandoza, the few kwaito artists who didn’t just focus on hit singles, but also crafted worthy bodies of work – in contrast, most kwaito albums largely comprised the main hit single and fillers. Mshoza’s debut BullDawgz First Lady contained no other song aesthetically aligned to Kortes, but was a selection of deep cuts that showcased her different layers and intense lyrical focus. She sang and rapped about sexual harassment, murder and introduced the listener to her lyrical prowess and politics – able always to adapt to different production styles.

A lyrical approach

The song Heat of the Night was a remake, riff or rip of Eminem’s 2000 song B*tch Please II. Her producers, Oscar Mlangeni and Bonsai Shongwe – BullDawgz Entertainment’s in-house producers – made a large number of the label’s hits and classics by sampling (and, at times remaking) hip-hop songs. Examples would be Mzambiya’s Ingculazi (In Aid of A Child With Aids) (which borrows a lot from Tupac’s Changes), Mshoza’s Mshoza Yibhoza (which is a remake of Dr. Dre’s Still Dre) and GP Gangster’s Zola Till I Die (a remake of Nas’ Nas is Like). This demonstrated a practice which spoke to the relationship between hip-hop and kwaito.

13 August 2016: Mshoza during a video shoot of her then-new single Abantu bam, in Soweto. (Photograph by Gallo Images/ Daily Sun/ Lucky Nxumalo)

Mshoza was lyrical, penning notable verses throughout and not flooding her projects with remixes and instrumentals, like most kwaito albums of the time. Speaking at her memorial service, Mzambiya recalled meeting the late artist for the first time in Zola township. They immediately appreciated each other’s crafts and became friends.

“I was doing my thing,” he said. “I met Sonto there. We became friends instantly. She was impressed by my writing skills because I was writing songs.” Mzambiya and Mshoza are two of the most lyrical artists in kwaito.

Bhoza’s focus

With her second album, Mshoza created a focused body of work that reflected her character and values. As opposed to her first album’s formulaic title that highlighted her gender, the sophomore album’s title Bhoza is a unisex term associated with machismo. It is a tag one would normally associate with a man. And not just a man, but a man in charge. If Bhoza dropped today, it would highly likely be titled Grootman (big man).

Bhoza approached women’s empowerment from different angles. Apart from crowning herself iBhoza and emphasising it on the album’s lead single uMshoza Yi Bhoza, she featured an all-women guestlist – Tidido appeared on Piti and uMshoza Yi Bhoza while an uncredited vocalist sang the hook on My Angel.

The only man’s voice in the whole project appears in Halala (Women Power). Even then, it is merely as a commentator in a women’s football match between Soweto Ladies and Cape Town Pirates. The song immortalises the likes of Portia Modise, Desiree Ellis, Fikile Sithole and other women football stars of the time, most of whom have since become legends. 

After calling out their names in the song, Mshoza makes the declaration that this is a strictly women’s match, rapping:

Akudali ama-outi, bafethu, kudlal’ i-theken 
Akudlali amajita, kudlala ama-cherry (It’s not men playing, it’s women) 

Wawutshelwe wubani ukuthi ibhola elamajita, uyaz’khohlisa (Who told you football was for men only? You are fooling yourself)

Wawutshelwe wubani ukuthi i-thekeni ziphelel’ ekhishini?” (Who told you a woman’s place is only in the kitchen?) 

She deliberately centred women and their issues in the album.

Halala also appeared in the 2003 compilation album Bayazenzela. This album featured a number of artists and was put together by producer Guffy. Malaika’s early hit S’bonga Abazali, for example, first appeared in this album. The whole project was part of Sanlam’s Bayazenzela campaign aimed at spreading awareness about women’s football, through music.

Owning her image and politics

Mshoza owned her image as a “tomboy” in My Angel. In the melodic and catchy love song, she muses on her angel, a man with whom she’s in love. In the first verse, she imagines her lover bringing her home to his family. She raps:

Uyothini umamezala songena endlini nalepantsula lomntwana? 
Ngring’ itaal yabotsotsi nabadala, 
Ngifak’ ispot noma ng’ringa nomagriza 

“What will your mother say to you bringing home a pantsula girl who speaks Tsotsitaal to the elders and doesn’t take her bucket hat off even when addressing her?” she asks.

Mshoza’s politics weren’t only preached, but practised at a time when feminism wasn’t a part of mainstream conversations in the way that it is today. Mshoza refused to be boxed, and remained defiant in her music and in her personal life, making her a focus of tabloids – just like Brenda Fassie and Lebo Mathosa before her. 

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And, having made her name under a label that produced child stars, Mshoza was, for most of her career, somewhat infantilised. She was at least five years older than Mzambiya, but was still treated like she was his peer.

As was the case with Lebo Mathosa and Brenda Fassie, what one heard in Mshoza’s songs was who she actually was. At her memorial service, Mzambiya said, “She brought some confidence to young girls. There is only one Mshoza, a female kwaito star. She was not apologetic about what she believed in.” 

Mshoza remained an open book for most of her life, never shy to speak candidly about her personal issues such as her decision to bleach her skin, and her marriage woes in the last decade. But through everything, she never stopped releasing music and keeping her ear on the street. Her last single was 2019’s Not Ngo Sonto

All her albums always featured new talent too. She introduced Black Rose with her single Hlabalingene in 2004. Later, she started her own label Mshoza Bozza Entertainment, signing artists such as Drenckho and a few others.

Speaking at the memorial service, Drenckho said: “She signed about 40 of us, artists, dancers, gospel singers, drummers and the like. Two months into the stable, we were told we had used up R2 million. Mshoza helped us with many things and helped us in this industry.”

Mshoza died at 37 of complications from diabetes. She is survived by two children, a daughter, Pride Mnisi, 11, and a son, Junior Mnisi, 9.

13 April 2005: A young Mshoza in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photograph by Gallo Images/ Sowetan/ Elvis Ntombela)
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