Gqom and the poetic: Talking to Sho Madjozi

The poet who became a gqom artist reveals her many names, what it is like to inhabit her musical persona and how she feels about South Africa’s poetry scene.

Gqom enthusiasts seldom need a reason to spread their lips over the howls and scrunched faces that let their spectators know they are dominating the dance floor and are aware of it.

On this same dance floor, the gwara gwara can tell the artists apart. Even when the beat doesn’t change, the feeling and movement does.

Gqom was popularised in Durban and is mostly dominated by artists who rarely write Tsonga lyrics. The genre honours the dancefloor more than the bookshelf. The music calls its listeners to use their bodies, begging them to throw themselves at the altar of stadiums, house parties and car boots filled with meat and booze parked outside tshisa nyama gatherings. It is the gospel at braais in a way spoken word or intimate reading is not.

Into this world – where the collective ricochet of bodies is instigated by drawn out synth, repeated chants and beat drops, which transports its audience into a nazoke trance – comes Maya Wegerif, the poet.

19 January 2019. Sho Madjozi gazes down Chiswick Road in Brixton, Johannesburg. The gqom creator has offered listeners a new perspective on Tsonga knowledge.

Before she became known as Sho Madjozi, Maya inhabited a sound that moved bodies more quietly, with finger snaps and the occasional murmur of “speak” or “word”, uttered to affirm she was speaking the truth. Maya is a polyglot nomad born in South Africa to a white father and black Tsonga mother. She grew up in Shirley, a mountain village in the town of Elim in Limpopo – a little black girl, who published at age 11.

She finished secondary school in Dar es Salaam, went to Massachusetts to pursue African studies and creative writing at Mount Holyoke College and then came home to South Africa to do a fellowship in writing at the University of Johannesburg.

She spent her teen years already concerned with the politics of race, gender, language, colourism and the importance of the archive and authorship. Some years later, the poet would make a wider audience consider the same politics while gyrating, singing along in a language they don’t always understand.

When asked if she can identify a moment when she knew things had changed, or when there was a definite shift in her life, she paused. She thinks back to a day when she went to a village to visit her grandmother.

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When she drove in, the local primary school children emptied their classrooms and chased her all the way to her grandmother’s house. “They stood outside her house and sang my songs back to me line for line,” Maya says. “That’s when I knew things would never be the same.”

To her followers, Sho Madjozi is the artist who gave listeners a different perspective on Tsonga knowledge and shifted the landscape of what language could do in popular culture. She has always been committed to the work of understanding and foregrounding Tsonga culture.

In 2016, in a kombi full of poets, Maya and Max Makisi Marhanele, the playwright, poet and writer who co-compiled the first comprehensive Xitsonga dictionary, Tihlungu ta Rixaka, with Vonani Bila, were engaged in an intense conversation about the roots and colloquial expressions of Tsonga, and why the dictionary is so important.

But when the subject of poetry comes up, Maya admits she hasn’t been much involved in it since she attended the Poetry Africa festival in 2016, because of the changes to her lifestyle and schedule.

“Financially, poetry isn’t appreciated as much as rap or pop culture in this country,” she giggles, then stops abruptly. “I’ve always had an issue with the poetry space in South Africa. There’s a lot of bad poetry and not enough curatorship around what we see on stage lately. The other frustrating thing is we are not very critical of poetry here.”

There is a sense she is choosing her words very carefully now. “There’s also this practice in South African poetry spaces where all voices must be heard and accommodated, which is cool, but it also means there’s no nurturing of the craft. If I want to listen to my favourite poet, I must sit through gut-wrenchingly bad poetry, just to listen to that one good one.”

When asked if she has similar sentiments about pop culture, she explains why the frivolousness of pop can be useful to its construction. “Pop comes from the word popular, so as long you are doing it and it is popular then it’s fine, but it also takes a lot of intelligence to create something popular and to be able to use pop to reach the masses. A lot of what I do is thought out. There’s a plan here. Everything is connected.”

When asked what scares her about her persona Sho Madjozi, she repeats the question in the third person, and slowly answers while thinking aloud: “Um, that, Sho Madjozi completely consumes Maya. I was a whole person before Sho Madjozi. I had a whole life and relationships and things I loved to do. I have had to sacrifice them for this persona. One of the things I loved to do that I can’t do anymore is meet strangers and to pretend to be someone else, to make up these stories of who I was and what I did – like I could be a scientist or a nurse. These are things I had to lose to Sho Madjozi.”

What does she miss the most about just being Maya? “Going home to my village is different now,” she reflects.

19 January 2019. Born Maya Wegerif, but performing gqom as Sho Madjozi, poses interesting problems: “ … Sho Madjozi completely consumes Maya. I was a whole person before Sho Madjozi.”

But there are also beautiful and unexpected things she didn’t foresee in her newfound fame. “I also get to do the developmental, political activist work I always wanted to do, and I get to use my platform to do that. I didn’t expect it to happen that way. I get to pursue all my interests: fashion, African studies, language … It’s turning out to be a vehicle to get to the places I wanted to go.”

The last 15 minutes of the conversation are dedicated to tracing out her many names across relationships and languages. “My besties and father still call me Maya. When my brother picks up the phone and says Madjozi, I know it’s game over. I have nicknames like Tlhava, which I got because of my love for mopanya worms. I have a Tsonga name, Xichavo. My neighbour in the village calls me this. There, I am also N’wa Mzamani – which is Mzamani’s daughter. My grandmother will never get on the Madjozi train,” she laughs.

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