Life and labour in Ndlulamthi’s ‘The Substance’

The celebrated rapper’s new release turns inward as he explores the pressures black men experience living in townships.

Ndlulamthi’s previous release, sophomore album Hard Livings (2018), explored life in Cape Town’s townships. Now the underground rapper’s latest offering, the recently released EP The Substance, zooms in on the life of black men in townships, focusing specifically on labour. “Young black men are always under pressure to bring money into the house,” says Ndlulamthi, who explores the psychological and material effects of this expectation in a deeply personal way. 

Ndlulamthi’s visceral perspective is immediately apparent in the opening song, Amajita [The guys]. In it, he weaves anecdotes of growing up with his friends and experimenting with cigarettes in a crowded township, where love is secondary to survival: “Ilokishi igcwele, s’phuma kwimizi enganathando. [The township is full, and we come from homes in which love is non-existent.]

The track builds up to the story he tells in iThawtha, the next song, which analyses the many reasons young men veer off their path, including growing up fatherless, which leads to a lack of discipline and mentorship. The song suggests these young men are products of their environment, and their lives represent an ongoing vicious cycle. Agency, here, is complicated.

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The inspiration to delve into the story of black life in townships came from the response to Hard Livings. “I met people who have had fights with their fathers, but in the present moment, they are opting to write a letter to express their love because telling him face to face is something they just never got familiar with,” says Ndlulamthi. Such fans were inspired by Usengu Tatam, a song that details Ndlulamthi’s complicated relationship with his father from the 2018 project. 

In eRankini, the rapper humanises taxi drivers, who are criticised for reckless driving and disregarding the safety of customers on the road. Ndlulamthi reminds his listener of the crucial role drivers play in transporting black people to and from work. He sits in the driver’s seat and recounts what he faces from taxi owners who force drivers to operate faulty vehicles and how political perspectives differ during trips. 

Songs like this single out Ndlulamthi as a superb listener – you chuckle as his lines remind you of your own experiences taking a taxi. His conversational tone and calm demeanour command the listener’s attention – in this case, the listener is convinced Ndlulamthi is a taxi driver himself. 

Considering labour 

The subject of work is further explored in the song Dreams. Here, he explores the dead ends many young black men, especially from the township, reach in their professional lives. Most of them have no choice but to ditch their dreams of being entrepreneurs or artists to slave away at the bottom of the capitalist food chain.

His own story appears here, as he raps about the difficulties he faces as an independent artist, especially in artist-record label relations. But he doesn’t leave the listener with complaints alone. He encourages the pursuit of one’s desires. “Independence is far … better than having to live another man’s dream,” he says towards the end of the song.  

“[It is] a huge part of life for a person to choose a career … they must be able to live their lives to the fullest,” says Ndlulamthi. “There’s nothing that can elongate your life than living your passion. Creative arts is important to teach children that not everyone has to be an economist to succeed in life. Some children are talented, but they aren’t being groomed enough.”

Solutions in art

Ndlulamthi is part of the solution to the problem of gifted young people not getting the opportunity to practise their art. Through the National Arts Council, the rapper doubles as an art teacher in a high school in New Cross, the township he calls home. 

“I made sure I’m teaching in the place I belong in, where I feel I missed my chances,” he says. “I teach grades eight and nine. For a long time, the arts were sidelined in the school syllabus. It gives me pleasure that things are changing.”

Living through a pandemic reminded the world of the importance of art. People turned en masse to music and film during the lockdown, often uploading their own song and dance performances or how-to videos. Art helped keep the world sane in a time of chaotic uncertainty. 

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“Art has always played a role when it comes to dealing with depression,” he says. “The only antidote to the stresses we go through is art, especially music. Even after the great depression, people were introduced to art, circus … that’s where it’s going.”

For Ndlulamthi, who is a family man, the lockdown gave him time to create. “It gave me more time to rebuild my character,” he says. “I’m insisting on releasing an album before the year ends. I was able to sit in one place, conceptualise and write a lot. So, there’s a lot of material in the pipeline.”

Just like most of us who were stuck at home, Ndlulamthi got into new TV shows. One in particular caught his eye: Date My Family. “The first question men are asked … is where they work.” The artist found himself thinking about the pressures of this, echoes of which appear in Too Attached, a song about a toxic relationship.

Shaping the album 

A sample-based, 1990s-era soundscape with overtones of East Coast hip-hop creates the atmosphere for Ndlulamthi’s musings. Sonically, The Substance was shaped by his long-time producer and collaborator FiveSix. “I got some beats from other producers, but he’s the one who does the mixing and mastering and, because he knows what’s up. He knows the process. There are songs we pulled from the album, which … still hurts for me. But he knows which songs will work and exercises discretion in songs that could incite people and put people in danger,” he says, toeing the line at the limits of freedom of speech.

Sharing his thinking behind shaping the album, FiveSix says, “Something that I’ve observed: you can put out a 26-track album, but if it has no substance, it won’t do what it’s supposed to do. You can even put out a two-song EP and [it] can impact a lot of people [if you pick the right songs].”

The two artists are happy with how The Substance has been received so far. “There have been people who listened to the EP and offered to shoot videos. For us, the plan was to release the EP and rely on the reaction to decide which song could become a single,” says FiveSix. 

Ndlulamthi agrees, adding that if everything goes to plan, listening and feedback sessions for The Substance will follow shortly, and in December they will embark on a tour of the Eastern Cape. 

Stream The Substance on Apple Music or Spotify.

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