Critics and fans have often been puzzled by motswako rapper Mo’Molemi’s uncompromising stance on social justice. But to understand his music and politics, you have to understand his hometown and its history.
On Mahikeng’s Nelson Mandela Drive, despair greets you. In the scorching summer heat, groups of black men line up against the rails of a local church, hoping to catch the eyes of prospective employers. When the men retire for the day and darkness descends, young women take to the same street as sex workers.
It’s an image you’d expect to see on city streets, not in a small town. But in a place that has been drowning in corruption and incompetence for more than two decades, anything is possible.
Scenes such as these compelled rapper Motlapele Morule to break ranks with the optimism of many of his motswako peers and instead use his microphone as a machine gun. As the heir to a small farm in Ramatlabama near the Botswana border and later as a migrant in the city, he has a better grasp of issues than most in the motswako clan. It’s from the same farm he oversees today that he drew inspiration for his rap alias, Mo’Molemi.
On the eve of the release of his 2007 debut album Amantsi, an unreleased song titled Blue Collar, a celebration and a rallying call for working-class unity, was leaked.
Bo-ausi ba di-kichini bo kareng bo botlhe le ma-kontraka, ke re pop the blue collar now Bo-rametlakase, di-plaas joppie le bo-mme ba fielang straata, amandla, come on.
Loosely translated: Kitchen workers, contract workers, farm workers and street workers, pop the blue collar now.
Blue Collar could have been career suicide, but with it Molemi found an audience just as suspicious of the democratic miracle as he was.
Beyond the plight of workers, something else has long troubled Molemi. As a teenager, he watched Lucas Mangope’s Bophuthatswana tumble. Things fell apart then for a generation who saw a future for themselves in the arts programmes funded by Mangope.
For young men like Molemi, who grew up with dreams of travelling Western cities as rock stars after graduating from these programmes, it was a sort of death.
Where many of his motswako peers celebrate the new South Africa and turn the hip-hop subgenre into its mouthpiece, Molemi made it his mission to undress its contradictions and allowed his music to be the wail of those who mourn for the dream of Bophuthatswana.
In 2005, he told youth radio station YFM’s Lee Kasumba that Bophuthatswana and its legacy was a forbidden subject and that he sought to change this. “If those who are responsible and have the power to be recording proper history are not doing it, then those who keep street history will tell the story the way they see it.”
Molemi believed this to be the calling of motswakolistas (motswako artists). It’s a debate that’s still raging in Mmabatho, partly fuelled by what many see as the failure of the ANC to even maintain what Mangope did right. But for young people, it’s a topic Molemi demystified.
Motswako gained acclaim mainly for the ability of its artists to incorporate an African language (Setswana) into hip-hop without negating its Western sound. Though motswako rappers touched on social issues from time to time, it wasn’t until Amantsi that the subgenre sought to contend with something much bigger: power.
“I want the people in government to hear me,” Molemi told Kasumba. If Hip Hop Pantsula’s YBA 2 NW album was motswako’s radical manifesto, Amantsi was its execution.
On 1 August 2012 – nine days before the bloodied bodies of mineworkers in Marikina lay in an open field – Motswako DJ Lemonka released his highly anticipated album, Motswako Tape. It featured Molemi’s controversial critique of the police, 10111.
Why is a black man always a target for the cops
While they never search these damn white boys for the drugs
I’ll tell why?
It’s easy to fuck your own people
Though the song first appeared on the soundtrack of Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 sci-fi District 9, that it was released on Motswako Tape days before what has been called South Africa’s worst crime reconfirmed Molemi’s ability to see through the democratic miracle.
Amantsi is the most daring of his three albums. It rejects everything on which motswako staked its success. If it was language that catapulted the subgenre to relevance, then Molemi took it further by using Tswana oral lore to deliver his sociopolitical themes. If it was liberal politics that made the subgenre palatable to mainstream South Africa, Molemi brought out its radical side.
It announced the arrival of a rapper unfazed by bling, one who wouldn’t betray his principles for a lifestyle. A producer who worked regularly with Molemi once whispered to me that even in the absence of an audience, the rapper was uncompromising. He has, as the title of his sophomore album goes, truly been “a rebel without a pause”.
Grapple with imperialism
Molemi took to the microphone as part of Morafe, the only motswako band to receive any acclaim. But it was as a solo artist that his goal became clear. Rather than a means to escape the despair of post-Bophuthatswana Mahikeng, motswako provided Molemi the opportunity to make his anticapitalist, pro-working class and later Pan-African case to the world.
He graduated to the bigger problem of imperialism and began to understand that the despair plaguing the streets of Mahikeng didn’t exist in isolation. There was a bigger hand at play and if he was going to have any impact, he would have to address the structure and not its victims.
His opposition to imperialism found expression in his celebration of former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe. Like many others committed to a kind nationalist politics orientated around big men, Molemi saw Mugabe as a victim of Western imperialism. But he didn’t offer much consideration to Mugabe’s many Zimbabwean victims.
If there’s a thorn in Molemi’s legacy, it’s name is Mugabe. But, nonetheless, Molemi has carved out something of a cult following out of motswako’s left-leaning fans. His music is more than just the voice of those on the margins of South Africa’s post-apartheid society, it represents the anarchist spirit of hip-hop – something many feel local hip-hop has long lost.
His announcement in 2014 that his third album, A sia, would be his last felt like a death to many, as though motswako was losing its last vital organ.
Whether on a farm or a city street, for much of his career Molemi has attempted to capture and make sense of the precarious position young black people occupy in democratic South Africa. A decade on from his seminal debut, the picture is as blurry as the first time he attempted to make sense of it.