Stiff Pap stir up youthful defiance on ‘Tuff Time$’

The duo’s latest album reflects the experiences of two young Black men in Johannesburg who’ve come into their own despite the many odds stacked against them.

Just two weeks before violent riots erupted in South Africa in July, duo Stiff Pap released their latest album, Tuff Time$, along with a short film titled Tuff Time$ Never Last. The record is an achievement in sonic storytelling. 

Tuff Time$ is the outfit’s third music project, but it could also be understood as their first full-length album. They prefer to think of their work as projects because each comes with its own concept. Through 10 songs, producer-rapper duo Jakinda Mshindi Boya, 25, and Ayema Qampi, 26 – who go by Jakinda and Ayema Problem – navigate the harsh Johannesburg environment as two Black men who also have to contend with a pandemic that has made living conditions even more difficult.

Premiering on Fader magazine’s website and directed by Meghan Daniels, the film features a mix of found footage, news reports and video, and includes the songs Riders on the Storm, I See You and Sassa

In retrospect, the film feels prophetic, vividly depicting the duo riding around Johannesburg in a taxi amid vast inequality and police brutality, eventually ending in mass protest against “a broken system that South Africa’s born-free generation has inherited”. 

But as the duo note, there is nothing prophetic about Tuff Time$ Never Last – it is just the reality they live in. “We wanted the film to be a real reflection of how we see South Africa,” Boya says. 

With a distinctly South African visual language, they capture the frustration, anger and unemployment crisis that plague the country. “It is the youth looking at the government and saying ‘we have power’,” Qampi adds. “And we want to showcase that power.”

But that tough times never last is the duo’s central resolve, and it’s a message that’s important for South Africans to hear at the moment. As the strongest work from Stiff Pap to date, it solidifies their place as one of the most interesting acts in the country right now.

Expressing frustrations

Qampi is deeply troubled by the July riots and violence. Although born in East London, his family moved to Umlazi, Durban, when he was four years old. The riots were happening a few streets away from his family’s home. “The biggest crowd who were part of the civil unrest live 2km from where I stay. And where they live, it is eight people living in a small room. There’s no water. There’s no sewerage. I’ve seen poverty, but that is at the height of it,” he says.

“I feel very anxious and frustrated because of how they [the government] treat us as Black people … They titled it looting. They didn’t say civil unrest. They didn’t even care about humanising Black people and their frustrations. 

“With 75% youth unemployment and almost 50% total unemployment in South Africa, people are hungry and people want to eat. People want to take, because the government is not giving us anything. Even with the R350 [Covid-19 relief of distress grant]. What is R350? What will you do with R350 for an entire month? … I would never put blame on the people more than I would put blame on the government for not doing good.”

Rapper-producer duo Stiff Pap’s new album, Tuff Time$, lays bare the harsh realities of survival in Johannesburg. 

Relating the situation back to their music, Qampi says: “I think the frustration that we had on Tuff Time$ was the frustration that everybody had. Because it was a frustration of not having and the frustration of wanting, and the frustration of seeing other people having. So what are you going to do? By any means necessary, you’re going to want to go there and you’re going to want to take.”

As for relating it to their film, Boya says: “We already knew what people were feeling because we are there and we feel that too. We’re watching, but we are also part of it. We had a sense that this was inevitable at some point, which is why we wanted to depict that in the film.”

Shared political consciousness

Both artists grew up in politically conscious homes. They met at an open mic session while studying at the University of Cape Town in 2016. Boya grew up between Johannesburg and East London but moved to Cape Town to study law. Qampi was there pursuing an accounting degree and doing hip-hop performances on the side.

Their university experience would be fuelled by politics as it coincided with the Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall movements. “They burnt a bus right in front of where we stayed,” Boya says. “When students were getting chased with rubber bullets, it was near us on lower campus. We lived in the heart of it and we were part of it. We were protesting.” 

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The group formed in 2016, calling themselves Stiff Pap – referring to the mielie meal dish made all over the continent – as it would be something all South Africans know. Working independently, they established themselves quickly on local music scenes. By 2018, they were performing at major festivals around the country, including Oppikoppi and Afropunk. In pursuit of their dreams of music, they made the bold decision to move together to Johannesburg in 2019. 

They found it a harsh city, difficult to get used to and navigate, and they often did not have transport or much money to get by. “A lot of the stories that are told on Tuff Time$ are really what it’s like in the inner city. We’re just the storytellers of people who have come to this place and experienced it,” Boya explains.  

“These aren’t just our stories, but these are stories that we’ve heard from other people – on taxis, speaking to people and interacting with different communities around Johannesburg.”

A diverse sound

On Tuff Time$, beats and production are handled by Boya, while Qampi is on vocals. The record combines elements of their previous projects, Based on a Qho Story (2017), with which they established their hybrid sound, and Stiff Pap Radio (2019), which was more introspective.

Relocating to Johannesburg and fully committing to music was life-altering, forcing the artists to approach their work seriously and with discipline. That meant treating music as a full-time job. With a home studio set up, they started making music daily.

The duo’s sound is refreshingly fluid. It does not fit into specific genres, but draws on their diverse sonic influences. Think hip-hop, rap, gqom, punk, kwaito and electronic music. They often describe their sound as “post-kwaito”, finding kindred spirits and energy with kwaito’s originators.

Behind the scenes of Stiff Pap’s short film, Tuff Times$ Never Last, which accompanies their latest album. 

Qampi has approached the songwriting on Tuff Time$ in a more conscious and introspective way than before. Most of the songs were written before the pandemic, but some were directly influenced by it, including Sassa – about the R350 Covid-19 relief grant.

His lyrics are hard-hitting but have poetic finesse, reflecting what is happening in South Africa around him, but in a way that’s also “groovy and musical”. About the song Tuff Time$, he says: “I pour my heart out on it. Because I’ve always been grinding. We’ve always been working. People have said we won’t make it, but we’re still here.”

Resilience and reach

The record speaks of Joburg’s hustle, competitiveness and darkness. But it also speaks of resilience – a strong theme is perseverance and overcoming. The song Caster Semenya, titled after the middle-distance runner, reflects that it’s “not about the sprint, it’s about this constant, marathon run”, referencing their musical journey thus far. 

Tuff Time$ has been three years in the making; a time filled with life-changing events. This includes being signed to London-based label Cotch International last year. Though they’ve always worked independently, it happened at the right moment, says Boya. “By the time we came to the label, we had a very clear vision of who we are and what we wanted.” 

While their sights are on expanding their global reach, they also want to be loved in their own country. “Our name is Stiff Pap, because we want every household in South Africa to relate to us,” says Boya. “Every household knows what it is, it’s a staple food. We want to have that sort of feeling when someone thinks of us … something that’s close to home.”

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Releasing their most complete project thus far, increasing international interest and signing to a label during such challenging circumstances are indeed a sign that their hard work has paid off. And all of this has happened without much radio play. 

With Tuff Time$, the duo felt a strong sense of urgency. “We’re adults now in this post-apartheid South Africa. We’ve grown and lived in this country long enough to know that our parents were sold lies and we no longer believe those lies. So this is us, having our moment as youth in this new South Africa, to say that this is actually what the reality is,” says Boya.

Tuff Time$ is a brilliant effort, fresh in sound and timely in message. It captures the lost hope of a generation resistant to Nelson Mandela’s rainbow nation. Instead, it looks inwards and introspectively considers the angst in order to find resolve, healing and perseverance. 

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