Yanga Chief’s debut is pop excellence

Pop Star, a debut album that doesn’t take itself too seriously while hitting all the right notes, captures and defines an era of South African popular music and politics.

Musician Yanga Chief named a song Manelo on his recently released debut Pop Star, an obvious nod to Chicco Twala’s single We Miss You, Manelow, dropped in the late 1980s. In both cases, “Manelo(w)” refers to Nelson Mandela.

For Chicco Twala, making a song titled Mandela during the apartheid era would have likely led to censorship. (This explains the song’s music video, which depicts Manelow as a runaway pregnant woman instead of an incarcerated Nelson Mandela.) But more than a nod to Twala’s classic, Yanga Chief refers to Mandela as a struggle hero rather than the trite figurehead of the rainbow nation. As we wrestle with the meaning of Mandela today, the pop artist teleports the listener back to the difficult final days of apartheid.

Unlike most politically charged albums, Pop Star doesn’t take itself too seriously – it is littered with comical and sarcastic catchphrases referencing South African popular culture. The album shows Yanga Chief to be a well-read artist in touch with the social and political milieu of the country.

Unlike a majority of his counterparts in the country’s popular music scene who stay away from these issues altogether, Yanga Chief calls out the country’s government.

Manelo is an open letter to Mandela, written against the backdrop of a corrupt ANC government and a country teetering on the brink. He sings about politicians popping champagne at Capello using state money – and name-checks Gwede Mantashe – while the majority of the country’s Black citizens languish in poverty. 

In the second verse, Yanga Chief details South Africa’s current state, singing about gender-based violence, poverty and police incompetence, among other societal ills.

“Just thought to tell you your people are dying / kodwa eSandton abasikhiphi [we aren’t getting kicked out of Sandton], so we’re fine.” These final lines of the song confirm that while Black people enjoy freedom of movement and are able to settle anywhere they can afford – including Sandton, Africa’s richest square mile – the majority remain where apartheid’s Group Areas Act and other exclusionary laws and practices placed them, in oppressive, often fatal circumstances.

On Austin Powers, the song that follows Manelo, the artist asserts that if he were a leader, he would focus on the people, singing: “If I was a president, I’d be a better man.”

Undated: A portrait of Yanga Chief from one of his promotional shoots. (Photograph courtesy of Sony Music ZA)

Getting a message across

“I think there’s a similarity between songwriting and being a traditional healer,” Yanga Chief says. “In the sense that it’s more of a calling. So when I do write these songs, I surprise myself. And I always just put it to abaphansi [the ancestors] because I feel like they’re just trying to communicate a message through me. So, it’s something that comes naturally to me from somewhere. And I like to think that it’s them trying to communicate with me and the rest of the world. I look at music as medicine.”

Most songs on Pop Star are catchy, moving between melodic vocals and technically adept rapping. Most of Yanga Chief’s hooks and verses are made up of both end and internal rhyme schemes and include multisyllabic rhymes – for instance, he rhymes “Fort Hare” with “afford it” by using a different accent for each phrase. This lends an unpredictability that isn’t often heard in pop music songwriting. 

Yanga Chief says the songs on Pop Star “come from letting go of everything that I know, that I’ve learned and just trying to be free”. “And funnily enough,” he adds, “even though you try and let go of those things that you know are right to do on a song and do the ‘wrong’ things, at the end of the day, you still have an innate skill, so it can’t be crap.”

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Every song on Pop Star is designed to stand alone, which is usually the case with pop music. The artist says, “I don’t work on projects. I work on songs.” The result is a set of songs that display the different facets of Yanga Chief as a musician. 

The artist marries different worlds using a referential style of writing. AKA’s 2018 hit single Jika, which Yanga Chief co-wrote and featured on, references Bongo Maffin’s Thathi Sgubhu and DJ Ganyani and FB’s Xigubu. Examples on Pop Star include the songs Delela, Ngubani Lo and Mkhwenyana. In Delela, he recycles the melody from Kid Cudi’s 2009 song Soundtrack to My Life while the beat on Ngubani Lo is a lift from Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing. In the hook for Mkhwenyana he references Bongo Maffin’s Kura Uone (Grow Up & You Will See). But being the virtuoso he is, Yanga Chief is able to merge these worlds with his own without his album sounding like karaoke night.

Avoiding the preachy

As a result Pop Star is a delightful cocktail of influences and interpolations. The themes he tackles are diverse. Beyond politics, there are celebratory songs such as Ndiyabanika, BBAF, Fort Hare and Suicide Doors, in which Yanga Chief uses clever writing to reflect life and the world at large with just the right amount of cynicism and optimism – making it neither preachy nor pompous.

Pop Star is the quintessential contemporary South African pop album, referencing both old and new South African, American and European music. Its many guests each perform well when their moment comes: Maglera Doe Boy’s rap verse on Fort Hare is one of the best of 2021; Frank Casino’s contemporary rap carries the message on Suicide Doors; Tshego AMG’s guitar creates the perfect atmosphere for Yanga Chief to talk success with his baby cousin; and Langa Mavuso’s extravagant vocals on FIFA make for a fitting opener for the album.

It’s been a long journey for Yanga Chief as an artist. He started out as a videographer in the late 2000s for Buttabing Entertainment, a company founded by Slikour and Shugasmakx of Skwatta Kamp. A few years later, he was directing music videos for the likes of AKA, most notably for Run Jozi, whose hook he wrote and performed.

Making the switch from being a director to a serious musician and songwriter wasn’t easy. After releasing a few singles that didn’t resonate, he was ready to call it quits. Then his 2019 single Utatakho took off. Capitalising on the momentum the song created, he released the EP Becoming a Pop Star, the prequel to his debut which won him best hip-hop album at the 2020 South African Music Awards. Yanga Chief is a torchbearer for the modern Xhosa rap scene which, if you ask the streets, is the next wave. 

Like Chicco Twala, Yanga Chief takes inspiration from his predecessors, blending that music with current global trends to make something new. Pop Star places Yanga Chief among the country’s lineage of talented musicians who capture the essence of their eras. 

Stream Yanga Chief’s Pop Star on Apple Music and Spotify.

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