Will Rap For Change

How rapping for change brought about real change for AddWord


Words: Phumlani Pikoli | Illustration: Bennett Atkinson


It’s crazy to think how people can live when they have no choices. My interaction with the homeless has always been superficial at best. Either I tell them I don’t have money, or if I do give them anything, I’ll inquire about their lives on a very surface level.

It’s probably because the only value we find in people is that which they're able to tangibly manifest before us. Which is to say, if people aren’t giving us anything then we’re not giving them anything back.

Tshepo – aka AddWord – had something to offer me as I walked out the Gautrain station in a hurry, trying to block out the human traffic in-between my comfort and commute.

I walked back to him after having denied his offer for absolutely no reason.

“I’m being a fu**ing dick.” I thought as I turned around to give him a coin. As a hip-hop head I felt compelled to at least help a homie out with the very little I had, even if I didn’t intend to listen to his offer.

AddWord raps for cash on the streets. This is what he has to offer people. I almost turned him down, because like in any other big city constantly giving to people is quite tiresome for those of us who can afford to hand out our disposable income. It sounds corny as f**k, but in all honesty it takes eye contact to understand the humanity in someone else.

After giving him my fiver I told him I was in a rush, but he insisted on rapping for me as I walked to catch the bus. I expected, or perhaps was even hoping, to be underwhelmed in order to validate my dickish behavior.

Instead I heard a voice and flow that had something in it that could do really well.

I barely listened to the words, but was taken aback by how hard the kid was coming at me. Wary of falling into the trap of creating a White Saviour Industrial Complex for myself I posted status a few days later asking whether it would be cool to make a video of the dude rapping. I trust that I have quite a few friends on the internet that understand the complexity of hijacking the stories of others for self-validation. Not that writing this doesn’t completely fall outside of doing that. After I was told that there was nothing wrong in wanting to film the dude, and all I needed was to first ask his permission, I hollered at him and he dropped lines for me while I filmed with my phone. I edited the vid on a Deceptikon beat and shared it.

A few days later I had shown the video to a few people and others had seen it, too. Long story short, AddWord was wanted for a radio interview on one of the country’s biggest stations and most popular drive time shows. I had to find the kid.

I spent the better part of four hours one morning rolling the streets of Jozi looking for homie. I hollered at security guards at Park Station who said they knew the dude and had seen his hustle. When asked where I might find AddWord they told me the dude hustled hard, and that it would be difficult to track down someone who jumped from washing cars, to washing shop windows to carrying luggage for long-distance bus riders. At Ghandi Square I found out that he washed cars and played car guard there at times. Homeys told me he was known by the name “My Nigga” cause he was light skinned, Xhosa and looked like a rapper.

“Ufana nawe!” (He looks like you) I was told. I understood everything that may be similarly striking in that suggestion, barring the light skin.

After convincing a couple of dudes I was low on change and thus couldn’t provide them with anything for any intel that they had, one dude matter of factly stated he could tell me exactly where AddWord lived, but that I wouldn’t get in there. After some back and forth the dude sent me on my way.

He was right. I was never going to get in. The dudes standing at the entrance to the building were checking coast and harassing people as they walked up and down the street. Later I’d learn of someone who was dragged into the building and jacked of all their shit, and when they told the police what happened and where, the police told them that they wouldn’t go in there. But I digress.

Eventually I found homey and showed him the video, which he was stoked with. I dropped word that he had an interview later that afternoon and we got him into studio where he laid his story bare to South Africa.

AddWord fell on hard times after developing a drug habit, losing his job and falling out with his family after destroying their trust. He was reduced to a life on the streets.

“Sorry…” he told the host when he took a long pause after being asked to drop a few lines. “I just wanna make sure that it’s radio-friendly.”

That kind of charm elicited a positive public response, and an intern at Sony immediately saw the opportunity staring him in the face.

I guess the most optimistic way for me to look at it is to say that I was able to use my influence and privilege to help someone who needed it. Other than that I have no claim to AddWord’s story. It’s him who didn’t give up and decided to dig himself out of a hole. It’s him who’s about to blow the f**k up, and if he’s true to his work ethic on the streets then there’s nothing left to stop him.

AddWord now has the chance that everyone in life looks for – the opportunity to bring his dreams to life.