"I just wanna build"
“It's been a long time coming," says Lwansta. "In 2012, I designed my own Hype cover, just for fun, called it the Freshman Edition, and now five years later it's an actual thing.”
Hype Magazine, for those who don’t know, is South Africa's only rap-focused magazine, and something of the holy grail for up and coming rappers. When they announced their ‘Freshman of 2017’ edition - an annual list of new artists to bet the house on - with ByLwansta leading the charge, it was something of a prophesy come true.
Lwansta is a Kokstad-born, Durban-based rapper making a name for his confrontational, deeply personal and confessional music. Over dusty 90s-inspired instrumentals he paints a picture of himself as a frustrated outsider, dealing with anxiety and extolling authenticity. He’s constantly disappointed, emotional, but quietly optimistic and self-assured enough to do something like mocking up would-be magazine covers.
The tracks on his breakout EP Your Absolutely Right (spelling intentional) were dense with content - and speaking with him reveals a mind moving at a hundred miles an hour. Thoughts are formed while they’re being spoken – tripping over each other and redefining themselves in a manner close to free association. It's a recurring theme for him, this idea of having no filter. Everything, down to his voice and its inflections on record, is kept as raw as possible and tethered to Lwansta the person.
“I’ve always had a problem with having a rap voice,” he says when I ask about his signature yelp. “It's like I'm putting on an outfit, which means you can separate me from the music.” This rejection of a performance voice manifests in the everyday nature of his music’s delivery. “I just want to speak – and the style I have now is quite conversational. I just talk to get these things off my chest.” It’s a refreshingly risky approach letting yourself emote this freely, especially in an age where personas are guarded with more vigour than ever before.
Where his music seems to play it safe, though, is in the beats backing his poetry. Lwansta’s early material found him working on a variety of contemporary rap styles, but this took a turn as his approach matured. Now, the production harks back nostalgically to a time where samples crackled from vinyl and percussion struck like hammer blows. Nothing as simple as revivalism inspired the turn, though.
“When I moved to Durban in 2014, that's the year I left home to pursue my studies, I used my music to help release all the stuff I’d internalised over the years. That's why so much of the music is aggressive on songs like ‘The Sigh’: it's me venting. I didn't know how to communicate this the way I had communicated music over the years, so I had to think about which kind of packaging makes sense for me. It's like, if you’re selling Liqui-Fruit, you can't put it in a Skyy Vodka bottle.”
Over the next year, Lwansta plans to secure his grip on his art, focussing on the visual aspect of his work and establishing a label. The Hype cover is sure to help with exposure, but the organic nature of his rise so far is what’s most likely to see him succeed. That and the flippant tenacity with which he approaches meeting like-minded artists. He’s collaborated with two other members of the freshman seven – Lil Trix and Champ – the former found on BBM after hearing him on radio.
“The whole mentality of trying to get people to approve means you lose the focus on building your own platform. It's no longer about blowing up for me, I just wanna build.” says Lwansta, resolutely. But at this point, blowing up seems inevitable.