A rap sensation talks craft, culture, and the importance of inconvenience
Words: Kenny Morifi-Winslow | Photography: Anthony Bila
After gaining widespread acclaim for her writing and prolific internet voice, @MayaThePoet, as some may remember her, has given new life to the "culture" in "popular culture". An undeniable force in complicating the conversation around fashion and culture that seems to be dominating dinner table talk and timeline chatter amongst the woke and willing, Maya Wegerif as Sho Madjozi has managed to bring a purity back to the notion of "an image" on the South African hip-hop scene.
"How can you not incorporate culture into your craft? You don’t get to be Zulu when it suits you, or only on public holidays, or Xhosa when it’s convenient. I’m Tsonga all the time," says Maya about her on- and off-stage identity.
Most recognisable about the young artist’s performance of culture is her now-trademark Tsonga Xebelani skirt, worn by women in her village, and by Maya herself in all of her performances. The making of Xebelani is a practice Maya inherited from her grandmother.
"It takes a lot of patience", which undoubtedly brings a heart and a soul to what could very easily have become a performative identity for the benefit of fame. "I’ve never been a fashionista. Your style is a product of what’s around you, so for me it was raiding my mother and grandmother’s closets, and of course they had Xebelani, so that’s what I would wear. For my first performance, the feature with Okmalumkoolkat, I had nothing to wear. I couldn’t afford to buy a lot of new stuff either, so I looked at my old Xebelani and decided to wear that. I had no idea the impact it would have."
In conversation, Maya has mentioned before that development in her community is a cause close to her heart, expressing that most people have the desire to help, but the vast majority just don’t know how. By combining her skills as a writer and actress, harnessing her passion for film and her pop culture clout, she’s thought of a way to make an impact that demonstrates not only her ideas about fame and longevity, but also the activism no doubt inherited from her active father before her.
"The issue with where I come from is that nobody my age lives there. You’re born there, you stay there until you finish matric, and then you go to Joburg for work; you only then come back when you’re old or you’re sick. But of course: why would anyone want to stay there when there’s nothing to do? So I thought about my writing, that’s easy to do alone in your room, it doesn’t take a lot of people, or help a lot of people, but cinema does. You’ve got technical people, you’ve got acting and music, and even if people wanted to be carpenters, they could be a part of cinema through set design. I want to make movies that side because of how many economic opportunities that could bring."
Maya has never been shy about how her heritage has pride of place in the way she lives in a personal capacity – and of course, publically. Moved by her impact, her retelling of mails written to her by young fans emanates thoughtfulness and warmth that can so often get lost in the whirlwind of popularity.
"I'm most moved by the kind of stories that tell me about having been ashamed of being Tsonga or even other ethnic groups; of not having space in mainstream media or not feeling represented. Girls write to me about having been ashamed of speaking Xitsonga, or Tshivenda, and now they feel they have the space to wear their culture proudly. It’s pretty extreme out there; people used to change their names to not be Tsonga – and the stories of people telling me that I’ve restored their pride touch me the most."
I think there is an interesting transfer of energy when our favorite parts of public figures become the things that we hid from ourselves or tried to change. In thinking about the most recognisable parts of the Sho Madjozi brand, naturally, the Xebelani comes to mind first, but I think Maya’s styling of her hair and loyalty to her stylist is something that a lot of young black girls and woman feel empowered by.
"This hairstyle only really became popular now, but I’ve been doing it for about three years. The hairstyles that I do today, and the ones that have become most popular in South Africa lately, I made up. The variations you see now, no one was doing before; I completely made them up. But for me, the inspiration was Thandiswa Mazwai, who is a strong inspiration for me, and I think she was deeply inspired by Fulani hairstyles in West Africa. The shape of my head is weird, so I always have to do up-dos and can’t just have them straight or flat. If you remember Alicia Keys when she used to do the braids, they would always lay flat, now, she always does an up do, and that’s the style I introduced. It was even trending on Buzzfeed. I just have fun making them up, sometimes they come to me, the styles, and one even came to me in a dream. I was in a Fulani village once having my hair done, and I taught the woman doing my braids, how to do the style. I went back a while later to visit, and several girls in the village now had the style, and the lady was still braiding more. In a lot of ways I take from Fulani culture, and it’s nice to be able to give something back."
"That’s what I have to say about culture and the development of; no one can say that they made something up just out of nowhere. We're all inspired by someone or something, but it’s better not to just take. I think, rather, for the advancement of culture, if you’re going to take something, also give something back. Otherwise you’re just a leech, a vulture. Culture is a group effort."
This is a sentiment we should strive to engage every day: not just when convenient, not just on public holidays, and not just in Heritage Month.