And his storytelling, punchlines and schemes are better than ever
Words: Caron Williams | Illustration: Thulisizwe Mamba
Genius is complex. It's rare, misunderstood and often a burden to those tasked with it. I wonder about Stogie T's genius. The price he pays for it. How misunderstood it sometimes is. How his complexity as a person impacts his artistry and how it must feel to exist in an industry and in an era of music where most people are simply not versed enough to understand what a unique talent he is. Some days, I question whether we deserve his genius at all. Most days, I'm resigned to the belief that we don't.
Stogie T's latest musical offering, God's Eye, sonically captures harrowing tales from all over the world. In a release shared with the project, the vision is clear. "He raps as a slave trader during the Atlantic slave trade, he addresses the global Black Lives Matter movement, he raps as a lieutenant in the dystopia that is the terrorist Islamic State, he touches on humanity's quest to find meaning for our existence, addresses the lives of the rich and aspirational, and talks about petty and destructive pathologies of hatred, envy and jealousy that are part and parcel of being human."
It's Stogie T at his best – offering awe-inspiring and poignant narrations of the human condition in immersive 16s. "The idea was always 'imagine being able to see all these random experiences' no judgement no commentary, just transmit. It is interesting that some think it's an EP, to me it's a song with different movements, like an atonal concerto. I think we have seen a welcome change in formats for albums and songs that might be following all the music tech disruption trends."
Whilst God's Eye may be the single best musical offering that has emerged out of the country this year, it has also highlighted a predicament that has followed Stogie T since the introduction of his latest artistic persona, which is that South African hip hop has been so preoccupied with his rebrand, few have taken the time to critically explore the music he has delivered under his new moniker and accounted for the fact that his storytelling, punchlines and schemes are better than they've ever been.
"Has your fan base, and the SA hip hop community at large, understood your transition/rebrand from Tumi to Stogie T?" I ask. "I think they have misunderstood it as a purely commercial relevance play. I think the narrow lense with which popular culture is viewed in South Africa makes it difficult to translate nuance. Music journalism and critical cultural reporting is shambolic so the picture people get is a very pixelated one.
"What do you wish they understood?"
"I wish they understood that this wasn't necessarily an abandonment but rather an addition to my musical matrix."
In a music climate currently littered with contrived acts, Stogie T has demonstrated the full spectrum of what it means to be an artist. The position he occupies within the local hip hop circuit is a unique one – one as both a player and coach. From being born in exile to anti-Apartheid activists to spewing poetic rhymes at Le Club, he formed part of the movement of hungry rappers who founded South African hip hop and has subsequently out-rapped every era of South African hip hop acts. His ascension to fame and the critical acclaim he received with Tumi and the Volume impacted the South Africa music industry so much, it's still considered one of the best local acts we've ever had. Band or no band, he's continued to hone his skills since going solo, performed all over the world and consistently delivered immaculate bars. A feat that would be considered tremendous were it achieved by anyone else, however, Stogie T's earlier success has somewhat become a fan imposed prison. "Do you ever feel trapped by your Tumi from the Volume success or by your earlier fans' attachment to that era of your artistry?" I enquire. "Not by previous success but definitely besieged by so called fans. Stick insects have this behavioural defence called autonomy where they self-amputate limbs so if a bird comes by all they get is the leg and they crawl away to safety. I left a leg for them so I can continue creating and thriving."
Can an artist really serve as coach in a game he is still actively participating in? Jay Z has made an excellent case for it, so has Stogie T. But while the American hip hop fraternity has long been accustomed to OG culture, South African artists who occupy some spectrum of hip hop still have a very difficult time understanding and accepting the concept that being called out, critiqued, corrected or advised is not "hate", but a necessary step in ensuring the longevity of a genre and culture that means so much to so many people.
OGs enforce an ethical code and protect the culture from vultures and the truth is, some of SA hip hop's most prominent figures are the biggest vultures in the game. Not embracing and respecting OG culture is how we end up with a phenomenal talent like Emtee drunkenly collapsing on stage or seeing an artist like Cassper Nyovest blatantly celebrate not paying stylist and cultural contributor, Didi Simelane. If one of the very people who formed the foundation of South African hip hop cannot voice the slow, disheartening decay of something he has invested his life to help build, we've lost the very essence that has made hip hop.
So what does it really mean to be an OG in the game right now? "I think the difficulty in SA hip hop is that we haven't done a good job of agreeing on where the borders of this culture end or begin. That means if Zakes Bantwini wants to call what he does hip hop nothing stops him from that. Now there is nothing sinister there, it's his prerogative. The problem comes when he wants to start telling us what is and isn't hip hop, especially when he is successful. MC Hammer was very successful, you have to respect that, but he also has to respect that he is not getting in any serious person's top 10 list. Here the problem is everybody is invited to the discussion because they have a radio show, or because they date rappers, or because they know basketball or whatever. So OG doesn't mean anything. Please understand I am not saying expel people from hip hop, no! Nor am I saying genre stretching and expanding perimeters is bad. I am just saying if we can't agree on the fundamentals, then this shit will not have any structure. Things like hip hop awards, or hip hop show, or hip hop artist or Hip Hop OG won't mean shit."
Will there be another iteration of his artistic personas? "Yes and No", says Stogie T. What is certain is that Stogie T's legacy will be a testament to how profoundly he has shaped and impacted SA music as a poet, artist, ferocious MC and OG. What impact will the era of Stogie T have of his legacy? "I have always expressed that legacy can sometimes be another word for prison. I think if anyone is honest and has engaged my work, they will have to say Stogie T is in line with my commitment to innovation."