South Africa is going through the most egregiously divisive periods of its young democracy. In the past two months, major news publications from around the world have spelt the beginning of the end for Africa's economic hub. From strikes in sectors such as mining and farming, to endemic corruption at the highest level of power, one would be hard-pressed to not believe these reports of doom and gloom. Often-ignored in the discourse about South Africa is the plight of young people. What are their views? How do they feel about the status quo? Do they see a way forward?
The Brother Moves On is an artist collective based in Johannesburg, South Africa. They employ music to address the social condition in their country. Their live shows are known to also serve as a conduit through which frontman, Siya Mthembu, can state his thoughts about, for instance, what he sees of the impending succession race within the ruling party, ANC. We caught up with him and guitarist Zweli Mthembu to have a chat, and the conversation spiralled in all directions - president Jacob Zuma, the Israeli-Palestine deadlock, and music.
*NOTE: The BDS South Africa (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) and artists against apartheid had just issued a petition that required artists to boycott the Cape Town World Music Festival which took place recently. The Brother Moves On refused to comply; for a further understanding of their reasons, click here to read...
Ts’eliso Monaheng: Do you ever fear that your personal politics may overshadow the music; that people may overlook the musicality of the collective?
Siya (vocals): Our politics are very personal in the fact that they’re personal; they're not...we don't say 'oh, it's my politics and I'm sticking to it’, no! We're like 'don't let me sign on as an Artists Against Apartheid signatory’. Don't let me sign on in that kind of context. If what you’re saying to me is I can't go into spaces where people need their minds changed... we're totally in agreement, Israel's a rogue state but...we're engaged. We’re here, what would you like us to pass on?
TM: But how do you change the mindset of an entire nation?
Zweli (guitar): In relation to the Israel vs Palestine thing, we're musicians. If we decide 'okay, we're gonna boycott this thing', and everyone boycotts it, is that gonna stop the war? That's a 3000 year-old war; this is 3000 years of arguing. And now they're trying to drag us into it? Even if we're in or out, no effect is gonna happen.
Siya: It's so weird because you're saying 'I wanna be the dissenting voice'. Well, what would you like the message to be? And they're going 'just say no'. No to what? 'Uh, to the four tickets'. I didn't get any Israeli money. I have my personal politics, ask the guys. We still get to play government gigs, doesn’t help we wear t-shirts like this (points at his t-shirt with “For Sale” emblazoned across the ANC logo).
TM: Most people aren't aware of the transitional period between Nelson Mandela getting released and the first all-inclusive elections in '94. Your song “Yakhal'imbazo” addresses that period succinctly. Touch a bit on the motivation behind it.
Zweli: I was sitting in a flat, and I came up with that [opening] riff. When that riff came, I had a memory. As a kid, I actually saw a guy's head getting chopped off down the road from my house because of the war that was happening between the ANC and Inkatha. In fact, they used to come through to our hood in buses, it would roar! My mom would put blankets over the windows so that I wouldn’t see what's going on outside. I would wake up, just before I go to crèche, and find stuff on the floor: burnt tyres, bloodstains, women's shoes. So that was what inspired that song, the reality of what was going on.
TM: And the words?
Zweli: 'Calambazo' is the name of the neighbourhood that we grew up in, in Thembisa. It was where we grew up, hence the word 'Yakhal'imbazo'. 'uMakhelwan'u qith'i gazi', you know, one brother's spilling another brother’s blood.
Siya: This shit is political; people don't want it to be. They want it to be, they want it to be entertainment.
TM: I find it interesting how someone would say "I'm not interested in politics” without realising how that in itself is a political statement...
Siya: That's a load of crap, life is politics! You use petrol in your car to get from point A to B, we're all reliant on the oil giants, and they dictate to us whether we jump up or down. We live in a space where, you boycott, it has an adverse effect which at the end ends up with a mother and child, in that very space which you've boycotted, being affected by it. That's how relation is. You want us to separate people into nation states and go: because you live in Israel, you MUST believe what the government is doing is all for you. I'm sorry, I have to deal with my government daily! Our music is political man, it has always been. We don't have any love songs, think about it. We don't sing to girls, we have no song that says 'I love you'...and we're all in loving relationships! But we don’t allow that into our space man, it might dilute the fact that there is a message to carry, and we might burn for it. Don't get it twisted, we know!
TM: What are your thoughts on the status quo of the South African government?
Siya: We're still talking in a language that's grand and sweeping. We're not talking to the particular complexities. I don't wear this shirt because I’m anti-ANC – I grew up in an ANC home, my dad was an SACP (South African Communist Party) stalwart, in the hood he’s known as Slovo. I live in a one-party state, I know this. Most people freak out about that, why? I also have dealt with government bureaucracy, and I realised that people being hired don't know what they're doing. Half of them want help. There are good people in government. Some lady approached us like ‘I really need people for arts administration courses, I've been searching, there’s money, and no one's coming to get it. Can you help me'? I was like yeah, let’s find you then! We're not a family anymore. If we get into the taxonomy of speaking about it, it's a huge war issue and we don't have a language that’s ours, that's from home. We're not dealing with the situation, and we will die alone.
TM: Do you think that what is happening now speaks to the failure amongst South African youth to engage with issues that affect them?
Siya: I don't need you to care about all my issues, I just need you to respect me as a human being. As in, I explain my issue, take the time to listen, so you can understand. But that space is not given, I'm not even allowed to talk to you anymore! I come from a culture that says 'let's talk!' We're not in a good space, we know we're not in a good space, we know we're unhealthy. But to scream and shout about it from the rooftoops...I want to play Voortrekker Monument. I wanna go, if I'm going to be booed off stage, if something's going to be thrown at me, let's have it! We've gone to Hoedspruit where when we got off the stage, the emcee was like ‘Hoedspruit, Hoedspruit we must change man!' When are we gonna have the human impact? Everyone's in the high theory of it, the amazing discourse of academy. The man on the streets understands these issues as well, how about you speak in his language? You're not engaging him, you don't wanna speak in his language! You want him to say it in your language, you don't him to be political; you want him to be apolitical!
TM: Now, as far as the music is concerned, are you only concerned about the performance aspect of your art, or shall there be a whole album?
Siya: We're trying to engage with that, we just did our ETA EP with Paulo Chibanga and Tiago of the 340ml family. It was an interesting thing to do, they’re the guys who we grew up bumping to, coming to Cape Town to come watch.
Zweli: I learnt guitar by learning Tiago's riffs.
Siya: It was interesting in that manner, to be able to engage with that. It’s a really interesting thing because you hear South Africans say things like ‘you guys would really do well overseas.' What's the self-esteem issue here? Something beautiful made for you, in your language. A lot of bands are trying to be apolitical. You don't walk into the studio and go 'okay, let's write a song about the Secrecy Bill.' Although there are artists who do that, and the ANC uses them really well.
TM: How do you deal with the fact that not everyone might necessarily ‘get’ you? Do you think the message is getting through to people?
Siya: Messages get through, you're just an instrument. You don't understand what the bigger space is doing. The coincidence of life is amazing. There's a girl who I nearly hit with a car when I was leaving Kitcheners in Jo'burg three months ago. I am now living in her house. What I am trying to show is that coincidence is what this builds on. You're not gonna come watch my show and then change the world, or change your politics. We're there to share. There are people who go 'I get what you're saying, I like the conversation we’re having.'
Website: http://www.thebrothermoveson.com Twitter @MRGOLDISME