My journey on the road with HHP
In this tribute to SA's youth culture, writer Bongani Madondo recalls a surreal road trip with the esteemed rapper HHP, who died on October 24 after a long battle with depression
Although I have not written about or attended a rap concert since dinosaurs went grazing and never returned, in 2012 I'm lucky to snatch an exclusive invitation to go on a tour with SA's most beloved crossover rapper, the 32-year-old Jabulani "Jabba" Tsambo, known by the sobriquet Hip Hop Pantsula, or HHP.
It's 1.30am right now and we are slap-bang in the middle of nowhere - and believe me, driving like a bunch of escaped convicts for over two hours on the road from Bloemfontein to Kroonstad, our ultimate destination - nowhere is pretty far away.
It is also nowhere near you. No, it is not just far. It just defies logic. And that's what's happening to us right now. Senseless. No, we are not wasted. HHP is the soberest, squarest rapper I have ever come across. He doesn't do drugs or alcohol. Takes too long to swear and when he does it is never a PG-rated word.
Who does Hip Hop Pantsula think he is - Archbishop Tutu? Even "The Arch" occasionally gets pissed off, and when he does, he calls for the government to impose a wealth tax on the already taxed rich, leads a Boycott Israel lobby, or takes off to north India's mountains to hang out with his mate, the Dalai Lama.
Not this rapper, though. Sober as a ... wait a bit, judges' sobriety can't be vouched for any more, right? So, here we are.
I can't tell you how we landed in the middle of nowhere after HHP's performance at a major Bloemfontein Showgrounds annual spring bash organised by a popular dance music concept simply known as Vetkuk vs Mahoota. HHP is the only rap act on a bill suffocating with house DJs and their cronies' cronies. I suspect that the live pop business is deep into hierarchies.
Otherwise how come they make him perform at midnight? It's only because it is their gig. Can't find another reason. No matter.
Flanked by his DJ Zondi and Kay Gee - wing boy, crowd stirrer and the soul crooner he's been working with since Day 1 - HHP rushes on to the stage a few minutes before bang on midnight. The set is short and as tight as a Djembe drum. Boy rocks the darn thing hard.
There are some songs from his latest pan-Africanist venture, Motswafrika, and a catalogue of fly beats and silky couplets from some previous crowd favourites such as YBA 2 NW and his double album, Dumela. Because he works swiftly and goes straight to the song, the entire thing is over in a wink. Not before I catch the largely house music audience's reaction to a rapper, though. From the back of the stage, where I'm perched amid a spider web of wires and all that roadie gear, I watch a live, mini episode of a rock docudrama.
I see girls as young as 13 or 18 (can you tell in shows like these?) in the front row, behind a security fence, pressed so hard against the fence that a laser-like photographer, like the clickclickaty boy facing the crowd right now, fills frame upon frame with nipples, sparkling eyes, eye-liners and rivulets of mascara streaming down peach-ripe soft cheeks burned by arena-huge blowtorches or a maze of stage lights.
If they are dressed at all, most are clad in the skimpiest of hot pants, 50-inch stilettos and variations of ginger blonde and black extensions sweeping up in the air, like this particular one - "Just call me Hanjiswa, yeah, Hanjiswa, and you are welcome to take my number, too" - girl-child who is now crowd-surfing while whipping her pitch-black weave in circular hula-hoop motions like it is 1969 and the world's coming to an end tomorrow.
Feeding off the madness, HHP revs up the tempo with his bouncy song, Make Monyeke, and a process of premeditated, totally harmless loss kicks in: first the girls lose their tops, then minds, followed by their friends in the ensuing madness.
For an instant, I also lose my marbles. And then I think of my baby daughter. Is that what will become of her? I shed an invisible tear and clam up at once.
WATCH | The music video for Make Monyeke
It's time to go. But we don't. A small-town tabloid hack working for the Daily Sun plants herself in between HHP and his fans and conducts an impromptu interview right there: can't remember what the story was all about and neither can HHP.
Well, Kroonstad is still not here. Let's vamoose: We hot-pedal it through the night.
The tour bus is full of characters too well-behaved for hip-hop culture. You'd bet we are travelling in a tour bus filled with Mormons. The driver puts on some harmless tunes and then there's the photographer, Solomon Moremong, going on about his new rap single. Kay Gee is busy texting his wife. HHP and I are shooting our mouths off on an array of subjects: From Nkandla palaces to poverty reduction and why the Afro futurist seer, Credo Mutwa, matters.
It's dark outside. The tour jalopy burns the tyres and dives and darts out of dangerous dongas. It is the only car for the entire stretch. Because we left Johannesburg at night, hit Bloemfontein in the very late hours, and are now negotiating spaghetti-twisting roads, semi-permanent road reconstruction and all sorts of stuff on our way to Koster or Koekstad (or whatever it's called), I have now lost all sense of time. It's all a surreal film reel of various shades of blackness and flickering light.
For long stretches, and save for the pumping house music, the road is characterised by long stretches of silence and terribly offending good manners by my co-travellers. None utters a rude word or spills wine on my new Nirvana T-shirt. None of that rock 'n' roll cliché applies here. For a hip-hop trip, it's the sort you don't talk a lot about in public for fear you'll be ridiculed. No-one arrested? Boring. No marijuana? Ah, what sort of sad toffs are you?
Although it takes two or so hours, it feels like 20. We finally make it "there" but I still have no idea where, in Christ's Jerusalem, we are.
After half an hour following the Kroonstad promoter - whom we hauled out of bed at 2am long after he gave up the thought that we would ever arrive - we arrive in the township on the outskirts of town. A Blacks-Only area (yup, we still have those without the signage) where street lights fade out and the road ahead gets dark.
Although you pretend that just because you are part of the rock 'n' roll madness, or hip-hop circus, or both, you have seen and swum in rock's sewage, and, frankly, this doesn't faze you a bit.
What if some fellas straight from the Free State's mean streets pull up and make us lie on the road and make away with the tour bus? What if?
You have danced with and out-pouted the punks with their pierced, filthy tongues, hung around metal-heads with their anti-establishment ominous spirits, borne witness to rave lovers losing their heads, punched a kwaito star peeing out of a speeding taxi's window down Portobello, West London, and escaped from "rude-bwoy" Nigerian armies of the night in the oil-rich Delta region. Because you have hovered around these things and worse, you think: "Ah, driving in the dark in sleepy Free State is baby poo."
So you pretend it's all right, baby Blue. You pretend it's all right when in fact your Black Bourgeoisie ass is sitting there thinking: Gawd, it's so dark and in the middle of nowhere, what if we get jacked? What if some fellas straight from the Free State's mean streets pull up and make us lie on the road and make away with the tour bus? What if?
What if some unreconstructed farm Boers with socks pulled knee-high and those Oom Schalk's broad-brimmed Jock of the Bushveld hats and vulture-scaring rifles block our way and order us to file out one by one, demanding the whereabouts of some arbitrary chap wanted for farm killings? What if?
You keep quiet. You tell yourself this is rock 'n' roll, and yeah, even arriving in a nondescript town like Kroonstad, or its outskirts, or the outskirts of its outskirts at 2am driving around till 2.30am is still part of living the promise of hip-hop's rock 'n' roll. So you don't tell the other chaps aboard the tour bus that, in fact, I've had it. Drop me just here in the middle of a donkey-butt crack and I will find my home to Johannesburg, on foot.
All I'm thinking of, right now: will HHP really make it?
The promoter arrives at the recreation park with us hot on his heels. Poor skattie; the fans have been waiting for their star since yesterday 1pm, boozing and cursing their beloved star, and saying things about the small-town promoters' mothers you just don't want to hear, at least not today. Other acts have come on and left the stage. And yet, instead of taking us backstage, the promoter drives aimlessly for what feels like eternity. We suspect he's buying time. But at this time is there any time to buy?
I feel blood veins heating up my ass. This is bonkers. The promoter, his co-promoter, and the fans are so mad at us, so mad at HHP, so mad at his management, that they've basically given up. In fact, it looks like the promoter and his colleague had swiftly, and quietly, left the venue at 1am, when they realised that they would not be able to give the paying fans any more excuses as to the headline act's whereabouts. After a lot of verbal lashings, a million cellphone calls, and buckets of heat and vapour emitted - for the first time on this trip - I see HHP visibly angry.
"It's not about the money. We'll pay this *c%*#!!! off and never do business with him again. Let's drive back to Jozi. C'mon."
It transpires that a misunderstanding occurred between the artist's brand manager, an Adeva-like Amazon woman known as Lerato, and the promoter, the day bookings were made. You don't want to mess with this woman. Or, if you do, better settle all your life policies in time.
She says: "I told you they will only be leaving Bloem at midnight." He says: "How can a headliner perform at three in the morning, how, huh?"
And so it goes, and, with it, my Patience O'Meter. The promoter, who is now so gatvol, refuses to talk to anyone. I corner him, reminding him that we are from Sin City: "You don't want to mess up with us, man." That is in addition to threats that we'll sink his body in a tank of acid. "After of course, shaving your armpits with a broken bottle, jy verstaan?" Of course it's all posturing. But at that hour, a thin wind singing an ominous morning dirge, it's really impossible to tell the tough guys from bang broeks like ours truly.
"As a headline act, HHP was supposed to be on stage at midnight, at the latest. It's now 2.30am. That's all I am saying."
The promoter storms off into the cold morning breeze.
It is exactly 3am in Kroonstad and a bunch of devout fans are still waiting as though for the Messiah's Second Coming. What's about to happen takes place against all perceptions of logic; against the passive aggression of the promoter, against the clock, against booing and possible stoning. HHP takes the stage at 3am.
Technically, this is an after-concert slot.
The venue is a hard-washed, white-greyish dugout slab. Three feet below, the stage is littered with debris. Ego totally in check, swagger on suspension, bracing the biting cold air outside, and bitter at what happened with the time mix-up, HHP steps forward to face a crowd of less than 50 youths, some totally pissed, some totally pissed off, some just night vagabonds with no direction home, all bundled together in a venue which looks like the desolate Colosseum after the Emperor's heir faces the ultimate humiliation at the hands of The Spaniard in Ridley Scott's Gladiator.
DJ Zondi - Marvin Hagler to HHP's Sugar Ray Leonard - is also ticked off rather badly with the turn of events. As though to remind us of who supplies gas for this rhyming chariot, Zondi trains his eye on the deck, pulls a hoodie up his 'Fro and takes a pause as if to soak it all in.
In our suspension or anticipation he puts on a bass-heavy beat, complete with car-screeches, squealing vocal embellishment at Moog synths, before bending slightly forward as though to bless his digital baby right in front of him.
For a minute you might imagine Morrissey's emoting at a deep drawl atop Bootsy Collins' bass hooks, but that's because of the blowing wind outside, or you are just high on the créme soda fizzy you bought at a filling station just the other day.
What I'm most likely hearing is a bionic combo as though Zondi has layered Pink Floyd's Breathe in the Air and The Great Gig in the Sky from 1973's Dark Side of the Moon atop each other, only to frame the entire instrumental poem with Harare's Om Alec's bass line. This is not music. This is instrumental praise worship. Right then the DJ stops amid the chaos and performs a tight scratch break beat to ease entry for principal praise poet HHP.
Perhaps the poet's inner flow (where his rhymes are issued) and inner emotions have coalesced into a singular expression, so when he steps on the stage it sounds as though he's chanting and crying all at once. He steps in, clutches the microphone with his huge, fat hands and edges towards the very fringe of the stage to touch, or bless, his flock.
Satisfied he's got it all under control, "The Poet" proceeds to deliver catchy stories in the coolest and so mathematically precise manner as to leave you frustrated at the lies they've told you about hip-hop not being a serious art form. I'm freezing, and simultaneously blessed with a certain kind of warmth, a reprieve from the whooshing and morning winds, here in Kroonstad by a master street poet at his peak.
Inspired by the rapper's intensity (he is, you can tell, not even laughing in the songs that he usually does; this is not the time for goofing around) and mastery of street argot, the wing man, Kay Gee, does not even work hard to whip up the crowd. He settles into what he does best: Croons Ooohs, Ahhhs, and Yeahs.
Staple Rhythm & Swagger. But DJ Zondi has no time for making love. Not now, at least.
The anger of travelling the whole night has thrust all of the HHP crew into an emotional cul-de-sac or at least a nightmare or visitation
It also feels like the anger of travelling the whole night has thrust all of the HHP crew into an emotional cul-de-sac or at least a nightmare or visitation. In this vision they are faced with death. Fans scowl with the meanest expressions and the technological equipment they use, basically a digital band, or instruments, just can't get started, refuses to switch on, and their reputation as a live act is on the line. It's war.
As though calling forth out of body powers, DJ Zondi quickly piles in more drone-like atmospherics, right now featuring the West African drum, the djembes, and it sounds like the djembe is played under water. The result is trippy, broody and eerie. Pagan dance!
Right here and now, the DJ's building a hip-hop wall of sound which portends a future so ghostly the master magical-fantasist, author JRR Tolkien (native child of the Orange Free State), might have approved. The moody sonic backdrop provides "The Poet" with the perfect magic carpet to rhyme and ride on, gliding in and out of daydreams, stories, fantasies and tales about townships, ancestors, belief, bragging and so on.
By the time he breaks into the anthemic Bosso Ke Mang, the wing man, the DJ, the touring photographer, the scribe, the now frenzied converts and everyone else around has lost their bearings, enraptured by the verbal conduction of the Alchemist with a feather-light microphone in his hand. From the edge of the stage, not far from the DJ deck, I steal a look at HHP, only to catch him wiping away both trickling sweat and tears. It's such a rare and beguiling thing to witness.
An artist giving themself that wholly, that heartedly, that skilfully. An artist blessed with the ability to slit open his heart and surrender to fate, to time and space, to the midnight muse, and worse, with not so much a crowd as band of faithfuls around a huge, middle of nowhere fireplace at 3.30am!
The fans storm the stage.
I throw the denim jacket over my zombie face and snore like somebody about to warm up the engine of a Boeing jet.
• This is an edited extract from 'Sigh The Beloved Country', by Bongani Madondo, published by Picador Africa (2016)