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LISTEN | Rap’s MVP Big Zulu on the joys of spinning

Aspasia Karras with Siyabonga Nene, better known as Big Zulu

07 November 2021 - 00:03
Siyabonga Nene, aka Big Zulu, is a rapper, songwriter and actor. He was first noticed with the release of his single, ‘Donsa Nkabi’, in 2016. And he likes to spin with his car.
Siyabonga Nene, aka Big Zulu, is a rapper, songwriter and actor. He was first noticed with the release of his single, ‘Donsa Nkabi’, in 2016. And he likes to spin with his car.
Image: Alon Skuy

Come spinning with Big Zulu, they said.

No, not on a stationary bike in a gym with a trainer whooping  and fist-pumping. But rather, spinning — as in somewhere in the peri-urban hinterland outside Johannesburg.

The Lido Conference Centre, it turns out, is where you take your clapped-out ’80s BMW, install a V8 engine and then do things to the tyres, the steering and the handbrake that were definitely not specified in the owner’s manual.

It’s loud, it’s fun, it’s verging on the insane and it’s where the spectacularly successful Big Zulu gets to relax.

He has just been nominated in 10 categories at the South African Hip Hop Awards — more than anyone else this year. His album has been No 1 on iTunes for ages and he was nominated in Los Angeles for the Hapawards (Hollywood & African Prestigious Awards) in two categories. To quote that other rapper, he is rap’s MVP, the inkabi, and this is his nation.

Big Zulu in the modified BMW that is de rigeur for spinning in these circles.
Big Zulu in the modified BMW that is de rigeur for spinning in these circles.
Image: Alon Skuy

Inkabi is an assassin in taxi slang, and for those who don’t know Big Zulu, born Siyabonga Nene in Bergville, KwaZulu-Natal, he spent many years as a taxi driver.

To say he is killing it this year is to be a little understated. Success on this scale, however, has its drawbacks. Big Zulu can’t go out into the world without getting mobbed.

A week ago he was leaving his hotel in Florida Road, Durban, and there was a several-car pile-up when fans spotted him. Which is to say that it becomes difficult to do what he likes to do best: hang with his crew, shoot the breeze, talk about life and draw lyrical and musical inspiration from the streets.

“I wake up around 9.30am if I am not doing anything. There is a car wash in Orlando East, my friend lives next to it. I meet with the guys, chill, wash cars. Not that we don’t have expensive cars — we do —  but we like these,” he says, pointing out the aforementioned clapped-out ’80s BMWs.

“You earn respect when I am driving that one, the igusheshe [a BMW325is]. We go to the studio later on after sunset. We get inspiration during the day when we are sitting.”

Later you get Inkabi rapping what he saw that day. “We rap about everything that is close to us. Talk about stories that are relevant to people — everything that is happening. Stories from back home, how I grew up, the township, and all that. We can spend the whole night and leave by five in the morning with two, three hits. We  go to sleep and when we wake up, around 12, we contact each other, go shisa nyama somewhere, relax, catch up. Like now.”

He made the spinning plans today with DJ Maphorisa, who arrives about an hour after us and revs his own V8 engine to great effect. Lunch comes in the boot, from the neighbouring township, in the form of a kota and some juice. Cream soda, to be specific, with infusions of whisky. I ask him if it is OK to drink and drive, given that we are here to make some noise.

“Drinking does not control me, I control it. It’s not a good thing to be controlled by a drink. You have to control the drink because you are doing the drinking.”

He has a sweet manner and a laconic way of speaking. Today he is sporting his dreads, a lurex tracksuit and high-top Carvella boots, which is his sporting outfit. His more formal sartorial choices, the Carvella loafers and Brentwood pants,  have been creating  a bit of an ’80s retro shopping frenzy. Something like the cars I have just been spinning in. 

Spinning, usually at the Lido Conference Centre near Johannesburg, gives Big Zulu a chance to relax and find inspiration. And hang out with this crew.
Spinning, usually at the Lido Conference Centre near Johannesburg, gives Big Zulu a chance to relax and find inspiration. And hang out with this crew.
Image: Alon Skuy

Music is his first love. “Music has always been my passion. I fell in love with music when I was still very young. I grew up in Bergville. There we usually listen to maskandi music, there is no hip hop. I grew up listening to music and playing soccer a lot.”

The transition to full-time music was organic. “It was just love from fans and all that — going to shows, hip hop sessions, getting all the love from the guys and fans that built me up to continue. That is the love of music.”

Now his label, Inkabi Records, has signed three artists who also feature on many of the tracks on his third album, Inchwane Lanyoka, which just dropped and where he digs deep into his rural upbringing and the stories he was born to tell. Stories of everyday life and troubles such as domestic violence, absentee parents and the vagaries of love. 

I ask him about the municipal elections. He sighs. “Me I don’t know hey — I just believe what is in me, what is in my heart. I do not focus on what everyone is saying. There are a lot of bad influences out there. I have to believe in what I know.

“I don’t focus on what everyone is saying on TV, on radio. If you are going to focus on that it is all lies.”

With that he turns to his friends and more visceral pleasures. “Mpongo, mpongo,”  everyone laughs. They explain that this means a big machine, very much like this one.  “It’s very powerful. It’s a style.”


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