BEACON OF LIGHT Spoek Mathambo

Going back in time
with the Sweden-based, South African-born rapper.

 

BY RON HART

 

As a huge fan of his latest album, Father Creeper, which was just released via Sub
Pop Records in March, choosing South African rap futurist
Spoek Mathambo as the subject of a paper I had to write about how education
played a role in the life of someone from a different culture than mine for my
anthropology class was a no-brainer. Getting him to speak about his background,
however, proved to be more of a challenge.

 

Nevertheless, the information the 26-year-old electronic
musician offered did provide some valuable insight into his upbringing, offering
an intriguing look into his youth and young manhood, offering interesting bits
of information that gave me a keen understanding of the experiences that
contributed to his uncanny ability to read and write, which began at an early
age. 

 

“When I was really young, I was into Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, a
lot of the Roald Dahl stuff,” he explains of the time when he first became
an avid reader around age seven. “I love the way it was written, and I
liked the characters. Before reading those books, reading was something I
didn’t like and that was the first time I got into reading. Then when I was
about ten or eleven I started reading a lot of Maya Angelou.”

 

Mathambo, whose real name is Nthato James Monde Mokgata,
grew up in the suburbs of Johannesburg, South Africa’s biggest city, or the
Soweto, an acronym for the “South Western Townships” that was originally a
separate municipality for Black Africans that was formed in 1948 upon the
implementation of apartheid.  The rapper,
who currently resides in Malmo, Sweden with his wife, states that he was too
young to remember the controversial racial segregation imposed by the National
Party that finally began to crumble in 1990, when Mathambo was only five, nor
the official end of apartheid cumulating in the election of Nelson Mandela in
1994, when he was nine. When asked if he either attended or watched the famous
1995 Rugby World Cup that was the subject of Clint Eastwood’s 2009 film Invictus, he tells me he’s “not
much of a rugby chap.”

 

 


Spoek Mathambo – Let Them Talk by subpop

 

In terms of his formal schooling, the majority of his
education was based out of Johannesburg, where
he went to Catholic School, Amnesty
School and then the University of Johannesburg
and took a variety of courses.

 

“I don’t know what American schools are like,” he
proclaims. “But we learned everything, man. Geography, math, accounting,
history, science, biology. It was different for the different parts of school.
For early parts of school, there was a lot of stuff with one teacher and
through the different schools I went to different teachers for different
functions.”

 

Though he did go to a Catholic school, Mathambo claimed he
was not a religious person, suggesting that the faith was more of an inevitable
essential to living under his parents’ roof.

 

“My mom, in particular, has always been very church
going, so when I was young I went to church with her,” he explains. And
all the schools I went to except for
one were like church schools. But in general as far as the best schools in South Africa,
they were all church schools.”

 

His primary passion, however, is music, which has been the
main outlet for his creativity since he was a youth. And hip-hop and rap music in
particular: “I grew up listening to Gang Starr, Big Daddy Kane, MC Lyte,
Yo Yo. Notorious BIG. Snoop Dogg. 2Pac. They were all played on the radio in Johannesburg.” Mathambo
also has a pedigree in jazz: his uncle is legendary South African composer Jonas Mosa Gwangwa, best known for his work
on the Academy Award winning British drama Cry
Freedom
and his partnership with fellow South African jazz legend Abdullah
Ibrahim (the pops of New York rap great Jean Grae), while his father was a
serious record collector and when he left Johannesburg to parts unknown, he
left Spoek with his whole music library.

 

“It was all jazz,” he professed with enthusiasm. “When
I first got into those, I was listening to his be-bop stuff, but after that I
got into the more avant-garde stuff. Cecil Taylor. Charlie Haden. Archie Shepp.
Pharoah Sanders. John Coltrane. I was really into Sun Ra. I think there was
just a point where I was enjoying the weirder records – like the weirder the
better was kind of my policy.”

 

In speaking with Spoek Mathambo, it’s clearly obvious he is
guarded about his private life, especially considering that his stage name is
more of a futuristic caricature of Nthato James Monde Mokgata in a mindset not
unlike Sun Ra, one of the other jazz greats who he had discovered in his
father’s album collection.

 

“I’ve always kind of looked up to people who build up
big personal myths and stories,” he explains. “I can’t stand David
Bowie’s music, but I really like the Ziggy Stardust stuff – the idea of
flipping a character and taking it out there. And how he’d go from lame,
long-haired hippie to defining a lot of glam stuff through that. At the same
time, I like the rawness and realness of Iggy Pop at his most raw and real – not
the ‘70s glam stuff but the dirty days. Stuff that’s not based on costumes, not
based on myths but just based on the most base, base, base human instinct, like
those Stooges records. And also stuff like Suicide, there’d be so much
synthesizer stuff to it but the people doing it were just really real people
and it wasn’t so glamorous.”

 

Yet despite his hesitance at first from revealing too much
about his past in the Townships of Johannesburg, Mathambo did let his guard
down enough to give me a good comprehension of how his rearing helped to shape
the foundation of the larger than life electro-rapper who has the international
blogosphere singing his praises to reveal a highly intelligent young man whose
education in school, at home and on the streets of Soweto helped shape who he
is today. It was most interesting to learn of how much British and American
culture has played a key role in his development, be it the sweet absurdity of Roald
Dahl’s Charlie books or the bebop of
his father’s old jazz records or the boom bap of the East Coast and West Coast
hip-hop that emanated from the speakers of his radio. Perhaps even more so than
his proper education, for that matter.  

 

Towards the end of our conversation, Mathambo mentioned how
he was nervous to play his music for his famous uncle, because he is an
“old school jazz guy.” But chances are that his Uncle Jonas would be
incredibly proud of his nephew, because whether he likes the songs that
comprise Father Creeper or not, Spoek
Mathambo is a beacon of light for a new generation of Black South Africans that
casts a blinding light beyond the oppression and turmoil of their families’
apartheid pasts to reveal that a bright new future is upon them with a sense of
independence that truly shines upon the diverse nature of his educational
background.

 

 

[Photo credit: Sean Metelerkamp]

 

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