South Africa: The Sound and Politics of Muzi

Muzi (file photo).
analysis

Muzi's music is an atlas of genres from home and abroad, drawing on mbaqanga, maskandi, kwaito and bubblegum to create electronic Afropunk offerings like Stimela Segolide.

Something is brewing in South Africa's music scene. Beneath the surface of mainstream media play, a new crop of young musicians is consolidating its influences into music that transcends genres. Muzi Mazibuko, born in Empangeni in KwaZulu-Natal and known to fans simply as Muzi, is one of the brightest stars in a constellation of musicians who are changing the status quo.

"What I do is anthropology in a way," says Muzi. "I think the keys to the future are in the past. I was taught like that at home, so it's what I do." The musician is clarifying a comment he made during a recent interview with The Sobering podcast, stating that he had been researching vintage French music to play during his Afropunk set in Paris in July. "It's not just Afropunk specific, it's a Muzi set," he adds.

It's this digging that makes Muzi's music an atlas of different genres from home and abroad. While his main base is electronic dance music, touches of mbaqanga, maskandi, kwaito and bubblegum give his music a distinctly South African feel.

A mother's story

On his 2018 debut album, Afrovision, Muzi mashed a collection of Afrocentric sounds with dance floor-ready drums and an assortment of synthesisers and pads. On the album, Muzi introduced vocals, which weren't the main focus in his previous work. For instance, on his 2016 EP, Fire FX, the vocals were contorted and used as an additional instrument.

Most of the lyrics on Afrovision are light-hearted. On his new EP, Stimela Segolide, however, Muzi tells the story of how black people had to leave their homes to work on the mines in Johannesburg to fend for their families. The story spans the EP's four songs.

"The lead track, Stimela Segolide," Muzi told the audience at his Braamfontein pop-up store in May to promote the EP, "is from my mother's perspective and there is a track [iNtombi] about a distant love, how a relationship must work when one partner is far away grinding and how that leads to men building new families in the cities that they work in. The final track [Baba] is about forgiveness, when you know you won't get that apology from an absent father, but you must forgive in order to move on."

Muzi cites his mother as the main reason he felt the need to revisit the story of South Africa's ugly past, which, even though he suffers its repercussions, like most black people, he didn't experience personally.

"She had talked about how they never got the chance to tell their stories and be creative because they were stuck in survival mode, so I decided to share her story," says the artist.

Collaborative effort

As an independent artist, Muzi enjoys the artistic freedom to which many mainstream industry artists aspire. With Stimela Segolide, he explored various means of storytelling beyond music.

While on a mini tour of Johannesburg and Tshwane to promote the EP, the artist sold merchandise in the form of overalls, a symbol of the drudgery of apartheid days and still a reality for most working-class black people in present-day South Africa.

The story Stimela Segolide tells is depicted visually as an animation, the official music video for the title track directed by rapper, animator and graphic designer ByLwansta. The video shows the infamous train making its way into the City of Gold and, later, the workers digging in the mines.

The EP's cover art is a painting by visual artist Lulama Wolf. "It depicts how women had to sustain the home engine while men were away mining in Johannesburg and other big industrial cities," says Muzi. "There is a family engine that the man thinks that he is pushing by sending money home, but the real family building is being done by the women left behind."

The 'alternative' effect

The trade-off for this artistic freedom is the lack of financial muscle and manpower that a label affords.

"Everything comes from your pocket, so funding your projects is not easy. But the good thing is you own all your rights," says Muzi when asked about the difficulties of being an independent and so-called alternative artist in South Africa. "It's a weird space because most alternative acts are doing music that sounds like South Africa/Africa, so it's weird being called 'alternative' when you're making African music in Africa."

When asked why the music he, and like-minded artists such as Darkie Fiction, Sho Madjozi and ASAP Shembe, makes doesn't resonate as widely as other genres such as House and hip-hop, he points his finger at the media. "The media at large," he says, "still supports what it does, and they should. But not enough attention is given to other forms of expression, so there's that. Plus, it's fame wars out here. Celebrity culture will have you aiming for fame so that you are heard, but then the music suffers."

But Muzi, who is an upbeat person by nature, is not bitter. "I'm just doing it because I love it," he says about making left-field music. "I'm not really trying to change the world or the market. I'm just trying to change mine and make myself, and those that get it, happy. Those that don't get it won't, and that's okay, too. Hopefully, it opens up and more people come through, but it's an ecosystem thing, everyone has to play their parts, not just artists."

Muzi performs at Afropunk Brooklyn on August 25.

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