South Africa: The Radicalisation of Khuli Chana

After a decade of setting motswako's agenda, there's an expectation that as the last standing founder of the hip-hop subgenre, Khulane Morule must address the realities of young people on the ground.

When he performs on stage, Khulane Morule punches the air and pulls an imaginary structure to his level. His fans call it Chana power.

It's a punch of freedom in which he reminds himself of his ability to overcome any obstacle: the police that once mistook him for a criminal and nearly cost him his life, or the record labels that once refused to take him on. It's a sign similar to the more provocative people's power salute. But the point of Morule's fist isn't politics. It's to show his fans that they, too, can overcome anything.

If there was ever a moment Morule's fans needed a symbol to rally behind, it was during the 2018 health crisis when the military was roped in to assistant patients after workers downed tools. They complained of corruption and maladministration in Morule's hometown of Mahikeng.

The crisis turned violent as protesters demanded the resignation of then premier Supra Mahumapelo. As the town descended into chaos, with parts of it under a self-imposed curfew, Mahumapelo still refused to resign. Morule and his often vocal motswako peers were nowhere to be seen or heard.

Despite leaning on the socioeconomic realities of young people for relevance in the beginning, motswako seems to have lost its social and political aspects. Morule agrees. "We disconnected," he says, adding that he thinks of motswakolistas as migrant labourers who leave home for work and forget their way back. "We haven't been home in a while and that has been the most challenging thing for us."

Planet of the Have Nots

Believing motswako has strayed from its path, Morule will release his third and arguably most important album, Planet of the Have Nots, which is billed as a return to source. "I'm just giving back to the have-nots, the up-and-coming, the next generation. That's my purpose now," he said recently on television show The Real Goboza.

The political undertone of the album's title might surprise many. But Morule has been grappling with these kind of issues since his days as a member of the hip-hop and rap outfit Morafe. His social commentary is particularly poignant in Here We Stand from Morafe's 2005 The Anticipation, in which he reckons with the possibility of failure and disappointment:

Why tshokolo e kana

Ha go pala

Mama told me to try harder

Why mama?

What if taimer has no faith in me?

Why so much struggle?

If it's hard

Mother told me to try harder

Why mother?

What if the father has no faith in me?

But when he broke free of Morafe, Morule began to place profitability and crossover appeal above the social ethos of the subgenre. The song No More Hunger from his 2011 debut album, Motswakoriginator, is a celebration of this turn:

Let's toast to Kgora

Kgobola mokotla

Now you're proud of the man I've become

Jealousy ke bolwetse

Bolakaletsi is a symptom

I'm pimping the system

I'm tellin' you son

No more hunger!

Let's toast to wealth, we own the moment

Open the bag

Now you're proud of the man I've become

Jealousy is a sickness

Envy is a symptom

I'm pimping the system

I'm tellin' you son

No hunger!

Maftown Heights

Morule has certainly led motswako's crossover appeal agenda, undressing the subgenre's sonic flexibility by collaborating with a plethora of artists and borrowing inspiration from other genres to supplement his sound. In doing so, he has proved motswakolistas can be entrepreneurial symbols and cultural pioneers. But he has paid for his efforts.

In 2017, he brought his highly successful annual event, Maftown Heights, home. Hosted just outside Mmabatho Stadium, artists took turns to wow the crowd in front of the stadium's failing infrastructure.

Hosting motswako's premier event outside one of the last remaining structures of the erstwhile homeland of Bophuthatswana is part of an attempt by Mahikeng's youth to forge an identity outside their parent's nostalgia - or at least it should be appreciated from that prism. The event is a symbol of motswako's mainstream success and Morule's ambition.

A number of reasons have been put forward for why the event was only brought home nearly a decade after its launch, the most common being money. Motswako's hometown crowd simply does not have the financial chops to ensure such an event is a success. But some of the motswako crowd have a different take on it.

"[It's] purity," says a local community deejay, meaning a form of classism. "Maftown just wasn't good enough. The event always felt like an annexed part of the town being sold to the highest bidder."

Though not popular, the opinion is echoed by most local fans. For them, motswako's mainstream success has meant losing its critical voice. Morule's silence during the protests demanding Mahumapelo's resignation epitomised that loss.

Nine shots

In 2013, the police shot Morule after mistaking him for someone else. The incident presented him with an opportunity to break free from his liberal political trappings and critique the state. But Morule didn't want the moment to define him. "I just wanted it to end," he says.

Once recovered, Morule took to the mic and recorded what would become motswako's second salient critique against police brutality. 9 Shots is an attempt to close a chapter and, though he claims forgiveness, the song is as much a criticism of South African police brutality as it is a sermon on forgiveness. "Magata a idalela malatsi aa (Cops do as they please these days)."

Africa is the source

It is in breaking into the African market that Morule seems to have found his salvation.

Unlike motswako's patriarch, Hip Hop Pantsula, who saw the subgenre as a great unifier and necessary export from South Africa, Morule looked to the rest of the continent out of a hunger for new audiences.

"When I was out there in Angola and Kenya, I realised just how talented we are and that if we did more collaborations and mash up our sounds to have that one specific African sound that we can export, then we'd be powerful enough to take on the globe," he told GQ magazine in 2017.

His One Source EP, which features African artists from Ghana's Sarkodie to Kenyan songstress Victoria Kimani, is an expression of this newfound freedom. He recently performed in Harare, Zimbabwe, at the height of tensions between South Africa and the rest of the continent, which speaks to the progress Morule has made in shedding the individualism that defines most of his music.

In defence of motswako

As they were gaining clout, motswakolistas struggled to define their sound. Though it was sonically and geographically clear what the subgenre was, its pioneers shied away from labelling it out of a need to preserve its growing popularity. To the shock of many, its most liberal rapper - Morule - was the one to exercise courage and defend motswako's identity.

Although it was contradictory to his sonic liberalism and crossover quest, Morule gathered some of his hometown friends and fired motswako's last shot in the song Wannabeez from his 2012 sophomore album Lost in Time.

So you wanna be motswako?

Cause you rap in vernac?

Just because you roll with ma'gang?

Bo Mo, le Bo Tuks, le Bo Jabbs?

So whatchu gotta be from Towdee Mac?

You don't even know the half

Morule has recently been on an intense media campaign to promote his upcoming album - and he's promising a renaissance. When asked about his decision to tag rapper Cassper Nyovest for the album's lead single ICHU, he told The Real Goboza: "For me, it was bigger than just the song. It was to reunite Mahikeng, to reincarnate that vibe ya Mahikeng."

Part of righting the wrongs of motswako involves understanding that a younger and woker generation is at the helm of shaping its culture and sound. So far, Morule has the sound right, but until he adjusts the content of that sound to reflect the socioeconomic realities of motswako's young fans, he, like many of his now obscure peers, may become a cautionary tale.

As the last standing, commercially viable founder of motswako music, Morule considers himself king. But is he? If we think of motswako in a commercial context then, yes, he sits at the throne. But if we imagine motswako as the social movement its fans have always thought it to be, he's certainly not its revolutionary leader.

That title easily belongs to Mo'Molemi. Only Tuks Senganga, with his anti-establishment lyrics, comes close to contesting it. Yet no one can deny that Khuli Chana has done more to push the subgenre out its of shell than any other motswakolista.

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