South Africa: Mx Blouse Is in Their Element

Drawing on hip-hop, electronica and dance in a small but impressive discography, the Joburg musician continues to make waves with their new release, Elementality.

Sandiso Ngubane leans into their chair and stares into the middle distance. "I think I'm done with the album," says the artist better known as Mx Blouse. "I've got enough material to put together an album but nangapha, I don't want to rush anything. I just want to make sure Re:Mx gets enough airtime before I jump into anything else. That's the first full-length kwaito project I've put out, and I'd prefer if it made its way to as many people as possible."

It's a Wednesday morning in early November 2019. Decked out in a navy jumpsuit, a pair of white Chuck Taylors and a Dickies bucket hat, Mx Blouse looks and sounds like the archetypal pantsula dancer.

In September 2019, Mx Blouse dropped Re:Mx, a six-track kwaito EP that broke from their previous hip-hop and electronica releases. It wasn't until the release of Is'phukphuku in 2018 that the Johannesburg-based artist started cementing their status as a kwaito artist. The song, which was produced by Cape Town-based artists Jakinda and Thor Rixon, was a breakthrough hit that landed the artist a Trending section cover in the City Press newspaper as well as coverage in tastemaker publications such as OkayAfrica and Afropunk.

"That feels like it was a decade ago," they laugh. "Is'phukphuku was the shift for me. Before that, I knew I wanted to make music, but it just wasn't coming together. My first release was a song called WTF (Squared) with Cape Town-based artist Joni Blud. I was taken aback by the number of bookings it led to and, in the end, I was scrambling to put together a body of work I could perform."

Kwaito's best-kept secret

Music often reflects society's larger cultural failings so, depending on who you ask, Mx Blouse might be kwaito's best-kept secret or one of its most deliberately ignored artists. Despite the relative success of their breakthrough single in 2018, and an electric performance at the Oppikoppi music festival the same year, they are the first to admit that this hasn't translated into regular bookings and income streams.

Part of their relative obscurity is down to the struggles of every indie artist: nonexistent budgets and, in the internet age, the constantly receding attention of online audiences.

"I think we're all frustrated with the attention span of audiences," they laugh. "You release something this week and next week you have to remind people that the album still exists. There's just so much that comes out every other week. If you're not AKA or Tshego, you don't have the benefit of radio or TV reminding people of your song. I don't know how Is'phukphuku carried itself for so long. It probably had to do with the video. The visual carried the song."

Listening to the music on its own terms

Mx Blouse occupies a unique position in kwaito's unfolding history. They are the first kwaito artist to openly identify as non-binary. It's difficult to overstate how seismic a political statement this is. In a genre defined by its machismo - the gruff voetsek, "pay me" attitude associated with isipantsula - Mx Blouse's very presence upends this convention.

The dark side of this is a focus in interviews and reviews on the politics that undergirds Mx Blouse's work at the expense of the music. "Ja, that was a fucking mistake," they recount of the initial press they received. "I think it's this weird conundrum where, of course, this is who I am. I'm non-binary, but I wouldn't want an interview that just focuses on that.

"What's funny is, over the past couple of weeks, I've turned down so many interviews because I've gotten to the point where I'm like, dude, I can't keep talking about my gender. I've got music out, can we talk about that? I think some media houses are more interested in that and music becomes secondary."

An artist coming into their own

Over the past two years, Mx Blouse has put together a small but consistently impressive discography. Their debut EP, Re:Mx is a smorgasbord of kwaito, dance and electronica. Supernatural, the album opener and lead single, is a gothic dance number with elements of samba music. Piesang Kop is a long-limbed number with blaring synths, a rumbling bassline and an unhurried flow, typical of most kwaito songs.

But the EP-defining moment comes in the form of Papgeld. As the title suggests, the song deals with deadbeat fathers. A wobbly bassline and sparse percussion provide the background for the artist to take aim at these men. It's a conversation that's recently re-entered mainstream conversation after the success of local, Jerry Springer-style reality show No Excuse, Pay Papgeld.

"That show actually inspired the song. I was reading Daily Sun in 2018 and came across a story of a news presenter who featured on the show. When the crew confronted him, idle phansi insizwa, he ran like crazy. That's why the song's a bit comedic. It's a serious issue but that moment produced so many memes in its wake."

The animating theme of the EP is loss and alienation. Nini, the fourth song on the EP, has a refrain that questions when the narrator will arrive at a place of self-love and self-satisfaction. Similarly, No Match is about the crumbling of a relationship narrated from the moment you realise the centre will no longer hold. Even album opener Supernatural speaks about the desire to rise above life's small indignities and how these struggles can anchor you.

The anti-album

But whereas Re:Mx is deliberately cold in theme and execution, Mx Blouse's upcoming album, Elementality, is a whole lot more inviting. With a running time of 25 minutes (it has eight tracks in total), the album feels like a quiet statement from an artist at the peak of their powers. From the first to the last bar of music, Mx Blouse raps with the confidence of a seasoned kwaito artist.

Phuzamanzi, the album opener, is a slow-moving number with a rubbery bassline and barely there synth pads. Here, Mx Blouse employs a double-time machine-gun flow, rapping about idyllic beach getaways and the freedom found on the dance floor, while encouraging the listener to take things easy. Or in their words: "Phuzamanzi, keep it hydrated."

Yesterday's Nostalgia has a similar energy. It sounds like Braamfontein in the early hours of the morning, when the city is drained of colour and the last few bodies leave the dance floor to head home.

"I don't know how to classify these things anymore," says Mx Blouse when asked why they categorised the project as an album instead of an EP. "I'm calling it an album because it's a body of work, and I was very conscious of what I was doing when I was making it. I asked the producers to keep the [beats per minute] around 100 and all the songs are about a single theme. Elementality is about connection and love. There's a lot about partying and how we use those spaces to connect."

Halfway through the album, Hold Me Down opens with guitar strums and neck-snapping drums. "I want to do something different. Come, let's keep it fresh," they say in the song's opening line. It's difficult to think of a more accurate description of Mx Blouse's aesthetic approach.

Elementality assembles some of the most forward-thinking indie producers - Eye on Feather, Thor Rixon, Micr Pluto and Bakae - with Mx Blouse acting as the glue that keeps everything together. So, while the contributing producers have widely different musical styles, the music still coheres. Zandla Phezulu, with it's sawing synths and four-to-the-floor rhythm, moves seamlessly into A Broken Heart, a bare-as-bones song about heartbreak.

The album is scheduled for release on 24 July. "I have no idea what'll happen when the album drops. I haven't been able to shoot any videos. I've used most of the money for PR, and there's a possibility I might be able to release it in the UK.

"But aside from that, I'll probably do a live stream on the day of release. I've seen some artists ask for donations during live streams, but I'm not sure that's a model audiences are used to yet. We'll just have to hope the music does its own work."

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