Okmalumkoolkat Fuses Post-Apartheid Realities

In a country with 12 national languages, South Africa’s vibrant music scene is booming with artists who are weaving together the sound of the so-called “rainbow nation.” Simiso Zwane is using this period of multicultural expression as his artistic opportunity to toggle between different identities and art forms, giving voice to different cultures and perspectives coming out of his post-apartheid nation. The rapper switches between Zulu, Afrikaans, and English to effortlessly combine different influences and themes, giving each of his personas more dimension and breathing room to express themselves. Under the name Okmalumkoolkat, his work focuses on “future concepts in the now.”
Okmalumkoolkat Fuses Post-Apartheid Realities On the Dance Floor

According to Okmalumkoolkat, house is South Africans' music of choice and it has been for decades. Kwaito rhythms from the 1990s, like the ones he made with his band Dirty Paraffin, are resurfacing. Although he is more interested in creating new sounds than in blending traditional roots music with modern beats, he has a special place in his heart for old-school house. “It’s not a big deal, it’s a part of life. I grew up listening to house music. All my teen memories are based around DJ Fresh compilations. Those compilations are all there in my memory box. I can’t take that away. If you play any track from those compilations I’ll cry sometimes,” he said in a Boiler Room interview. “Holy Oxygen,” Okmalumkoolkat’s first solo EP released in 2014 by Affine Records, is a collaboration with Cid Rim and The Clonious. It includes fast-paced dance floor anthems like “Fancy Footwork” and “Allblackkat.” The album layers jazz chords, kwaito, and energetic dance beats. The video for the title track, filmed in an abandoned sewage farm near Soweto, a mine dump, and a eucalyptus forest, opens with a quote from Mother Theresa: “The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for, and deserted by everybody." Directed by Wim Steytler, the video visualizes Okmalumkoolkat’s themes of social alienation by depicting a group of quarantined, plastic-wrapped individuals who walk among burning bushes and eventually find a safe haven at the end of the video. Okmalumkoolkat came up with the video's graphic design, which reimagines the "African aesthetic." “I am very interested in creating a body of work that isn't afraid of putting society’s most pressing social issues into a context of popular culture,” Steytler said. "It’s a great place to open up dialogue about sometimes uncomfortable topics, especially among young people.”

Read more about Okmalumkoolkat’s themes and how he is helping shape the future of South African culture in our interview below.

Okmalumkoolkat Q & A

How would you describe your music?

A masala of influences from electro, house, rap, maskandi, mgqashiyo, and poetry all in one.

How has your upbringing in Durban influenced the sound and content of your music?

Durban and the whole KwaZulu Natal province is mainly inhabited by the Zulus so I grew up on Zulu radio stations, music and basic upbringing. That upbringing shaped me as a person but I was always reading and always curious about the world. Zulu people are a dancing tribe, in fact all Nguni tribes are, so that kind of filters in my music and the performance vibe I bring. I was also lucky to turn my talents into the dance scene when I got to high school, leaving my footballer dreams behind. Durban's Finest Dj Tira x Dj Sox were busy creating the Durban Kwaito Sound at the time so we grew up on dance floors, house parties, and braais (barbecues) at the beach.

What are your thoughts on the South African hip-hop scene and which artists would you recommend to people who haven’t heard it?

I think South African Hip Hop shouldn't be called South African Hip Hop. We are doing our own thing. I mean, you cannot call dancehall Jamaican Hip Hop, or call Grime, UK Hip Hop. Check out Mashayabhuqe Ka Mamba, Riky Rick, Cassper Nyovest, Stilo Magolide (member of Boyzn Bucks), uSanele, Aewon Wolf, WTF, AKA, K.O. There's too many doing different styles.

You rap in Zulu, Afrikaans, and English. How have you been able to use languages to express different meanings and contexts within your songs?

There's 12 official languages here in South Africa so we are a multi-lingual nation. This way I can create a concoction of poetry using all these languages, it's just more vocabulary to play with.

You are an artist that not only creates music but constructs an aesthetic vision that is seen in your music videos and performances. How has South African culture helped shape that vision?

In every way possible from how I grew up and how I live right now. We are very young country; we just got our independence in ‘94. We are still trying to shape our identity and I am glad to be part of the curators of culture and shape the future of our youth. I was just lucky to live through a little bit of the struggle days and see independence and now be smart enough to play a role in the nation building initiatives, especially my own initiatives.

Your video for Holy Oxygen depicts a group of neglected, quarantined individuals who finally find air and a sense of community. What was the inspiration of this video and what does it represent?

The main concept was religion and also commenting on how sick people are always excluded or kind hidden/ quarantined from society just because they are sick. Also the Ebola virus was out of hand at the time.

What message do you want people around the world to take from your music?

The whole “Holy Oxygen” project was to teach and also comment on things like how African religion is always regarded as culture/tradition and thus it is belittled in comparison to other religions. I want the world to understand that there are smart young somethings around the world. I don't have to be from Paris, New York or London to be such. We have a lot more to offer too.



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