arthur: Kwaito is basically South African ghetto or township dance music and it came about in the sense that we, as the youth of South Africa feeling that there’s a lot that we need to say that hasn’t been said before through a music format, you know expressing our own selves in the best way possible for ourselves because we’ve always had music genres before our time but it was for their age and period, but people like me, when we were born we saw things differently and we saw things happening in front of our eyes and we felt we need to express ourselves in a way that would be more appropriate for ourselves.
aryan kaganof: When you say earlier genres are you referring specifically to bubblegum?
arthur: I wouldn’t even say bubblegum music, I would say everything that happened before me, you know all the music genres expressed people’s lives in their own period but when my period came I felt I have to express myself in my own way.
aryan kaganof: That period you speak of isn’t merely a period in music history but also in the political history of this country. So how does for example, the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, or the democratic elections, help shape the development of kwaito culture?
arthur: I would say it’s a music format that had to come about because of the South African youth feeling they needed to have a voice of their own and coincidentally it happened whilst he was in jail, so you might find that the influence arose because Mr. Mandela was still in jail and obviously we got influenced because we didn’t see him go to jail so we didn’t feel that process but when we grew up we were taught that this is how we were supposed to be living and it was up to us to take charge and say we need him back we need to express ourselves in a way that would be more appropriate for us as human beings. Rather than being under the apartheid rule and following whatever lifestyle that was existing then. We felt we needed to express ourselves in the best way possible for ourselves. So I would say somehow yes it’s got a political contribution because if Mr. Mandela was not in jail or other people were not in exile we wouldn’t have been brought up the way we have been brought up. We had to grow up knowing that we were under apartheid, we were not free as a country, we were not free as the youth and there was a difference between the black and white youth and we felt we need to express ourselves so that we can feel comfortable about who we are. Other people who hurt, more specially me, when I did that song Don’t Call Me Kaffir, because they felt that I didn’t have a right to do such a song but for the black youth and the black people they felt yes, here’s a hero speaking for our rights, but other people were affected that felt they still needed to use that word kaffir.
aryan kaganof: What is interesting about that song is that it was released after the democratic elections, in other words saying that change doesn’t happen overnight and there are still issues to be adressed, despite the new democratic dispensation.
arthur: For me basically the struggle continues which is why I say somehow there was a political contribution to kwaito or we contributed vice versa you know. We contributed to politics, politics contributed to kwaito being there, but one wouldn’t say it came about because of Mandela was relased because you cannot just think of an idea overnight. Mandela was released at the time when already the youth were affected in this country, we felt we needed to have a voice. Because I started dancing at an early age and by then I wanted to be out there and be seen and I asked myself how do I get to be on tv? From the moment I started as a dancer I was already affected as a black kid in the townships and I grew up knowing that I need to be a star I need to be exposed. But what channels do I use? And I felt it’s a bit difficult because of the apartheid regime making things difficult for us. So somehow you grew up knowing that it’s difficult for you. For you to make it as a black kid you have to triple your effort. It wasn’t going to be easy for me because of the regime that was existing, so I had to work three times harder than any normal South African kid that was not black. So that gave me the will to win and made me realise that I’m living in a country that’s got a problem. And somehow it’s my duty to change that. So I had to triple that effort and then started hustling and trying to make things happen for me.
aryan kaganof: You came to fame when you won the title Mr. Soweto.
arthur: It wasn’t my fault. I was asked by a friend to enter that competition. I was just a frustrated somebody in the township trying to make it in music and dancing but there were no channels and I thought here’s an opportunity of being famous, maybe one can be a model, whatever, and a friend pursued me, she said you must go enter for these things because she was already a beauty queen. So I went and luckily it helped me because somehow I managed to get contacts, be exposed you know.
aryan kaganof: Aside from your role as a pioneer of the music genre, what sets you apart from musicians of the earlier period is your astute business practice, creating and industry around your talent, and owning and controlling that company, 999 Records.
arthur: When I started as a dancer I danced for one group, I didn’t last for a month I think. And I felt I just needed to be on my own and do my own thing from then I knew that I can make it in life if I keep on being the leader I am, because in life you just have to believe in yourself and I felt I’m going to be something one day and believed in my dream and pursued it. I think with me, talking about business, it had nothing to do with colour, it was just an idea of me being exposed and doing what I wanted to do. The only time colour comes in is because I was underprivileged as compared to whites but apart from that I just had this business sense in my heart that I just need to make it in life and help other people if I can. For me to really succeed I had to create my own kind of employment and by so doing I decided I’m going to have my own genre of music express myself in my own way. Even my dance routines were something different from what was existing. We would watch Michael Jackson and Bobby Brown but still come with our own things that would be mixed with our own township pantsula.
aryan kaganof: Do you see any parallels in your life with that of Godfrey Moloi, in the sense of being a black entrepreneur and being a legend in Soweto?
arthur: There have been role models in my life, people that came into life before me, and there’s a whole lot of them, the list is just endless but any black hero in the country just motivated me to be a leader and a proper business man.
aryan kaganof: Tell us about the formation of Aba Shante.
arthur: The reason I decided to really go straight into business and make 999 the force that it is today was because I was getting successful as a solo artist. I had dancers behind me and I felt they also deserved a chance to be in the forefront. And then I took some from the streets that would be good in music, and not good in dancing, and tried to create groups, like for example Chiskop. The group that Mandoza comes from. I discovered them from the streets they were just guys doing breakdancing whatever, they were not that good or well choreographed but I felt vocally they had talent. With Aba Shante what I did was auditions where I said to people go look for these people for me. I announced all over that I was looking for a group of people. I was looking for dancers, I was looking for singers, rappers and whatever. And people started coming to me and I had to choose them one by one. I was not in a hurry because I was making it as a solo artist and I was not sure if it’s the right decision to make but as soon as I found people that clicked I put the group together. They all met through me and I created the group that was never to be stopped up to today.
aryan kaganof: Did you produce them in the studio as well?
arthur: After getting everybody together the next thing was to make them understand what the industry was about. How to handle interviews, even before going into the studio, and they started moving with me to shows all over the country, experiencing what I was doing. Because I felt it would be better for them to experience the real feel of the industry before even getting into the studio. By the time they got into the studio they were hyped up. They knew that people were expecting things from them and by the time they did their album they knew how to express themselves. So it wasn’t just about discovering them. It was about discovering them, teaching them how to perform, teaching them how to handle interviews and teaching them how to be stars on their own.
aryan kaganof: What characterises you and is quite exceptional in the industry is a marked sense of discipline.
arthur: I think my sense of discipline comes from my parents because me and my brothers and sisters we grew up under the apartheid regime and it was difficult for my parents to really make it in life so they had to make it a point that we survived. And by making us survive they were teaching us things along the way that you don’t do this, you do this, you respect people, nothing that comes easy is worthwhile, you have to be a hardworker, persevere and be disciplined. And the other fact is that my father, not being educated, and my mother not being educated, they had to still raise seven kids and had other relatives in the same house so it wasn’t easy for them and my father for the will to win attitude that he had! He was the first black show jumper in South Africa and as we all know that show jumping is an expensive sport, but he still made it. He went to compete in Wembley then to Italy, he went all over the world. So for somebody who didn’t even go to school he was a motivation to me so I had the nearest role model next to me, somebody that I can say, I need to be like him. But I’m not going to do what he’s doing, I cannot ride horses, it’s too expensive for me, for me I just need my body and my voice to make it.
aryan kaganof: With the possible exception of Kaffir, your music is jubilant, celebratory, uplifting. This despite the harsh history that you’ve lived through. What is it about South African music that it remains so positive despite all that the South African people have been through?
arthur: I would say South Africa is a forgiving country, or maybe I would say Africans are forgiving, respectful, they’ve got a proper sense of humanity, you know we understand that regardless of colour we have to live together. Even if somebody did wrong, obviously we don’t have to forget, but we have to forgive and move forward because if that was not the case there would just be chaos in Africa, because we are in the process of rebuilding Africa so somehow we feel we have to unite with other people in order to move forward, that’s how I’m looking at it. If we were always to express sorrow in our music I don’t think people would really appreciate that because then what we would be saying is we don’t appreciate them appreciating us. We have to welcome them by being happy, rejoicing the way we are, we know we’ve had hard times before but we’re in the process of rebuilding. But we are happy. We have achieved our goal. People might think because we achieved our goal late we might be hurt and have hatred in us. We don’t have hatred, we know maybe it had to happen, maybe it was God’s plan but now that we are achieving we have to let people into our hearts and rejoice with them and that way they will appreciate us and start buying into our ideas so our only form of marketing ourselves as Africans is just by being comfortable with who we are.
aryan kaganof: Would you call the post-apartheid generation the kwaito generation?
arthur: Yes you can call them that depending on what you would be referring to. Because so far I’ve seen in papers people writing different stuff about kwaito and for me that has been behind the whole thing of kwaito, I always feel bad, which is why I sometimes refuse to do interviews unless if it’s a sensible interview that does justice to kwaito because we are proper human beings and we know our story and we know what we want to achieve out of life. There may be diffeences between us here and there but that happens in any industry. And if you have a mission and a vision of why you are in kwaito I am sure you will succeed. Yes, we are a kwaito generation, but not just as a format to give you money, but as a format to try and rebuild the whole African continent.
aryan kaganof: The media has indeed often focused on kwaito in a negative way, why is that?
arthur: The most popular person that brought kwaito into being at some stage had to be aggressive and arrogant and the reason I was like that was because of the criticism I got when I released Don’t Call Me A Kaffir. Because people were starting to dissociate me from the proper community of South Africa and I felt I had a right to express myself because what I was tallking about was existing and people started buying into my story. I would say that people don’t like to hear the truth if it’s something that they failed to pick up. I had to do Kaffir in an aggressive way without holding anything back. For me it was like Mandela is free, I’m a free person, I’m going to say what I need to say and people will learn out of what I’m saying and they’ll put it in the history books. Apart from what we achieved as Africans there were still those brave ones who continued with the struggle the struggle to now educate other people. Don’t just forgive, you must remember.
arthur: When I released the song Kaffir, which was always referred to in media circles as Don’t Call Me Kaffir, I took the song to radio stations, most of them were scared to play it, most of them banned it, they felt it doesn’t belong to the South African radio stations, but people out there went to shops, went to parties, went all over with the tapes, CDs, and said no matter what you say radio stations, this is the music which we need to play, which is why maybe the whole media, not just radio, the whole print media and everybody, might have felt, kwaito is not the right music format because already it was making it without their participation because I went to where people were and played my music and people would say, no no no wait a minute what’s this song, don’t call me a kaffir, it’s a funny song, it’s a strange song, it’s scary, but at the end of the day it’s right on point, people understand what I’m tallking about and they started buying the music and it was just unstoppable. Then I was invited to do it on tv, I was invited to do radio interviews talking about it I mean even talk shows that were like not featuring music had to call me to try and comment about that song and that was the real birth of kwaito because then there was no turning back because the music genre was known because of this song that was politically linked because of we were still celebrating our freedom and here’s this black kid coming from the townships still continuing to express himself in a manner that people felt was strange because we were free as a country but because I always grew up trying to say that what they’ve always done to us as Africans was not good I need to teach people that the struggle will continue. Till we are united as human beings regardless of whether the colour is black white green or whatever.
aryan kaganof: How come in New York in the sixties the Last Poets took up the word nigger and made it their own such that niggah is now how all the hip hop generation refer to themselves, but the kwaito generation have not taken up the word Kaffir in describing themselves?
arthur: I would say with Americans it might have been easier to turn nigger into a normal word because the majority there is white people, blacks are the minority. Here it’s vice versa we are the majority and whites are the minority. At the end of the day we are a forgiving people we don’t want to make people feel out of place. It doesn’t mean because I was expressing myself that way I was really pointing a finger saying as a white person you are my enemy, no no no. I was not saying that. You see.
aryan kaganof: Hit after hit followed Kaffir and last year you signed up with the biggest and oldest major label in South Africa, Gallo. What was your reasoning behind this decision?
arthur: I started off selling my stuff from the boot of my car, from my first album to Aba Shante to everybody. Then EMI got interested and they signed me and I was with them for ten years. And I needed to grow to face the challenge of the industry and Gallo was a company that was too much criticised in the music circles and for different reasons but for me I looked at it from another angle that yes we might criticise them but they have the South African music heritage with them, they have been around for over 75 years and I need to tap into that music heritage and try and fuse it with my kwaito. How do I best do that without having to wait for responses that take three months to come, six months to come before a track is cleared, let me go and tap into the heritage of my grandfathers and mothers and try and re-invent it into the latest trend. Again the other reason was that Gallo was bought by a black empowerment company and I felt somehow they were going to give me an opportunity to express myself in the best way possible and it was just about expanidng wings, getting a better deal and trying to see how far I can take 999, because it hasn’t been easy for me to build triple nine because I come from a very poor family and I didn’t have any budget in my pocket to start up a company so I started from zero.
aryan kaganof: And taking kwaito into the international market?
arthur: Taking kwaito into the international market depends on how ready are countries out there to receive us as Africans, regardless of the music in the first place. Because they have to say ok we’ve been having Indian music we’ve been having whatever whatever let’s go tap into African music and see how we can fuse it with our music. Because as far as I’m concerned music is music, seven notes, and a couple of ornaments out there, because you play all those twelve notes and it’s the white ones and the black ones and it depends on how you fuse them you know you can even see it on the piano, all of them are fused so black and white music, countries whether Africa Asia or America or Europe we must just fuse and create something. At the moment there is still this thing of we are going into Africa to fuse the music but honestly speaking they are doing it without crediting us. So it would be better if they did it with us in the studio rather than just taking it away from us, because that might make it but it still lacks the real feel of us being involved.