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Matthew Mokoena

Be servant to all, master to self, like rain... pouring on both the just n the unjust... Change is here, now... WATCH...

Spoken Words’ Foreign Exchange

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“… They were bribed,” shouts the lady next to me for all in sundry to hear. “In fact, if we had been playing against an African team, I would say that they were bewitched,” she says of the SA vs Uruguay performance on Youth Day. It would pain me to remind you of the outcome of that game; we got massacred afresh. The irritating thing about ‘relying’ on ‘public transport’ (you’ll be forgiven if you missed the irony) is that no conversation is private. Every man, woman and child is subjected to the virulently contagious chatter of a fire bearing lunatic who will remind you, without invitation mind you, that he is a card bearing member of a particular political party OR your ears could be arrested by the butt-cheek uniting insults hurled from the lips of a raw tongued taxi driver quick to squash pariah infested rebellions wrought by his passengers, “phela eyami lemoto, thenga eyakho mawu funa ukhushayela. Wazo khuluma ka khulu la…” A rough Zulu tongued translation would be, “my car dis; buy own car if want drive. Talk to marsh here…” This is then followed by a few side to side head jerks and a professionally acquired tongue click, “nxxx!!!” I think it comes with the job.

These are the joys of being a lower to lower middle income earning commuter in our country. The tongue of the lady cramped besides me seems free enough to skillfully maneuver between topics which I am positive the gentleman on the receiving end will cherish to the bitter gates of his grave, I know I will. A very knowledgeable lady she turned out to be. “Short right,” I shout (wondering for the first time in my life what exactly is so short about it) this is my request to exit the chariot next to the filth invested Noord Taxi Rank.

After a short wait at Kaldi’s, enters Linda Gabriel (my previous guest on “The Spoken Mind” and the angel that introduced me to this place) followed shortly afterwards by Antonio David Lyons. I cannot tell you how fulfilling it was to be meeting a gentleman after so many interviews with the ladies of Spoken Word. It was not odd either that both parties actually knew each other. A third party joins the table, Jihan Tahri, an acquaintance of Antonio’s and unknowing colleague to Linda. Here the phrase, “it’s a small world,” was caught with its pants down stretching its hand into the literary cookie jar. We order our hot beverage’s before Linda leaves us and Ms. Tahri stays to film the session.


Born: Hollywood, Florida/USA
Current Hometown: Johannesburg/ RSA
Memberships/affiliations: None!
Inspirations: Life/people/music/
Poets: Lebo Mashile/ Pinkie Gordon Lane/Nikki Giovanni/Langston Hughes/ Kojo Baffoe
Musicians: Bob Marley/ The Mighty Sparrow/ Angelique Kidjo/Fela Kuti/Thandiswa/ Busi Mhlongo/Anthony Hamilton
Verse/Quote: Always keep a little for yourself / you can always pray…both by my mom
Books and authors: The Bible/ toni morrison – sula/ zakes mda -black diamonds/Paul Coelho/ Ann Rice/ Sidney Potier/ Lian Hern/Harry Potter Series/

If his name didn’t ring your bell, I am almost positive the pictures brought on a ‘eureka’ moment for you. If not, house fanatics will remember his deep, hypnotically poetic voice accompanied by Tamara Daye vocals on a track titled ‘Saturday Night,‘ which was licensed for use on the DJ Fresh compilation: Definition of House Vol.1 and in other projects across the world.

Antonio has an extensive filmography, having appeared on movies such as Hotel Rwanda, Soaps such as Generations, Series’ the likes of NYPD Blue and New York Undercover. He has recently completed a shoot for a production called “Night Drive” (should be out by October) and currently, you can catch Antonio on “The Binnelanders.” I, however, was more interested in this mans poetic journey. So I attempt to capture it.


The ingenuity of art, poetry in particular, does not entirely rest in its expressive roots, but rather stems and branches out from the personal relationship it has formed with the artist. Hence many a writer/poet will give you the story of how poetry/writing, much like most intimate relations, began in that private dungeon called the bedroom. How they found solace on a blank page, sometimes whipped with blue lines, un-judgmental at first before it began calling for the purging of the mind, spirit and later demanded a more articulate approach from the lone sojourner. This has at least been mine and many an encountered poets’ tale. ‘So what was this gentleman’s story?’ I asked myself. “I see your resume is quite extensive, so I’ll really try to pin this story down to your poetry,” I say. The man on the opposite end of the table seems the humble and modest type; the, “my mom taught me better,” type of fellow and that is exactly where I want to take this, to the very beginning, when he was learning how to become a man… from mom and dad of course.

Matt: We come from very different generational, geographic and cultural backgrounds. Could you tell us where Antonio comes from within this context?

Now this, dear readers, is a question bursting in its own obesity. Any conversational scale would literally shake and feign a handicap, as some of the people we encounter at our stop streets these days.

Antonio: That is a very big question. I exist in a couple of spaces. I grew up in Miami; Florida. My mothers’ family is from the Bahamas and my father is from Jamaica. So it’s like cultures within cultures… for me, growing up within that space (of broader breakdowns of African Americans and their communities in the US, i.e. 1st generation American of west Indian/Caribbean decent or of African/Latino decent etc) was very interesting… having this sought of duality, i.e. You are part of the US and not part of the US, part of the west indies in the Caribbean but you are not. These were some of the things that fuelled me… whether it’s a strong cultural identity or a ‘minorial’ stance on certain issues, ideas of right and wrong/family/loving etc. stem from those places. The interesting part of the journey for me, being in SA, is that when you are from another culture and living full time with another culture, who you are becomes very defined. You become very clear about who you are and what things are important to you and where you come from, the similarities and differences with the cultures around you, even things which you forget about who you are come back to the forefront. I think you end up having to call upon all of who you are to navigate spaces, whether it is personal spaces or environmental/cultural/political etc, you always have to go back to your center or you end up very lost and confused…

We speak more about defining self within the above context, societal differences that constantly lurk on the border lines. That great divide (the one which once led man straight to the abyss of death via lynching) determined by which side of the racial line one hails from. Be ye not afeard though, or provoked to emotions of rebellion, because ours was a conversation void of tales which sought to resurrect the ominous past, but found itself luminously glowing, lit by the torch of identity currently being shone by Antonio. We speak of educational and media’s contribution (local media included) in the perpetuation of stereotypes which have seen the whole of Africa marred by animalistic connotations. A media which seems to limit Africa to just a tourist destination, a huge spot on a map that should not have existed or one that should continue its existence only as a pony for Europe (Asian countries also find us quite useful) to ride. Our media is only guilty of promoting ‘foreign’ ideals over our own, this includes moral values, meaning; African ideals have become an echo of western screams. This leaves me wondering whether we’re knowing or unknowing ourselves via media in/un-information.

Matt: I read that you started writing poetry at the age of 14, what led your pen to paper?

Antonio: Honestly, I was a very angry teenager. So I found I could express myself in one of two ways, I would either dance or I would write. I had a lot of issues with the sociopolitical dynamics in the U.S; ideas of race, how black people are treated and under represented. A lot of this happened at school, so you’d be reading these books (History/ English) about white people, a few sections of information about Jewish people and culture and then there would be this little chapter somewhere (on black people) and one month out of the year you would be told about black peoples contribution to the U.S. I just thought, ‘nah… there’s something wrong here,’ so I just started writing from those spaces.’ When you grow up in a West Indian/Caribbean household, your parents are really strict and believe in systems (generally they are right and you are wrong), so there was that frustration like, ‘no, I need to talk back to these teachers about what’s not working,’ and you get in trouble and since you can’t talk back to your parents you write…

Antonio experienced a culture shock when he went to university at Baton Rouge; Louisiana, which was “99% African American,” an environment which he refers to as “very different from Miami and rural in a lot of ways.” He read an article in the school newspaper about a debating team and saw it as an opportunity to travel. “When I joined the debating team I started doing oral interpretation which uses poetry and prose… I engaged with words in a different sought of way… I had a coach, who was a professor in the theatre department; he coached me for the debating team. He later asked me about auditioning for a play, that’s where I stepped into acting; I had never acted before that…”

We speak of poets whose words encompass their work and lives. Listening to myself on this recording in hindsight, I sounded like a praise poet for Dr Don Mattera, but he is a man worthy of being honored for the way he touches people’s lives with his words beyond poetry. If a writer’s beliefs, views and ideals could be reflected in their everyday lives and/or speech, I would say we’re making a progressive move in touching others with our ‘us-ness.’

Matt: What fuels your writing… social commentary, politics, spirituality?

Antonio: I definitely think a lot of it has spiritual underpinnings. Whether it’s direct references to God or whether it’s by using similes or some indication that there is something beyond that I’m depending on. My writing is also different depending on the medium I’m writing in, i.e. how I write when I’m writing music is different when I’m writing poetry for myself. I find that when I’m writing for myself it’s more detailed, more social and sometimes more directed. Whereas when I write for music it’s something that just happens.

At this point he explains his music writing process, “I don’t pre-write anything when I go into studio to record a song. I just sit, listen to the music and I write… and I try not to direct it or dictate it. The minute I try force some boundary on it, it goes very wrong. So I have to let the process just be what it is and let it flow…” He tells me of some work he’s put up on facebook which was inspired by 16 days of Activism, what those days meant and he also wanted to take its (16 days of Activism) meaning in. He also shares how he wanted to take that journey from a male perspective. We also talk of his musical journey which birthed itself in South Africa in 2003. “That first track (Saturday Night featuring Tamara Daye) was done with a producer/engineer by the name of Troye Lilley (of Soul Khula) and Craig Massiv (of Soul Khula, used to be part of Jazzworx and was its co-founder, is also part of Flash Republic.) I then went back to the US for sometime and then I came back, in that time they got Tamara to do vocals on it… When I came back I just started getting calls from people like DJ Mbuso, Revolution and the late Iggy Smallz etc.” On the love of food, Antonio shares collected memories from the now closed Ackee Guest House which was founded by a Jamaican friend/sister who found herself in need of management assistance. He imitates the faces of people who are still caught in memory lane about the Jamaican delicacy’s which used to be served up and I can’t help but laugh.

Matt: Do you have a book published?

Antonio: I haven’t done a book; I’ve been threatening to do a book. The first CD that came out in 2007 titled “Human Jewels,” is beautiful music… (All the tracks were written by Antonio) I also think that the way my words are living has a broader reach in some way. I know a lot of poets that have tons of books they’ve had published, sitting in a room or in the trunk of their car, but I’ve been fortunate enough to have had people hearing my words on the radio, or they can pick up a CD compilation or Human Jewels or the new album and those things are there…

Speaking on slam poetry, Antonio expresses a humble rejection or rather states that he doesn’t get it (look out for the next article which will be about a Slam competition I attended a few weeks back.) I share some views on slam I received from Myesha Jenkins (who isn’t a fan of the form either) and Antonio says that he regards Slam as an extension of hip-hop and not a platform he feels comfortable on.

“I think an artist, under any genre, is subjected to a lot of hustle, a lot of sacrifice, hard work and commitment. You have to find a place of peace and practice your craft, because it’s something you have to do and need to do.” This is what he says on the viability of poetry in terms of its capability to sustain the artist. He continues to say that artists, if and when required, should do whatever work is necessary in order to put food on the table (and he was referring to productive undertakings, not of the underground or black market natured type.) “I don’t think clearly when I’m hungry, or wouldn’t if I were homeless.”

He tells me of the interesting character he portrays in Binnelanders, “I’m playing this character from the US, it’s very 2010, who comes for the World Cup and falls in love with the matron of the hospital and… ehm… sparks fly…” I think he was blushing here, so couldn’t help but think that Antonio is a romantic. (At the time of this article, we were still sitting on “airing very soon” with regards to his character on the show) The matron, Faye Baker, is played by Esmeralda Bihl, a woman whose work he seemingly has an admiration for. “She has to be one of SA’s most dynamic actresses,” he says. “We’ve worked together on a drama series called “A Place Called Home,” (A T.O.M Pictures production which was directed by Rolie Nikiwe [Tsha-Tsha] Akin Omotoso [God is African, Rifle Road] and uZanenkosi and Zamo Mkwanazi.) He shares more on “Night Drive,” his first Horror/Thriller experience. “It is a very South African movie, powerful, really well crafted with amazing production values and a great cast…” He guarantee’s that there will be no lack of thrill and suspense in the production. Antonio seems very proud of the progressive strides made, in terms of quality, in SA’s film production.

Matt: Achievements which you are most proud of?

Antonio: Finishing my first album… (Human Jewels) I’m really good at starting things and not always good at completing them. So it was an exercise in making sure that I stopped everything else that I had going on and focused on completing the album. That was very huge for me.

His second album, taking into account that Antonio is a spiritual individual, is aptly titled, “We dance. We pray.” Of this album he says, “For me this is a big achievement because it’s also my first label project, it’s an artist project with Soul Candi (Antonio is signed to Soul Candi.) It’s a house album, but I’ve been able to keep my sense of musicality even within this genre because I’m big on live instruments, so since the first album came out in 2007 I’ve been gigging and it’s grown me as a musician in amazing ways. It was important for me to play something that people could have fun with and dance, but with me… Writing a play was for me a big achievement as well, because I’m passionate about doing something about the spaces men and boys inhabit in SA and globally, especially men and boys of color… A lot can happen just from people being able to talk… I find, especially in SA, that men don’t have a lot of spaces for that dialogue and that culturally it’s not necessarily expected for men to talk about how they feel, what they are thinking or how things affect them and often no ones asking. On the flip side women get asked those questions all the time, so there’s this progression that women have and evolution that men and boys are left out of…” The level of simplistic perception that this man has, has me reaching out from the stream called ‘deep’ that I’ve been immersed in, not by choice mind you. What irks me about being surrounded by poets is that we only know each other from the face value of our work. So the more intricate sounding poets (these usually use words as a cover up, like a 3rd blanket at the height of summer) are labeled as ‘deep,’ so they try living up to the word by ‘seeming’ all knowing, dress in rags and in an attempt not to conform they conform… to complexity. I did not find this trait in Antonio. In fact, the last 4/5 artists I’ve had on the Spoken Mind would be labeled as too ‘mainstream’ in my circles**,

When he says, “We don’t talk about pain, we don’t talk about sexuality, family…” I’m reminded of a very good friend, outwardly and physically strong, who committed suicide last year. Maybe manning up is speaking up.

He shares with me something he wrote on a piece in which he features Nkoto (Kwani Experience vocalist) who sings on the song.

Mama, Papa

There’s a sorrow whose anticipation chills the soul.

Mama, papa,

Long gone, but feels like yesterday.

Soul sore I sink into dark places no light to brighten the way,

I seek your guidance

When dark has reached its peak,

Wishing you were here to guide me in the way to go.

Mama to soothe my soul and walk by the stove

Papa’s silent grunts and telling eyes

One word sentences are a positive sign

The world crowds my mind

My money spent, my soul sore, my hope gone

I can’t pray no more

I miss your love, your gentle care

Strict reminders to keep pushing

I’m almost there

This home, this desert land

I wish for another day, another hour

A moment to touch the whole of your hand

A lonely mama’s child

I never thought you would live

Only in my mind.

– End –

Somehow, I think the interview must have ended here. After this point all we did was… talk. So I took the opportunity to dig up the voice of the taxi woman whilst it’s still fresh in my head. I convey the tale of an intelligent elder, wise in words; who found it fit to rekindle the flames of story-telling to complete strangers, in a hostile environment nogal. I recount her narrations of self taught psychology, of the painful disciplining of her offspring (I guess locking the television in the garage is worse than corporal punishment these days.) I tell of how she spoke of the existing ‘parent-children relationship’ with knowing aplomb. “Parents feel their role ends after they say ‘don’t do drugs, don’t have babies,’ whereas reality calls upon them to provide clarity, a means of recourse if they are pious…” She goes on to say, “I went to Exclusive Books, bought my girl some reading material and shut the television in the garage. I mean, how do these programs benefit her in any case?” Most of us will be fathers, mothers, aunts and uncles (if we are not already.) I neglected to mention an additional character that was present and absent and present again during the interview, Antonio’s adopted son. He shares the joys and difficulties of raising a child. The learning and unlearning that children sometimes have to undergo.

Taking into consideration his artistic success, I would say Antonio is a humble being who seems to be in harmony with his adopted home; a man who knows who he is, where he is going and acknowledges the fruits that accompany effort. Intelligent enough not to blow off up and coming platforms such as “Consciousness.co.za… It’s a lifestyle” which are emblazoned in progressive gear. Look out for Antonio’s 2nd album, “We dance. We pray,” which is set to hit your music stores by the end of August. You can also catch Antonio on facebook. It was an honor to speak with this brother. Coming up on the Spoken Mind is an equally great brother by the name of Kojo Baffoe, so keep tuned in to satisfy your appetite. For suggestions on how to make this blog better or on artists you would like to see on this platform (known/unknown) forward me your thoughts on matthew@consciousness.co.za


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