Whilst on life’s journey, most of us never imagine ourselves as universally recognized role models. We never imagine that we’ll live to share our immediate spaces with such beings, shake their hands, inhale their out worldly fragrances and be engulfed by their multiple personalities and HUMANNESS. We even FEAR IMAGINING ourselves as such personalities. Quite frankly, the problem with the people (note: not the world) in this world is… THEY’VE STOPPED IMAGINING… PERIOD!!
What began to some as a solitary journey through the immense Eden of Spoken Word became an exit-less migration. One that however managed to break down Berlin walls of solitude and went forth to embrace the ‘daunting’ reality of (… voice in my head asks)” friendship?” Yes indeed. The exact same friendship reminded me of this date, “Thursday 8th September 2005.” On this day, a friend and I willingly entered an oven (and trust me I was no kid.) I was almost 21 actually. The oven was called the Moon Box (at the Breytenbach Theatre in Pretoria) and on that particular day the charcoal and fire were provided courtesy of one Lebo Mashile. Pretoria/Sunnyside would be set alight on that eventful night; with what would imminently be a display of love, cheer and outright verbal rebellion. This night marked Lebo’s launch of her book/disc “In a Ribbon of Rhythm” to the Pretoria massive.
The events of that night fated countless other activities post their occurrence, activities that Ms Mashile herself will never quite come to know. I’m talking of LOVE and FRIENDSHIP. On the list of “show openers” for that night were Nolindo Zibi and our very own Vangile Gantsho (unknown entities to us at the time.) With the same circle of friends, I encountered Lebo again at the “Grahamstown Arts Festival 2007.” Myself, along with other poets, got an opportunity to share the stage with Lebo and the likes of Masoja Msiza (creator of the SABC 2 Lentswe Poetry Project) and Keorapetse Kgositsile (S.A’s Poet Laureate from whose poem the US group “The Last Poets” adopted their name.) I was blessed to encounter this beautiful (inwardly and outwardly) feela sistah! again a few more times, both by chance and sheer will to be stroked by WORD.
Today however, I thank Fate and embrace destiny; to bring the amazing Lebo Mashile to the Conscious Ilk, you dig?
|Born||07 February 1979; Providence, R.I|
|Memberships/affiliations||Film and Publication Board Ambassador; Independent Electoral Commission, Youth Ambassador|
|Inspirations||Literature- Chimamanda Adichie, Shakespeare, Shailja Patel, Kgositsile Keorapetse, Tsitsi Dangarebga & many more…
Music- Stevie Wonder, Public Enemy, D’Angelo, Busi Mhlongo, Wu Tang Clan, Sade, Prince, Zim Ngqangwana, Chaka Khan, Zuluboy & many more…
|Poets||Andre Lorde, William Shakespeare, Kgositsile Keorapetse, Dr Don Mattera|
|MC’s||Black Thought, Mos Def, Tumi Molekane*, Zuluboy, Lauren Hill, Biggie|
|Musicians||Stevie Wonder, Public Enemy, D’Angelo, Busi Mhlongo, Wu Tang Clan, Sade, Prince, Zim Ngqangwana, Chaka Khan,|
|Crews/Bands||P.E.R.M- Poethnic Rythmics (2000-2002); Feela Sistah (2003-2005)|
|Verse/Quote||“Most people are not living their dreams, because they are busy living their fears.”|
|Books and authors||The Famished Road- Ben Okri; The Color Purple- Alice Walker; The Artist’s Way- Julia Cameron; Push- Sapphire; Nervous Conditions- Tsitsi Dangarebga;|
|Travel Destinations||Brazil, Cuba, Chile, Senegal, Mexico, Japan, Argentina, Ghana, Cape Verde, India, Mali, Egypt, Tanzania, Mauritius, Germany|
My path to a “Lebo Mashile interview” was aided, in part, by a certain duo, Liann Matabane and Khayalethu Sibeko (of consciousness.co.za…“Mental page.”) It is for this reason that I requested the assistance of Mr Sibeko for this INNERVIEW. THAT or I needed someone who could be the wine to the occasion, you know, someone to settle down the butterflies that would imminently set off the landmines planted in my stomach.
I left Pretoria accompanied by Oz (Mc/Photographer) to rendezvous with Khaya at the Xarra Bookstore in Newtown. We only had about 20minutes to catch our breaths before the radiantly sparkling Ms Mashile arrived, spotting a NEW hairstyle and barely able to breath herself (think maybe the ‘water’ running down her face added to that SPARKLE.) So I thought I should catch her off guard by blowing away the home ground advantage rule (after all, she did choose this place, the lovely SOPHIATOWN planted squarely in the face of the artistic Bassline). So whilst she was catching her breath I glided quickly through the introductions and we got to it.
Khaya begins by telling Lebo what “consciousness.co.za… It’s a lifestyle” is all about (https://consciousness.co.za/content/aboutus.php) and then we went Inner for the View.
Matt: what does Lebo care about, the things which most matter to you?
Lebo: The issues that I am passionate about in my work as a writer and as a performer are spirituality, gender… I am particularly drawn to issues relating to injustice and imbalance. I like to figure out why those things exist and figure out how to work my own way through them. I am also quite fascinated by identity and by contradiction, I find myself drawn to people who are outsiders, people who do not necessarily fit in, in some way or form. I am also fascinated by the black experience, the experiences of black people in South Africa, in Africa and in the Diaspora, how we’ve moved through the world and how history has kind of shaped our identity and the commonality’s that we share and also the differences.
I care deeply about art; I’m deeply inspired by music, by literature. I guess on a more personal level, the thing that I find I’m focusing on more, especially as I get older, I’m 31, I’m trying to figure out how to be a better person, how do I treat myself and other people better, how do I keep my word. I think so much of the discourse in SA has been about trying to solve problems that are out there, you know. Like racism is something out there, like sexism is something out there, poverty is something out there. And there I am, a small poet trying to brake down this giant that’s looking at me. But I think honestly, those things we’re trying to brake down outside ourselves are only problems because they also exist inside of us.
Khaya: we interface with you through your work and that is primarily and possibly the only way we know you. How difficult is it as an established writer, to write something and live by it?
Lebo:you know, Phillipa (Yaa De Villiers) and I spoke about this when we were in the UK last year (Beyond Words Tour.) This understanding is something I got from Kgositsile, I think when you create a piece of art, that art exists within its own realm. That realm kind of has its own logic. When I create a poem, in that poem I’m inventing a world. And that world has its own philosophy; it has its own sense of justice, it has its own way of understanding. When I am trying to give voice to that particular experience, I have to be true to that experience. This means that I can take on any kind of character, if I’m writing about abuse I can be the victim or abuser… If I’m writing about a piece that deals with masculinity for example, I can even be a man, but it just means that within that space I must be true to what I’m trying to express in that space.
When I do that, I don’t necessarily have to be Lebo, I have to be an artist that is giving voice to a particular experience. I’ve written poems about abused women and people think that I’ve been abused, I’ve written poems about all sorts of things and people kind of want to put that on the writer. I guess it makes sense, especially because of peoples understanding of poetry you know. People thinking that poets are expressing a personal experience, so they identify with that. And when they do that, then I’ve been successful because people see it as a real experience… my job as a poet/performer is to try to make something real for you, to try making an emotional connection with you using words, but as an individual, I don’t have to take responsibility for what you take from it.
Matt: with words we have the power to build and the power to destroy. What destructive tendencies have you identified personally within poetry as a whole/poets.
Lebo: there’s a historical legacy in SA of poets almost distancing themselves from the problems which they write about. Poets are known in SA for tackling social issues, but we tackle social issues in such a way that we don’t take responsibility for the role that we play in creating and perpetuating those issues. So the poet is this judge, this voice of reason, pillar of morality that sits outside of the problem and removes themselves from the problem and observes the problem and tells society exactly how the problem is, but there’s no real vulnerability in that you know. If you not willing to expose yourself, your own demons, to take yourself apart as a writer, as a creative voice, then what’s the point? We’ve had generations of politicians, writers, activists and people in this country who’ve solved problems by pointing fingers and doing that thing, instead of doing this, instead of us taking ourselves apart, and that is really hard work and incredibly scary and dangerous.
I think there has to be that element of danger for artwork to really be magical. It’s got to push a boundary, push an edge, it’s got to take you the creator but also the audience over an edge that they didn’t anticipate that they’d go to. Force them to perceive something in a way that they didn’t necessarily think about. Remind them how they feel. That’s the element of danger, newness and the cutting edge of it. And a lot of poets are not crossing over. I see it (the crossing over) a lot in the black female wave of writers that I’m a part of. The likes of bo Napo Masheane, Phillipa De Villiers, Myesha Jenkins, Khosi Xaba, Khanyi Magubane etc. and I feel there’s a particular reason why a lot of black women’s’ voices have emerged in this time, because though it’s a gross generalization, women are not as afraid of the heart space as men are, they are not afraid of making themselves vulnerable… (and right here a gentlemen interrupts us, maybe it’s a good thing, Lebo is extremely long winded**,)
My next question was exactly about this; meeting people, sharing your space with them and seeing these same people months later and not remembering who they are. Makes you wonder, who do you belong to as an artist yeah? She does mention that, ”There’s not a lot of YOU to go around…” “Your work can be adored by millions of people, but only a few people value your life.” We speak about Lebo’s mom being her manager and the ‘real’ people she has around her as a support structure. She expresses that it took a long time for her to learn the value of this. She tells us about how she spent most of her 20’s on the ‘artistic’ treadmill (writing books, performing, doing L’Attitude etc.) “I’ve learnt what really matters.”
Matt: taking into account that your book is being translated into German (Flying Above the Sky) one could say that you’ve travelled excessively in order to get to such a point. Which are your favorite travel destinations?
Lebo: I love Havana, Cuba, a lot. It’s one of my favorite places in the world. It’s magical, I can’t describe it any other way, not that it doesn’t have its problems, they are like us in a way. The things that are wonderful about Cuba are PHENOMENALLY wonderful. The healthcare system, the fact that people have food in their mouths, a roof over their heads, the way that government works to ensure that services are provided to their people i.e. quality education, supporting arts and culture and literature and promotion of culture in their society etc. And then other things are totally and completely dysfunctional (someone with a PhD being a security guard.) It’s a poor country, people want to leave, there’s child prostitution and such. I also love Berlin, Germany.
It’s a very cosmopolitan city. They are very conscious of how to preserve ecological space and to make nature co-exist with the metropolis. Their history is very similar to SA history; they’ve had to deal with trauma, with racism etc. And 60 yrs on from World War II, they are still grappling with this history. And I think this is why they are fascinated by SA so much. The Germans kind of immediately identify with the South African experience, because it resonates with who they are… Also at the same time, even though they are still dealing with the trauma in their history, they are also still dealing with the fact that they are shaping a new identity. 25% of Germans come from somewhere else, Turkish or Asian or African, but are German citizens. It’s never been like that before and they are struggling…
Khaya: Dialogue about such grim history… I was reading on the papers on your facilitation at the Commonwealth Book Prize. They were talking about how a lot of African literature has a heavy content of sadness, and they say how that alienates some readers, because people do not want to be reminded about their stories. Is it a genuine assessment, are we supposed to take a different path from the reality that we’ve experienced?
Lebo: that’s an interesting question you know, I went to go watch “Songs of Migration” starring Bra Hugh and Mam’ Sibongile. The songs that are portrayed there are so painful. It’s like the pain, pain, pain of apartheid, migration, dislocation, losing your kids, your loved ones, violence in your community you know, that real hardcore pain. I remember watching it and thinking,”I should not produce work that feels like this,” you know. This work is about a particular time, a particular era. And that era was extremely traumatic, not that our era doesn’t have its problems, but I can’t be writing the same poems that people were writing 100 yrs ago, singing the same songs that they were singing 50 yrs ago.
Things have changed. Even though there’s still racism, sexism, inequality or poor service delivery, I should express it through the lens of my time, where I have more freedom, freedom to express these things without worrying about being arrested or killed or having my family murdered for telling the truth. As young artists, we shouldn’t feel compelled to be like anyone else, we shouldn’t feel that our work is inauthentic, because we expressing something different from previous generations, each generation has its own story… The last time I went to Cuba, James Matthews (Black Consciousness writer) was part of the tour and he was saying how when he looks back at his work, he see’s that in every decade he is expressing the voice of every decade.
And it’s the type of insight that you can only have once you have literally written for decades. And I want to be like that, I want to know that the body of work that I’m producing now is expressing the issues, sentiments, feelings, frustrations, but also the joys of this moment and to know that that’s what I’m gonna do as my journey carry’s on… How do we find ways to use the freedoms, the insights, the breathing space that has been given to us to tell these stories in new ways so we can breathe new life into these memories. We need to perceive these memories in different ways; we need to understand this history in different way so that we don’t carry it as a burden, so we can carry it as a blessing.
Khaya: I don’t know if you’ve read Kopana Matlwa’s book, “The coconut.” It was so refreshing, because it spoke to today’s issues about post apartheid black kids. The dilemma’s of going to a multi-racial school and living in the township, finding acceptance… it’s an experience of a black child (though not all black children) even if you live in the township, you find yourself in the morning you go to town, you come back, you are alienated here (town), you are not really accepted here (township)…
(Lebo cut’s in) so you fit in your own limbo, your own weird world…
Khaya: there seems to be a fear (of poetry) in the township, it’s like you have to be a Shakespearean of sought. When you say poetry, they think Mzwakhe Mbuli, poetry scares them….
Lebo: I think literature is alienating for black people. It’s because the written word has had so much power over people’s lives and people haven’t been able to control and access that power. When people’s land was taken away it was written down on papers, when people had to register their kids and give their children European names those things where written down on paper…
(Khaya cuts in) even salvation came in the bible…
Lebo: so this thing of text, I think historically, psychologically, people have an aversion to it. But if you show people a poet on a stage, they get it. When someone gets up at church and does a motivational speech, people get it. If someone gets up at a funeral, they get it… so when the words come alive, they become less alienating. So my experience when I perform (in the township) people are like, ”yeah that’s it.”
She also told us about a time when she did Life skill workshops in different communities around SA. She did a lot of work with out of work, out of school young people and she used poetry as a means to do the work. She described how the people got the poetry she read them from the likes of Dr Don Mattera, Lesego Rampolokeng etc. but when she made copies of reading material they didn’t do it. So upon confronting one of the participants her response was that she stayed in a two room shack with six people and whatever is done in that space is done collectively (watching TV, eating etc) she went on to describe how reading would be seen as “acting better,” so as a society, reading is still frowned at.
Matt: taking into consideration the reading statistics in SA, how are the book sales going?
Lebo: there’s an idea in the publishing industry worldwide that a volume of poetry wherever you are in the world will only sell 1000 copies. In SA you have to sell 5000 copies to be a bestseller. By the publishing standards my books have done very well. The work in my books has been anthologized, extracts of my poems been published in schools in Southern Africa… So it’s moving in that sense. Putting work down on paper is me cementing that work… So this is about posterity… immortalizing your voice… so it probably means I’ll only make ‘real money’ off of my books when I’m like 70…
Oz: so publishing is like your very own Cave drawing?
Lebo: (with a smile) that’s it, that’s exactly it.
Khaya: You received a NOMA yes. I know that awards are not without controversy. How difficult is it to receive an award and not see it as a sign of approval, saying its recognition, but not necessarily affirmation… Not to rely on an award for sustenance i.e. “if I don’t get an award, then I am not a good writer.”etc… especially in the literary community where they don’t come as often as a SAMA/GRAMMY/MTV?
Lebo: when I started putting the book together (In a Ribbon of Rhythm) under the guidance of Mothobi Mutloatse, I didn’t feel I was ready. I was very scared of publishing, but Mothobi encouraged me to do it. So when I did it, I didn’t have any expectations on it. There are people who sit and write books and set out to win a NOMA, it’s that kind of award. For me it wasn’t about it, I was just doing my thing. I didn’t even know what a NOMA was when I won it. I guess what it means to me as a writer, and what it means for my life is that my voice is a part of this big tree called “African Literature,” I am a leaf on that tree, I NO LONGER HAVE TO FIGHT FOR LEGITIMACY.
Whatever I do exists within that space…. It gives me a lot of freedom as a writer/artist to do whatever it is that I want to do. It helps that I’ve received other awards in different spaces: Mail & guardians list of Top 100 women, Top 100 Youth, City Press/Rapport women of Prestige, Glamour, Cosmopolitan etc. I guess when a publication gives you an award, it’s more current, it says that what you are doing in the public domain right now is valuable and as a performer/social commentator that means a lot to me. It means the work that I’m doing today is still relevant. The NOMA kind of cements the fact that I’m a writer, an African writer, so I no longer have to prove my worthiness.
Matt:what is Lebo currently working on right now?
Lebo: I’m doing audio books. The German book is coming out with a CD (English version) which I’ll sell on the net. I’m also doing “Flying Above the Sky.” I am going to Harare in May for HAIFA (Harare International Festival of the Arts.) Kwani Experience and Freshly Ground have also performed there. I’m going there with Moving into Dance (did a collaboration with called “Threads”) it’s a fusion of dance, music and poetry.
Then I go to Germany for a month to launch the book, while in Europe I’ll also go to Italy for performances, I’ll be in London for a performance and when I come back I’m going straight to Grahamstown. I’m also an ambassador for the Film and Publication Board together with Meshack Mavuso (Body responsible for regulating DVD’s, Films, Video’s etc.) Fpb is heading the campaign against “Child Pornography.”
We speak of challenges facing SA with regards to legislation in place to protect our people from the talons of child traffickers, pornographers, pedophiles and the rest of these soulless people. To think that even the likes of ‘these people’ have an organized global network which investigates a country’s legal systems, looking at prosecution rates and loopholes etc, makes one wonder how safe we and our loved ones actually are during this “World Cup Fever” period (just a thought.)
Oz jumps in at this time (tired of being relegated to ‘photographic’ sidelines) with a question about Lebo’s hustling skills. With that canvass laid, she paints a picture of how she “goes about making her money.” She explains how she puts a lot of energy into “Lebo the Brand,” into publicity to ensure that her work stays fresh and current. In doing that she ensures that the “Brand” works for her, it helps generate work. The bigger contracts however do require a lot more energy; they require her to work systematically.
She does realize though that the digital space offers a lot of opportunity, opportunity which she feels she hasn’t fully taken advantage of (agreed.) Take a look at her site: http://www.lebomashile.com/
We speak ‘Freedom of speech’ in relation to Politics, how it seems to be contracting at the moment. “As a (respectful) artist in a society where there is freedom of speech, you should be able to say what you want to say and if you’ve built a reputation as an artist of being respectful and intelligent while being critical, you should be allowed access to any space… If you can’t criticize people or political figures in a respectful and honest, decent and humane way without being afraid of losing work, then we facing a very scary time for arts and culture…”
We speak about the Department of Arts and Culture, how they seem to contribute to the general attitude of treating Art as an accessory, a means of entertainment. We discuss the line up for the FIFA 2010 Concert on the 10th of June, but I’m more interested in hearing what our readers have to say or ask Lebo about that. Let’s talk about how we’ve been sold a pipe dream via the World Cup, how artists where promised World Cup gig bookings. Even Lebo mentions how she “hardly knows anyone who’s been booked for these gigs, no writers, poets, directors, musicians, choreographers… they gonna do what we typically do you know, that cheesy Africa, big 5, some zulu dancers there, they gonna have a choir, gumboot dancers, a poet (preferably imbongi I think) and that would be it.
And that’s what the world wants to see, they want to see cheesy Africa… how is that going to help us?” For the World Cup, SA is just a venue, nothing more, nothing less. “Are we gonna eat these stadiums?” she asks. Fact is that countries like Mexico, who are in the same economic bracket as us, have hosted the World Cup twice, but are still in the same situation they were in. Khaya mentions how Brazil, who are to host the Cup in 2016, is a country in adverse poverty. “If Sydney as the host city of the Olympics 2000, are apparently still feeling the financial effects of hosting that event, what more with Rio in 2016?”
The truth is… this article exposed me. Have you ever tried catching up with the wind, run till you felt your knees would buckle? Remember that experience, because when your hand looks up at you whilst you are writing or typing and tells you,”Nigger, put the pen dddooowwwnn,” then you know the page has won. Lebo is a queen, a beautiful soul who somehow hasn’t “lost the common touch,” as a certain Sir Rudyard Kipling puts it. With all her achievements she has remembered this, “dream, but do not make dreams your master.” I am humbled and inspired, filled with hope for the Spoken Word.
I am put at ease, with the knowledge that out there, exists an artist who considers the content of her work, who considers the past, present and future of the society which she rebukes and corrects with love. All because she acknowledges that she to is part of that society. That society isn’t an elite group sitting in a corner or cloud watching and judging from the sidelines. It is as much a part of us as we are of it, because WE ARE society. The Queen is yours, let your fingers do the asking.