The tape starts: “… This is a time when the fruits are growing out of something that was sown a long time ago. It’s not like these are the fruits of just liberation. Those kids who grew up so fucked up, the people who were tortured in the ’70s and ’80s—they’re 30 now. That’s where a lot of the crime also comes from—people who have been like, dehumanized, and they feel no hope. Hopeless. If you were to kill everybody and start anew, then stuff would be anew and then you could have hope for a new day. But the fact is, those people are still alive.” Because while you’re preparing for an interview with Nthato Mokgata—bka Spoek Mathambo aka the man formerly known as the gentle voice behind such sweet Sweat.X sex jams as “I Got Pussy On My Mind”—to open slowly and be about whatever, he’s already asked how much you know of South African politics during the State of Emergency while the car rolls past a park where he says they used to find bodies when he was a kid. “When we grew up here it was where you’d be scared of somebody stealing you away, where snakes were. We used to hear stories about a big snake, kind of like a ghetto anaconda.” Not exactly party time. Spoek Mathambo is just that, though, a playful guise for a smart kid to get the word out, an inside joke with deep truth underneath. With a subtle bit of subterfuge, he’ll make you think about things you don’t want to.
The park Mokgata’s talking about is in his old neighborhood in Soweto, where he grew up the youngest of four in a nice brick house the same honey brown as all the others, and the soil and the sun at dusk. There are no more bodies there, and the snake in the grass is gone. Despite the horror stories in the media of rampant crime and homicide in Johannesburg, it feels pretty safe here—the only funny looks come from the little kids whose street soccer game we almost inadvertently walk through. Yet no one will argue that Jo’burg and Soweto aren’t still dangerous places. When Mokgata, as Spoek Mathambo, performs some creepy, cracked SA house with his voice pitched low, singing Don’t be scaaaaaaaaarrrred, the locals laugh, knowing that “don’t be scared” is the only logical response to endless reports of murder and mayhem. What else can you do? Don’t be scared of the car driving slow. Don’t be scared of the government failing. Don’t be scared to laugh at how the world sees you. They laugh at the mention of his name too, because it’s taken from a popular sitcom, Emzini Wezinsizwa, in which five migrant workers from different tribes live in a township hostel together and butcher each other’s languages to great comedic effect. His music is filled with double-talk, hard to decipher if it’s grist for fearful outsiders or comic relief for weary fellow citizens. He’s gone from sex-obsessed South African Spank Rock to the subversive leader of some new front of political dance music (and he’s only slightly less obsessed with sex).