Maverick Life

THE INTERVIEW

The acclaimed Kwela experience brings depth and the ‘beautyful’ to inspired words and music

The acclaimed Kwela experience brings depth and the ‘beautyful’ to inspired words and music
Kwelagobe Sekele, aka Kwela, released his highly acclaimed album We the Beautyful Ones last year. (Photo: Sister Bozza)

Kwela talks about finding answers in books and the power of music in all spheres of society. 

Kwelagobe Sekele, or just Kwela as he is known, released his album We the Beautyful Ones to acclaim last year. About five years in the making, it reflects his diverse musical palette and his love of African sounds.

When did you first identify as an artist?

Around 2002 or 2003, if not 1997, when I started experimenting with original lyrics and exploring creative writing as a form of expression, an outlet and a way to build vocab as a 14-year-old.

As a teenager, I kept notebooks in which I would jot down random lines, winged words, key words and thoughts. Ideas that came to mind and were worth jotting down. Stuff I heard, overheard, saw, or read in an article or book. I’d later weave some of these into verses. Some verses would eventually grow into songs, poetics and even unfinished pieces that I may or may not finish.

With the notebooks piling up, from early Joburg hip-hop adventures, into the exciting world of jazz, the West African jeli, dub poetry and discovering anti-apartheid scribes, it was only around 2002 or 2003 that the creative artist was properly planted.

By the time I joined Kwani Experience in 2004, it all made sense because Kwani was like an institution that watered and supported my artistic journey in a way I can only be grateful for.

Outside your medium, what branch of art most stimulates you?

Dingwalo (literature). We use words every day. And creative writing, in its many expressions, brings about a certain effect that gets me energised, especially when some of the greatest writers write right. Some really gifted writers can conjure up worlds and put them right in front of you, without engaging the visual system.

In film or theatre, the literary aspect would be screenwriting and playwriting, where words meet imagination and narrative on paper, then finally play out on a screen or stage. I’m fortunate to have been involved in all these mediums from time to time throughout my music career in its numerous forms, incarnations and reinventions.

Which writers have significantly inspired you, and why?

Bessie Head, Mbulelo Mzamane, Miriam Tlali, Ingoapele Madingoane, Lefifi Tladi, Es’kia Mphahlele. Every South African must be afforded or afford themselves the opportunity to read their work because it’s not only relatable, it’s our story.

I have a long-standing belief that books provide answers. I have a small library at home with books I haven’t read, but there’s no rush because books can also be for referencing or like divination — you can open a random page and land on something you need at that moment.

We The Beautyful Ones, Kwela

Artwork for the album ‘We The Beautyful Ones’. (Image: Thato Toeba)

What, to you, is art’s most important function?

Expression. Creating and recreating. Art — and music — is a lot of people’s ikigai (reason for being) and also keeps the world going. It relates, narrates, propagates and translates what it needs to at any given moment in our lives. There is a song for every mood, feeling, thought and time. I say this with conviction because I’ve seen the power of music, culture and subcultures in all areas of society.

I’m still trying to figure out if life imitates art or the other way around. They seem indivisible.

Local creatives who excite you?

The versions of me that play differentiator and push the envelope. And everybody else that is doing the same thing in music, literature, film, visual art, architecture and even agriculture. (South) Africa is teeming with game-changing, boundary-breaking, insane creatives. I could give a list but won’t because I don’t want to leave people out.

What specific work, be it in literature, music, or visual art, do you return to again and again, and why?

Bheki Mseleku’s Celebration (1991), parts of I Got Next by KRS-One (1997) and Busi Mhlongo’s Urban Zulu (1998). These were life-changing albums for me. Celebration is a “spiritual jazz” album I go to for recentring, I Got Next is uninhibited, “knowledge of self” hip-hop that I go back to for recollection, and Urban Zulu is a musical masterpiece built around Mam’ Busi’s many voices.

Kwela

Kwani Experience, Afropunk 2019. (Photo: Kgomotso Neto)

What are your thoughts regarding the artificial intelligence (AI) revolution?

My friends Pelonomi Moiloa and Vulane Mthembu are doing amazing work in the field of AI, among other things.

AI is what it is and feels exemplary of technological tools and how we use them — either for our benefit or destruction. AI has always been there in different configurations. The spotlight is on it more now than ever because it’s changing things and affecting our lives rapidly.

Any project you’re unveiling or wrapping up?

We The Beautyful Ones — a full-length album I produced and recorded between 2017 and 2022 in Toronto, Soweto and Johannesburg. It’s now available digitally on all streaming sites. For now.

Also old and new collaborations in music and film development. Archival and remix work. We are also doing other amazing things with the Gallo vault or catalogue that you must look out for.

There are two new Netflix series that I’ve been involved in as music supervisor: Fatal Seduction and Soon Comes Night. I’m really drawn to music for picture. It’s a powerful yet understated combo.

And remixes, in the spirit of repurposing, extending the life of copyright and those particular songs, when remixed or reimagined with justice. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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