ANNO DOMINI PRESENTS:
Alternative hip/hop artist and all-round musician Jabulani Majola on Faith, Identity and Born Frees for our latest
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ANNO DOMINI PRESENTS:
If you know who you are and you know your purpose that's basically all you need in this life
ISSUE 1 | Sesihle Manzini | 16 JUNE 2020
After finishing high school, alternative hip/hop artist and all-round musician Jabulani Majola moved to Cape Town for a three month internship in a media house. Little did he know that that supposed three month stint would lead to word in here, an audition there, and ultimately, a UK tour. All of that catapulted him into a career he never would have imagined.
When Jabulani responded with an “are you available any day this week” to what was an already missed Zoom interview, I was half expecting him to not turn up to the rescheduled call. In the week prior to our chat, he had proved to be a difficult person to get hold of. Perhaps it comes with the territory of being an Urban Missionary (as he calls himself), one half of a Missions band and a solo artist, “independent to the T”.
I crack a smile of relief when I see the troll-like icon appear on my Zoom screen. “You made it!” I glean with excitement. His voice booms through the speakers as his video frame pops up. “Yo”. He’s already cracking jokes, wide-eyed and animated, an infectious energy he maintains throughout the hour and a half call. How has lockdown been treating him?
“Trying to keep busy.” He explains. “There’s been times when I’ve been lazy - then I’m on it again. But with this stuff it's a matter of doing. Sometimes you end up planning but fail when it comes to implementation”.
From the beginning of the year, thanks to a friend (looking at you Lusi), I’ve been more mindful about maintaining rhythms of rest. It’s so easy to get sucked into the ruthless hurry and scurry our world cannily demands of us, but what of the importance of eliminating noise and enjoying the detail of the journey?
With that in mind, I ask Jabu how he’s been managing to create rhythms of rest despite the sprint to create. “I think in the beginning of lockdown I made a conscious decision to set up a regime."
A whole regime!
Jabulani Majola: Yes! A whole regime - it was literally wake up, make coffee, sit outside and just write. That worked pretty well, until some unexpected things started to happen…
How do you get into a flow?
Jabulani: I couldn't tell you, sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't. Most of the music, raps, and poems that I write happen by themselves. It's a thought - then I unpack the idea and I know when it's important or really good. So I let it happen by itself. But sometimes it's a painful process of reaching and reaching until you find something...but I don't like that, so I just let things flow.
Typical creative talk. But surely an artist has to balance between structure or ‘regime’, and the more dainty ‘flow and letting it happen’ attitude?
Jabulani: I don't think I’ve mastered that. I don't think there’s anybody who has actually mastered that. There’s songs where you just watch them write themselves...you just need to learn to love both parts of the process.
So what has he been listening to during the months of physical distancing and isolation?
Jabulani: I listen to music that I think - one day in the future I can write this. I listen to create, replicate or innovate.”
It’s only 15 minutes into our conversation when I finally dive into my prepared questions. Who is Jabulani exactly?
He begins. “So I’m Jabulani Majola. I’m from a small town in KZN called Greytown...”, he trails off, quickly losing track. “Wait, what else am I telling you?”.
This irenic humour is something easy to notice and appreciate, especially from an exceptionally skilled and protean musician who takes what he does seriously. Clearly doesn't take himself too seriously.
So again, who is Jabulani?
A farm boy from the jewel town of the fertile rich Natal Midlands, Jabulani grew up in the small and deeply historical town of Greytown. He found himself in Cape Town after high school to do a three month internship as part of a media company.
Who moves far from home for a three month internship? “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after high school. So I was like, let me take this internship. It was media, though not directly music. Honestly, I just wanted to get away from Greytown, but I was hoping the three month internship would lead to something more permanent”.
And it did.
Serendipitously, the guys from the media company where he interned knew of The Message Trust - a missional organisation founded in the UK which was then establishing its roots in South Africa.
This was 2014. Fast forward a year, and he, along with three other Cape Town youth, were flown to The Message Trust headquarters in the UK to be trained in all aspects of the ministry.
“The Message was looking for four young people that would join a band to go to England and be trained for all the work we are doing now. They were not looking for KZN people``, he adds emphatically. He knows it was his carefully honed wordsmithing and poignant delivery captured in a video from his internship that got him the endorsement and an audition to become part of what is Kinectic IV, then a four piece Missions band formed as part of the creative arm of The Message Trust.
From that moment the ground was laid for a career clocking in more than 16, 000 miles travelling locally and abroad, as part of an international ministry whose goal is to create '...opportunities for tens of thousands of urban teenagers and young adults to hear the good news of Jesus in word and demonstrated in action.'
“It’s crazy to see God’s hand over my life. That dream that I had - that I couldn't quite identify or put words to, God obviously knew and brought it into fruition.”
So how did this Greytown boy survive England?
“When you grow up wanting to be a rapper, you obviously dream of making it big in America. But for some reason, from high school I started dreaming of going to England. I was 19 when Kinectic IV was formed and finally made it to England. But the first week I wasn't feeling it - I was thinking of home. I didn't yet know my bandmates, with whom I was supposed to bond with, so I felt alone. When you’re young, your expectations are high and unrealistic - so when the culture shock hit me I was overwhelmed. But once I got used to the place and started making friends, I felt a bit better. I had to make a decision to live in the moment”
Part of their training during their 6 month stint in the UK involved prisons and community ministry, some of the core programmes used by The Message Trust to mobilise young people to flourish in faith and life. Part of these programmes include what they call Christ-centred enterprise, which offers training and employment opportunities for young men leaving prison.
What Jabu’s programme was most focused on though, was the creative aspect of the organisation. “The aim was to get relatable young people like ourselves to go into schools and present the gospel in an engaging way for young people, so they could share the gospel with their friends”.
A year after their training they went back to England for the Higher tour, another initiative of The Message Trust, which exists “to raise a generation of culture-shifting disciples” by going into schools and hosting live, action-packed concerts coupled with school workshops and discipleship resources.
Jabulani was himself busy co-ordinating four Higher tours this year, planned for schools across Cape Town - then COVID hit.
Zooming closer into the work of The Message, I love how you guys have located yourselves within the city, attuned to how it as a place where God is at work. I would imagine in such a ministry, you’re very aware of the powers and cultural narratives shaping our cities. What is some of your thinking around these things?
Jabulani: In the last few years that's what my eyes have opened towards more and more. I think about these things all the time. I think it's why we exist as The Message, and why I exist as a missionary.
It’s to go to the non-privileged communities. We’re working in schools which cant afford basic necessities. We go into schools and communities and beyond performing, we hold master classes and seek to develop a relationship with the young people in those communities, and not just hit and run.
I’m super grateful to be able to go to schools and share my story about who I am and where I come from, and leave people inspired. The best way to connect with the young people is to be among them, and my purpose and passion meet as I get to do what I love - encourage young people using music as a platform.
One of the songs that made me discover Jabulani as an independent artist was the song ‘Imagine’. It's such a dope track with a sick beat - what was the thought process behind it?
Jabulani: There wasn’t much of a thought process. I was praying, getting ready to spend time with God, and a producer friend of mine from England (Jonathan Ogden) had created a beat…
Wait - what do your worship sessions look like? Do you make beats as you commune with God? I laugh.
Jabulani: I’m very privileged to live with a person who owns a studio, (referencing producer and former bandmate Justin Barth), so I just go in there and play music loudly. In those moments I imagine myself in a huge worship service...
What’s on your worship rotation at the moment?
Jabulani: Songs of adoration - so, songs like So Will I by Hillsong, Our Father by Bethel - that song has been huge for me, especially this year.
So, as I was doing that, my friend popped in my mind, so I thought it’d be cool to experiment with his beat. I wasn’t serious about it. I went to sleep, and woke up and his beat was still stuck in my head. And then I was like, ‘imagine..’. So I was like ok, let me write about this.
Normally I dont write with a title in mind. I find that scary, because then you need to unpack. But as I was going deeper into the song, questions that I asked myself kept popping up - but I also wanted to connect it with what is going on in our nation
There’s so many themes you cover there with such sharp lyricism - being a Born Free, rape, Steve Biko, God and faith. What is your processing looking like around some of those themes?
Jabulani: I’ve spoken a lot about rape specifically, in some of my music, and about women in general. In the last year I’ve read up a lot on the topic of gender and rape. Since 2018 I decided to only read South African or African literature
So what’s on your bookshelf?
Jabulani: I read umam’Miriam Ntlali, Muriel. Lewis Nkosi, Professor Pumla Gqola’s Rape: A South African Nightmare, and Reflecting Rogue. Obviously I read Steve Biko, and about three books from one of my favourites - Bessie Head. I enjoy her creativity, story and imagination.
So I’ve immersed myself in books and conversations - I don't read on my own. I’ll tell other people so we can discuss the topic. I was also surrounded by friends who were studying on black history and rape, and we would debate and talk about these things.
That line of being a Born Free is in most of my conversations. You don't have to look too far or dig too deep to see that some of the previous injustices of our nation still prevail to this day. So my process is how can we come up with better solutions and better live together.
"I learn a lot, about all these things - and God." He adds. “But I don't write as much as I learn”
Jabulani: I use writing to make sense of what I’m thinking. But I don't want to learn only to write. I want to be learning anyway - and when I write I want it to come naturally out of me, and not be forced so as to sound relevant.
There’s a line in your song, “imagine if what we’ve been told about God was all true, and that truth wasn’t downplayed”. What does that mean?
“We’re picking it apart are we!” he jokes.
I crack up laughing, but the truth is it’s one of the lines that resonated with me. Growing up in church with a spirituality moulded by a Eurocentric form of discipleship, I grew suspicious of a hope too disembodied to be true, too distanced from context and the narratives of the marginalised to be of any good news.
And art is, of course, always open to interpretation. It can mean different things to different people, and can also be manipulated to serve our own needs, so what of the artist? What did he intend?
“In the whole song I didn't want to come across preachy - I wanted to give people a chance to think for themselves. We learn subconsciously. The most important questions stick - so I want people to actually conjure up their own pictures and images as I write, teasing the question not only to the unbeliever but to the person who believes as well”.
What does he believe? “It sometimes gets to a point where I’m like, I don't know what this thing is about, but because of an experience that I’ve had, I still choose to believe. But doubt is inevitable”.
I tease the question not only to the unbeliever but to the person who believes as well
Working so closely with youth in schools, I ask him what he sees as some of the most challenging things about being a youth in Mzansi today.
Jabulani: “Identity”. He answers without missing a beat. He acknowledges that it's something he himself is struggling with to this day. “It’s not like you know who you are and that’s it. Identity crises are much deeper”. He’s candid, indicative of a vulnerability he’s careful to hold diligently. How is he processing through that?
“It's my prayer life, my quiet times, with God...But” he stops. “I don't know if you know, but I’m adopted”. It’s phrased as a question. He looks straight at me through the screen, expecting an answer. I shake my head.
“No I didn't know that”, my response is tentative. “Yeah - that”. He adds, a short 2 word statement packed with emotion.
Whilst prepping for the interview two nights before, I remember stumbling across a Facebook post by a recognisable evangelist, a proud father posting a link to a video featuring “my son Jabulani…”.
I dont dig further.
“Last year I was praying into that” Jabulani continues, “because I want to know who I am. I didn't go too deep into it - but as I was praying, It got me to look at my name, and look at God’s hand over my life. Our identity is linked with our purpose”.
It’s not the first time he mentions purpose in our now 60 minute conversation. “If you know who you are and you know your purpose, that's basically all you need in this life. You can attain all you want in this world, but if you don't know who you are or don't know your purpose- then what are you living for? When will you know that you’re done?”
Part of that search for identity saw him experimenting with introspective rap. “It can be very abstract” he tells me, “but I realise I loved it because it was people speaking deeply about the things they go through. I challenged myself to write like that, instead of writing about things which are external and don't really resonate personally. That, along with changing the way I was relating with God, being more vulnerable in my prayers, helped me open up more and find some healing in my journey.”
So whats the plan for the future, will he branch out as a solo artist?
Jabulani: That’s the plan, but I don't think it’ll happen anytime soon. I’m still very much involved with Kinectiv IV, but I’m trying to juggle that with all the missionary stuff we do as a band.
Is he worried about being pigeon-holed as a ‘Christian rapper? “I’m not concerned about that now. I think I was years - ago. But I didn't know what I really wanted.”
What do you want now?
Jabulani: I just want to put out music, and use whatever I'm putting out to share the gospel. I think previously I wanted both - I wanted a big career in the secular scene, but now it's not as big as me wanting to do missions.
Jabulani: I think my perspective changed when I started experiencing God in a new and more intimate way. I was like, I just want to see more young people coming to know God. Not that getting a big career would be a problem - it would be cool - but it's not much of a big focus now.
So what does success look like for you now?
Jabulani: Yho! Nice question...I think success is movement. Being able to move. Being able to do what is here” he says, pressing his fingers to his temples. “It's making music. Doing concerts. Reaching young people. That’s the beginning of success...but for me it's a process, it's growth. It's not about hitting a certain mark. I wont feel successful at all if I’m still writing the way I write now”
As much as people want to see success, I think it's also personal. I know how much I’ve grown in the last few years. People can perhaps see it and heart in my sound, but they can never really quantify my personal growth. And there’s no rush for me, there’s no pressure.
So I’ve been experimenting, writing music with guitar. I want to be writing more alternative folk music. I feel like that is success to me, achieving things which I only imagined a few years ago. So its a personal thing for me - but it's a struggle because we live in a world where success must be seen in what we have. So you feel like your dreams are too small when you don't aim for those things.