Creating a distinctly South African post-colonial pop.
Electronic musician Spoek Mathambo mixes influences to create a distinctly South African post-colonial pop.
Spoek Mathambo puffs out his cheeks and lets the question hang for a second, as if to underline its absurdity. “What am I gonna talk about otherwise?” he sighs. “Eating pussy? It’s just stuff I think people should hear, stuff I think I should be doing personally.”
We’ve come to London’s South Bank to ask Spoek about Father Creeper, his second album and debut for Sub Pop, which draws on a magpie’s repertoire of globe-trotting sounds — ghettotech, electro, dubstep and rock — to assemble a portrait of his native South Africa in which the smell of apocalypse hangs heavy in the air.
So we thought we should ask why he felt it necessary to address politically potent issues, from the country’s exploited natural resources to ‘affirmative action’ policies, which critics would argue have hindered rather than helped poor black communities post-Apartheid. But in a country where history continues to haunt the present in unexpected ways, it seems the personal is always political.
Born Nthato Mokgata in 1985 in the township district of Soweto, Johannesburg, Spoek (his stage name translates roughly as ‘ghost of bones’, but Mathambo is also the site of a Zulu massacre) moved to Sandton in the mid-nineties, a well-heeled suburb that was off limits to black people until the fall of Apartheid. But, from an early age, all Spoek wanted to do was escape the city altogether.
“All the stuff I was into, no one else cared about,” he says of his hip hop-obsessed youth. “Johannesburg has a big mall culture. A lot of stuff moved out of the city centre for my generation; people didn’t want to go there because they thought it was dingy and full of slums… Property prices were dipping so [businesses] had to move to secure loans. It just seemed like the worst fate to stay in this city of mall rats. People were very materialistic, like, the Louis Vuitton store really meant something, you know?”
Spoek’s resentment of the consumerist culture surfaces on ‘Put Some Red On It’, a track on the record co-written with his wife Ana Rab, aka Swedish emcee Gnucci Banana. “That song was about relating the conflict diamond situation to a sense of romance, and the importance that people place on material stuff to solidify relationships… For me personally, the impact of companies like [diamond conglomerate] De Beers is crazy. [The country] has been raped by those companies. My sister works in speech and hearing therapy; she works with a lot of miners with head wounds, and the kind of care that they get, or don’t get… It’s fucked up that all that can happen for the sake of valuing currency or romance.”
Spoek is lucid on the topic of South African culture in general and fights a losing battle to remain diplomatic when drawn on the subject of Die Antwoord, whose phenomenal recent success has attracted criticism for its sensationalised parody of working-class stereotypes. “I’ve known them for a long time,” he says. “My first tour in Europe was with Watkin [Tudor Jones, aka Ninja]. They do what they do, it’s not my kind of music. They’re sending up a certain section of South African society, but to me the music’s half-baked. They’re acting, and it’s hugely exploitative and fucked up in a lot of ways. But the majority of the population isn’t politically correct, so that’s what their success is based on.”
Though he has now relocated to Sweden with his wife, Spoek believes that travelling to other countries as a young musician helped him appreciate the merits of his home. “As a teenager I’d always be looking snobbishly out of South Africa [for inspiration]. But at one point I realised, ‘Fuck it, there’s always been amazing stuff happening at home that I can proudly keep my head on my shoulders and represent.’”
That ‘amazing stuff’ included South Africa’s vibrant dance music scene, which took root in Johannesburg when deejays began spinning slowed-down house music tracks at township clubs in the early nineties, and became a youth culture force in the post-apartheid era. “I’d be standing in a club in Shoreditch or Berlin,” he says. “And it would be absolutely shit. No one’s dancing ’cause everyone’s worried about how they look, and then you compare that with the vitality back home – there’s a difference in energy I wanted to hone in on.”
The result was a sound, aired on 2010 debut Mshini Wam, that Spoek himself dubbed ‘township tech’, which also included a darkly electric house reworking of Joy Division’s ‘She’s Lost Control’, plus a delicious pair of zombiefied vids for that song and ‘War On Words’. With Father Creeper, however, the plot has thickened once again to keep pace with its author’s genre-vaulting ambition. The result is a thrilling new hybrid of Afro-futurist, post-colonial pop that sounds like someone trying to master a language that hasn’t been invented yet.
And Spoek, you can’t help thinking, has plenty more inventions bubbling away.