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When I ask for change they give sweets. That's symbolic to me - An interview with Hip Hop performer Upmost
Zanele Manhenga,
September 02, 2009

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UpmostWhat is going on in your life?
A lot of performances, a lot of community work and those two go hand in hand in my mind. Using art as a way to communicate with the community and giving back to the community so that I stay inspired. It's nice to see your art giving birth to something else. So that's basically what I'm concentrating on. It also involves a lot of writing and experiencing life and being able to put it down on paper and bring it out on a stage.

What is art?
When you look at a painting or something, sometimes that painting can communicate a message. A feeling that you weren't able to bring out yourself. You can look at a painting and think that's how I feel, or understand how someone else is feeling; like yah that's a beautiful feeling, or that's a sad feeling. Being able to express, or to inspire a thought, or a feeling - I think that's art. Expression is art.

How do you balance art and community work?
I do both at the same time. I think wherever and whenever I am doing art I am aware of my surroundings, and I am aware of my environment. I want to be very honest but I also don't want to have a negative influence on whomever I am giving my art to. I don't really do art for myself. So whenever I write a poem I think about someone out there. It's always community and art.

What kind of music do you do?

What type of hip-hop do you do?
The hip-hop that I do usually has that soulful guitar. I like to play around with jazz, reggae, blues and other sounds and there is a lot of that influence in hip-hop. Hip-hop as a culture is an urban culture. As a MC I am an urban street journalist and a poet in that respect.

What message is in your hip-hop?
I touch on a lot of social topics. People should be in touch with themselves, they should know themselves. I think to know yourself is the greatest gift. If I can get that message across I think my job is done. When I can get someone to get in touch with whom they are, I do that by getting in touch with whom I am. And I am just presenting it.
Listen Listen

When did you start hip-hopping?
I fell in love with music first. When you are young hip-hop has this coolness. If you could do a rap in front of your friends you would be the coolest in the gang. So I would copy other people's songs like LL Cool J and try memorize his rhymes. I think I ended up writing my own songs when I didn't know what the original artist meant and then I just came up with something myself. I think I realised I was a poet when I was in grade six. My teacher kept on asking me, did you write this and I said yah, and she made me write another poem. She was like, ok you are a poet.

When did you decide you want to do music as profession?
I think when I was finishing my A levels. I didn't have the drive to go to university so I thought what else do you do except that which you love. So I was forced to think how poetry can put bread on the table. When I started performing at the Book Café I was performing for bus fare. At the time I was working at our family business, which was on the rocks, and going down at the time. So I would come from the shop and perform. Slowly you get invited to perform at shows. Yeh, I got paid today umboyenda kumba ne sugar and then it starts to make sense at home. Awuya nesugar mukomana uwu.

Is hip-hop a male dominated field?
Hip-hop has got this ego thing to it. Men tend to be egotistical but still there are a lot of female MCs like Bhaar, Madia, Loreen Hill and locally we have Misfit, Blackbird.

How did do you identify with an art form from so far away, across the sea?
Access through the media and hearing the way they talk influences you. A lot of it ends up sticking to you and it becomes part of your identity. I think first you start by imitating and then it becomes a part of you. Hopefully through it you find your own identity - not to be an American; I wanna be artist.

Why the name Upmost?
Upmost came from those days when you had to battle for your name to prove that you are an MC. I used to call myself Nitap. Upmost becomes the level I want to achieve.

Who inspires your music?
The culture itself, hip-hop itself. It's very vibrant. And I enjoy just listening to a lot of music, just being around a lot of free style sessions. Like you might find us here at the Book Café free styling where you find a circle of MCs exchanging rhymes or something that's very inspirational. Kingpin was a big inspiration to me. We went to the same school and at times he would come and wake us up and say come to my room and he would spit out a rhyme that was inspirational. It got me writing.

How were you affected as an artist, and how was hip-hop affected, when our country was in economic crisis?
I think it affected me a lot. I ended up going down with it. Just the vibe that was there. I allowed it to influence me. There was a time when it inspired me and it got me writing more. I was writing a bit more politically, the divide between who is getting money and who is misusing it. I wrote a lot on that and there came a point where what I was writing became darker and I was writing less positive stuff. I was complaining the whole way and even I would not want to hear it.

Do you see change now that we are in the inclusive government?
I don't see change. When I ask for change they give sweets. Can I have change? No but you can take those sweets there. I think that's symbolic to me. When you go to the supermarket they are not giving us change they are giving us sweets. I see it as a marriage of convenience. Listen Listen

How have you moved on?
Oh yah, I think I sort of moved on by myself; you need to get back on your feet whether or not something happens outside. You need to grow inside no matter what happens outside. By the time there was a unity government I had figured that at the end of the day I am the difference. They can unite but it doesn't mean the people have united. The US dollar, and the goods that it buys all looks good and nice but can I get some of that? Listen Listen

Do you have a solution?
Ultimately all systems fail and I don't want to suggest anything because I don't have any thing foolproof. At the end of the day I wish it were an ideal world. If people had principles like love, peace, and unity - not gimmicks - but like being really united and working with their hearts and not their minds then I think we would have change; but it starts with principles. Listen Listen

In regard to the arts, what should our constitution look like?
What I would love for the constitution to do is open up the media to have community radio stations. There are so many laws around broadcasting and media that it's hard for artists to get out there. We should be free to express our selves more because there are issues that are burning. If the constitution could give us space that would be nice.

What would you change in the industry given the chance?
I see a lot of good art but I never hear it or see it on TV. So again, artists need more space in the media.

What are your dreams?
I would love to tour. I would love to go out there, just go around the world spreading the word, making money and then I'd like to come back home and relax. Probably build a studio, look back and say yeh.

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Audio File

  • My message
    Language: English
    Duration: 30sec
    Date: September 02, 2009
    File Type: MP3
    Size: 471KB

  • I don't see change
    Language: English
    Duration: 35sec
    Date: September 02, 2009
    File Type: MP3
    Size: 561KB

  • I moved myself on
    Language: English
    Duration: 36sec
    Date: September 02, 2009
    File Type: MP3
    Size: 568KB

  • Solution starts with principles
    Language: English
    Duration: 53sec
    Date: September 02, 2009
    File Type: MP3
    Size: 840KB

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