A Rebel Singer’s Tribute Album.

Back in 2016, about a week after Thandiswa Mazwai had released her third studio album, affectionately titled Belede, Lauryn Hill ironically – to me atleast – released an updated version of her 2002 offering, I Find It Hard To Say (Rebel). See, I have always loved the original version of the song as sang on the now iconic MTV Unplugged album because of its indisputable call to action, and more particularly the context she gives in interlude to the song. She speaks of a need to first understand what it means to rebel prior to conveying such a message, to which she concludes [rebellion] is about the spirit of freedom being taken out.

The irony – again, for me atleast – came down to how I’d always perceived L Boogie and King Tha in the same vein, both as important “figures” of their time and as artists earn marked as “rebels” in the industries and spaces they exist in.

I am particularly fascinated by Thandiswa’s Rebel status due to her evolved association with the term over the years, what does it mean? what constitutes a rebel? Who gets to decide?

Belede came as a magnifier into the nature of rebel, allowing us to zoom into King Tha’s rebel nature and broader rebel connotation in a music and societal context.

That said, consider this a Belede album review coinciding with a deconstructing of the term “rebel” in an attempt to understand the term rebel in a general and music context as well as King Tha’s association with the term.

Traditionally, a rebel is either described as a person who opposes or resists authority and control or in the extreme and more practical sense a person who rises in rejection to formed establishments even to the extent of armed resistance. In a music sense I think the concept of rebel or rebellion is very much context based. When you think of how, where and when these terms have been used – for one, the legendary Bob Marley was termed a rebel singer throughout his career but was this because of his acts or because of the content of his music? Likewise, even the lyrically cleanest of Hip-Hop artists were and probably still are perceived as being part of a rebellious movement. I can go on, Rock, metal and EDM artists are immediately considered rebels even though nine times out of ten their music does not even have spoken word.

I think rebel culture in music best reminds one that rebel is both a call to action and a title. The term “Rebel” is not only a verb but a pronoun too – one that we don’t always choose association with.

From very early in her career, Thandiswa Mazwai has consistently stood out for dressing differently, having opposing views and questioning more frequently than a person in her position at the time did. She touched on subject matters and topics that many wouldn’t dare. She, amongst others, headlined what was then the Rebellion Concert and has to this very date spoken of liberation while in a democratic state.

On the album, Belede, you find songs such as Jikijela and Makubenjalo that can be interpreted as songs of rebellion intent. Jikijela as originally written and sung by the legendary Letta Mbulu, was an explicit call to action requiring very little context to figure what it called for, to whom it was directed and what had informed said call to action. Makubenjalo on the other hand is an Enoch Sontonga composition that in Apartheid South Africa was often sang as an outro to the then controversial now turned national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel’ Afrika, by liberation movements of the time. It was a beacon of hope and a lyrical telling of the lives of those that sang it, but was however also seen as a song of rebellion by the then regime and oppressor. In new age South Africa, the Makubenjalo outro has since been removed from the anthem and outrageously replaced by a part of the Apartheid anthem, Die Stem. Singing Makubenjalo in modern day South Africa is easily seen as somewhat an opposition to the current regime and that which they stand for.

“I’ve reimagined these songs for a new space and time, and what’s interesting is that even though a lot of these songs were written as rebel music against Apartheid, they still make sense in South Africa now. They still have the same impact, ask the same questions and evoke the same actions.” 

Thandiswa Mazwai on Drum Magazine

On Belede, Thandiswa extends the relevance of Jikijela to current day, using it to address modern day struggles, the most prominent addressed being The Fees Must Fall Movement, a struggle the youth are still fighting to date – 8 years since the release of the album. For Makubenjalo, King Tha took a completely unique direction, starting the song off with the iconic quote from a 1969 Miriam Makeba interview which further played along to the underlying theme of the song. The song features a star studded cast with Ayanda Sikade on drums, Nduduzo Makhathini on piano, Bra Herbie Tsoaeli on bass, Mthunzi Mvubu on Saxophone and Mandla Mlangeni on Trumpet. The song also went full instrumental with minimal vocal and no lyric – an act often seen as a statement move when remaking compositions originally performed with lyric.

“The conqueror writes history, they came, they conquered and they write. You don’t expect the people who came to invade us to tell the truth about us…”

Miriam Makeba
Photo by Nick Boulton

The album is named Belede, the name of Thandiswa’s mother Belede Mazwai, a journalist, educator and social activist whom King Tha herself describes as the first rebel she knew…

“My mother was the first rebel that I knew. Jazz music lends itself to the revolution, I thought it was fitting to name it after my mother.”

Thandiswa Mazwai on Drum Magazine

But what many do not know is the album was initially meant to be called ikhonzo, that can be translated to either “church” or “sermon”. Symbolically speaking ikhonzo is reference to a place of hope and peace, our safe heaven, an escape from the flaws and troubles of the world. Thought eventually not named so, this album is ikhonzo – it is our place of learning and relearning.

Making this album was a sonic delight and I feel blessed to have been able to sing some of these songs and pay tribute to some of the most rebellious and monumental musicians of my time

Thandiswa Mazwai on Drum Magazine

In the album, Thandiswa sings her version of the iconic Malaika, a Tanzanian love song written in Kiswahili originally by Fadhili Williams and famously performed by Miriam Makeba who also has an added verse in her rendition. The song is about the confession of love that is also hindered by an obstacle which in this case is a required bride price – a commentary on love and poverty. She also sings Kulala, one of the two Dorothy Masuka written songs on the album alongside Nontsokolo, Kulala being a song of a woman lamenting the death of her son.

Likewise she sings a cover of Busi Mhlongo’s rendition of the Wakrazulwa hymn, a song the references the crucifixion and essentially speaks of a person who is feeling burdened and broken because of their mistakes and sins.

Often when we think of rebellion, we think of the direct form of the act – a unmistakable opposition or declaration of such. We however seldom speak of a display of calm and love as counter to oppression and system, an approach that seemingly does not acknowledge nor give any undue attention to what one does not believe in. Though the rebellion of Belede is at times direct, it is also vulnerable, it presents itself through maturity, love and hymn.

Belede, is a musical masterclass, it pays homage beautifully to the composers and performers of the songs it features. It is a curated telling of the pains, thoughts, tears and at times love that we feel in our daily lives and in a greater worldview when faced by challenges and obstacles. The album is playlisted to perfection with each song transitioning seamlessly into the next both musically and in the context of the story.

This album presents a redefined version of a rebel, a version where a rebel can be seen as a boundary breaker, a person who advocates for justice through their direct acts and words but also through their display of love and vulnerability. Being a rebel does not equate to not being able to do good, it speaks less to nature but more to conformance.

Thandiswa Mazwai’s evolved approach to rebellion can be best interpreted through the change in her offering of Ndiyahamba from Zabalaza to Belede. Though the message and conviction is still the same, where the cry and relinquish seemed previously aggressive and volatile it is now calmer and somewhat matured.

Belede is a masterpiece, we look forward to the message of Sankofa.

The world commiserates its voice by the Word
They journey to some time past eternity
Goodness is lost.
Let us talk of our devotion
And of our conveyance
That it was Jesus who took away
The sins that was meant for the dead
Let us give thanks for the love God brings
That he descended into the land, thus our perfection.

Lyric translation of Mamani