“If you want to know what South Africa’s like, then go watch BBC or the SABC or the news, that’s not my job,” says Nthato James Monde Mokgata, better known as Spoek Mathambo. The 24-year-old South African musician speaks carefully, going into detail about his greater passions and downplaying subjects that are less relevant to his message. This, however, was not one of those topics. “When I do music and shoots, it’s not that I want you to know what South Africa’s like, I want you to know what South Africa makes me feel like.”
Mathambo creates danceable grooves inspired by South African house music—a mix of soul, dubstep, rap and electro-rock. His first venture into music came at age 10 when he began to rap, modifying the lyrics of Wu-Tang Clan and Redman to make them his own. Though the only musician in his family is legendary trombone player Jonas Gwangwa, Mathambo’s uncle, his relations have always been big music fans, with interests ranging from jazz and soul to rap and the Pet Shop Boys. His family’s diverse tastes still influence Mathambo’s music today.
“The new music that’s coming out of South Africa is hard to put into one box,” he explains. “The main inspiration is quite progressive, using a lot of traditional elements of South African music.” This is something that Mathambo aims to do in his own music, to create “new shit that is going to melt people’s brains,” while still maintaining the rich flavor of South African music.
Mathambo is a renaissance man in the purest sense. His list of specialties is not limited to rapping, but also DJing and visual art. Over the last two years he has put together a series called HIVIP that promotes South African artists and also allows him to express himself has a DJ, something he keeps completely separate form his solo releases. His entrance into visual art arrived in a much different manner. “I dropped out of medical school in 2005, and then I kind of spent six months in no man’s land,” says Mathambo. “I was faced with this kind of ultimatum from my parents, which was like, ‘Either get a degree in something, or you’re on your own.’” Mathambo enrolled in graphic design without any prior experience in the field, but it has since served him well. He has designed the cover art for his previous group, SWEAT.X, and directed the artwork on his recent solo release, Mshini Wam, while also taking artistic control of his videos, utilizing photographer friends to help make his vision a reality.
“The very first one was me literally running around playing, building the suits that we wore and kind of producing it and being the stylist and doing all the jobs,” says Mathambo. Almost all of his videos carry a back-story, but his most recent, “Control,” a reworking of Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control,” was the first to veer from that model. “I’m always excited to work with different artists that I respect and who I love, and who can realize what I do musically, visually.”
To listen to Mathambo’s music and to watch his videos is to take a step into a slightly nightmarish world of surrealism. It’s an underground place where light is scarce but you wouldn’t want to see the horrors it may be hiding. “My policy’s kind of like, fuck realism,” says Mathambo. He’s true to his word. In making music, Mathambo isn’t going to give you something that makes you completely comfortable. In his words, it’s going to be “skull crushing and ribcage-rattling hard.” This might sound like a full-on assault, but his work is not so surrealistic that it’s unapproachable.
Mathambo’s artistic agenda is currently full, as he’s in the process of making his second album and finishing an illustration project. “It’s a working collaboration with this group of women who do tapestries in Cape Town. The basic idea is just to render my illustrations in a kind of 3-D setting.” For now, his focus is more so on the live performance of his music. “I’m trying to make as dope music as I can,” says Mathambo. “Get many people to hear it, whilst being happy with what I’m doing, and keep surpassing my own expectations.”
Mathambo is currently touring through the United States with Rainbow Arabia and a full live band followed by appearances in Europe. Check out his tour dates here.
Spoek Mathambo – Control: