Elder Statesman Stogie T makes South Africa Rap again!

It’s a random day in the year 1999; I just came back from school. I take the key from the electric box, open the door to the house, and follow the daily routine of TV on first, then the rest follows. From the bedroom, I hear a poem on SABC 1. I run to the kitchen, as this might be the Yfm poem that my friend was raving about in class. I stand in front of the television set, and there he is, Tumi Molekane, on his knees — performing that very poem. This was my first encounter of the G.O.A.T that is today known as Stogie T.

Laying out a timeline I have drafted of his career, which starts in 1998 when he co-founded the poetry group PERM with Zee Cube, MXO, Simphiwe Dana, Lebo Mashile and others, I share my first memory of him, having placed this Yfm ad in the year 2000. He readjusts the arms on my clock with some detail. “The ad was actually during the PERM period in 1999, it was one of four ads I did for Yfm. Your timeline starts about 4 years late. You missed the ’Le Club era.”

A little jolted by how I may have missed this detail, I interject and ask if he was there with DJ Bionic and DJ Blaze; at the establishment of the Saturday hip hop sessions at ’Le Club in downtown Johannesburg, 1994.

He tells me, “No, ’94 is too early, I was still in high school then. I was in a group with a friend of mine, and in ’95 we started making our way to town. First there was the Ice Rink in Carlton Centre, then they moved to Qs, and then ’Le Club. We built a nice network of MCs, met the Amus, the Crookeds, Skwatta Kamp and, towards the end, a lot of Tembisa boys — this is my first tribe I would say.”

“How did you then make the transition from rapper to poet?”

“To me there wasn’t a distinction, really. What I mean is that I’ve always written raps, and in the spoken word I would just slow it down, but it has always been rap. Things in the hip hop space started getting toxic then, you know — young people with a lot of energy being very disruptive, and I couldn’t rock with it. I was interested in literature, and started attending your Jungle Connections and other poetry and open mic sessions. That’s how I got to meet the members from PERM, and later met The Volume, they were the house band at the poetry session. We started working together, and didn’t stop until around 2012/2013.”

Tumi had released two solo projects before teaming up with The Volume, the mixtape Tao of Tumi in 2001, and his first official EP, A Dream Led To This, in 2002.

“Between PERM and The Volume stuff, I met an artist from Australia, at the Bassline. What happened is he asked for anyone to come up on stage, I went on, I rapped, it was dope, he was like, ‘Yo! This is crazy!’ — we kept in touch and he was like cool, and we did an EP. The first official thing I did with a barcode on it was released in Australia; that was A Dream Led To This, it was on vinyl. He sent me the vinyl back, I gave it to about 10 people — and somehow it spread onto cassettes and CDs.”

It seems that Stogie’s career was one destined for international acclaim. Following his first international release, he toured Norway with Tumi and The Volume.

“There we were preforming alongside The Roots, Coldplay, Pharell Williams, it was a really transformative experience. So early in our career our horizons were really broad, you know what I mean? Our ceiling wasn’t now preforming at the Standard bank arena, it was now Europe and the world. As you can imagine, my first release was in Australia, and my first tour was in Norway.” He throws in a lingering laugh and muses, as if to himself, “We performed in Norway before we even performed in Cape Town”.

A Dream Led To This and the Norway tour were the launching pads that catapulted him to international acclaim; for both Tumi and The Volume and Stogie T as a solo artist. “So, 2006 is the time you started touring intensively, correct,” I ask?

“Yeah, 2006, that’s correct. I remember, that’s the year I released Music from My Good Eye solo, and the self-titled album with Tumi and the Volume, which were both nominated for Best Rap Album at the SAMA Awards.”

“And when touring Europe and North America, which places did you perform at?”

“Bro!” He guffaws, and takes a step back, then comes back to say, “I think the better question, is ‘where did I not perform?’ — I think that would be a shorter list… We were pretty much a household name in France, headlining two nights in a row, in very huge venues. France was our base; we were signed to a French label, we were, you know? And when the band ended, that’s when I started experimenting with Hello Kitty, I was kinda exploring other things I suppose.”

His last statement leads to a comprehensive conversation about his transformation from Tumi to Stogie T, in 2016.

“Do you have any reservations about making that decision now?”

“Absolutely not.”

“What would you say is the distinction between the two?”

“Lyrically, Stogie is leaps and bounds ahead of Tumi. Both content and form is different. In form I was a bit more self-indulgent, a lot more showy, and verbose as Tumi; I didn’t have the discipline or the care to hone in. There’s an efficiency and an economy to Stogie T, lyrically and in form, and a more complete mastery of words, of patterns. I feel like, as Tumi I was like, ‘oh! That’s an Eminem flow, or Black Thought flow, let me do it!’ Whereas now I feel like no one raps like me, you know what I mean? I feel like I can do anything as a rapper right now, as far as form is concerned. And in content the perspective is different. Tumi was more about me, and as Stogie I’m more of a reservoir, for instance Music From My Good Eye vs. Empire of Sheep. It’s a nuanced difference that most people wouldn’t pick up. ”

Approaching the end of our conversation, I ask Stogie about his motivation behind #FreestyleFriday; a lot of South African artists are complaining about the government’s neglect, amidst the impact of Covid-19 and the lack of gigs, but Stogie is just consistently, every Friday, “making South Africa Rap again”.

He takes a pensive pause, and says, “Uhm… it’s two fold. One, I have been to a lot of these seminars where there’s the minister of Arts and Culture and people talk, and it all just becomes a complaining session, and I’ve never known people complaining to get anything done, you see what I mean? So, I just went back to my bag and said I’m just gonna Rap and hopefully I become the medicine. In these times I know what kind of stuff I wanna hear, I want someone to say, ‘Yo, it’s gonna be alright’ you know”.

I concur, and he continues, “I’m just as scared as everybody else, just as anxious, I’m not a superhero — but I felt that my job in this instance is to do what I know best. Also, I privilege my position as an elder statesman (in local hip hop), as someone who has to lead sometimes, and this situation demanded that I play my role”.

#FreestyleFriday has always had international acts taking part in it, and to close off our conversation I ask about the intention behind this decision. He says, “Well, you know, COVID has a unique distinction of being a pandemic, and a pandemic affects everyone the same globally, you feel me?” This statement speaks to me, and I find myself yelling, “BARS!!!”

He chuckles, waits for my explosion to simmer down, then continues, “Just to connect the globe and my network of artists I’ve met over the years, and even artists I’m meeting now who are like, ‘Yo man, I wanna be down with this thing,’ it serves that purpose.”

I ask the veteran rapper what statement he’d make as a closing remark, and Stogie T leaves us with, “But also there’s a secondary purpose where I say, when I write #ApplyPressure, I’m saying, Rapping is a sport, you wanna measure yourself against the best in the world”.

With South African hip hop being a bit over 30 years old, there’s only a handful of artists who have had careers with a lifespan longer than 10 years, and arguably Stogie T alone with a discography of 12 releases. Add to that a recording label, and you have an artist who not only has had an over-two-decades-long, consistently successful career, but one who is still rapping today — with a vigour and virtuosity kindred to the one he started out with, 25 years ago.