Būjin on spitting ‘Weird Venom’

Kenyan-South African Dani Kyengo O’Neill, is also known as Būjin. She’s a Cape Town-based producer and instrumentalist who sings and raps over dance and electro beats. 

Using live performances, DJ sets and audio installations, Būjin’s practice sees her marrying theatre techniques like performance and improvisation with free jazz, techno music and personal memories. In addition to local platforms, Būjin recently performed at La Biennale in Venice. And she’s worked with the likes of composer Laura Andel (Argentina), contemporary artists Gabrielle Goliath and Bronwyn Katz, musicians Dope Saint Jude and Angel-Ho, and curators Nkule Mabaso and Christine Eyene (Cameroon). 

She is currently completing her master’s in social-sonic performance, focusing on choreographic audiology in theatre at the University of Cape Town’s [UCT] Institute For Creative Arts. About a month ago she released her first single as a solo artist, Weird Venom. 

With a duration that’s just under three minutes, it’s easy to listen to Weird Venom on a loop. With every repeat, it takes on a different form. It’s a mantra. An anthem. A daily devotion. A queer prayer. A club banger that touches on themes of queerness, displacement, forced removals, agency, kindness and overcoming. To pass time under the lockdown, the artist spoke to the Mail & Guardian about her desired intentions with the song. 

Dani, heyyyy How are you? 

I’ve really been enjoying the process of releasing the music, as much as it has been overwhelming. The reception has been so incredible. Both local, and all over the world. I really didn’t think so many people would … I feel blessed and really loved. That’s the point I’m trying to make, ja. 

Before we get into talking about Weird Venom, I have some introductory questions. It’s just a few things to let people know who you are, you know? 

Ja, that’s absolutely fine with me. 

What are your pronouns?

My name, she/they and occasionally “daai girl”. (Hah!)

How would you like to be described?

Performance artist, producer and multi-instrumentalist

How did you get into music?

I started music when I was six. My family moved from the Northern Cape to Cape Town after my grandfather retired. It was entirely [not] of my own will. One day I just came home and told my mom and ouma, I started flute and choir. Soon it progressed into my mom tirelessly driving me around to orchestra, eisteddfods and rehearsals. 

When I left high school I got into UCT for  music and medicine but decided to go to the Eastern Cape [to Rhodes University in Makhanda] instead. The decision to go there is still one of the biggest influences on my relationship to music, jazz, alternative composition, DJing, and outer-music genres and artists. 

Now, let’s talk about Weird Venom. I don’t think it’s fair to describe it as just your debut single as a solo artist. So I want to hear from you: what is this offering  and who it is for?

I like the way you posed that because yes, it isn’t always as simple as “let’s make a song called Weird Venom that will be about …

As a producer, as a songwriter I like you to get really really close to the music, and the words and actively listen to make meaning for yourself. I enjoy the challenge of inciting and stimulating, like a spell brewing. And whoever is on the other side listening needs to feel that with their whole body and spirit, not just their ears. But some people are lazy listeners; they don’t have the nuance to tap into deep spirituality and [would rather] tap into a turn-up. So it isn’t for everyone. But it is for me. 

Every offering has a soul. Rather than bludgeoning an audience with my objective position as the composer/songwriter and saying “this is how it needs to be interpreted”, I leave room for people to emerge with their own feelings after listening to the music. 

Weird Venom is a slow-brewed revolt; banishing the fear of oneself, banishing the drama. It’s a deliberate choice to step into the world with a radical self-awareness of both the light and dark that encompass you. 

I saw you did the marketing yourself. Is that a matter of choice or circumstance? Tell me how that’s been going? 

Both. I’m an independent artist. It’s something I chose  to maintain the integrity of my output. It’s also a chance to develop my voice in the industry. Like a muscle, you become resilient and relentless in learning how to sound more like yourself when you have the opportunity to practice it — especially in a time where we have access to the tools to do just that.

This is not to say that I have anything against signing to a label or having the support of a label. Those artists have more time to focus on the creative processes instead of worrying about the back-end things like PR and legalities. I’m just minimising the chances of coming out on the short end of my creativity. Rihanna made an entire song about it (Bitch Better Have My Money). 

I’m a weird venom. No light. I’m a heart of gold. No fight. I have heaps of light. Spillin’. Pourin’ . Oozin’. From my flesh. No chicken. No beef.

— Būjin on Weird Venom 

Where were you at when you wrote Weird Venom? How did these circumstances lead you to it?

I was in a tender space, a perpetual state of weaving. I was shifting between apprehension and feeling emotionally charged, like a sprinter on a starting block waiting for the gun to sound. But I wasn’t sure of the words to describe what I was grappling with inside yet. 

I went through a series of significant changes in my life between 2017 and 2019. When I moved from New York to Jo’burg, I felt like I was settling in at home again, but before I could settle I moved to Cape Town for an opportunity. 

This city can be the most lonely place at times. I went through a period of convincing myself out of that loneliness. I tried to convince myself that the work I was doing at the time was what I was meant for, and that it wasn’t crushing my spirit. 

I didn’t dance, I barely touched any of my instruments. I would come home and just weep. I would wake up with anxiety and fall asleep with anxiety. Rinse and repeat, night after night. It really broke my joy. For that period of a year, it was like my body and spirit were entirely out of sync with one another in this environment.

I have a tendency to be a thought hoarder. At times my thoughts are vitriolic and venomous. Other times they are so light, so euphoric. Either way, I wrote all of this down. 

Then I spent a long period last year coming out of that through composition, writing, listening, conversations with friends and lovers and working through settling those feelings I felt into sounds and then words and then trying to find homes for them. One afternoon in September I wrote Weird Venom

Who did you work with on the song? Can you talk me through how those connections were formed? 

I have a core team of collaborators [with whom] there’s a basis of trust, mutual respect, a common goal of being accountable to one another, passion and critical love. 

Redbull Studios ZA invited me to come spend some time recording a project last year. This led me to work with ECHLN, aka Kwetsima Maluleke. He is the mixing engineer and co-producer on the single. I came to him with a close-to-finished project, thinking it would just need some tightening on the engineering end of things. But the week we spent together cemented our shared curiosity for music and understanding of each other’s own unique wisdom and sonic language. The mastering engineer, Dom Lennon and I had worked together previously in the studio on a score for a documentary that was composed by another collaborator and friend, Jannous Aukema. 

Eish, Zaza speaking about the single in isolation and not the project as a whole feels strange. Let’s leave it there.

What was it like communicating your vision with the people you worked with? Was it easy to articulate? 

It was really organic. I’ll come with complete but open-ended compositions and leave room for the people I work with to colour that with their offerings. I tend to have a lot of clarity, and detail in terms of what I want, but my visions are malleable and mutable to what other collaborators can offer and their approach to sound. It helps that I’m not someone who is married to my ideas at all costs.

So far what has the public’s response to Weird Venom been? 

Overwhelmingly supportive. Yoh. I tend to retreat rather than let myself get distracted, but I’m letting this one sit for a while, while looking ahead and trying not to get caught up in the glitters because there’s more music and work ahead. It’s just the start. I need a short nap and a whiskey though. Or the other way around? Hah! 

You’ve already garnered international airplay. How did you make that happen? 

I don’t believe anything ever happens in isolation and the illusion of the “solo genius” artist is just that: an illusion. I try to build deeper relationships with people through music and my work composing, collecting CDs and vinyl, collaborating and producing sound. Weird Venom’s international airplay came about when (London-based South African musician) Esa Williams reached out to debut it on his Worldwide FM show, Amandla. That was a huge moment. 

Worldwide FM is like a legacy, an ears-to-the-ground space for emerging music from the global underground and it’s definitely been a light seeing artists from the southern half of the hemisphere being recognised for our outputs — in particular young southern, central, east and north African artists making work that is deeply spiritual, emotionally enriched and so nuanced it’s as much a turn-up as it is spiritual. It was definitely a “woah … this is bigger than me now” moment. 

Would you say there were barriers to entry? 

Yes, and they will continue to be. But the best saying I heard an elder use years ago was something like: “A [insert whatever it is here] is not a mountain. It can be moved.” And that’s that on that. 

What’s your take on the mainstream music industry in South Africa? 

The word “mainstream” in South Africa is really slippery because our music industry is so vast. Our mainstream is constantly shifting according to what we’re listening to en masse. 

On the one hand, I feel like this is what keeps our industry really dynamic, as it’s shifted over the years between gospel [and] maskandi to sgubhu, gqom and, in recent years, amapiano. 

 One of the real drivers (excuse the pun) of our music industry in South Africa, still to this day, are taxis and cellphones. To think of the taxi as the interlocutor for a vast majority of mainstream music in South Africa, it’s incredibly anti-corporate and anti-capitalist. 

On the other hand, I think there’s a lot of mimicry happening, where artists are trying to imitate a corporate culture of trap rooted in and emerging from geo-locations where the genre originated, like the American South, because hip-hop has now grown, almost disproportionately, to saturate the global mainstream. So much so, that trap can be thought of as the new pop. 

I’m not against this at all — adapting a genre and shifting its make-up to fit that of a local mainstream is something we’ve been doing with music for centuries. A perfect example is jazz, soul and punk. But I can’t help but feel like when it comes to the plight of “the young male trap artist” in a South African mainstream context,  it tends to feel somewhat contrived.

I know this is the introduction to a larger soundscape. What do you look to achieve with your audiovisual work?

I’m planning to develop the work into a three-part sonic performance text that involves a choreographic-based body of theatre work, and a book of sonic texts. 

Are you looking to be signed to anyone?

I believe there’s a time and place for calling things into existence. Right now I’m in control of my entire creative output with my core group of collaborators — sonically, visually and in performance. I like it that way. I’m aware that this project is much bigger than just me so, as with any relationship I forge, I’d like it to come organically. 

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