Diliza Moabi alternates between hunching over his workstation, and resting his back on the swinging office chair inside the editing suite of his Wanaya Films offices in Randburg, Johannesburg. It’s a week before the premier of SABC1’s new docuseries, SA Hip-Hop Story: Blow Up or Cave!, and he is underwhelmed and wholly unimpressed.
He has spent the previous night reworking the first episode, which should have been submitted to the public broadcaster three months ago. He juggles between that and fielding phone calls (one’s from a newspaper reporter who’s pushing for an exclusive scoop); setting up interviews (there are artists yet to be filmed for the eight-part series); and his favourite pastime, pontificating: on the South African film and television industry, on gatekeepers in rap, and on artists who want to be chased all the damn time, along with their limelight-hungry managers.
How Moabi’s idea got approved is a long-winded story, but we’ll begin in 2016 when, after an early-morning writing session, he called me to talk about the feature-film script he’d just completed. He spoke about the character outline and the plot, and how he had to get it produced, were it the last thing he did on Earth. This docu-series is a distilled version of that vision, rendered lean by the multiple pitching sessions he had to attend in front of commissioning editors at SABC, some of whom were either dismissive of the idea, or had their own thoughts regarding who to include in it.
He gave in on certain fronts and compromised in some respects. It’s a game Moabi has played throughout his 20-year career in the television industry. He was adamant about one thing: the show would be a snapshot of the scene in 2020, meaning no old heads to tell viewers how it used to be during their time, and definitely no industry “experts” to chip in their two cents’ worth. It’s for the kids, bro.
An old head does narrate it, though. Ndabaningi Mabuye, otherwise known as Zubz the Last Letta, anchors the episodes with the wisdom of a sage. Zubz and Moabi had worked together on a hip-hop-related television show before. Their relationship is well-worn, which explains why Zubz’s insider knowledge and warm spirit are the grounding ingredients from which the episodes stretch out into different directions. That shit requires mutual respect and trust.
Zubz speaks of how witnessing the current generation gives him joy, and how he contributed “in a way that allows the new generation to lead”, while he cheers from the sidelines. “When we were on the frontlines, we were too busy pushing the needle forward to document it. This is something I’m happy to be involved in for posterity,” he says.
Early pitch sessions for the series sought to profile multiple aspects of the culture, but the approved version focuses on the music aspect exclusively. It’s not a bad thing: hypothetically, someone else can tell that story — of the b-boy, the DJ, the graf writer; of knowledge of self, and of all the other offshoots that have enabled rap kids to become moguls in our lifetime.
But, considering hip-hop is currently thought of as rap, at least in the public’s eye, a show that sought to profile other aspects of the culture would’ve been the ultimate victory. Baby steps, for now.
Moabi’s official title is creator, and creative and executive producer. But he’s finding that his time gets spent doing other people’s work. There have been delays — shoutout to Covid-19 — disagreements and fall-outs since September 2019 when work on the series began.
So, what happened between him and Sabza? I ask. He doesn’t say much initially, apart from noting that he did not receive any scripts.
Sabelo Mkhabela, who’d been assigned the role of head writer and researcher, recalls things differently. He became frustrated by the lack of clarity from Moabi’s side about what was needed.
Mkhabela singles out one instance, in which their positions regarding DJ Speedsta’s opinion that artists should do less trap music and more the 2014-2015 “new-age kwaito” sound were polar opposites. He didn’t feel that one person’s opinion warranted an entire episode.
“There was a communication breakdown,” Mkhabela says. “I had to write the script and Zubz had to voice it. What ended up becoming a problem with that is that if my script is super-opinionated, and it’s being voiced by Zubz, it sounds like it’s a Zubz opinion,” he says.
The two resolved to alter their approach. Zubz thought it best for Mkhabela to gather the facts in line with the brief and the meetings and that he himself should handle the rest.
“Diliza just wanted the scripts to be written over, and over again. To be honest with you, I’m in the dark. I’m not even sure what the first episode is gonna look like,” Mkhabela said.
More than experience, the well-versed writer and hip-hop documentarian brought insights about the major artists on the scene.
“When it comes to artists like PatricKxxLee or Indigo Stella, you really have to know your shit to know about them and what they represent,” Mkhabela says: “I’m not really sure how much of my work will make it into the final episode; it might just be bits and pieces of it. Diliza has his favourite artists and his favourite styles. He’s very opinionated and he wanted the show [to reflect that]. “
These are but some of the growing pangs a project of this nature has to nurse. Moabi is adamant that he bears no hard feelings, but asserts his initial position that he “did not receive” what he had ordered.
The episodes began airing from June 1. Ikaye Masisi, who was tasked with editing the majority of the series, says that, of the episodes he’s worked on so far, Yanga Chief’s story behind the song Utatakho stuck out. “He planned it as his last song before he exit[ed] the game ’cause it just wasn’t popping for him. He literally gave it his all. He also used isiXhosa consciously on the track ‘cause that was important to his artistry.” The widespread approval stopped one of the most gifted songwriters we have from starving us of music forever.
Through the projected success of this series, Moabi’s aim is to get the channel to lock down the 9pm slot on Monday nights and dedicate it to music documentaries.
Kwelagobe Sekele, who handles the social media for the series, and is himself an older head in the rap game, says the show is attracting the right people; the people for whom it was conceptualised. He’s also got praise for the now generation.
“In the true spirit of youth, they are unstoppable, unapologetic and independent self-starters. Not just the MCs, but everyone contributing to the new wave. And though they may not look like it, there is an anti-establishment drive they are using to create their own world. Also, they are beautiful!” he exclaims
A new wave of women rappers
He singles out the new wave of women who rap, the likes of Indigo Stella and Dee Koala, both featured on the show; Phola Pemba, Dope St Jude, ZuluMecca, Andy Mkosi and Būjin. “They are fire, got bars, and are going to shake things up and break the gates and walls of Jericho down. [And they] don’t need permission or handouts from nobody,” he says.
The series’ greatest triumph is in how it decentres Jozi as the be-all and end-all of all products, cultural and otherwise. Artists from Port Elizabeth and Cape Town also get screen time, something South African hip-hop at large struggles to get right. This owes to Moabi’s outsider status: he’s a village cat who came to the city to earn a living. Additionally, he refuses to kiss ass, and has had to manoeuvre his way around a cliquey film industry.
“Sometimes I wish I could also have a full-time job with a paid leave, but I’ve only heard about those. Personally, I never got to experience [a holiday],” he says.
It’s on to the next thing when work on this series is done.
“All that goes through your head is how lucky you are that you even had a shot at a production in the first place, so you live with the question of, ‘What’s next?’ You find yourself already on your next best thing. If it’s funded, you got deadlines. If no funding, then you are working on a pilot for your next project because the thinking is, ‘If I can just have a pilot in my hand then I can have something to shop around’,” he says.
This is the reality of being a black, independent filmmaker in 2020 South Africa. “Anyway, it is what it is,” is his resigned add-on that ends our conversation.
Tseliso Monaheng is a Joburg-based freelancer. He spends his days dreaming about words.