A poet, irresistibly fighting for „a world in which all can breath“
(Editor: Annalisa Wellhäuser)
An exceptional and critical thinking poet who doesn`t mince words when talking about politics and society –especially the degradation of human dignity. Lesego Rampolokeng was born on 27th July 1965 in Orlando West, Soweto, Johannesburg in South Africa. Growing up under the Apartheid system and raised by a catholic family, he formed his very own view on political and social problems in South Africa. He studied Law at the University of the North in the Limpopo Province, but has not followed this path any further. He focused on his poetry which included poems, novels as well as writings for the theatre. He is travelling the world to perform and while doing so he has already worked together with different artists such as Günther Sommer, Julian Bahula, Louis Mhlanga and Souleman Toure. [A list of his work can be found at the end of the interview.]
Deutsch: If you are interested to read this interview in German, please click on following link: https://2010sdafrika.wordpress.com/2011/02/08/schriftsteller-lesego-rampolokeng-im-interview/.
2010sdafrika-editorial staff: We would like to welcome on „SÜDAFRIKA – Land der Kontraste“, the German gateway to South Africa, the writer and poet Lesego Rampolokeng. Mr. Rampolokeng, as an artist you have performed and written texts in different ways-you have been doing political rap, poetry and you have also contributed writings to the theatre as for Faustus in Africa in 1995 or the Fanons children in 2001. How would you describe the kind of art you are performing these days?
Answer: Ok, first of all it`s a semantic issue. I don’t perform, I hardly ever see myself performing anything, because for me that presupposes either an extension of yourself or alienation from yourself, an occupation of another space outside of something. There`s never been a line of demarcation between myself and my art. I am my art. I hope that makes sense.
And I wouldn`t actually say that I´ve ever done „political rap„ or even rap itself as a genre. For me what rap is is what we are doing right now. The flowing and floating of lines, thoughts, ideas, communication of multi-ear, mind to mind, you know, these things that swim from the one individual and rattle the brain cells of the other. That for me is being rap. If you put dub or hip-hop break beat to this, it is rap.
So essentially I`ve always seen myself as being a creature of the world and as a social being that I am, I`m also of my society, of my community. Like everybody else I was not hatched ,I was born. I guess some people just spin out of the air, they get dropped from the moon or whatever. So what it means is-if I want to define my reality- that necessarily means I have to engage with the reality of my society.
And there are certain things that stand between me and the celebration of my being, of my humanity. I have to deal with dehumanization, the oppression of one being by another and all of those things: social economic factors, why I could only be born where I was born and not in another place, why I need a visa in order to come to Berlin, why I get pulled out of a queue at Tegel airport, because I got more melanin than anyone else. And I get asked how much money I`m carrying, if I`m carrying drugs……and all of those factors conspire to make me a specific kind of creature-I will suppose distinct to other creatures, but not necessarily more important or less important.
I just hold my own space within the sphere of human light and try to define that .And you cannot truly define your space except in terms that make sense to you, which are political and other things.
When birth is itself a political issue, when death is a matter of politics. If I die here what happens to me is terribly political. If I drop dead here, I hope I don`t, I might very well do that…..every single breath I take is itself defined for me in political terms.
I don’t wave banners, I don’t say vote for XYZ ,because first of all I don’t even believe in the voting box, I don’t believe in voting. I don’t think voting has ever changed anything. I don’t mean politics in terms of party political waves, just the way which we communicate this-human traffic, human flux, the coming and going of human beings
2010sdafrika-editorial staff: Let`s come to my second question: You were born in 1965 in Soweto, Johannesburg….
2010sdafrika-editorial staff: …. during that time it was the Apartheid system that was ruling in South Africa. The oppression by that racist system appears to be one of the major topics you are dealing with in your poetry. Can you tell me something about this?
Answer: Well, I mentioned before I was born into a specific set of circumstances, so my being was dictated by all those factors you just mentioned now.
One thing that I`d like to clarify would be….I was not born in that time of Apartheid, because I think this is the time of Apartheid too. I can define it differently- but Apartheid as legislated racism, as defined by law-as founding the „statue books„ –that`s actually the only thing that made racism in South Africa different from anywhere else. Because it was legislated, it was legal.
People had met, very intelligent supposedly, together and decided that by the eventual effect that they lacked x-amount of melanin that made them superior to other people. Therefore „blabla„ and they set and raised a systematic devaluation and dehumanization of another sector of society for economic and other reasons.
And so from the moment that-I think even before I was born, from the moment I was conceived-Apartheid had already been at work on my being, on my senses. I guess that is why I`m going through life having one nervous breakdown after another-it`s because of, I would suppose, the measure of racism and religion-because I was brought up catholic and all those other things.
So my writing can only be in terms of the politics and religion that worked on me, the economic factors etc. … And I`m still trying to define myself. You see the thing is I don’t go into writing as a way of explaining myself. For me it`s a quest, ,it`s an attempt to get my world to speak to me and thereby allowing me I guess to understand myself better ,to understand my own shortcomings, perhaps my own prejudices.
Because I am definitely prejudiced against certain kind of human creatures, absolutely.
But I think I wasn’t caught in a time war so I cannot write today like I did 10,15,20 years ago .I`m a social communicator and I will be until I die.
So today I deal with issues that of course came down with Apartheid where we created some kind of buffer zone between the people of real power in the country and the rest of oppressed society in South Africa. I would suppose„ non-white„ all of them.
I won`t necessarily say ,,black„, because ,,black„ comes with a political definition for me. The old man I drew my inspiration from, Mafika Pascal Gwala, my father- well in a matter of speaking he is-said „Black is an energetic release from the shackles of Kaffir, Bantu, non-white.„ That`s what it is.
My friend Lemn Sissay said :´„Black is not what white is not-black is black. That`s it. I`m not defined in my „blackness „in the fact that you are not „black„. Your „being white„ does not make me„ black„. I defined myself as „black„ before.
Anyways. I use all these quotations as part of my piece, at the beginning of my piece „Bantu ghost„ , which I read last year. Steve Biko said:„ The fact that we are all not white does not necessarily mean we`re all black.„ Non-whites exist and are continuing to exist for a long time-but within that world of humanity that was oppressed some of them are black and some are not-even though they might look similar, even though they might have x-amount of melanin all of them-not all of them are ,,black„. The ones who are black are the ones who define themselves…Its an attempt of coming to consciousness of where one is being placed and where one should he going.
2010sdafrika-editorial staff: You just said that Apartheid is basically not over, it`s just a different form of Apartheid. What do you mean by that?
Answer: I`m saying there was a specific system of government, it was an ideology that was in place that was referred to as Apartheid. It`s an Afrikaans concept meaning- what they later tried to define as separate development, but a literal translation of it, the one on one translation of it would be „Apart-ness„ ,meaning there is this line of demarcation between these people and those people, this sector of society and that sector of society and it was a „ legal system„.
What I`m saying is while the books might have been scrapped- we might say technically because the constitution has been overturned- then Apartheid does not exist, but Apartheid was not paper. Tearing up paper doesn’t change anything.
The fact that then you have some kind of creation set up in place that is celebrated all over the world and you call that, you make a symbol of it, an icon of it and you get all hypocrites to celebrate it. The same hypocrites that used to insult it ,that fought for it to be kept in place, in jail.
Now out of a sudden these celebrate it and they built monuments to it in England and they knight it and they call it Nelson Mandela. And it goes around waving at all old ladies and the babies etc.
What does that change beyond it being a measure scam perpetrated on the world.
You go to South Africa today and you will see the following: Now they call them informal settlements ,it`s just „shacklands„, supposed what people called derogatorily „squatters„ have proliferated in South Africa. There are more of them now than prior to 1994.There is more human misery and debasement today than there was in South Africa before.
Now when you see such things-some very„ perverted sick minded„ people start accusing you , of wishing to return to Apartheid and I would have to be truly sick to my soul to want something like that. It’s a system of dehumanization-why would I want, why would I wish for my own dehumanization , no. But again that is yet another scan that is meant like the bible to keep people weak.
But ok we are supposed to keep quiet , because now here is this government that was supposedly voted into place by the majority of the people. Well, the majority is not always right. Actually more often than not the majority is wrong. That`s why there are people like us in the world, I guess we are happy, well we celebrate our right to be wrong also. I might be wrong, but I`m happy to be wrong. It is my opinion, however wrong it might be to anybody else.
So essentially the economics of the „thing of state in place„, the power is remained in the hands of the people who held it before. They created this vile concept called Black Economic Empowerment ( „BEE„ )and on the surface this thing is set up as being a system out of which the previously, as they put it, „disadvantaged„ can have access to the sources of the land,. They call them that-and it makes me feel like you are crippled or something like that .
But anyways it’s a major lie, because this first of all this BEE- thing was created by multinationals, by multi corporations, by big capital, which was „white„, big capital. And they created this thing in as a kind of escape route for themselves. They set up this thing and the people who got to believe it were the ones who supposedly had these struggle potentials. They are the ones who`ve become the millionaires today, who are part of this ruling system .And they set all those people up and then the jackals and the hyenas came out to bite and eat and whatever. And I will present these crawlers` face to the world of these supposed darker than grey creatures.
So the system of Apartheid, it is actually more obscene today than it was before. Because before there was no need to lie, the lines were well drawn.
2010sdafrika-editorial staff: You`ve also studied law….
Answer: …Unfortunately haha…
2010sdafrika-editorial staff: What was the reason for you to decide its poetry you want to focus on instead of maybe becoming a successful lawyer?
Answer: Have you ever seen a lawyer who looks like me in the world? I`d be a very unlikely lawyer.
First of all, at no point in my life did I decide to become a poet. This comes without any romanticization –I`m not romantic about it.
At times I wish that I hadn’t walked this path, it was a lone part and i`ve made myself more enemies walking down this path than I would have if I had just become a jackal , a vulture feeding on human misfortune-called a lawyer. I would have made less enemies that way „bloating „myself up
I don’t think that anybody at any point decides to become a poet, you either are one or you are not. Nobody can teach you to write. I don’t believe that writing or poetry can be taught. You got all these professors with 15 degrees, but they themselves cannot write a poem to save their lives.
This is an old image i`ve been using for years and it makes me want to fall asleep whenever I`m saying it.But the truth of it is that I do believe that if my mother falls dead today and they cut her up, they are likely to find my poetry. I`ve created a „mural„,a „uteral mural „which I think is the best kind of poetry anybody could possibly write.
So where I was attempting to study this law thing and even before that I was poet. What you are asking is , I think, is taking a definite break from then when I attempted this ,for me „fake existence„.
You see the thing is when I wrote my very last paper, my final year of university, it was during the times of state of emergency in South Africa. In the mid 80ies, I was becoming a rather frequent visitor to the houses of bondage that I call prisons, detention centers and I wrote my paper and I stood up and walked and never looked back. What I was supposed to have done subsequent to that was to serving another lawyer, learning the trickery roads and then sitting for that final examination. I would have been your Mr. lawyer with maybe a Porsche.
I thought to myself „ok look, you don’t go to look for justice in a court of law, there is no justice in the court of law. If you want the law ok you go to court, if you want justice they take you to the streets. „The court, this is not a place for the acquisition of justice, this is where we interpret the law, it`s not even about truth at all .Or it is not about justice and not about truth , which are the things that define me. I`m in this world to search for it—if neither justice nor truth are to be found in a court of law, what would have I been doing there?!It didn’t make sense for me. I could have lied to myself and said „No, I do this thing„ and I can begin represent my people and sound glorious or whatever.
You know what happened, a few years ago I was proved right anyways in my decision not do law. I was invited to Holland and there was this festival, a beautiful festival in Den Haag. And I think it was 51 poets from 51 different countries…every poet had to read at his embassy. But then I found out that the ambassador of South Africa did not want me to be there…the reason why she had to have me there was because her predecessor had invited me. She listened to half of my reading and then ran away .The worst thing about this is that this woman was during Apartheid times South Africa` s leading human rights lawyer, Priscilla Jana. You get what I`m saying……
You know now I`m hungry, I`m poor ,but I`m cool, I think my conscience is at rest.
However I could only be happy the day the things I`ve set myself against are eliminated. The things that make me wake up in the morning in a perverse, in an ugly ,in an obscene way actually .Because the sun ,the love should be getting you out of bed. I`m woken up by demons and ugly things, the day they seize up to be then I will say i`m happy.
2010sdafrika-editorial staff: While doing research about you in preparation for the interview, I read on the internet page ,,www.culturebase.net„ that you ,correct me if i`m wrong, said the following statement about young South Africans in an interview with the Swiss weekly paper 2002 : „Political hip-hop is no longer important to young people in South Africa„. Are young South Africans really not interested anymore in political rap?
Answer: You know that thing makes me so angry, because at no point in my life , unless I`m ready to be locked up in some psychiatric institution, would I say that the young people of South Africa are not interested in political rap. Because it goes further than that thing I think. To give the suggestion that I`m saying supposed political rap is redundant. I would „never ever ever„ say that. First of all, people when it started out did not set itself up as being political, it was party music, young people hijack lighting„ fictures „, you know these street lamps or whatever, and run the electricity from their turntables. As soon as the police comes, they take their stuff and go. In that sense it was subversive-yes. But it did not come out with a political program. It was just young people having fun.
Later you had supposed conscious people coming out like Poor righteous teachers, Public enemy, Boogie down production,KRS1,they came on following the lead of course of the lives of Jill Scott Hanna before them …grabbing the microphone dealing with issues of oppression, of economic, political themes.
Hip Hop is not homogeneous, there are various and different strands of Hip Hop, lots and lots of them. I like the Ghetto-Boys, I love the stories they created there: trying to pull their little ghosts out of the wall..something that one would find in heavy metal, maybe, but they were running it on this „5th ward texas lies„, you know black boys dealing with that stuff.
It is not homogeneous. You got girly Hip Hop, you got Salt and Pepper celebrating their sexuality as females, you know, all of those put together you could say that’s a political broom. That is a political broom. People celebrating their humanity in the midst of „Squalla „.
So at what point could I say the contrary? I, father of generation of MCs, underground MCs, basemental platform in South Africa, I could introduce you to a lot of them, they are very political creatures.
How could I say something else? I never said something like that. This quotation is very misleading.
Unless this person wanted to say that I meant that in this world today you get more people celebrating 50cent,Eminem,LilWayne,Jay-Z as supposed to celebrating Poor righteous teachers, if that’s what they mean, yes, that is very true.
This world celebrates a Lady Gaga. I mean I`m not in the position to judge. I`m not in this world to judge or be judged. If that’s what they want, maybe Lady Gaga fulfills some of their fantasies, I don’t know.
But the fact of it is that more people will celebrate Lady Gaga than they would celebrate Jaco Pastorius, my all time greatest bass player. Very few people know him.
2010sdafrika-editorial staff: How do you see the current political situation of South Africa? What do you think about Zuma?
Answer: I`m sorry to depersonalize people like that, but essentially this is what is happening. The point is, you just give Zuma a lot of women and music to make him dance. That is what he does. He just wants to dance .He is very very problematic, if you trace down his history to the ANC-camps, in exile…there is a whole lot of intrigues involved, people dying…and these people being mashed on forward.
And the indignity of having Thabo Mbeki, who I don’t have any respect for, but in my opinion he was still cleverer than Zuma. But the indecency of the way which those guys flipped the switched one inn was really embarrassing, it was disgraceful.
And now there is Zuma and Julius Malema, who is president of the ANC Youth League. The sad part of this is that we laugh at this person, but it`s the same story as with Idi Amin. Idi Amin started somewhere, people laughed „Haha„ at him saying he is an idiot….But 500.000 deaths later, nobody is laughing. Nobody is laughing. That is the state of South Africa right now.
2010sdafrika-editorial staff: You have already been several times to Germany. In 1998 you even stayed for a few months at the Solitude Castle in Stuttgart. How do you like Germany and what is the reason for you of coming back so often? Did or do the experiences you make here influence you or your poetry in some way?
Answer: Obviously every single moment of my life influences me, every moment leads onto the other, whatever kind of engagement, whatever kind of contact I have with human beings. Not just even people only, every single creature on this planet, in this universe influences how I view.
First of all, having been to South Africa, you will know that however established South Africa might be ,that before Joseph Cotton, Bounty killer, whoever, …before they dream of coming to South Africa, they come to Germany first. They will definitely perform in Berlin, they will perform 20 times in Berlin, before they even imagining going down to South Africa.
So my engagement with the things that I celebrate ,that I love…books …South Africa got a few literature outlets, but in the whole of Johannesburg you can actually count the book shops in the entire city. How many millions of people live in the west of Johannesburg, well it`s east towards the airport, but the only book shop would have to be „exclusive books„ which is a capitalist set up, they will have Dan Brown books, they won`t have any of the people I celebrate, they won`t even have Pasolini. It`s not even a euro-centric kind of set up, no, they won`t have any seriously engaging literature for me there. So if I want something like that I have to come to Germany. In South Africa what do I do?
When I go around the world I pick up whatever it is, I engage with it, I battle with the world`s realities, I go back and I share it with the people I love, I celebrate, the people I want to help push forward along with me. I`m no leader, no, I`m part of a pack, but I`m hoping that whatever experience it is I can share with my people, they can share with me their experiences and together we can move forward.
That’s why I came back. I got invited. I came to Humboldt-University, it is a fine place to come to. I get to read at my embassy. I want to see if they will also behave like the dutch counterpart.
In 1998 I came to Solitude Castle in Stuttgart, because I needed time and space to write. It was a residency, it was a writer`s set up. You got composers there, video artists, graphic artists. It`s an annual thing.
But it made me realize one thing. Namely that I maybe need to hear somebody screaming at some point, I need to hear a car screeching around…before I can create.
I had a nervous breakdown there. It was so quiet there. Even the birds seemed to be uneasy about chatting in the morning: „ Oh, let`s not disturb the artists„. They call it solitude for a reason, really. I felt like Alice in Wonderland there. It`s a castle, every Saturday people come to get married there. You never see anybody.
If I wanted to be in a bar and check out the local talent or get myself checked out, if anybody bothers… I had to take the bus for about 25 minutes to get to the city of Stuttgart, just to have a beer. And then take the bus back. But at eleven the bus is run out.
2010sdafrika-editorial staff: You have travelled the world and performed in many countries. Plus you have worked together with various artists like Julian Bahula, Soulman Toure, Loius Mhlanga and Günther Sommer. Have you ever expected to become that successful and what are your aims and dreams for the future?
Answer: You know Bob Dylan explains the issue of success very well, he says a successful person is one who wakes up in the morning, is able to wake up in the morning and is able to go to bed at night, and in between that the person does what it wants to do, it chooses to do. That`s success. It has nothing to do with money or whatever. It has nothing to do with striking silly poses in front of a thousand cameras. For me that`s not the measure of success.
I will say I`m successful the day whatever it is that stands for the dehumanization and oppression of one sector of humanity by another, one person getting oppressed by the rest of humanity, the day no child, no child dies of malnutrition or preventable diseases ,the day no American can say:„ Oh ,oh this apple fell on my head, how can it fall on my head, I`m American! No this can`t happen to me, I`m American„ ,the day there is an end to that stupid stuff, the day it makes the same, the same kind of sense or non sense to get a child`s head exploded in Gaza ,a child getting its brain „packed out„ in Somalia, the day things fall in line like that, the day it is as wrong ,as wrong to brutalize somebody, because their sexuality is not yours, the day nobody is downtroddened, because they choose to bow in front of a different god to those who have got power, that’s where I will say: I`m successful, I helped create a world in which all can breathe. That`s it.
2010sdafrika-editorial staff: We would like to thank to writer Lesego Rampolokeng, one of the most socio-critical voices of South Africa, for this interesting interview on „SÜDAFRIKA – Land der Kontraste“. We wish you much success for the future and only the best!
List of writings/Liste der Werke of/von Lesego Rampolokeng
– Horns for Hondo (COSAW, 1990)
- Talking Rain (COSAW, 1993)
- End Beginnings (Shifty CD with the Kalahari Surfers, 1993)
- Writing for the play:„ Faustus in Africa„(1995)
- Rap Master Supreme – Word Bomber in the Extreme (1997)
- End Beginnings (German Translations) (Marino, 1998)
- Blue V’s (German Translations with CD) (Edition Solitude, 1998)
- The Bavino Sermons (Gecko Poetry, 1999)
- Fanons children in 2001
- The h.a.l.f. ranthology (CD with various musicians, 2002)
- Blackheart (Pine Slopes Publications, 2004)
- Whiteheart (deep south publishing, 2005)
- Participation in the documentary „Giant Steps„ about revoloutionary poets ,
- directed by Geoff Mphakati and Aryan Kaganof (2005)
Interview mit/with Lesego Rampolokeng 09.11.2010