"You can say that again!" Nozinja says with a guffaw, flashing an easy, gap-toothed grin as he pats his belly. "I am honored."
The 45-year-old old producer, born Richard Mthetwa, is the don of Shangaan electro—a dizzying, arrhythmia-inducing, and interestingly bass-less take on the music of the Shangaan people, an ethnic group in South Africa. Replacing the traditional live instrumentation with drum machines, sequencers, and MIDI keyboards, Nozinja basically invented the genre while working in a cell-phone repair store in Soweto, releasing music on his own label.
Next month, Nozinja's debut LP Nozinja Lodge will come out on Warp Records—a sign of just how huge Shangaan electro has become. Yet, it's evident that Nozinja is still in awe of his own impact. In New York for the first time to headline Electronic Africa, the kickoff event for Red Bull Music Academy Festival, he spends most of our chat laughing off the fact that he's often referred to as the "Ambassador of Shangaan" and the "township Simon Cowell."
"To be honored is something you don't say yes or no," he says coyly, taking a sip of his drink. "You have to go with the flow."
Nozinja describes his people as "the most welcoming nation" in South Africa—their jubilant attitudes are clearly reflected in their futuristic, technicolor productions. Sped up to a bone-liquefying 189 BPM, Shangaan electro has been compared to Chicago footwork; this month, Nozinja even teamed up with footwork originator RP Boo on a collaborative mix.
However, despite what his flamingo-hued feather armbands and purple tassel-strewn pants would suggest, Nozinja confesses that he prefers "being in the studio rather than being in the public eye." He motions wistfully toward the sound room several times. "I look at this place, I look at this studio, and I'm like, why can't they just [let me do my thing]?" More accustomed to being the puppet master than the center-of-attention, he hangs back during his show later that night, letting his dancers' tropi-neon flashes of xibelani skirt circles take the spotlight.
In addition to creating his own music, Nozinja is also the production talent behind the Tshetsha Boys, Shangaan stars who appear as a group of orange jumpsuit-wearing clowns. He also acts as mentor to Bacardi House pioneer DJ Spoko. Rather than a production superstar or Shangaan figurehead, Nozinja defines himself as "a businessman." Even the way he navigates our conversation exemplifies this, as he skillfully dodges any questions that could possibly lead to hints of negativity when speaking about the marginalization of the Shangaan minority in South Africa.
Yet, Nozinja's New York debut is a pretty big deal. Back in 2011, when his Shangaan crew did a 14-city tour of Europe for the first time, tour manager and musicologist Wills Glasspiegel described it as "a historic moment for Shangaan culture."
"This is a kind of music and ethnic group long marginalized in the country," Glasspiegel told MTV Iggy. "It's music that South Africans at large don't take seriously or think of patronizing."
In fact, the closest we get to this issue is when I ask about Shangaan visibility in local media, to which he admits there is not much of.
"I wish they could do more…especially on TV," he says carefully. "Only one radio station promotes our music… next time, we hope our government will promote our slot on TV."
But all this will hopefully be changing soon enough. Nozinja says his Warp release and international travels have already been elevating the Shangaan presence—a feat he says is easily expressing by a traditional saying that roughly translates to "letting my work speak for itself."
"I am in this with the pride of my nation on my shoulders," he sighs happily, giving me a big bear hug as we part ways. "To expose my music to the world, and show that we are also a global people… I am so very, very happy for it."
Nozinja Lodge is out June 2 on Warp
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