"Umswenko" recently inserted itself into South Africa's ever-shifting collective vocabulary. Umswenko you say? According to rapper Okmalumkoolkat the term is a direct translation of "swag" in the Zulu language. If ever there was a signifier that the word's been accepted into popular vernacular, then look no further than Mini Cooper using it as a hashtag in a recent twitter campaign. Thanks to the song "Mswenkofontein"—a collaboration between SA artists Okmalumkoolkat, Stilo Magolide and uSanele from Boyzn Bucks, and legendary local producer Sibot—the word is now commonplace.
In South Africa, when this song drops and the chorus hits, dance floors erupt like a bunch of sugar-high kids on a bouncy castle. Sibot has managed to make a bomb purely out of bass, but also the song resonates because it represents pure, unbridled self-expression. It's an anthemic ode to South African street style and and individuality.
That individuality and style come through in the music video we're premiering here today, shot by Lebogang Rasethaba (of Future Sounds of Mzansi fame) with Okmalumkoolkat in Joburg's home of young trend setters, Braamfontein. South Africa has a long history of fancy dressers and dancers—from the pantsula dancers in the 50s and 60s, to the more recent swenkas (Working-class Zulu men who dress up for competitions based on choreography and "swank") shown in the opening of the video to Jozi's colourful youth who turn up in the video with Boyzn Bucks.
South Africa is in its twenty-first year of democracy and with Boyzn Bucks we get to hear and see what that really means. A creative collective similar to OFWGKTA in that they're a multi-talented crew of musicians, rappers, designers, and even TV presenters, their crew are redefining the sound and look of the South African youth. We bounced a some emails back and forth with Okmalumkoolkat about umswenko, pushing South African culture globally, and the connection between fashion and music.
Here's what the inventor of Zulu Science Fiction rap had to say.
Noisey: For those not in the know, can you talk a little bit about Umswenko.
Okmalumkoolkat: Umswenko is a lifestyle that we, the youth of South Africa are all about. It's based on excellence and random acts of nation building [coming together as South Africans despite our differences] in a fun, responsible way. It's all about boosting the confidence of our youth through knowledge of self and global awareness simultaneously. Like, "Hey, a kid from Durban is as cool as a kid from Paris, or New York, or London." We actually have more umswenko because we are not really following global trends anymore, even though we are aware through the interweb—we are leading.
There are many unique styles coming out of South Africa and there's been debate locally about big name international artists taking sounds from SA and not giving credit where credit's due. Do you see that changing the more we push on a global scale?
Yes, at some point we will be on the same level with our global peers and not just a reference or a well of ideas for the first world. The more we do and expose out there, the better.
I enjoyed seeing Jo'burg as more than just gritty or flashy, but vibrant and youthful. The video looked like a lot of fun to make, how'd the video come together and who worked on it?
Me and Lebogang Rasethaba (of Future Sounds of Mzansi fame) worked on the storyline and directed it together. We wanted to capture the current energy of umswenko right now, also to connect that with the original sapeurs—swenkas [working-class Zulu men who dress up for competitions based on their choreographed expressions of "swank" shown in the introduction of the video] from the hostels. The link between fashion and lifestyles of the youth in the 2000s. I hope the world sees a bit of South Africa through this piece.
Boyzn Bucks came together through a similar appreciation of fashion and you've always strived to be progressive in both your sound and how you dress, how does fashion tie in with your music?
My whole thing is to communicate, so fashion, design, my online persona, my art—it's all connected. I talk a lot about my lifestyle in my music because I feel it is very important to let you in through a little window now and again. Just like how Biggie made us imagine his Brooklyn, or how Dom Kennedy can paint the life he lives in Leimert Park in Los Angeles, presentation is a big part of what we do and how people receive you, so fashion is very crucial element.
How did the collaboration with Sibot come about? He's been around for over a decade but some people think he's a new producer. Have you found that the track crosses over with the black and white markets here?
We had been pushing the song at shows without recording it first, so we'd grab random beats from global producers. We had to get the best of the best for the recorded version. We have worked on a couple of things with Sibot and we are recording more soon. My other goal is to bring everybody together, quickly. The Cape Town electronic scene is so solid but remains way underground and that's a shame, so we're gonna make it overground without watering it down.
"Mswenkofontein" and all of my songs include everybody who is willing to listen, not to the words but the energy, I think the days of cross over are over. Art is art and radio stations are starting to get used to the idea of playing whatever they like, instead of finding a couple of genres or a particular market, all thanks to the interweb.
South Africa has 11 official languages and you often switch between three or four of them as well as vernacular slang, does it come naturally to you or is it an intentional representation of the diversity of language in South Africa?
I thought vernacular was also in the 11! I actually speak a lot of languages with different people, like, sometimes I find myself talking to my six year old son in slang! I don't really think about it but that's just how I like to express myself. There is so much to choose from you know, born in Zulu and English speaking Durban with so many slang variations, we could create three more languages from there. The move to Johannesburg just added more flavor into my pot of expression. A trip to Cape Town now and again adds more. I think I am linguist who studies from the streets and lectures in them.
You started out as a pantsula dancer and have added a couple of your own dances like the Taxi Driver to pop culture. Does your platform as a musician allow for you to push dancing?
I admit I started as a pantsula dancer when I was about eight years old, but I soon got involved in a different style called Durban Jit. We were pioneers even back then, from '97-2002 we were pushing the Durban Jit, which soon gave birth to Durban Bheng and now I see the kids in Durban are still pushing Durban Double-Step. I have come up with countless other dances but yeah, the Taxi Driver is the biggest one to date. I am currently shaping this one genre I call Gqomwave and demands a lot of dancing from me. It's dope because dance is such an important language in the grand scheme of things.
Gqomwave? I assume that's an extension of Gqom? [Gqom can best be described as lo-fi, off-beat house heavy on snares that's risen out of Durban townships recently.] How is Gqomwave different?
Gqomwave is this new style with crazy rap flows over Gqom Beats. The world is not even aware of Gqom music so we are trying to speed up the process.
Boyzn Bucks started out as a crew of friends who wanted to create together. Now that you're breaking through as a group and as individuals, is there an issue of some guys having higher profiles or does individual success help push the whole crew?
Boyzn Bucks started out as a crew of friends who were brought together by a love for style and the arts. We didn't have a name then, but we were always pushing our respective works and striving for excellence ever since. We push each other so that fuels everybody to go forward.
And finally, you recently toured Europe and recorded your Holy Oxygen I EP with Affine Records in Vienna, where to next?
I am currently sorting out my UK Visa because I got booked for The Great Escape Festival in Brighton (this May). Holy Oxygen I Remix EP coming soon. Holy Oxygen II has already been recorded and getting mastered just waiting on drop dates. I'm also scheming on a mixtape once I hit a 100k on Facebook/Insta/Twitter. Just putting that together is so much fun because I am doing everything myself for a change. I also just got off the Red Bull Corner To Corner Tour where we were playing impromptu shows on township corners. That whole experience got me thinking a lot more about live shows and what really excites me about this craft.