In 2012, someone uploaded a video to YouTube. It’s of a 19-year-old student called Maya Wegerif, and she’s performing her poem "Why You Talk So White?" in a New York basement. When she first gets on stage people are shuffling and giggling. By the time she’s into her second line, though, the audience have gone silent. What follows is a vivid and potent articulation on the nuances of racism; how something as simple as a question can contain a multitude of microagressions which can be traced back to its source. The video swiftly went viral—or viral-ish for 2012 at least—but that was the last we heard of her. Until recently, that is.
These days Maya Wegerif is better known as Sho Madjozi, and she’s not a poet, she’s a rapper. She may not yet have reached the upper echelons of the genre’s mainstream, but you might already know her from "Dumi Hi Phone," a bouncing, high energy rap track set to industrial Gqom beats, or else "Huku," in which her melodic vocal wraps itself around some intense, cold rhythms. Mostly, she raps in Xitsonga—the South African language spoken in her home province of Limpopo—and her flow is rapid and lilting, a perfect accompaniment to the icy, upbeat instrumentation. But she’s also more than that description. As you can see from that spoken word video back in 2012, and as her music videos have screamed since, Sho Madjozi is a force to be reckoned with. She has a certain magnetism, and its hard to pin down, but it’s the sort you’ll recognize when you see it.
"I never meant to be a rapper," Sho tells me over the phone from her apartment in central Johannesburg. She’s explaining how, for a long time, making music wasn’t even on her radar. She was always writing, but even that was more of a practical thing. "I felt like poetry was a way to express my political views," she continues. "Like, with 'Why You Talk So White?' I wanted to challenge the notion that there’s one way of being black. When I’m asked why I talk 'so white,' they mean British-sounding, but if you talk American-sounding, that’s just a different oppressor. I speak Xitsonga, I speak Swahili, I speak Zulu. That’s when I’m talking black." She pauses for a moment, as if thinking back to that time. "I was actually banned from performing that poem on campus—I think it was seen as divisive—but they still wanted me to go to the event. I ended up performing it anyway. And then the video [of that poem, later recorded in New York] went viral, and my popularity grew.”
Soon after that, though, Sho found herself veering away from poetry after becoming frustrated with the scene she had become involved in. "I find those poetry circles extremely annoying and elitist," she explains, as I imagine her rolling her eyes at the end of the line. "In the village I’m from—which is very rural—people don’t understand what the fuck I’m saying. And these poetry circles can feel like we’re just preaching to each other. But we all believe in these things, we’re all woke. And then to even enter those spaces you’re going to be privileged, so I felt disingenuous. It didn’t have the impact I needed it to have, so I left the community.... With my music now, I rap in Xitsonga, so I reach way more people."
One of Sho’s earliest ventures into music arrived in the shape of a few bright bars on South African rapper Okmalumkoolkat's "Ngiyashisa Bhe and Gqi," which came out last year. It’s a hard, skeletal Gqom banger with a video shot on a smartphone, emitting the kind of DIY aesthetic and frenetic energy that might remind British kids of classic grime videos from the 2000s. But how did Sho go from leaving poetry behind, to suddenly becoming a rapper? "I knew I could write, so I wanted to be a ghostwriter," she says, “It had never even occurred to me that I could be the person on stage, and that was just a year and a half ago. Then Okmalumkoolkat convinced me I could be a rapper in my own right. I scribbled down a few lines for him, and he was blown away. I guess because nobody had ever really thought to rap in Xitsonga in that way. Then he was like, 'well, why don’t we record you now?' And then it was like… I’ll just carry on."
In some ways, it feels like Sho is almost an accidental rapper. But that’s not to say it doesn’t come with ease, because it clearly does. "The more it happens, the more it feels orchestrated because it fits in such a way that feels planned," she considers. Since then, her profile has risen at warp speed. She’s delivered a bunch of features alongside her own tracks, and earlier this year, she flew to London to mentor young musicians as part of Nando’s music exchange, following in the footsteps of Stormzy and Little Simz. "The goal is to bring aspiring musicians from all over the world, get them to come to London and spend a week writing with each other and getting mentored," Sho says. "I put on different sessions and listened to their songs. My particular angle was telling them about the technical side of things, and the business of it; how to make it work if you want to be a commercially successful musician."
So what next? Like a lot of artists at this time of the year, Sho is spending the next few months playing festivals, bringing her melodic, high energy rap sound to different parts of the globe. After summer’s over, though, she’ll be releasing her debut album, in September. "It’s pretty epic because I get to do what I want to do. All of this time I’ve been on other people’s albums, but now it’s going to be like: This is Sho Madjozi, for reals."
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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.