Okmalumkoolkat has his own algorithm when it comes to rap. That much is evident in the uncanny concoction of lingo and anomalous flows he employs in his lyrics. The 33-year-old rapper’s singular approach to music was largely influenced by his upbringing in Durban, where he carried the less striking and more conventional name, Smiso Zwane.
“I grew up in uMlazi, for the most part, then moved to Bonela, this post-apartheid RDP township where there's coloured people and Indian people. So you can imagine that slang from uMlazi, (combined with the) slang from Bonela from the Indian guys and the coloured guys. And I'm also coming up with my own thing.”
In the hierarchy of South African rap stars, Okmalumkoolkat has had a more far-reaching impact on youth culture through his style – which plays out in his distinct dance moves and fashion sense – than any of his peers.
His career has scaled dizzying heights that have landed him on stages in places as far flung as France, Austria and Switzerland, and seen him fall to the forlorn lows of being imprisoned for indecent assault.
We are sitting across from each other at the Kitchener's Carvery Bar in the cultural melting pot of Braamfontein. No area better exemplifies his impact than this, where “Braam kids” are known to mimic his signature dress code and attempt his lingo.
Okmalumkoolkat has performed at this bar in the past and, seeing as he lives close by, he often comes to Braamfontein to visit friends who work around here.
“This being the hub for all your young, creative African kids, it's natural that I started here. Before that it was Melville. But now everyone moved here.”
He used to work and live in Melville for Nike SA, which had a premium store slash gallery there. He managed the gallery and ended up doing digital co-ordination, which led to him doing marketing for Nike Sportswear SA alongside the likes of MK Fresh and uSanele, with whom he’d later collaborate (along with Riky Rick and Stilo Magolide) and form a group called BoyzinBucks.
They started throwing parties behind a friend’s house, and Okmalumkoolkat would perform there. That got big, and so they started throwing the party at the back of the Nike store. What essentially brought all these people together was a shared love for sneakers.
“My fashion is really inspired by the Joburg CBD,” he explains. The gold Casio watch on his wrist is common in these parts, although it’s usually worn in the more modest shade of silver.
“And also Durban,” he continues. “People in Durban are probably the most stylish people I’ve seen in the world. I say this because they don’t subscribe to fashion TV or the internet. I don’t know where they get their sense of style, but it’s really on point.”
Despite a long and decorated career, Okmalumkoolkat only recently released his first solo album, Mlazi Milano, on December 23. The album features the likes of Riky Rick, AKA and Petite Noir. He started recording early in 2016.
“I had the ideas, maybe two years before, of where I wanted to go, but it still wasn't really clear. I do a lot of stuff as different characters. I did Holy Oxygen (his 2014 mixtape) as Future Mfana, this guy from the future who’s very futuristic in his thinking and raps.
“With Mlazi Milano I wanted to show you the guy from uMlazi. I don’t even live there any more, but I took so much from there because I was very observant as a child. With Mlazi Milano I wanted to give you my childhood days. And also the grown up Mlazi Milano, that guy who grew up in that situation and is doing this now.”
The title track, Mlazi Milano, presents his life story, he adds. “There’s no sugar on there. That’s like my life from ’86 until maybe ’95.”
Coming off the back of his much publicised imprisonment in Australia almost exactly a year ago, Mlazi Milano naturally carries some weight. It’s a heavy album that unfolds slowly with each listen. On recording the album’s first single, Ntwana Yam, Okmalumkoolkat said in an interview with Shiz Niz last year that he had transitioned to the “malume” (uncle, or elder) zone instead of the “koolkat” zone.
I ask him what he meant by this and what influence being in prison had on his music.
He considers his response for a moment. “It just got me into malume mode. You start thinking about how a lot of your fans are kids. But I haven't looked at music differently. I’ve always looked at music as a form of communication,” he says.
“It’s like what you hear on Don Dada. I talk about swagging out in a club, but I tell you it’s past tense. On Ntwana Yam I’m talking more about building society than being negative. At the same time I understand my role as a musician. I’m also like a Quentin Tarantino, I have to make movies. And there’s gonna be a backlash sometimes.
“Sometimes I’ll be a bad guy and sometimes I’ll be a good guy. Malume is more of the good guy. But I can’t be preachy and boring at the same time and sound like KRS1. I’m not being preachy about it, I’m showing you. I’m painting.”
Instead of dwelling on the incident, which he’s been keeping relatively mum about in the 12 months since, he’s chosen to use his music to share his life experiences.
“It was a time for me to express my actual story. I use a lot of slang and people who get me say, ‘Yo this is crazy’. And then there’s the 70% who say, ‘It sounds good, but we don’t know what he’s talking about’. With the album I wanted everybody to be like, ‘Oh that’s why he’s like that, because he went to a township school. He grew up with Indian and Coloured people – that’s why his language is so mixed.’”
When we’re done with our interview, the photographer takes some pictures of Okmalumkoolkat near the DJ booth and outside the restaurant. A few fans stop to watch. One comes to take a selfie, while others watch from afar. It remains unclear if he’s overcome the negative press and regained his widespread popularity.
For now, the jury is still out!