Sibusiso Simane carefully steps on to a stage in front of a temperamental crowd dressed in baggy jeans and hooded tops at Rockerfella pub in Rockville, Soweto.
The 20-year-old, also known as “Sbuda P”, nervously pauses to catch his breath, sporting oversized sunglasses, a cap worn backwards, a black coat and torn jeans sagging below his hips.
He strides back and forth in front of the crowd, holding their gaze for 15 minutes, working without notes, punctuating and contemplatively mouthing slang-infused lyrics about social problems in his township.
Feeling his way through to the crowd, Simane swaps Zulu and English verses over a heavy hip hop beat, listing social problems; poverty, prostitution and crime that plague his neighbourhood.
In his lyrics, Simane, who records his music at home, evokes the temptations of dealing with drugs and easy money and all the obscure things that have come to define his neighbourhood.
“What I see on the streets every day inspires me to do this,” he says. “Most of my lyrical content is based on the true story of my life and that of my neighbourhood. I find it easier to express myself in this way because I love hip hop.”
It is a Wednesday night just after 10pm inside a pub in the middle of Rockville, Soweto, where a surreal session is unfolding known to locals as the Arts 101 – a weekly hip hop show in a warehouse-like space.
Restless youngsters pack the floor, some awaiting their weekly moment of truth to showcase their talent and skill in what has now become a gathering of aspiring hip hop artists.
Many have spent the previous week practising every day until dark, others juggling jobs and trekking from neighbouring locations, risking muggings in the night for a chance to step on the stage and maybe, perhaps, be noticed.
Standing near the stage with his head nodding to and fro to the sound, Vusimuzi Msomi – the sessions host – is beaming.
“The talent in this neighbourhood is wicked,” he says in hip hop parlance. “More than any other thing, we started this Arts 101 as a platform for the young people to come spend their evening doing something that could in future turn into gold. The whole event was started using social networks to get everyone to come here.”
This is one of the many hip hop sessions held here this year. The aspiring artists all have to record and perform two songs to the cheering crowd. That’s about 10 minutes to throw their chest out and have the “small world” in front of them scream for more.
“Two songs each and no more,” says Msomi. “We try by all means to have the rules clear, such as all who are interested in performing must register with us prior to the shows and have their names on the performers’ list for the night.”
It is like a clubhouse, adds Msomi. And through Arts 101 the organisers are trying to give a lease of life to Soweto’s talent. Although music scouts rarely venture this deep into the township, especially late in the night, none of it matters for now. The organisers can sense the outside world will find it hard to ignore them soon despite their choice of music – hip hop – which originates in the US.
Msomi believes the music has filtered into some remarkably unlikely places and is emerging as a “fast rising” subculture even in the townships.
“Hip hop has inspired the globe and the demand for the music is massive even here in Soweto. It has become a way of life for many of us even if we don’t make a living out of it yet,” says Msomi.
“All that matters now is that these talented people here have a chance to step on the stage and maybe who knows who could be watching them.”
For a lanky, tattooed Mandla Lekoekoe, whose young companions have nicknamed him “Hyper Gee”, to get the platform to perform even to a crowd and express himself is to live a dream.
“I have turned my own bedroom into a production studio where I produce my beats every week to prepare for this show,” he explains. “I grew up in Tladi and ever since I was 16 years old I always wanted to be a hip hop artist, and through this platform I don’t think I am that far from living that dream.”
Just over a month ago, having heard of the late night hip hop sessions at Rockerfella, Lekoekoe showed up followed by a group of wary friends, clutching a CD with two songs he had recorded in his bedroom. Msomi recalls the tension.
“They were all trying to force me into a corner to include their music on the line-up,” he remembers. “But once Hyper Gee went to the microphone, we were off and running. We knew that talent and skill was in abundance here.”
Reclining on a nearby sofa, Mpho Singo, public relations officer at Rockerfella Soweto, describes the scene inside the pub as “explosive and impressive”.
“Providing the platform for these sessions was nothing more than just saying ‘if you can’t go to town to experience a similar scene, we will bring town to you’,” she says. “But the important thing is that we are giving an opportunity to an art form that is truly rooted in the community we serve. This is not just any other gathering of aspiring hip hop artists; it is truly unique here where none of such existed before.”
With the neighbourhood deep into midnight sleep and the thumping music getting heavier by the hour as youngsters scramble on the floor for a chance on stage, Singo hopes some good will come out of this.
“I have seen some really good things with having these young people here every night. They have showed nothing but respect for each other and what they do,” she says. “I haven’t seen any fights, drugs or crime. I’ve only seen a lot of talent.”
Whether or not residents of the township will remain quiet amid the midweek noise madness remains to be seen. None of this matters to the crowd or performers who, at this moment, feel they have been granted a higher calling.
Every group of them gathered here, it seems, have something in common – they love hip hop and rap music.
During the show, the audience on the sidelines stand with their hands in the air singing along to verse by verse to almost every song performed.
By the time the show ends, the performers and the crowds retreat into their quiet neighbourhoods in a good mood.
They go back feeling the strength of their hits, adds Msomi.
“They know they are becoming ready to live a dream,” he says. “What the Arts 101 has done really is to bring something positive – a melting pot of talent – out of the misery of poverty and joblessness among the youth in the township.”
For Simane, a new beginning seems possible already. His newly recorded album, Street Lights, is receiving airplay and he has sold hundreds of the CDs hand-to-hand to adoring fans.
“This platform has really given me a huge support.
“Even if it doesn’t exist tomorrow, I’m going to have to keep pushing,” he adds.