“I’m super excited (about music),” he had told me that afternoon. “I was even watching the movie, if you know it, called August Rush. If you watch it then you’ll understand where I’m coming from.”
In the movie, an orphan hears music in literally everything from leaves blowing in the wind, to trains on a track. He travels to New York to find his musically-inclined parents and, along the way, learns the power he yields through his ability to hear and feel music.
“I watched it over and over and over again because it explains why some people are passionate about music,” PRO had said. “It’s oxygen. Without it, you’re going to struggle.” PRO said even when he was just sitting around, “please, no silence. Just play something. I want to hear something. It’s that deep.”
I watch August Rush with the spectre of that sentiment looming over me. Instead of just seeing a cheesy film where a savant of a child uses music to change his world and find his long-lost parents, I see a South African kid who used music to become a professional at changing how the people in his kasi, and beyond, saw themselves. At least that’s what I learned from him.
In that way, and in many others, PRO was more than a rapper. He was also a teacher. So it’s fitting that his hip hop family thought it would be right to start an education fund for his daughter, Nonkanyezi.
Funds are being raised through the Dankie San tribute concert, which will be held at Zone 6 Venue in Soweto on Sunday and hosted by Lee Kasumba, Loot Love, Moozlie and Sandile GQ.
It features the likes of Red Button, Maggz, HHP, Rouge, Zubz, AKA, Ms Cosmo, DJ Fresh and PRO’s brother, DJ Citi Lyts, among many others. Even those who aren’t in Gauteng are encouraged to donate towards this education fund.
Thato “DJ Fresh” Sikwane, who will be playing a hip hop set at the concert says: “I think it’s important that we’re (raising these funds) because that’s what normal people in societies do. We look out for each other and acknowledge where we might be needed to use our clout and our influence. A lot of the time, our clout and influence is actually misdirected, in my humble opinion. Where we do it to do good is why I’m in there.”
100% GENUINE RAPPER
So what did we learn from PRO? “What he taught all of hip hop is that you need to be authentic and genuine,” says Thabiso Khati, who was the head of media and promotions at Gallo when PRO was signed to the record company. “That is how you achieve fame. Even without hearing him say the word ‘Soweto’ you could tell that he was from Soweto. He was that authentic that it came through in how he walked and talked. He taught us that you need to put forward your genuine self in order to stand out.”
PRO was a product of the hip hop sessions in Soweto, but, unlike some others, when he crossed over to the mainstream, he took the whole metaphorical hood with him. Even a label wasn’t interested in dictating to him.
“With an artist like PRO, it was clear that you had to let him be as genuine and authentic as possible,” Khati continues. “If you’d seen him at a place like Slaghuis, you knew people liked him for that.
“Even with a song like Wozobona, the sound was very hard for a time when it was the 50 Cent and Joe Budden’s Pump It Up era. You needed a big, commercial single or love song from even the grittiest emcees.
“But if you listen to Wozobona, there isn’t that formula. It was pairing an ill lyricist with dope producers like Draztik, Amu, Omen, Dome - similar to how Nas’ Illmatic was created. People weren’t reacting to PRO looking for a big single; they were reacting to his flow and ingenuity.”
People were also reacting to how they could relate to him. Take the rapper, Red Button, for instance. He and PRO were so inseparable it’s not far-fetched to refer to the rapper born Neo Modise as PRO’s protege.
“The first time I heard PRO was when Soweto played on YFM,” Red Button remembers. “The likes of Skwatta Kamp already did it, but the way he played with words was amazing. Then I saw him introduce his Heads and Tales album through a performance in Dube. That’s when I went crazy and that’s when I started writing rhymes.”
Just like in August Rush, what PRO was seeking was also seeking him. Red Button idolised him at a time when PRO was hungry to hear the talent that was coming out of his hood, Soweto. PRO saw Red Button perform at Splash Jam and they became inseparable.
“When PRO signed to TS (Records), that’s when he brought me with him,” Red Button shares. “I’d open for him at performances - he was my idol. I’m actually very shy but PRO would always encourage me and tell me to not worry about people.
“He taught me a lot but if you listen to his music, you can hear that he wanted us to unite. He had positive energy and a positive message in his songs and they would become hits. He taught us we are more powerful when we stick together.”
In this way, Red Button had a front-row seat to PRO’s lecture about life.
LIVING THE WAY HE SHOULD
On Heads and Tales, there was a pensive ditty called Living The Way I Should, featuring the singer-songwriter Nothende. It saw PRO rap about his dream life, where his mansion is the size of a light house and Nothende write and sing an introspective chorus about rising from the bottom, never stopping and life being good.
“I was very nervous on that day,” Nothende recalls. “He was so chilled and made me trust in whatever I had to offer.
“When we got into the studio, we discussed the concept around what he had already written down.
“It was something prophetic and what we envisioned for ourselves. It was the kind of energy we would want to keep in our journey as artists: to always remember where we came from while being grateful for where we are.”
Nothende believes PRO taught people how to stay grounded by living the way he thought he should.
“Being a superstar in the industry makes it easy to succumb to those flashing lights,” she says. “He was never like that. He was genuinely happy for and wanted the best for people. What I learned from him is to see the good in people.”
BATTLE RHYMES ARE DRAWN
PRO was generous with being genuine and this was most clear on YFM’s The Unrestricted Breakfast Show, with Thato and Thato.
Here, the Big Thato was the Big Dawg: DJ Fresh.
In 2005, PRO’s debut album, Heads and Tales, was released. That was also around the time the gifted rapper, Kaydo, seemingly took issue with the attention bestowed upon PRO - who was then known as Prokid.
So lines were drawn and it was decided that PRO and Kaydo would battle it out through rhyme, live on Unrestricted.
“YFM was ideally positioned for everyone to chart their own path,” DJ Fresh explains.
“PRO had just signed a deal with Gallo and I think Kaydo took exception to the hype. That was the genesis of the beef and we decided to make an appointment and promo-ed the hell out of it for a week,” he laughs.
Kaydo conceded defeat and said he’d give the win to PRO because “he’s taken it anyway”.
That became a lesson in standing your ground, even when you seem shaky in some rounds.
PRO also taught the artists who followed his footsteps that there was pride in the mother tongue.
“In a lot of interviews we did before PRO, guys would force themselves to speak English even when speaking vernac would help them express themselves better,” says DJ Fresh.
“As with his music, PRO used whatever language he found best to express himself. So not only did he do something special, he was something special.”
They say those who can’t do, teach. But PRO not only taught, he taught by being the example.
So on Sunday, his peers and the students of his game will come together in his name to show us what they’ve learned.
* The Dankie San tribute concert takes place at Zone 6 Venue in Soweto on Sunday, August 26. Tickets are priced from R100 at Computicket.