I am not in the same place I was four years ago, and that’s ok.
Khuli Chana stands at the edge of the tent, sunglasses on, wearing a maroon jacket with multicoloured print details. Around him are pop heartthrob Kyle Deutsch, pre-Mabala Noise Gigi Lamayne and Durban affiliate Aewon Wolf and his Wolf Pack. They are all here to accompany Chana during this Durban Day performance. As the rest of the celebrities in the backstage area mingle and drown in libation, Chana sits away from the crowd, at times mumbling to himself, making discreet hand gestures as if he’s playing his set in his mind, willing it into existence.
But it won’t – exist, that is. Two minutes before he is scheduled to go on stage and churn out his signature anthems, a handler from the event pulls him aside with his manager and tells them his performance won’t be going ahead. A boy has been fatally stabbed in the crowd and entire show is being shut down. “How old was he? Is anybody else hurt?” Those are the first two sentences out of his mouth.
Chana knows a thing or two about death and cheating it. In October 2013, as he was pulling into a petrol station, he was shot at nine times after a police operation went wrong and his car was mistaken as that of a kidnapper on the run. “The whole thing was a big disturbance to me, because I had crazy momentum and then I had to deal with the shooting. It forced me to see things differently and reorganise my life and not just focus on work,” he says.
Unprompted violence is a recurring trope in the South African story, and the cause of traumas real and unspoken. I ask Chana if he saw a therapist after the incident, and he admits that at first he didn’t want to, but after months of sleepless nights and anxiety that refused to subside, he gave in. “As black men, we are often taught to deal with our pain our own way. It took me a while before I even tried to find help, because I thought I could handle the trauma. I had a very delayed reaction to the whole thing, and after a year or two and family members seeing the change in my behaviour, I knew I had to get help.”
Hip-hop in general, and in South Africa specifically, suffers from a chronic attachment to the masculine. And part of that means the harbouring of toxic energy, even at the expense of self-care. The shooting could have so easily seen Chana rebrand himself as a gangster rapper. Instead, he went the other route. “It was a crossroads for me, and I knew I could not use what happened to me for negativity. I thought I should use it to draw attention to the violence in our country, and be a voice for those who have survived it.”
But therapy didn’t just offer him some respite from the fear of being shot at. Chana tells me it helped him face some long-gestating pain of his father abandoning him and his mother. “It’s taken me a while to make sense of the rift between my parents, and how my relationship with my father went from minimal to non-existent. It’s something that I have had to work through.”
Chana, who is now a father himself to a four-year-old daughter, Nia Lesika, admits that not having a paternal figure himself has made him slightly more protective of his child. Perhaps it was that paternal instinct that was kicking in on that typically humid Durban night as thousands of revellers made their way out of the People’s Park at Moses Mabhida Stadium, whilst one of them lay in a body bag, no longer able to say the word “home”.
Chana has seen it all. His star looms large and there is no doubt about his place at the top of South African hip-hop’s food chain. But as the industry grows and becomes more competitive, as new MCs find their voice and rhyme circles around their predecessors, Chana has found himself thrust into a new space: that of being the elder statesman. “It’s something that I have learned over time. I am not in the same place I was four years ago, and that’s ok. The worst thing I could try do is hold on to my twenties, through how I carry myself and what my music is about,” he says. “Right now, I am trying to be a template for what a rapper can be in their thirties, ‘cause we haven’t really had that.”
As part of accepting this new mission, Chana has travelled the continent, spreading the gospel of a pan-African hip-hop movement. Through his latest body of work, One Source, he has collaborated with musicians across the continent and extended his reach to corners of the world that he didn’t even know existed when he started beatboxing and rhyming on his mother’s kitchen table.
Closer to home, he has also partnered with Red Bull Amaphiko Academy on a new documentary initiative, The Rise of We. Amaphiko aims to lend support to social entrepreneurs with new ideas aimed at making a difference in the communities they occupy. Speaking about the film, Chana highlights that giving back is the cornerstone of the initiative. “Initially, when the idea was pitched to me, I wasn’t sure, but my curiosity got the better of me and I learned a lot from being with people whose work is not just about profit, but about making a difference.”
Misha Teasdale, an environmental activist and one of the four social entrepreneurs profiled in the film, says: “It was really cool hanging out with the film crew, as well as Khuli. They were all very cool people that I seemed to really connect with, and I enjoyed showing them the ropes of tree planting – we were gearing up to plant 5 000 trees that weekend,” he says. “We ended up getting into some real heart-to-heart conversations that had a profound impact on me. Discussing marriage and large-life decisions allowed us to connect on a deeper level in a very short amount of time.”
The other social entrepreneurs that he interacted with are Thabang Mabapa, founder of Selokong sa Dimelana, which looks at fossil fuel alternatives, particularly using castor oil and castor cakes; Samantha Ngcolomba, who established a mobile legal office to provide services to women who do not have access to legal advice; and Thato Kgatlhanye, who, among other initiatives, turns supermarket plastic bags into waterproof, reflective school bags with a solar power unit to provide light.
Chana’s story is well known: young boy from Mafikeng, a former gymnast, falls in love with rap. Churning out intricate rhyme schemes in his signature syllable flow, inserting Setswana into the South African pop lexicon and releasing songs faster and better than most South African rappers before or after him.
However, I am one of those who didn’t believe. When I first heard him on 2005’s Maruapula The Anticipation, as one third of Morafe, it was clear that he was a more than competent MC. His cadence was splendid, but he seemed overwhelmed at times, compared to the seamless smoothness with which Towdee Mac rode the beat.
But he has won me over. His flow is pitch perfect, the way he switches between rhyming on and off the beat in the same verses is impressive, but it is his utter vulnerability in an environment where other MCs are either over the top and boastful or conscious and aloof that makes him stand out from the crowd.
You don’t have to know him intimately to see that Chana is a perfectionist. Even during our conversations, he says something and then stops, not taking it back but rephrasing it – at times for clarity, and other times, well, other times I’m not too sure why. He is a word-worker in every area of his life. “Refinement” is Robert De Niro’s favourite word. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Chana’s, too.