Jitsvinger: Practicing, Not Preaching

“The metaphysical properties of hip-hop, the metaphors, helped me imagine a better world."

Jitsvinger. (Screengrab from Youtube).

Jitsvinger is concerned with matters of identity. Language. Land. Becoming. Being. He delves deep into the “who are you?” and “why?” Through his lyrical, rhythmic fast-paced rhymes, he aims to do more that entertain. He enlightens. In stark comparison to the flashy, bling-culture of the hip hop of late, he wears his humility like a cloak. “People always wonder about how I made it. How I’m making a living of my art but they don’t know what happens behind the scenes. How hard the hustle is. How I manage to make my rent.” However, money is not what drives him. He’s curious. A little subversive. Unwilling to accept the status quo-the practices and regiments passed down like ill-fitting clothing. “I am concerned about the unsung heroes. People in every sphere who make unrecognized contributions. You have to know what came before you. What was done and was has been done. The artists who invested in what we have now. The historians and the story-tellers.”

It’s a fine line to tread though. The tenuous balance of making history while attempting to preserve it. “I recognize that while I’m exploring and discovering, digging the facts and tracing roots; what I say and do becomes part of the puzzle as well.” Historians make history. Storytellers become the stories. People who dare to tell their own truth, in a personalized manner, become truth.

“Where I come from there’s a demand for identity.” He rolls his eyes up, as if searching for an answer on the ceiling. “People are interrogating race, culture. So we observe and we unpack. It’s an ongoing process.”

He brings the same passion for preservation into how he makes his music. Discovering hip-hop in the early 90’s, he found through it an escape. A raw honesty previously unheard of, unwitnessed. “The metaphysical properties of hip-hop, the metaphors, helped me imagine a better world,” he muses. “I’d get tapes from my brothers and cousins, lock myself up in my room and see what they were rapping about right outside my window. I thought to myself ‘let me try’”.

While he’s a popular Afrikaans vernac rapper now, he began penning his first rhymes in English. “When I discovered poetry and hip hop, English was the medium. That is how I saw other lyricists expressing themselves.” And then he discovered Adam Small. “He wrote the way we spoke, in our dialect, and then I realized that for my music to be accessible, it has to speak to people in way they know and trust.”

“I used to rap in the streets. I hardly performed. I would call into radio stations like Bush Radio, and kick it freestyle over the phone. That’s how I met the local hip hop community. I went from beat boxer to songwriter to full-on musician.” I ask what kept him away from the stage for so long. Was it apprehension? Perhaps some kind of performance anxiety? “I had to build a relationship with the music first. I had to understand what I was doing? What I was trying to do?”

You see was always there. Jits comes from a huge musical family. Grandparents, uncles and aunts; all musicians in their own right. “They were a music institution and they didn’t even know it,” he exclaims. “My mom taught me how to play the guitar!” Nothing street-hard about that, but nothing easy either.

He was still stuck in the factories. Laced up in boots and blue overalls, brewing a plan. “When I was working in the factories, I would look around and see old men who had been there their whole lives. Who were content, or rather they thought they were content. I’d be labelling boxes, or preparing packages with Busta or The Last Emperor,or Wu Tang in my head. I used to think ‘This is not my life. I didn’t make this decision. This is not my lot to carry.’ Rhyming was the escape hatch at the back of my head.” So he kicked down that door, and found his freedom.

He used his bare minimum wages to purchase beats from hip hop street icon, Wayne [Wayne Robertson, alias Hipe, formerly of the duo Ancient Men with Dmus]. He sold his beats for R50 a pop, sometimes cutting Jitsvinger a little discount deal or two. “Then Wayne slipped one of my songs to Ready D and I started getting some airplay. The song made it to a compilation disc called Faculty of Hip Hop-Bootleg no. 3. I still have the C.D. now.”

Again we loop back to issues of identity. To his involvement in Dylan Valley’s Afrikaaps. The documentary film, released late in 2010, traced the history of Afrikaans in the manner it is spoken in the Cape; challenging the idea that it is a white language; claiming it as an indigenous language. As a taal. “This project was very important to me.” Again his eyes scroll upwards. “The thing is, language is connected the land and its history. Its migration is our migration.” But the award-winning movie was met with criticism. The self-proclaimed keepers of all things Afrikaans contested the assertions made in the film. The historians and their fragile, white porcelain memories were up in arms. “We had people like Breyten Breytenbach, the poster boy Afrikaaner telling us that Afrikaan was dead. I was like, ‘whose Afrikaans are you talking about?’ We had to press on because people didn’t know. They didn’t know about Cape Slave history.” He zips down jacket, revealing a Grahamstown Arts fest hoodie underneath

I’m beginning to wonder if in his interrogations of identity, he has managed to discover himself. If what he proclaims is evident in his own life. If while challenge people to challenge themselves, to find themselves; he’s managed to figure himself out. His answer is revealing. He’s spent a huge part of his professional life trying to unearth the coloured identity, you would think that has somehow informed his; but when I ask him simply “Who are you?” he responds, “I am a word designer.”

“I don’t conform to being coloured or black,” he elaborates.

Me: “So you’re an artist before you’re anything else? Before you’re coloured or black or a man or a South African?”

Jits: “I’ve travelled a lot. I’ve gotten the opportunity to another perspective on who I am and where I’m from. I’ve found people all over the world who don’t look like me or speak like me, but they’re all my brothers and sisters in hip hop.”

Me: “But you say you’ve backed away from hip hop in a traditional sense? Are you redefining the relationship again?”

Jits: “I had to step out of hip hop for a while. I had to. I don’t think I need to rethink my relationship with the music, I think our hip hop needs to redefine itself in general. What is hip hop in Africa? What is African hip hop? We need to figure it out ‘cause it’s a huge broadcasting system. It’s the pulse of society. I want to approach music from a contemporary angle. Come up with something wholesome.”

Hip hop is alive in a tangible manner in this province. It’s not in bottles of champagne and music video lifestyles, it’s still in the street. In graffiti as politics. In rhymes as activism. In some kind puritanical observation of the five elements. Hip hop as religion, as daily bread. “There’s something about Cape Town that makes it perfect for pure hip hop. Something in its mysticism.” A mistiness has crept into his voice. “ cause the creativity here isn’t confined to Ivory Towers; it’s out there in the flats. In the streets. Hip hop here is a community, and its patrons give back. We lecture, we teach. We teach kids how to write, how to illustrate. You get b-boys and b-girls going out to the schools to teach the children a different way.”

“I’m not just hip hop. I am a cultural activist. I’m not preaching. I’m practicing. I’m doing.”

Further Reading

Darra

In this post, the writer, from Cape Town, reflects on the life of her working class father, who like her friends’ fathers worked tough jobs for low pay, and hid his vulnerabilities.

Power to the People

This week’s episode of AIAC Talk is a replay of the launch of the latest issue of Amandla! magazine, a South African publication advancing radical left perspectives for change.