By Catherine Jewell, Information and Digital Outreach Division and Edward Harris, News and Media Division, WIPO
In 2016, pioneering South African hip hop artist, Tumi Molekane, the lead vocalist of the now disbanded group, Tumi and the Volume, launched his solo career as Stogie T. The popular rap artist recently sat down with WIPO Magazine in a wide-ranging interview where he talks about his passion for hip hop music, his recent signing with Def Jam Africa and how important it is for young musicians to understand how to protect and manage their IP rights.
Why is music important to you?
For me, it’s the only way of being in the world. I’m useful as a musician to my community, my country and the world. That’s what gets me up every morning.
What drew you to hip hop?
Hip hop was the most vibrant form of music in the eighties, when I grew up. Hip hop always felt “on” to me. It spoke to me. I also have a knack for talking fast. Then, one day, someone gave me an envelope for doing what I thought was just a passion and the rest, as they say, is history.
Tell us about your musical development.
I started out as a rapper in the streets with all my rap friends. That was exciting until it felt limiting. Until it didn’t allow for all the poetry I read, all the Tchaikovsky I fell in love with. So, spoken word became more attractive to me. But I also had this rap thing with music and beats in my locker. These eventually merged into a band called Tumi and the Volume, which was me, as a spoken word artist, with a musical band performing my poetry. I toured the world with the band, but that meant what I had built in South Africa started to dwindle. So, I decided to record some solo classic hip hop work to keep the name relevant within the hip hop genre back home.
In South Africa at the time, there was this live music scene, with its poetry and varied styles, and then there was the classic hip hop scene, and they never quite met. It was incredibly frustrating and because I wanted to walk into every room as my full self ─ sincerity, honesty and authenticity have always typified what I do ─ I felt it would be incredibly dishonest to continue doing something just because an audience wanted that from me. Also, as I got older, I had different priorities, my world had changed and I wanted to continue evolving as an artist. I wanted to reflect a wider range of subjects and to give expression to South African stories. So I decided to change my name to Stogie T.
Why Stogie T?
I really enjoy cigars and stogie is another name for cigars, which for me reflects the idea of craftsmanship and the time it takes to craft a cigar, how you savor it and take the time to enjoy it. That’s how I approach my art.
You recently signed with Def Jam Africa. What does this mean to you?
Def Jam Africa is a subsidiary of Def Jam Music, which has an incredible legacy in hip hop music. Signing with Def Jam Africa is a dream come true. It’s also a step in the right direction in terms of allowing my music to find a global audience.
Why is it important for artists to retain rights in their creative works?
I remember when I told my mom that I needed money for a studio. She asked me why and I remember explaining: here’s the thing. I sit at home and figure out an idea and I have a friend who figures out how to make the beats, and we own that idea and the beats. And then, we go to some guy and record with him, and if we can’t pay him, we have to share ownership of the recording with him. Then some other guy comes in, and we have to split the proceeds with him too. And, Mom, you go to work, you put your hours in and get paid. And I would love to do that too. But the way things are, the guy I record my work with wants me to do something else because he thinks my way won’t work. So, I have to do this on my own.
That idea of independence taught me that I had to protect myself in every way. It started with mailing my lyrics to myself to prove I wrote them. And then I found out there are collecting agencies that defend your rights, and music publishers that can help you leverage the value of your rights and promote your work. I learned on the job.
I tell every 18-year old who wants to rap that if they spend just one hour understanding what music publishing is, what IP is, what royalties are, and what their rights are, they will do more for their music than the three hours they spend on YouTube figuring out how to mix a new drum pattern. The entry barrier to music is virtually nonexistent now because of technology. That makes musicians vulnerable and means they need to be IP savvy.
Musicians often have a “big, bad wolf perception” of record labels who, in turn, have, a “you don’t know what you’re talking about” attitude towards artists. It will serve everyone if artists understand the language of the music industry and have a clear view of their rights, what they mean, how to protect them and how they can benefit from them.
It will serve everyone if artists understand the language of the music industry and have a clear view of their rights, what they mean, how to protect them and how they can benefit from them.
What is distinctive about South African hip hop and its evolution?
When hip hop first emerged in South Africa, it was rooted in the traditional hip hop culture of the Bronx. It was beatboxing, graffiti, rapping, deejaying and the idea of self-knowledge and community involvement. That’s the hip hop you find in Cape Town today.
At the same time, the hip hop that emerged from Johannesburg had a commercial tilt towards Kwaito, which was the biggest genre at the time. It reflected the new South African spirit of the township emerging from the shadows. The guys who were making this music in the local vernacular became the biggest stars. They started to marginalize traditional suburban hip hop artists who performed in English, which most people didn’t understand. But Kwaito, was rejected, at least in traditional hip hop spaces. Hip hop is incredibly elitist. And remember, at that time, it’s emerging, it’s young and it’s like a secret cult movement for us.
I came up with both. We were all in the clubs together and I watched how artists would flip-flop from one camp to another, depending on where the economics of the stomach lay. It gave me an interesting perspective on the idea of being authentic, standing your ground and being who you are, regardless of what’s happening around you. It also showed me that there’s value in what these guys are doing. But as to whether there is a South African hip hop sound? That’s a big debate right now. Is it Amapiano? Is it Kwaito? We keep creating these sounds and everyone keeps saying maybe this is South African hip hop. Maybe this is how that evolution happens?
But for me, if it’s good and if it finds an audience, that’s great. People always forget that hip hop is music and reflects the people making it. Young people have gravitated towards hip hop all over the world. It’s like religion in that people insert their own values into it. In Japan, it has a certain tilt to it. And it’s the same in Africa or in South Africa, in that people want it to reflect who they are. They want to rap in their own languages and they want it to reflect Indigenous music. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
What’s the high point in your career?
Oh, it changes, but I think now it’s just the blessing of being able to still do hip hop and to have been able to pivot to Stogie T. I still wonder how we were able to achieve that.
What big challenges are you facing as an artist today?
It really depends on the context, but in general, the challenge is to be taken seriously, so that even when I do a song that people aren’t expecting, I am still perceived as an intelligent rapper who has a view on the world and am interesting because I do this “other” thing.
How would you like to see hip hop music evolve?
I would like for there to be more space for voices outside the traditional hip hop lens, so we get a more global perspective on the genre.
Streaming is like a business card; it’s a way to get people familiar with your music while you take advantage of other channels to make money.
Has streaming been a plus for artists?
Hip hop was always an early adopter of new technologies. Not too long ago in South Africa, before streaming emerged, it was part of an artist’s strategy to have their music bootlegged online for people to access it, because that opened up an income stream.
These days, as an artist, you can tour and if you prove to a brand that your free download attracted thousands of eyeballs, then brand endorsements becomes an option. These channels open up new income streams. Then you look at streaming platforms and you realize they’re not really paying anybody and won’t ever be your main revenue source. Streaming is like a business card; it’s a way to get people familiar with your music while you take advantage of other channels to make money.
Is there a downside to streaming?
The problem I have with streaming it is that it doesn’t take account of different audiences and markets. It doesn’t distinguish between a popular musician whose (millions of) fans are willing to only pay two cents for a stream and a jazz artist whose smaller fan base is willing to pay two dollars to listen to their work. As things stand, the jazz artist can’t take advantage of it.
The problem I have with streaming it is that it doesn’t take account of different audiences and markets.
What was the inspiration for your Albums The Empire of Sheep and Yeah.
The Empire of Sheep is a reflection of where I feel like South Africa is. Unfortunately, as in so many parts of the world, we’ve got a situation where it’s more important to have followers than leaders.
Where do you get inspiration from?
Sometimes it’s challenging yourself to look at a situation and ask if there’s another painting to be made. The biggest source of inspiration, at present, is making sense of this crazy pandemic we’re coming out of and synthesizing that into a collection of songs.
What message do you have for aspiring young artists?
As an artist, you always need a place where you can listen to yourself, and where you can properly figure your music out. Today, it’s so easy to get a phone and broadcast yourself. And that’s amazing. But there isn’t a place for you to bounce your ideas around and get honest feedback. It’s important to surround yourself with people who are honest with you about what you’re doing and who can help you angle your music and your message.