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In Conversation: Lebogang Mashile (Part 2)

Armed with a sharp intellect and a fierce sense of social exploration through her creativity, Leboganag Mashile is a poet’s poet. She has won the respect of critics, her contemporaries and the hearts of ordinary South Africans.  In her own words, she explains why South Africa is intrinsic to her birth as a poet.

Read Part 1 of My Interview Here

leboBelinda: while you were in the US, what was your take on the artistic scene back home, in South Africa, how did those things inform you in the process of developing as an artist?

Lebo: I grew up in a household where my parents loved literature and music and my dad had an amazing music collection, which was full of South Africa music, Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and my mother is an avid reader and we had a big literature collection. I grew up with not just South African authors but authors from other parts, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and other authors from the Diaspora and South African literature. It helped me to understand that I come from somewhere, that creative African people have always been engaging with their environment, with the political world through art and that we do so in a meaningful and well thought out way and it was a nice counterpoint to the bling, bling consumerist American culture that was so rampant but it was also a nice parallel to hip-hop and what was happening at the time. 20 years ago, when I was a child and was interested in hip-hop, the hip-hop of my generation, the De La Souls, Chuck D, the Queen Latifah’s and Public Enemy and these artists who had something meaningful to say, things that were meaningful and bold to the black community and I saw that as a direct parallel to what Miriam Makeba was trying to do with her music and it made an impact on me and at that time, it shaped me without me even knowing I would use my voice as an artist. My parents aren’t artists, I don’t come from a family of artists, and so I never ever, ever, thought in my widest dreams that this would be my life but now as I am answering your question. I realise that growing up in an environment where I was exposed to a lot of conscious art made me value being a conscious artist.

Belinda: Did you write poetry back then?

Lebo: I started keeping a journal when I was very young. I kept my first journal when I was about 8 but I only started consciously writing poetry when I got back to South Africa.

Belinda: Having found your gift, was it hard to find and define your own space in South Africa and how easy was it to do that in comparison to if you had stayed back in the US?

Lebo: You are so right. I look at the position that I occupy in South Africa, I don’t think the US would have ever, ever given me that position ever, ever. I mean from the time I started writing to the time I started entering the public literary scene, the black literary community said yes, that is an extension of us. This is who we are and this is what we have always done and you are taking it a step further as a young artists and this is how the next generation is going to do it and that was almost immediate. I don’t think I would have got the same kind of support and validation in my infancy as an artist in the US. I also don’t think I would have the same access. I know for a fact that I would not have had the same access to media and to the mainstream kind of audience, to the visible platforms that I do in South Africa. In South Africa, it is not uncommon to see a poet on TV, hear a poet on radio or open a newspaper whether its tabloid or one of your kind of lefty newspaper and see an article about a poet. We occupy public space and are a visible part of the domain. And I have never seen that in any other part of the world. Sometimes, I think if I had stayed in America, I would have had more funding or maybe I would have been able to get published easier, I don’t know but I know for a fact that America would not have allowed me to be who I am right now in my country. In Africa, there is a place for poets and right now because we happen to be going through this technological era of mass media and this thing that I do which is really an ancient art form has allowed me to occupy space in this new media and I think that is great and unique. I can’t think of, especially in Europe, you find a celebrated poet who has won awards and has been published but no body knows them or what they do. They make an impact in a small circle. In South Africa, you are allowed to make an impact on a very large scale, which is nice and progressive. I think it’s also important to step out and challenge this environment and connect with people in other parts of the world, especially black people because our experiences are so similar. Those things are only possible outside the country. When we are back home, you are Nigerian and I’m South African.

Belinda:  Who and what inspires your poetry?

Lebo: I am inspired deeply by the music, the literature and the oral culture of black people. South Africans, Africans in the Diaspora and in the US and the Caribbean. I am inspired by women and the position that women occupy and the challenges that we face and how we overcome them. I am inspired by spirituality, by this human desire to understand God in the universe and the place we hold as human beings within that. I am inspired by the way that African people construct their philosophies about humanity and the world. I am inspired by politics, the way politics shape our lives, our environment and the environment we live in. I am inspired by love and relationships. I am also inspired a lot by how travel and movement shapes identity. I am an insider/outsider and I tend to gravitate towards people like that. People who fit in but also don’t. People who belong to a place but also don’t. People who have experienced different textures and cultures that has shaped who they are and it has enabled them to have a broader and interesting lens into the world. From a literary space, I am inspired by the poets that I am travelling with and the literature of Africa. People like Tsi Tsi Dagaremba, Buchi Emecheta and Nawal Sadawi and new authors like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I think she is incredible and I am inspired by this new wave of women’s writing that is coming out of South Africa but I also see it being mirrored on the continent. Right now in South Africa, the poetry is really being rocked by women’s voices. In previous years, it has always been a male dominated space even though it’s always been a vibrant and dynamic development in Africa, now you see women also taking their place in that. So it inspires me to be a part of the generation and that shift as well.

Belinda: You have mentioned these different people, who have influenced you. What about those from the life spectrum of things, political and theatre sphere of things, and of course world leaders?

Lebo: Wow, wow, what an incredible question. I am inspired by freedom fighters, the Harriet Tubman’s, Malcolm X and Jesus Christ. I am inspired by the enormous legacy of leadership, the really good leadership of people like Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko who aren’t perfect, they are flawed but they claimed that leadership with generosity and love for their people. They claimed that role of leadership as an act of service and of love. I’m also inspired by the hip-hop movement, not what it’s become, this materialistic consumer driven, bling, bling culture but the hip-hop I grew p on. People like the Fugees, Lauryn Hill, Nas, and people like Queen Latifah back in the day. De La Soul and right now I guess people like Mos Def and Kweli Talib. In the world of literature, I drew a lot of inspiration from Maya Angelou growing up and from Alice Walker, Sonia Sanchez. When I came back to South Africa, being exposed to South African writers like Don Mattera and the contemporary writers, novelists and authors, Fred Kumalo and from the continent, Ben Okri, Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and women like Nawa El-Sadawi and Buchi Emecheta and many others and theatre as well. I was deeply moved while growing up by the play, ‘For Coloured Girls, now, there is a  lot of interesting theatre happening that is dealing with identity and that kind of shift.. Women are entering the space in this terrain, women like Nadia Davis, who wrote ‘At Their feet’ and the world of film, Spike Lee. But also, not to exclude the classics, I was moved by Shakespeare. He wrote for everybody and against hegemony and hierarchy and he was a radical voice for his time. I draw inspiration from a lot of places.

leboBelinda: When people come to listen to you, what does that do for you? I mean you have all of these faces, eyes and ears focused on you. What do you get from that?

Lebo: What a great question. No one has ever asked me that – as I mature an artist and grow up because I still consider myself to be very young as an artist and consider my voice to be very young. I am older than I was 10 years ago, so I have got a little bit of experience. When I first started out, I used to see this very clear distinction between the page and the stage. Now as my understanding of oral tradition becomes deeper – I realise that African people, its not that we weren’t writers, we were writing on each other. A human being was a living text and encyclopaedia and every time work is performed, you are writing on this tablet of memory, sight, sound, emotions and of lived experiences. So, when I stand on stage, I feel like I am writing on my audience, and I try and work very hard to humble myself in the face of my audience because the audience doesn’t owe me anything. Time is gold in this world that we live in, people have a million other things that they could be doing without giving me 15mins of their time. So, I know I have got to make that time worth it. I know I have got to give of myself to my audience. Performance is sacrifice, it is channelling, it’s an act of service and at the same time it is also a kind of science, when I practice and rehearse my work, I am building my technique. It’s almost like lifting my weights and making my muscles strong, I am strong enough, and I am fit enough. I am ready and I have got my tools to be able to create an emotional picture fir the audience. It’s the word of the vehicle to convey emotions. When I am standing on stage, my job is to give my heart and use my senses as a vehicle for giving my heart and experience. At the end of the day that is what people remember. They remember how they felt. People walk away with an experience that sits in their spirit. The fancy words and the tricks that I use to tell my story, all that stuff is primarily for the page, by the time it gets to the stage, it is really about finding my own humanity, so I can connect with the audience. Everybody’s eyes are at because I am looking for people to interact with, energy to feed off from, I am looking for identification and connection. So, I am more aware of humanity when I am performing then, I am probably at any other stage ion my life.

leboBelinda: How important is it, that you maintain your humanity in all that you do because its in your pain that you feel your humanity as an individual who has this ability and people hear you from afar and up-close?

Lebo: You know, being an artist, the funny thing is that part of our destiny and our purpose is to make ourselves vulnerable and that means every single part of us and our human experience, no matter how joyful or painful is fertile ground for expression. Ultimately, it is something that we have to mutate and channel and be able to show back to the world. So in order to do that, one’s personal development has to be at the centre of one’s life. I can’t tell the person who reads my work or comes to my performance about growth, love, Life and healing unless I am actively going through that in my life. That is part of my human experience. So, I am really aware of the fact that I have to work on myself if I am really going to be an agent of change in society. I have to work on my relationships;  my relationship with God, I have to work on the way that I ,love, I have to work on my demons. My mother once said to me, you really have to keep yourself together because if you are messed up, every one who listen s to you is going to be messed up. And that is not fair. So I guess being an artist has amplified the importance of my own growth but also having my artistry as an outlet has been enormously transformative and huge tool in my life. It is reel privilege to be able to say this is my pain about this break-up or about the isolation that I feel about my identity, my story. This is my demon and I am showing it to you and to have the people say, ‘I feel that. I go through that everyday. That’s me. That resonates with me.’ Then I as a human being, beyond being an artist, I don’t feel alone anymore. If I can stand on stage and make it possible for human beings to not feel isolated, it gives me permission also to feel connected. So, it all hinges around humanity. And you can see very quickly when an artist is not connected to themselves. They can’t connect to the audience. You can see very quickly when an artist is using their arrogance on stage. It is something that has shown me that I don’t have the right at any stage and on any stage to undermine the audience and that is an extension of their humanity.

Belinda: What do want to evoke in people when you are on stage and doing your work in people, in society, about people and about society through your work?

Lebo: I try to take my intention when I stand on the stage, is to take people on an emotional journey. I want to show people the light and the dark, the positive and the negative but I want to do that with a view to inspiring people and helping people to create a vision for themselves and create a vision for myself. I think it is important to go to the dark side also because we live in a world that is dark. We live in a world where so many people feel isolated. It is important to talk about domestic violence. It is important to talk about racism, it is important to talk about the abuse of children, it’s important to talk about corruption in our government and the environment. It’s important to talk about these things because this is the human hurt that we go through but it’s always important to talk about the way we can turn these experiences into positive things. It’s also important to talk about how beautiful and wonderful and glorious the present can be and how the much more inspiring and sensational the future can be. That is the note that I like to take my journey on. I like to take them on a journey but at the end, I want to leave them on a mountain top and let them know that all these stuff we go through is okay.

Belinda:  In terms of your way of delivering your work, fusing poetry with music and you experiment, why did you decide to start experimenting with these other art forms where your poetry is concerned? And what impact has that had on your work?

Lebo: What is called culture that we see in mainstream media, most of it is not culture. The music industry, a lot of it is very, very lousy. The theatre that we see on the biggest platforms, a lot of it is really, really lousy. A lot of what is passed on as culture is watered down, derivative and really stupid, psycho-phonetic type of pop culture.  In order for real art, we have got to band together and we have got to show people news ways of seeing things that they thought they knew. Most people think that they know/knew poetry because of what they studied but they thought poetry was lousy at school. So, they thought poetry, I can’t go and see poetry. So, you have got to show it to them in a new way. You have to sneak it in, use another art form to make them realise that this is different. It is not what I thought it was. And the beauty of poetry is that it is immediate and it can live any space. All you need is a pen and paper and you can marry it with so many different art forms. I have worked with film makers, visual artists and dancers. I want to make it my life’s work to make it proud and make it know that there are different ways to mutate this thing and make it come alive in different spaces.

For More information about Lebo Mashile, visit: Lebo Mashile


Lebo in headscarf:  Hash Naidoo

Lebo in red dress: Carl Collison

To be continued


2 Responses to “In Conversation: Lebogang Mashile (Part 2)”

  1. […] In Conversation: Lebogang Mashile (Part 2) […]

  2. Hans Schippers says:

    “In Africa, there is a place for poets”
    Now that is a very important criticism on the West, and Africa is certainly leading by example there. Now to convince the rest of Europe 🙂

    I also like what Lebo says on only being able to talk about experiences you’ve been through yourself. If you want to tackle a problem, make sure you know what you are talking about…

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