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New music sensation living his dream

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Addy Kudita

WHAT is the chance that a 40-something old guy from Gwamba deep in rural Nkayi who by his own admission was a dullard at school struggling with mathematics (that is most people anyway) and finding solace in his guitar-playing talent would blow up in the manner that he has?

A few weeks ago, what has grown, albeit organically, to become a pop culture phenomenon was unleashed upon an unsuspecting Bulawayo audience in the form of one Malume Skhosana weNkayi. At the time of going to print, he had garnered 62 947 views for a video to the song Ntethe which premiered on 18 August 2021.

The numbers do not show signs of abating just yet and especially as the controversy over the song’s release at first snowballed and now rises and ebbs. 3 900 likes and 41 “dislikes”, down the line on YouTube, the verdict is in: Sikhosana Buhlungu is a bonafide cultural force right now, at least in this part of the country. In the wake of his success, he is on his way to fulfilling his dreams, including the construction of a house.

Soon he will catch on and catch up with either the rest of the country and even the region. Why not? The spark to a flame After the videos of his “speeches” and music had done several thousands of millions of laps on cyberspace, Zenzele Ndebele of the Centre for Innovation and Technology (Cite) last year in May interviewed the artiste born Cleopas Sikhosana some 49 years ago in Nkayi.

The interview, as it turns out, added “wood” to the fire of growing public interest in the artiste whose music is a sort of chronicle of rural life this southern side. Talent is not enough in the world of entertainment. It is a business which requires midwives. For example, Justin Bieber needed Scooter Brown to facilitate his musical after he had trended on YouTube.

The rest, as they say, is history with millions of records sold and lots more. Our own Skhosana is, in his own small way, a beneficiary of the power of new media. His dreams and hopes of earning a living off his music, building a home for his family are being realised after members of the public came through and donated four head of cattle, materials and money.  Skhosana is a folk musician with his feet firmly entrenched in the life of his community in Nkayi who has over the past four years regaled them with his musical tales, gathering fans and community along the way. Indeed, his community has over time gathered around him as he plays his music and tipped him as is the portion of a musician who tugs at the heartstrings of his or her audience.

For now, Skhosana Buhlungu has dominated social media, entertainment-wise, in the region and the country is catching on. Were it not for the language barrier, the whole nation would have been long engulfed. But that is all on you if you cannot understand isiNdebele because you are missing out on Skhosana’s artistry.

No, he is not the usual musician who you will see in borrowed “threads” and “fronting” in a rented car or house for glossy effect in a musical video. The artiste is elementary but in an organic way. He is unabashedly rural and his handlers were wise enough to deliver him as such to the public and he is at present the king, hogging the limelight from all and sundry entertainer notwithstanding. Last year, he was Best Newcomer at the Bulawayo Arts Awards.

The tipping point

But Skhosana’s emergence as an internet sensation on social media tipped the scale upon the release of the video of the song Ntethe off his latest album. Videos of his performances, widely shared amongst people within Matabeleland and of course the diaspora, caught on like wildfire on platforms such as WhatsApp and like all “good epidemics” as per the seminal work of Malcolm Gladwell, in his bestselling book

The Tipping Point, there are a couple of factors which have led to the runaway success or “virality” of Skhosana amongst folk in the region.

Gladwell’s thesis

The central idea of Gladwell is about that dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything changes all at once, leading to what he describes as its tipping point. He postulates on the rules of epidemics and the concept of contagion in the spread of ideas and trends. I thought about this thesis in his book from the year 2000 and the Internet was not such a big deal back then in terms of the current digital migration that most people living in the urban areas of the world and some parts of the rural landscape are doing.

Gladwell wrote back then about the “surfeit of information” caused by millions of websites and media outlets and the distraction which they provide to people in terms of attention causing “clutter” which he argued makes messages hard to stick. He refers to the concept of stickiness as necessary for a movement or trend to reach epidemic proportions.

But there are two other notions or laws which he propounds, namely the law of the few (connectors, mavens and salesmen), and the power of context.

Gladwell’s book borrows its premise from science insofar as he utilises the manner in which epidemics take grip and spread as is the current case. We are in the age of the Covid-19 global pandemic.

The disease has caused much destruction in human and economic terms. But we cannot forget that it all began in a province in China and most certainly with one person who spread it to another and so on.

The maven and the connecter

To the extent that there is always a connector, that is a person whose social life is such that they meet and mingle with people from different walks of life, that is the extent to which the virus spreads with the resultant domino effect till there is a critical mass of “infected” persons enough to warrant the description of an epidemic.

Through it all, human agency is necessary for that spread and beyond that reckoning is the social behaviour or connectedness of the human agent with others using word of mouth or eWOM (electronic word of mouth) as it is known in online communications.

Thus it was that Ndebele tweeted a few weeks ago on his Twitter handle: The new single #NTETHE by @SkhosanaNkayi will be dropping this week.

Please support uSkhox. Music will be available in all online music stores. Who is Zenzele Ndebele ? Well, he is a journalist and entrepreneur with over 110 000 followers on Twitter, for example. In this piece, Ndebele is in my opinion what Gladwell refers to as a connector and maven, which is Yiddish for someone who is knowledgeable.

The connector has what Gladwell calls social glue and the maven is someone who acquires knowledge about a field. In the case of Ndebele, it would be the digital space and how it operates. He is, after all, the director of Cite, which is a multi-media organisation which offers a number of services including an online news platform that mainly focuses on Matabeleland. It is a trusted platform because of the quality of its journalism.

Some of the journos are colleagues of mine whose commitment to getting the story is total. So in other words, when Cite showcases something, rest assured that it will reach many people of the region and beyond.

And before tweeting about Skhosana’s new release a few weeks back, Cite had featured him on its platform in a show called Breakfast Club which Ndebele  anchors himself. There was a moment around May when Skhosana caught most people’s attention with his quirky storytelling. But Ndebele refused to talk much about his role, preferring to just jokingly quip: “My idea is to uplift them and speak only on my issues of Gukurahundi.” Someone else did the leg work of bringing Skhosana into the studio and ushering him into the world of his dreams as is the current case.

Mothusi Bashimane Ndlovu, also known as the comedic musician Madlela Skhobokhobo, played a critical role in helping bring Skhosana to the fore.

Skhobokhobo (MS) answers Addy Kudita (AK)’s burning questions:

AK: How did he come to work with Skhosana and what made him decide to work with him?

MS: Sometime last year, I saw one of his videos trending and I was somehow drawn into him. I felt a strong urge to do something for him hence I went looking for him and, as they say, the rest is history.

My role has always been to help Skhosana realise his dream, nothing more and nothing less. I always see the direction of everything on the creative side, on the first project, Somiso, we let him be. We did not add much because we were also trying to see and understand his test. But on the Ntethe one, hayi simtshukile umdala kakhulu (We guided the old man).

When he started, most took him as a joke because of the interview uSkhosana did earlier, but God can use anything to blow-up someone. That was his way of blowing up and another thing Skhocy grew up in rural areas and had never stayed in towns so he had no exposure of such things. But now some are starting to see that he is actually a serious artiste who is yet to surprise many.

Sisazo mtshuka umdala ama gatekeeper aze athi siyavuma (we will guide him till the gatekeepers accept the reality). AK: What is the deal between you and Skhosana regarding his music career? MS: As I said above, there is no deal at all, ours is to see that he realises his dream and also show that when God touches something even the despised are elevated to greater heights despite what humans say.

AK: Your own music career has also been peppered with comedy. What in your view is the role of fun and comedy in music?

MS: We are given different roles as entertainers, ours is to de-stress the nation ngoba singaba hlekisi besizwe (we bring laughter to the people). There are those who are called to do music for sad moments, some to talk to the soul; ours is of storytelling and making people feel comedy is good for health because laughing is good for health.

AK: Regarding the public’s donations of late, what is your take on whether it is an ideal way to support local artistes or you would rather have corporates using him as a brand ambassador with him offering them his services?

MS: We are born different and our help will automatically be different. Some will work with corporates, some with NGOs, but for Skhosana it has become a people’s project. People in general have been touched by Skhosana and they feel the need to go beyond buying his music online to helping him build a better home for himself.

Moved by Skhosana’s story, music followers have mobilised resources to construct a house for him in his rural base in Gwamba village and have donated materials and pledged support for the project. The brand Skhosana is a simple man.

He is rural, a type of griot if you like, or more closely a kind of jester. He is essentially a storyteller with a knack for the funny. He makes people laugh and, in my view, is good at taking the audience back to a world untainted by the bright city lights. He comes across as that uncle brimming with humour and a bagful of witticisms to keep audiences transfixed. In the video, he dances as the kids egg him on. Dlala ntethe!

They also join him in the dance and the joy of these kids is palpable. Now who is that miserable person whose heart will not melt at the sight of kids embracing the message of their malume (uncle) with beaming faces?  Yep, that is Skhosana and his song Ntethe is a fun song and dance shtick which readily grabs the attention of children and the young at heart.

Basically he is encouraging the young to be like that clever grasshopper that is quick to learn and humble enough to be corrected. The video, by the way, was shot by Rasquesity Keaitse, one of the country’s most productive videographers. I spoke to him about the noise around the Ntethe song and video. Here is what he had to say: My role was merely in the visuals production and I took up the project cause I believed that song will make our children happy and forget about the Covid-19 situation we are in.

My daughter loved the song as soon as she heard it, which is the reason why I even featured her on the visuals. We all knew that not everyone will love it because if it’s not Harare or South African-certified sound or concept, people will have negative views.

That’s what kills our local Bulawayo industry because we want to sound like our neighbours or the north (Harare). I grew up listening to Ndolwane and Mokis so Skhosana to me represents the people of the south and those who don’t appreciate the sound they should continue listening to SA or Harare-certified music. If given a chance, I will do it again. The buzz Upon a day of its release, the video had generated over 10 000 views, which is quite remarkable for a city which is not really famed for supporting local talent. Well, that was the usual refrain up till Skhosana’s arrival and the video of the song just unleashed what has become the runaway hit of the song.

As viral as it has become, it has also divided opinion amongst followers of the local arts scene. There are those who appear unimpressed by Skhosana’s musical and comedic antics.

Prominent amongst these are the likes of Ezra “Tshisa” Sibanda and Nkanyiso Mathonsi, a senior manager at SkyzMetro FM who expressed the view that Skhosana is not the best representative for the city’s music scene. He basically decried the fact locals were raving about the Ntethe hitmaker over many younger musicians who in his view deserve better support from members of the public. Others believe the production of the song does not measure up.

The fact of the matter is that Skhosana does not come in a glossy package and Gucci suit.

Skhosana and the sickiness factor

Thus it was that I found myself referring to Gladwell’s book in a bid to try to grasp why it was that Ntethe has become the phenomenon it has with all its controversy. Why the controversy? Cleopas Skhosana is almost 50 years of age, he is to some a Jonny Come Lately who should remain in the rurals and leave the stage to brighter young things.

But to hear him talk is to listen to a man who is part mystic, part comedian and storyteller. In my view, what makes him a compelling character is that heady mix of a man who can regale you with funny wisecracks and the belief in the power of his dreams and the world of omens and signs.

For example, in an interview with Ndebele he recounts how he first had a dream about meeting well-known musician Madlela Skhobokhobo who has been instrumental in having him record his music. Madlela went out of his way fetch him from his Nkayi base so that he could record him. But do not forget that, according to Skhosana, he first dreamt about meeting with Madlela who now acts as his manager.

Skhosana believes that what he dreams of is coming to pass. His stage name is Sikhosana Buhlungu and four years after starting his serious journey in music in which he has played for rural audiences, Sikhosana has been catapulted into an internet sensation.

But consider the following comments by some of his musical colleagues (names withheld): “But then to have it as the biggest song from Bulawayo sends a wrong message to the world of music.” “Exactly what I wanted to say!” “Personally this whole thing shows that people from our region can band together, support something and make it shine if they want to.”

“Make music that appeals to people of that region, and you’re done!”

“This song is comical and Bulawayo accepted it, means Bulawayo loves jokes…” “I suppose. But it’s also split. Different sections of the same city have extremely different views.” “Personally I liked how they pushed the marketing and they are riding on the controversy. They are pushing the brand to the relevant target market.”

Skhosana sticks in the mind because he is a grown man singing about “life that is not mainstream”. He is an underdog and the public is rooting for him. The young and restless can only salivate at what they consider to be the “stolen” opportunity to shine.

Meanwhile, the audiences are clearly willing Sikhosana to succeed. But he is, in my view, actually very interesting as an artiste. He is a musician, storyteller, comedian and dancer somewhat. All round he is an entertainer and that counts.

The power of context

Sikhosana broke into the popular imagination courtesy of his debut album, Kumnandi, released in June 2020, the recording of which was facilitated by his manager Skhobokhobo.The album earned him the Outstanding Newcomer across all genres award at the Bulawayo Arts Awards (BAAs) last year. Ntethe is for all intents and purposes, his watershed moment. Remember Patati Patata? Most likely it is just a vague memory in this age of short attention spans.

But what if I told you that Skhosana is not going anywhere anytime soon? Folk music has its place in society. Those who support Sikhosana will tell you that he is refreshingly devoid of ego, he is original and sincere. Music is in a sense a true democracy.

If the masses vote for you, you will “eat”. It is the people who decide, right? Ntethe is here and will be around longer than Patati Patata. There is no talk of rigging with the YouTube views and it does appear organic. As for the comment section, the support for Skhosana is unusually positive.

The naysayers believe that Skhosana is milking public sympathy and that those who criticise him are being “blackmailed” or “guilt tripped” into supporting the artiste. They are adamant that Ntethe is rubbish and that is does not “represent” the best of Bulawayo talent.

One senses their shame at Skhosana. But Skhosana knows who he is an artiste and is not trying to come across as a Cassper Nyovest or Mzoe 7. Nothing is contrived about him. The genius is in the simplicity of his presentation.

His music carries a simple down home message but what do we critics of culture know? Ultimately, the comment section on his YouTube is revealing: “This video has made me smile, it’s full of such joy and it made me happy to see children being this happy…” “I love the authenticity…”

Parting shot

It is a time of Covid-19 and Zimbabwe has experienced a lot of trauma. Laughter is rare to find as disease stalks and takes the lives of people. Skhosana is a tonic for the times.

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