Meet Iain Thomas, the 36-year-old South African poet who is famous all over the world except in SA

Trevor Noah has pulled out at the last minute from hosting the MAMAs 2016, due to 'a severe upper respiratory infection'

Black Diamond

2009-02-19 12:40

For the record: has Mafikzolo broken up?
No, no! We are still together. We’ve gone through a lot of challenges, but we're still here. And I'm here. Mafikzolo is where I started, you know? Before I could say "I Am" Theo, there was Mafikizolo. I am where I am today because I've grown individually as a person from all those Mafikzolo experiences.

What made Mafikizolo so special?
Our music, it's different. We talk about issues that happen in our everyday life situations: we're young people, we like having fun - we talk about that. We talk about township life, we talk about love, we talk about marriage, you know? And we cover those issues within the genre of music called Afro pop. Afro pop is a music that has [influences from] South African wedding songs [and] an element of South African gospel as well. When [people] hear it outside the borders of South Africa it's something new to them, they like the beat they like the sound - they don't know what we're saying, they don't understand the language, but to them it's good music.

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Theo: Interview

Being stylish didn't hurt Mafikizolo either, did it?
(Smiles) Mm, we had the 50s, 60s and 70s image - a look dating back to the Sophiatown days. That look was influenced by the music that we were doing then. There was one song that we did called "Marabi"– which was a genre of music back then - and it influenced the way that we wanted people to perceive us. The music and the look must go together. Even back in the day, fashion and music back in the kwela days – people were very slick, you know with your two tones shoes, your big glasses, and hats with the feathers….

Besides fashion, connecting with the dynamic musical legacy of Sophiatown was also crucial wasn't it?
We were young people. And it was never done by any young people. People thought that only the older generation would play that music. [And that] young people don't know about kwela music, and only know hip-hop, kwaito, dance and house. But with us we wanted to experiment with that sound, we wanted to learn because it is important to us as South Africans because it is a South African history as well. We are trying to preserve that, we are learning something from our great, great, great musicians of the past about their music. We don't want that music, that history to fade away.

Going solo has it been difficult finding a sound that was different enough from Mafikzolo's? 
I decided not to work with Kalawajazzmee who had been doing most of the production for Mafikizolo. I thought it'd be best for me to work with different people so that our sound doesn't become the same and people don't say, "hey that's Mafikizolo". So I just said to myself, Theo you need to assemble the best team, you know? So I decided to work with the Jaziel Brothers, you know, who are very talented youngsters [and could] give me the whole total sound of Afro Pop.

I Am isn't just an Afro pop record though, is it? 
My album is divided into three categories: the first five songs are Afro pop; the second five songs are adult contemporary; the last segment is dance and house music. I decided to choose my prodcers according to their speciality. The Jaziel Brothers is Afro Pop. then for the second segment I brought in the likes of Don Laka. He released an album called Invitation, inviting different musicians in the country to be part of his project and I was one of the guys….so I asked him whether I could have a song for my album as well. I love that segment because I was hands on as well in terms of certain songs that I produce. It showcases that I'm versatile; I'm able to go from Afro pop to adult contemporary. I’m very flexible. And then the last segment is all about fun and dance and house music. And that's how you get Black Coffee coming in, and Art John Bukenya who is another known producer in Joburg. They produced good, great, dance music.

Your image has also changed….
(Grins) I always do my research about what I want to write about, the look and everything. I always work very hard. I said ”Theo, you’re on your own. You need to come up with something fresh. And that means gone are the two tone shoes. (Chuckles) Gone is the Sophiatown look. You must come with your own look now." I chose a very clean look, a businessman like look, you know? Because I've realized I've grown not only as a musician, but also as a businessman. Now I own a record company called Black Diamond Records. For people to take you seriously they must see that even in the way you look, your image and the way you conduct yourself. So I wanted to go for a very clean look. And I wanted to show people that the element of fashion is still there. With Mafikizolo we also introduced the element of fashion in the band, and I had to bring that out - the suit, cardigan and the bowtie. And the design of the cover itself – if you look at it you can see it's well done and it’s packaged well.

It is. So are your role models really P. Diddy and Jay-Z or are they more Cyril Ramaphosa meets Don Laka?
(Laughs) Really, I get inspired by people who work behind the scenes, people like Jay-Z. Of course he’s a musician but at the very same time he’s also a businessman. He doesn’t only look at music at him being a performer onstage. He took his business to another level. And I [also] get inspired by songwriters - because as a songwriter myself I released we are not really valued in South Africa, you know? People are given praise as a musician. But the people behind the music and behind the lyrics are not given credit. There’s not even one category at the SA Music Awards that honours songwriters. You know? And we as songwriters are the ones that write the messages that you relate to? Some lyrics are inspirational and can turn your life around, you know?

Which songwriters are inspiring Theo?
(Smiles) Yo, a lot of people. Ne-yo is a new songwriter who I look up to…I think he stole my style somewhere, somehow! (Chuckles) He stole my look. He found out, he went to some website and said who is The-yo? I’m going to go by the name of Ne-yo! Just kidding! (Laughs) People like Babyface, you know a good producer and songwriter. People like R. Kelly – he’s a very good songwriter as well, you know. And in South Africa I got inspired by the likes of Baba Caiphus Semenya – he wrote for Mama Miria, Mamam Letta, he wrote beautiful music. I also inspired by business people. Since I'm in the business world, I'm into real estate. My inspirations are your Donald Trumps…

What about Patrice Motsepe?
Definitely! I’m also a Sundowns fan (chuckles) - even though my team is not doing that well. But anyway, I was introduced to business by one of our producers, Oscar from Kalawa. I am very grateful because I remember when we were doing the Sibongile album, he said to us, "you know guys, your album is doing well, you're going to get royalties and you're going to be amazed about the cheques that are going to come through. But let me give you some advice: I know you'll say 'I'm going to buy this car' but my advice will be [to] invest". And I didn't even really know what invest means. What do you mean when you say "invest"? He said "you know what, I’m investing in property". So I read a couple of books. I started reading Rich Dad Poor Dad, Rich Man From Babylon and got deeper into reading more about business. I'm loving property, I'm enjoying it. My wife owns her own real estate company. So I'm thinking like a business and I think everyone should be thinking that way because at the end of the day it’s the money that counts. (Chuckles)

Which artists should we look out for on Black Diamond?
I'm signing a new artist called Gugu Shezi. She'll be doing an Afro soul project. I've never done an Afro soul project before. She'll be the first lady to sign. We'd also like to not only focus on the talent that is based in Joburg. I believe there's talent outside of Joburg. You know? People are talking about the Durban sound coming up. I want to see Cape Town as well, and the Eastern Cape. And people from Joburg need to invest outside of Joburg, find stars in Cape Town…Black Diamond wants to achieve those goals as well.

How do you stay grounded in a cut throat business like music?
Being in this industry is very challenging. There are so many things you're tempted to go into. There are people who can influence you...But I'm very grateful that I'm grounded. I come from a very good family - good parents who taught me good morals and good values. Another thing that makes me very strong is that I’m a born again Christian. I live with Christian morals and values that I uphold. Me being a father and having a child also makes me focused because I know that my child looks up to me. I see the little things he does trying to emulate me. So I think if I do bad things he will emulate bad things, but if I do the right things then he'll take those right things. I’m very careful of what I do. You know? I don't want him to see a newspaper article that says your dad was somewhere drunk because it'll definitely have an impact on him. I know I am his role model. He's a boy and will look up to dad and say "I want to be like dad, you know?" So I make sure I live my life positively.

Mafikizolo's main man, Theo Kgosinkwe chats about about the business of building a solo career.
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