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‘It takes a ripple to make a storm’: A reflection on Lesego Rampolokeng’s poetry

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To listen to Lesego Rampolokeng’s poetry is to experience the blunt brutality of the truth, beautiful pain of excellent lyricism and to undergo the most excruciating catharsis. Papa Ramps to many, Rampolokeng is truly a ‘rap master supreme.’ His work jaywalks the pavements of politics, it pulls hard at the strings of the literary ‘establishment’ and it is the wrecking ball against high-browed academism that sneaks itself into every fibre of society.

Let me declare my love for Lesego Rampolokeng’s work right from the onset. I have been enthralled to the poetry of Rampolokeng from the first line I read.

1998. Wits University. Africana Library. I went down a rabbit hole of reading things that interested me; not what had been prescribed. Horns for Hondo was in the non-loan section of the library and I do not even remember how I requested or came across the book. I went to a random page on Horns – and I did not – could not put it down. Rampolokeng had composed the entire text in rhyme schemes of rap. It was ingenious, intelligent and rational rhymes – not the gimmicky superficial type that make you cringe.

I had already heard another classic Rampolokeng’s poem – by chance – on TV.

black gods were dead & archangel gabriel still-born choked by condom/
shaka was cannibal & the pope had abortions for supper/
black tits & bums of a nation of strippers & exhibitionists made Jesus die of masturbation/

I am Catholic and hearing that the Pope had such a macabre supper was an affront. So I re-read Horns, I ordered Papa Ramps’ CDs and I read everything on/about his work. It was clear to me that he was not making a simple statement of the macabre – but he was indeed ‘politicking’ (one of his phrases) and he was kicking the establishment of the church right in its teeth.

The sentiment of the Pope and abortions was such a explicit anti-establishment position to take because of the Catholic Church’s position against all forms of contraception. This poem is not testament of Rampolokeng’s hatred of the church. It is an exposure of the church’s contradictions and hypocrisy. First, the Church’s willful ignorance of the significance of women figures in the life of “the Messiah.” Secondly, the church’s stance against contraception and lastly, the misconceptions of African history. To call Shaka ‘a cannibal’ means the exact opposite – that this is how he is viewed and portrayed by those he conquered.

This ‘analysis’ is neither new nor unique. It is rather apparent and obvious. I make it for effect; to show that Rampolokeng is anti-establishment, but he is the seeker of truth.

Basotho praise-poets have done this for a long time. This way of writing – of saying one positive thing, when you mean the exact opposite – is ho kobisa in Sesotho. A praise poet of the King could say ‘our stomachs are full because of the brilliance of our King.’ If the praise poet said this during the height of famine caused by a war that the King sponsored, we are to understand that he means the exact opposite. Rampolokeng – knowingly or not – borrows from this tradition of praise-poets who were not afraid to tell the King that he is naked – but either through ho kobisa or intricately dressed-words.

In the poem; 9mm Anthem from his Half Ranthology, Rampolokeng tears into the political establishment. His opening line is full of cheek and anti-political sentiment:

I wish I could say, ‘Kill a politican a day/
and keep corruption away’/
But I am still responsible. ..

He proceeds to say that this is an anthem for the ‘killing of the politician.’ Rampolokeng is not homicidal – he is talking about another kind of death. It is evident when he says that

it wasn’t me sergeant
it was the microphone of my imagination.

He is indeed an ‘intimate analyst’ of his society and its shenanigans. And we need such analysts – every society does. But Rampolokeng stands alone in his league and class.

Throughout his writing he does something that other – especially young poets – do not do! He pays homage to all manner of artists that influenced him directly or indirectly; even to those that he admires. He refers to young and old artists in the same breath.

Among the young folk, Rampolokeng is particularly fond of Hymphatic Thaps; the young Lesotho-born rapper who is descendant from the great JP Mohapeloa. He also had an affinity for the late Robo The Technician.

Rampolokeng’s jazz influence is not only apparent; but also intentional. Jazz is the music of his generation – and Johnny Dyani features prominently in his work. Keorapetse Kgositsile – that father of rap (the Last Poets derived their name from his poem) is a muse for Rampolokeng. So is Mattera, Gil-Scot, Ingoapele and Mtshali. His Jazz for Dyani, To Gil-Scot Heron are just the clearest examples of this tribute to the artists who came before him and had a massive effect on him/his work. I mention these names and influences of Lesego Rampolokeng because for a genius of his status, this is a fresh breath of air – to recognise those who came before you, those whose ‘poetic breast’ you suckled from and the young guns that are holding your fort. Artists today are focused on themselves and their images and do not openly bow their heads to other great artists.

In Treason Rampolokeng’s pays a gut-wrenching tribute to the stalwarts of the anti-apartheid struggle. Perhaps it is the Kalahari Surfers’ melancholic drum ‘n bass melody in the background that evokes all kinds of emotion too.
About Dulcie September he says:

I remember they dismembered Dulcie September

and about Ruth First he says:
Without Ruth, they invested in the death of the truth of Ruth First

on Hector Peterson;
through the fallen leaves of our lives
I hear the pitter-patter beat of the hectic heart of Hector Peterson

and regarding the forgotten hero, Stanza Bopape (unless you count street names as adequate means of rememberance) he says:
prophetic after poetic stanza rolled before it was ripped from Stanza Bopape

He continues to wax lyrical about others, such as the Mngxenges, David Webster, Oscar Mpetha and Lumumba.

Guerilla is a tribute again to the underground forces of the liberation struggle. It is an ode to the machine-gun-toting Africans – from Lusaka to Luanda, to Morogoro! It is a swansong to the fighters left in the vast plains of the continent where freedom battles took place.

Fact is, Lesego Rampolokeng is a once-in-a-lifetime artist. His poetry and prose are unparalled. Many poets will have to live many lifetimes of writing, before they can achieve what Rampolokeng has achieved in one. His canon is equal to none and his work deserves the attention, admiration and critique that it is getting. He has produced work for reading, stage and for television – he has given us a piece of his soul with every work.

Rampolokeng is not everyone’s cup of tea. If he was an elephant, and we were the three blind men, we would all discover different parts of him and have different impressions of him.

He has been kind to some and very harsh to others. He has been a chauvinist to some women and a passionate man to others. He has been an excellent teacher to many students and a nightmare to the unfortunate few. He ruined a few events and festivals. He told a few people off in public and he has been utterly petulant to some of us. But still we love him – for his work, his anger and spirited angst, his passion for his art and his brutal truth and often-brash honesty. He has been crass in public – but so have we all! He has shouted at me on the phone for an hour non-stop. This has not diminished my love, admiration and impression of his work and his incomparable craft of the word.

This edition is not about whether we should like Rampolokeng as a person or not. He has acknowledged that his poetry/art is not a popularity contest. He says that he does not engage in ‘word play’, because words can be dangerous; the Nazis were founded on the word. ‘So I do not play with words …’ This is what we adore Rampolokeng’s work for. He has acknowledged that he is not doing this for ‘props.’ He is not a ‘pimple poet.
This edition is a preferment and elevation of Lesego Rampolokeng’s impressive oeuvre – whether he agrees with us or not. It is about his work and how we continue to be impressed, inspired and enlighted, moved and stirred by it.

BKO is no Paris Review or The New Yorker, but we intend to exalt his work for its quality and importance in the general, impoverished literary landscape of (South) Africa. Yet, no one edition of a magazine, or book will be enough to encapsulate the immense stature of the work of the literary giant that is Lesego Rampolokeng. He is our Baldwin and Fanon all in one.

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