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Peoples' Poets

I have been to the mountain top
And I have seen a glimpse of Africa to come
I have seen a political cyclone emerging
Radically to halt the sting of evil
And emancipate captive human race from the shackles

Change is Pain, Mzwakhe Mbuli

Lloyd Ross first heard Mzwakhe Mbuli perform at a JODAC event in Yeoville in 1985, a baritone voice responding to the political upheavals of the time, speaking out on taboo topics, sending a message to the heart of the masses. So Shifty approached the people’s poet to workshop an album putting his words to sound. It was the first time Mzwakhe had recited over music, but with the help of Ian Herman, Simba Morri, Gito Baloi, all musicians from the Shifty stable, the experiment paid off, resulting in the album Change is Pain.

Banned almost as soon as it was released, it was internationally acclaimed and went on to become Shifty’s only gold album. This was followed by the defiant 1989 album Unbroken Spirit largely written during nearly six months of solitary confinement in 1988, speaking out against the injustice of apartheid and the state’s attempts to break him down.

Convinced of the power of mixing music with spoken word, Shifty was on the lookout for more to record. In 1989, Warrick Sony of Kalahari Surfers teamed up with Lesego Rampolokeng, a young oral poet-activist from the Congress of South African Writers (COSAW).

Together they recorded End Beginnings, with Lesego’s hard-hitting word pictures of violence and oppression enhanced by Warrick’s powerful “film-like atmospheric soundtrack.” Of Lesego, Warrick says:

His work was dark and painful, spliced up images and juxtapositions which he performed with a sharp menacing attitude. Here was a man who had been brutalised by the system and had risen to express it in a unique kind of African angst.

When Shifty received a recording of another COSAW poet, they discovered one of the sweetest voices to ever emerge from the misery of apartheid. Vusi Mahlasela, soon to be known simply as The Voice, rapidly gained worldwide acclaim after the release of his debut album When you come back in 1992, and toured extensively in Europe.

1994 saw Vusi team up with Shifty again. Featuring  Lesego Rampolokeng and Zimbabwean Louis Mhlanga, the album Wisdom of Forgiveness reflected a rapidly changing South African society.

This release was followed shortly by arguably the most important gig of his life, the inauguration of South Africa’s brand new president, Nelson Mandela.

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