[Cover story] Maglera Doe Boy: High level… but dark

This interview appears in issue 25 of our monthly ezine available for purchase here.

Maglera Doe Boy’s exploration of life in the township, the diaspora, goes beyond trauma as he encourages optimism and dapperness. “Our ancestors, when they were being forced to do this thing, they were like, ‘Let’s make it high level.’”

Written by Sabelo Mkhabela, Photography: John Baloyi

By now, you should know the philosophy behind Maglera Doe Boy’s debut album. The title Diaspora refers to the townships; it’s where black people who were displaced from the homelands to provide labour in the cities during apartheid were forced to live.

Diaspora is a body of work that explores the different facets of township life by one of South African hip-hop’s most celebrated street rappers who hails from the Klerksdorp township Kanana, which is also known as Maglera. “The real gangsters don’t rap,” Maglera Doe Boy says, “but the closest to them is their little brothers who are in the game, and actually partook in some of these illegal things. And I think it’s also a lesson because when you hear most of this music, we’re telling li’l dudes not to do it. We’re saying, ‘This is how we found our way out of it, instead of existing in it.’”

Diaspora opens with ‘Memoirs’ where Maglera raps, “Young n*ggas from the block/ Came up in the project/ with my scammers and some robbers/ Can’t forget my Vatos.” It’s a song where MDB introduces the listener to not just himself, but his people and where he’s from. In some shots in the song’s video, where he appears dressed in a black suit, it’s just him, while in others, he’s surrounded by a group of people.

In each song on Diaspora, the listener is treated to stories and commentary about South African townships where there is plenty of crime, especially violence, and a high unemployment rate, but also a love for style and some of the littest parties. While those topics have been explored by rappers many times before, it’s the approach — the sensitivity and authority — with which MDB addresses them that makes Diaspora a special offering.

High level

It starts with the suit, a look that formed a huge part of the album’s rollout, to the album’s artwork, music videos and a special presentation event which was hosted shortly after the album’s release at Untitled Basement in Braamfontein. MDB has been regularly rocking a suit since then. “I was trying to give people that feeling of just waking up and be like, ‘Yo, we could have made this (the hood) suburbia, and we still can,’ which is why I’m wearing a suit in this thing, so you guys understand. Our ancestors, when they were being forced to do this thing, they were like, ‘Let’s make it high level.’”

On the album’s semi-monochrome artwork, which looks like a high-definition Polaroid, MDB is rocking a black suit as he poses in front of houses in his neighbourhood. “I like the housing. The housing in my hood is still very old in some of it. It’s the last design of apartheid, like Bantu housing. I just wanted to take it in an area where people can also see the sand because I come from sub-Sahara, which is a big thing in the music. I want people to understand I come from a hot city and I just feel like that changes a lot about someone’s character also.”

The monochrome visuals for ‘Memoirs’ were also filmed in his hood and treated to the same vintage filter. “I shot ‘Memoirs’ by the hostel right next to my house. I grew up playing by that hostel,” he says. “My mother is Xhosa, so that is where some of my Xhosa friends were. Some of them, I don’t even remember their names. I just remember these kids I used to play with by the hostel. So, it’s a very monumental place in my township. It’s also one of the first places that were built in the hood when people started moving there because of mines and whatnot.

“I’ve seen a lot there, a lot’s happened, very dark stuff, very deep stuff in terms of even my family’s connection to that place. So, I wanted to show people that kids exist in this type of place and this is how they feel because that’s how it felt to me when I was a kid. A very scary place.”

“Collaborative effort is what kept me alive”

Diaspora was a jarring listen to some fans who were expecting the bravado, aggression and playfulness that defined his guest features. In the last few years, a Maglera Doe Boy verse became a cheat code, as writer Lesiba once noted. MDB has blessed everyone – from Windows 2000 to Boity, 25K and Priddy Ugly — with a fire verse. He’s up for verse of the year for his contribution to MashBeatz’s smash hit ‘Never Ride’ alongside fellow street rapper Thato Saul.

“We don’t have to be the best of friends in this culture, but we do need to be intentional about growing this thing, because there are eyes on South Africa right now,” MDB says when asked about his knack for collaboration. “And I feel like the ’piano guys, some of them aren’t even friends, bro, but they rock as much as possible. And it was just us trying to bring that back, and we have conversations about it all the time; me, 25, Emtee… we were sitting at Sun City after the SAMAs, and that was the same chat, to say, ‘Yo, let’s go crazy.’ Emtee’s doing this project right now, let’s be immersed in it for him.”

The culture of collaboration was etched into Maglera during his come-up; he started out as a member of a crew called All G (short for “All Gangstas”) in high school. “I become very popular because of the crew and stuff,” he says, “I was the youngest in the crew, but I was on HYPE magazine and, in Grade 10, I started visiting people like Fred [Mercury], sleeping at their places, and everyone that I was meeting in these times was teaching me hip-hop history, business and the like.

“And when you fast-forward all that, from after Fred’s couch to me finishing high school, and now the drug dealing is a real thing, because I’m done with school, and my family doesn’t want me to do music. My mom took a loan [to pay for my tertiary education], I was like, ‘Take that money back, or put a gate around the house because our hood isn’t safe. I’m just going to sleep on couches in Joburg.’

“And collaborative effort is what kept me alive, every time I’d get a song… I got a song with Slikour and Morale, and that kept me relevant for a small amount of time. And I just kept going back home, and then the features, Khuli and I were like, while I’m making 2Player, and I want to prep people for a more national sound for me, let me just go crazy with the youth in the game.’”

Open heart

Compared to his “crazy” feature run, Diaspora is more reserved; while thumpers like ‘Glacier’, ‘Ascension’, ‘Makazana’ and ‘The Running of the Bulls’ are trademark MDB, some of the beats on the album are mellow and MDB even sings on some songs. “The singing thing,” he says, “is because my heart is more open, man. I really just needed to let these feelings out. The music I was making before exists on the internet if people want it, it was very dark and also very connected to my life. When I go back to the township, and all these guys I know, and the gangsters who don’t like them and whatnot, sometimes I want to check on my friends in these neighbourhoods, I can’t go to because [of how people react to me] because of the bravado.

“So, I was like, I just want to open my heart and just make my life pure. So that’s for the people who are going to see me grow. Anyone who wants to hear the other music, I’m doing joint albums with the boys. I’ve done a million features for South Africa. It’s there.” True to that promise, Champion Music 2, his collaborative album with DJ Sliqe and 25K, which came out about a month after this interview was conducted, is a collection of trap bangers where MDB and 25k talk that sh*t alongside features such as Blxckie, Flow Jones Jr., Emtee and a few others.

“I need people to understand that this is also an internal process,” he continues explaining his approach on Diaspora. “As an artist, I want people to understand we’re allowed to be. And the ones who don’t like what we are being at that time can just go to the other side of things that they like. Because rap music, there’s alternative songs, there’s opera music there. I am saying to people you don’t need to be one thing.”

High level… but dark

It’s impossible for MDB to be one thing. He is an interesting dude; erudite, articulate and thus engaging and charming. A thoroughbred with quite the story; he arrived on earth two months early and was a sickly premature baby. “I believe that I was just in a rush to change the world,” he says. He had a decent upbringing at home but met trouble when he stepped out into the streets, a place that further shaped his character. “My OG, his name is Tosi,” MDB says, “he is someone who raised me in street culture. After school, I would throw my bag on the carpet, or on the grass, and just go to Tosi’s house.

“And this guy’s playing gangsta rap, and he’s also in a gang at that time. It was crazy, and I would chill with him by the corner. And this is me, I’m a kid, we’re sniffing glue, and at the same time, I’m reading The Tempest, because my father also borrowed books from the library and never returned them. So, I had a very high level, but very dark upbringing, besides the family that I have.”

As a result, he grew into a character that people gravitated towards and would eventually lead him to being a rapper. “In 2004, in Grade 5,” he says, “I had just changed schools, and I came to the school, and because of my palette, I used to walk around in my neighbourhood and ask my neighbours for newspapers, so I could cut out the comics.

“I had a very dope scrapbook; when I was bored in class, I would draw and stuff. So, when people would get bored in class, they borrowed this book from me because it had song lyrics, random comics and drawings.’”

One of his best friends, Tumelo Mapedi, asked him, “Yo, can you rap, bro?” “I was like, ‘My big brother actually raps,’” MDB says. “And, my big brother at that time wasn’t very good at English, because he had just come from schooling in the hood. So, I would help; I would write some of [his rhymes] and even his SMSes to his crushes. But I would take his raps, and take them to school, and switch them, because they were in vernac, and I was like, ‘F*ck, I actually like this thing of rapping in English and vernac.’ So, I started mixing up the stuff I heard in HYPE and at that time, HYPE Sessions had discs with beats.” He used those beats to hone his skills and the crew he had joined, ALL G, eventually started performing and rapping at breaktime and after school.

Tumelo’s friend, Linda Ngcizela, who is The Jaziel Brothers’ little brother, told MDB and the crew that the popular duo had heard about their movement from Linda’s dad and wanted to assist them with studio time and beats. “So, their dad drives to Joburg with us, and drops us off by Pyramid Rocks Studios, I’ll never forget. And this is when they were doing Jub Jub’s album and Lesego’s album.

“And the pallet really grew from there, because that was also an era of people trying to emulate kwaito, so we were rapping on [kwaito producer] Guffy’s beats.” The Jaziel Brothers also passed them some beats on a CD. “So, we’re recording, they’re teaching us structure, like, ‘Your verse has to end here, which is 16 bars’ and ‘Make the chorus catchy, make it something people can say a lot about.’ From all of the people who started this thing, I’m the only one who’s still rapping, because I took that thing with my heart.”

MDB found himself spending a lot of time at Linda’s house, playing computer games and watching movies which Linda’s dad would rent for them in exchange for washing his car. “And then I ended up buying a mic and learning to record myself on Virtual DJ,” he says.

The street album 2Player [The Digital Score], released in 2021, was themed around video games, a huge part of MDB’s youth. In the project, he makes reference to vintage video games such as Donkey Kong, Mortal Kombat and Tetris, among others as he tells his story.  “My mother bought me a TV game in 2004, when the PlayStation 2 came out, she bought me a TV game, the one with the cartridges,” MDB recalls. “And that also made me steal a lot, because I wanted games, man.” Please note that HYPE doesn’t endorse embezzlement of property, but anyone who grew up in that era and was into video games and is without sin, let them be the first to cast the stone.

With the absence of stones, the story of MDB continues below…

D-Boy

“My brother also stole a lot of cartridges from people for me, or we’d open someone’s cartridge and change it. So, when I [joined] the All G, my name is TK AKA TV Game,” he says. “TK” came from his government name Tokelo. “And then Grade 6, I start seeing Pharrell on TV. On eTV’s playlist, they used to play ‘Can I Have It Like That’ a lot, and that makes me see Pusha T and his brother who called themselves The Clipse.

“I loved them, so I started calling myself Eclipse from Grade 7 going into Grade 8. And then Grade 8, Eclipse was a real thing. Eclipse rapped for the seniors, and I never got initiated, I chilled with Grade 10s the whole year. [At some point], everyone in the school used to call me HHP, because I had baby fat, and I rapped in vernac.”

But the Eclipse moniker just couldn’t stick. It felt too big of a word to most people, MDB says. “Then Grade 9, I’m taking a class for bad kids… I was smart, but I misbehaved a lot, so they took me to this class and when I get there, I get arrested for possession with intention to distribute, and that made me really popular; everyone was like, ‘Oh, sh*t, he got arrested blah, blah, blah…’ And then I [became known as] Dope Boy. But then just being smart and saying, ‘Yo, I actually want to be a big artist in this country,’ so, I took the ‘P’ out, I just kept the ‘D-O-E’, because I like money. And then it became ‘Doe Boy’.”

MDB was thrust onto the radar of the game by motswako legend Khuli Chana who put him under his wing and signed him to his Mythron Records imprint in 2017. He released his breakout single ‘Bodega’ in 2018 and introduced new-age motswako and new-age street rap.

“I met Khulane via Apu Sebekedi who is the co-founder of my sound, the navy, that’s what we call it. Apu was my main producer. He produced Khulane’s One Source album. And Khuli was like to him, ‘Yo, I’m doing the album, if there’s anyone you think I should put on,’ I think that’s how the conversation worked. I’m paraphrasing right now, and Apu was like to me, ‘Yo, try your thing on this song and kill it so no one gets that verse and it’s just you.’ I did four verses on that one song, and Khuli liked all of them. He was like, ‘You’re insane, dude.’ And he was like, ‘What you doing?’ I was like, ‘Bro, I’m in Maglera, I’m still selling drugs sometimes. Sometimes I’m just rapping, bro. Sometimes  I’m in the hood.’ So, I finished high school and realised that was a good time for me to just be in Joburg and try to learn more. Because I’d been in Joburg a lot, but never around what Khulane did for me, which is introducing me to ‘this is what rap money looks like. As a rapper, this is the lifestyle that you are going to be exposed to. And, this is what people are going to think of you, so you must think about packaging it like this.’”

The fourth member of Morafe

It was through Khuli that MDB met KayGizm, a member of legendary motswako trio Morafe (which, alongside Khuli and KayGizm, also consisted of Towdee Mac). MDB and the motswako veteran have good chemistry. KayGizm appears on three songs on Diaspora. “I always say to them that I am the fourth member of Morafe. And, when they tell me the story of how Morafe was formed, and how it was Mo Mo’lemi and three of the boys, I’ve always liked the idea that if they ever did a legacy album, and they needed me to play that part, I would. Because I just love them so much. And I took from all of them in terms of my design. But I met KG when Khuli was doing One Source, and I actually met him before I met Khulane. And he’s just such a beautiful person, man. And we clicked from the go. We shared music and I told him, ‘Bro, this rap thing, I’ve got it sorted, I’m just trying to decide what I’m going to rap about now, because I’m finding myself. But I really want to practice this singing thing and I want to do it low key, so by the time we’re showcasing, it’s just good enough for me to showcase like that.’

“And he was like, ‘Yo, we can always just start with you doing it with me, learning literally as you’re watching, asking your questions,’ and that has made for us having one of the dopest dynamics ever. If I’m sliding you a bone, I’m actually producing his next album.”

KayGizm fittingly appears on ‘Banyana’, a song in which Maglera Doe Boy lyrically pays homage to women and, sonically, his predecessors who did what he calls “suit music”. The sophisticated sultriness of jazz through a dominant trumpet on ‘Banyana’ is reminiscent of some HHP songs and Zeus’s ‘Champagne Music’ which was produced by I.V League, the super producer trio of AKA, Kamza and Buks, who crafted some of the most monumental SA hip-hop records of the 2000s and early 2010s by the likes of AKA, Khuli Chana and PRO.

‘Banyana’ and the song it precedes, ‘Maglera House Party’ featuring Focalistic, are some of the songs on the project that counter the dark stories of violent crimes, poverty and government incompetence. It’s songs that depict the “bright side” of his life.

As a result, Diaspora is a balanced album that paints a complex picture of South Africa, especially the townships; some stories are gloomy and terrifying while others are heart-warming, fun and just yearn for the repeat button.

That’s how you tell a story.

This interview appears in issue 25 of our monthly ezine available for purchase here.

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