The Next Level of Mphikeleli ‘Bongo Riot’ Zungu
I made my way to Newtown to meet one of the most Vocal, No Nonsense talking artist known to many as Bongo Riot – Da Dancehall Wakanda. A versatile entertainer that has been at it for close to a decade. Once a member of the prominent group Gang of Instrumentals before they went their separate ways, he is now performing solo and causing a riot in the Dancehall Reggae movement. No sooner has the dust settled after a successful run with his SAMA Nominated album Next Levels; he is already on to his next project working with his current label and management Powertainment Sound (after leaving Baak-A-Yaad label). He was on set to shoot a video for his latest single RIP off his soon to be released album True Stories. We popped in to check out the vibes and managed to steal a few minutes for a small chat about this and that, but it turned out to be a wholesome long conversation on another level, the Next level of Mphikeleli ‘Bongo Riot’ Zungu.
For those who don’t know who is Bongo Riot, can you please tell us a bit about yourself
My name is Mphikeleli Zungu, and I go by Bongo Riot which means a Big Broad Wise Mind. I was given to it by a Rasta who lives in the jungle in Kwandebele. There’s Zion there where Rastas reside, even those who have repatriated from Jamaica stay there, that’s where my story with music began.
How did it start?
I’ve been involved with music from an early age, from Grade 3 that was back in 1989, I was in a boys choir, that’s where I discovered that I can sing. Then I moved to street music called tap and clap which is also known as gospel, I was with the 12 Apostle Choir.
From Gospel to Reggae, how did that come about?
Reggae music saved my life, there was a lot of violence in my neighbourhood, Kwathema, between PASO and COSAS which were student wings of PAC (Pan Africanist Congress) and ANC (African National Congress). There were too many killings and life was not nice and I wanted nice things in life. I didn’t want that violent life so I went to Mpumalanga, Kwandebele, that’s where I met some Bredrens, Ras Loddy, Charlys and Papa Doc. They were musicians and they inspired me a lot, that’s where I decided that I don’t want the choir life anymore and I wanted to sing alone and tell my stories. The Brothers encouraged me to go for it, they taught me a lot. I stayed there for five years. I had to comeback to Johannesburg because we had no proper facilities for recording, so when I came back I did two singles ‘Ndibe di hlezi Ebumynameni’ and ‘Vandal’. They were received well in the streets, no radio, no TV promos, but everyone in the streets was saying ” this guy has what it takes”. In 2005 I released an album called “Rock Ya Ko Kasi” which was rock and roll but sang in vernacular. I also had a track ‘My Number One – K’dala ngizula”. In 2006 I was performing in Horror Cafe “Ragga Nites” and I met Mandla N, a member of Gang Of Instrumental, he approached me and asked me to visit his studios. I went and they promised to shoot a music video for me and I refused and I told them I don’t want a music video, I want the world. Mandla said “I can’t give you the world, but I can introduce you to the world”, and that’s what he did. In 2006 we released our first singles under Gangs of instrumental “Kudala ngizula” ‘Woza December” and “Shona Malanga”. In 2008 we went to America where we performed at BB Kings restaurant.
So what happened to Gangs of Instrumentals?
GOI is still there, but we are currently not recording or performing as a group due to the fact that Mandla is a film maker and he shoots almost every day. Tumi (Lady Natural) is also pursuing her solo career in Reggae. This year, if I’m not mistaken, we will be releasing one or two new singles as GOI.
And your album Next Levels, how did it perform, are you happy with it?
Yes Next Levels did very well besides the fact that you can’t find it in stores, but we sold copies in the streets, people are buying copies, they are downloading the music. It was also nominated for the SAMA25 Best Reggae Album which was won by Black Dillinger. The Album made me very happy, well received by the people, by the media. I’m happy. I’m busy with another album, as you can see we are shooting a video for one of the singles from “True Stories” Bongo Riots true stories 2020.
When are you expecting to release the album?
I’m not sure about the release date but we’ve already released three singles “RIP” “Awu sa Tholakale” and one about marijuana. It’s turning out to be an EP cause we are giving away songs for free, we’ve already given out six songs. You can’t sell “Ingulube ise sakini” people must know what they are buying, you can’t say “this is the album and it sounds nice”. We believe that we must give them half of the product so that they can make up their minds on whether they like it or not.
Where do you think our reggae industry is heading, because you’ve been in this for a long time?
Eish, it’s very, it’s very crucial my sister, it’s critical you know. We need help, our ship is sinking and no one seems to care. We are not saying we are the most talented but we are the toughest out there, people know our songs, our songs are sing along tunes, but the radio stations are failing us, TV stations are failing us, we have music videos, top quality shot by big companies, we spend money like other genres but unfortunately they don’t play our songs. If it’s not the lyrics, it’s the beard, if it’s not the beard it’s the dreadlocks, if it’s not the dreadlocks it’s the attitude. They always have something to complain about. If you can go ask them why they are not playing Bongo Riot or Black Dillinger they will probably tell you about our attitude. They always have some negative thing to say about reggae artists; not to seem like I’m complaining too much or talking about something that I don’t know; this is happening cause I have artists friends like Momo Dread, Black Dillinger, Jeremiah Fyah Ises, Moon Queen, Skeleton Blazer and they have songs, proper songs, some are now even lazy to go for proper mastering and shoot videos cause they are spending money and no one is taking notice of this. We knock on all doors everywhere, all the promoters know us, but they don’t book us but you will be surprised to hear they have reggae acts on their shows but when you do your research you find that the reggae act is not known in the streets but it’s one of their friends because they want to manipulate the guy and short pay him. They won’t come to us because they say we are expensive, you will laugh cause the money they pay to other artists from Hip hop and Kwaito is the normal SA paying rate, and that’s what we want too it’s not like want more than what the other guys are getting, sometimes we demand less but still they don’t want to gives us what is due to us.
There’s a rumour that they like, saying we diss promoters only because we speak our minds. We have this hashtag #paytheartistorfokof. Why do we say that; they are playing with artists and how? They make them feel like they are more powerful than the real artist, so that the artist can feel loved and say “let’s push this show” why don’t they go to the ones who have been there before everything started, cause you must start there, you can’t go to kids and ask them about the reggae culture, where are the elders? That’s one of the problems we have, they don’t come to us, we are the elders of Reggae Dancehall in this country. When we started this thing there was no one, we even switched to other genres so that we can be recognized everywhere. That’s how intelligent we are as Rasta man, we are not only stuck on reggae cause we can see that they don’t want our reggae dancehall music, so we do Afro beat, Amapiano and Hip hop so that people can see Rasta man is there, cause Rasta man is not someone who’s stereotyped who’s stuck at one place, who’s stuck inside a box. I still say our music is sinking and no one seems to care about our talent.
So what could be the solution then because I ask this question a lot and everyone says the same things that you are saying?
There is a solution, Government must take Rasta seriously. The problem with the music is that it comes with Rasta, they have a problem with the Rasta man, so whatever we come with it’s like: “no they’ve smoked (marijuana) they are not clean.” The problem is that they have a negative attitude towards Rasta, until they take Rasta seriously that’s when they will take our music seriously. Hip hop also faced the same dilemma at one point, they used to take them as just people who wear pants that fall on the knees, punks who walk around with skateboards wearing earrings you see, until some rappers sat them down. We also have good people who represent us like Thau Thau (RUF) there in parliament to prove that Rasta is sane, We have Ras Sipho who’s an advocate, in Cape Town we have Prince (Lawyer), we have people who live in Sandton who drive porches, Lamborghinis to prove that Rasta is a child of this earth, not some alien from somewhere who just want to fight with the government. Their problem is Rasta. That’s the solution, to take us seriously then they will take the music seriously cause Reggae is Rastafari music even though it’s now sang by everyone. Everyone can sing reggae cause its music and music is taught even in schools but reggae which is a spiritual music it’s Rastafari music and not everyone can just sing it.
So it’s not exactly the music, but Rastafari
Yes my sister, it’s Rasta, I have one song called Dlozi Lam’ it’s only one radio station “Massive Metro” that plays the song cause they are ghetto youths so they understand, others will tell you that the song has the word “ganja” in it, and you ask “but ganja is legal now” and that song doesn’t say “smoke ganja” it’s says “shisa intsangu uhlale emsamo”. so we removed the word “Intsangu” and replaced it with “impepho (african sage)” just so we can accommodate everyone; cause they say Rasta doesn’t want to listen, we have empty pride. We will distribute the song and hear what they say, what will be their excuse now. If you listen to some songs that they play on the radio you will hear far worse scary songs than ours but we have never heard them saying those songs are improper but each time a Rasta tries to release a track, they say we are controversial, it’s too much. We have a song now called RIP it’s doing well on social media, it’s on 75 000 views (time of print) and the month is not even over yet. Its not on radio, it’s not on TV but we are hitting those numbers, even for well established artists it’s not easy to reach 75 000 views. Thanks to the people. One guy out of 450 comments says “this track won’t make it, it is too conscious” he even wrote down lyrics that are “acceptable” like “mina ngiyi schathulo, bonke abantu ba nyathela ngam’ manje ngi pintshekile” (laughs). People want good music, don’t be fooled.
I have a song called Amapakistane, people say I’m demeaning women on the song, you’ll be surprised because married couples love it cause that’s how every man talks “we love big women,” The reason I recorded that song is that people only talk about slim women and ‘yellow bones’ now it looks like other women are nothing and not important so I decided to sing about plump women when the rest sings about slim women so that the scales can be balanced cause that’s Rasta’s duty to balance everything but they think we are here to divide people but there is no such thing, Rasta is very caring and loving. I don’t eat meat I don’t kill cockroaches, I don’t kill ants that’s how harmless we are and we are not saying it’s wrong for people to eat meat, no, there are those who do and those who don’t it’s just BALANCE.
So would you say that’s one of the reasons why NEXT LEVEL sound is commercial? Where you have reggae with a kwaito feel.
Yes we went that route because we are residents of South Africa and if you listen carefully I didn’t put my Kwaito songs, its Dancehall and Afro beat, and what makes someone to think its kwaito is because of the lyrics, again if its sounds like Kwaito it’s very good because Kwaito is also South African music because we stay in S.A not in Jamaica. We can’t be fighting to sound like Jamaicans, I speak for myself I don’t know about other artists. I find that it doesn’t make sense for me to sound like a Jamaican. I’m not trying to conquer Jamaica and even if I tried I won’t win. How do you conquer Jamaica when your own people don’t even know who you are! Right now I’m fighting for my people to know the kind of Reggae Dancehall music that I do. Jamaicans are lucky because they are closer to Europe and the Americas and it’s easier for them to penetrate our small places and crowd us with their music. Us in the third world countries, it’s very hard for us to infiltrate that market, our brothers’ end up sounding like that just so they can blend with them. I’m comfortable here at home, I get gigs here at home and if I don’t get gigs that side I won’t lose anything as long as I get booked here at home I’m content.
But isn’t it every musicians dream for lack of a better word to be recognized as a world class artist?
No, no, Ladysmith Black Mambazo sang in vernacular and they are “International” more than those who think they are international. They don’t even have one song that they did just so they can penetrate the international market. They were singing their own music, no English. In our music we have English, Patois and all the other languages so we want to reach the world, we don’t want to reach a particular city in the world or a particular country. We want to reach the world and believe you me, through social media we are communicating with the world, not so long ago we were communicating with another sister who is from Botswana but resides in New York and she was telling us there is a DJ there who plays “23 year old” in his club, so at least they now know it in that club. We can’t reach all of them but there are those individuals that we are targeting, those are the ones who will push the gospel, that’s how reggae was promoted here, some people don’t understand reggae music they don’t hear what Capleton is saying or Vybz Kartel, it’s only Rastas and those who really love that music, others just like the flow. If you ask them what Capleton is saying they don’t know, they always ask us what is Capleton saying, that’s how powerful music is, you don’t have to know the lyrics but there are people who just love to player hate, they are just like that by nature, they’ll tell you Reggae must be sang in English or patois and nothing else. You go to Brazil and they don’t talk that nonsense, they sing reggae in their language, you go to Italy they use their language, those who want to cross over to Jamaica like Alborosie they sing in English cause they want that market, it depends on an individual on where do they want to end up. I want to reach the world not some particular city so I won’t compromise my language, my philosophy and my beliefs.
I also want to encourage other artists, they must be real. Jamaicans are famous because they are real, they are not doing another language, they won’t sing in Shona because they want to attract the Zimbabwean market. They sing in patois and Zimbabweans will struggle to sing along until they get it right. ZimDancehall is bigger than us now because they promote their own artists, Zim DJs play their own artists. You come here they play Capleton, they’ve been playing him for years now they like this Buju Banton’s new song, they don’t play our tunes.
I guess that’s another reason why we are not prospering here at home
That’s the MAIN REASON, the biggest reason, the selectors, the jugglers they don’t play our music, even our close friends don’t play it, if they do they will just play one track, you are lucky if they play that one track because they saw you in the crowd or they are ashamed. No DJ can come on stage and play ten of my songs, it has never happened even just five songs and I don’t see it ever happening, reason: Problem is he knows you, that’s the problem, he will never do things the way you see them but he will do it Capleton’s way, He will fulfill Capleton’s wish. Capleton wishes every DJ can play ten of his songs everyday and that’s what they are doing just because they don’t know him, with us the problem is they know us and they won’t buy our things. That’s what happening. We host shows and they don’t attend, very cheap shows where entrance fee is R50 (even R20) see, even R20 show they don’t attend. When you do a show that is sponsored by the government and you have money to pay an International artists and you charge R250, they will come, some even come as far as Lesotho for that concert. That’s the problem that we have and people get angry with you when you tell them this.
So what would be your message to them?
My message to them is they must not be all talk and no action, they say the government must recognise reggae, they must recognise the artists first before they go crying to the government. They must forget about that government story, everyday on Facebook and twitter they will tell you they are listening to Christopher Martin, you hardly see listening to Dillinger, listening to Riot. Only a select few will post that and I think they just feel sorry for us, they are not being sincere, I’m sure they say “argh shame let’s just make him feel good today”. There’s one sister from my hood her name is Anele who buys local Cd’s, yes other people do too but she buys and posts them you can see she supports local. She comes to my shows especially if I’m performing in the east rand cause I don’t perform at Reggae shows only, I’m involved with other shows also, she comes with other sisters to support me. Others will only show up at a reggae event only if it’s closer to where they stay, but say a Jamaican artist is coming, they will travel from Balfour Park some even camp overnight just to see an international act. What I’m trying to say is; people must stop complaining and start acting, they must recognise the artists. I see the buying of music part but they must also attend our shows, the DJs must play our music, that’s the support that we need. the reason that people don’t know us is that DJs are not playing our songs.
Ok, Let’s talk about True Stories, what is the overall feel of the album?
True Stories is True Stories not to say it’s about my life stories but I’m more real, uncensored. There’s a song called ‘Birth Control‘ which won’t be received well by the pharmaceutical industry because it is against birth control. Fire burn birth control. Our pastors, our politicians are running away from that topic. everywhere you go around the city you see those “abortion” advertisements, “Legal Abortions” everywhere. Abortion is the one killer, most people die by abortions than guns and other things. Abortion is murder, but they don’t see it like that, they say it’s a ladies choice to kill a child. It makes me scared just thinking about it and old people don’t want it, only business people advocate for it because they make money out of it.
I have a song called ‘What’s my middle name“. Its about Haile Selassie, when some politician and religious leaders hear the song it doesn’t make them feel good they ask why are you praising this man so much, and I tell them that God is a Living man, If I don’t see you as God I won’t respect you fully. That’s how I see Haile Selassie, as God in flesh, that’s how I see you and that’s how I expect you to see me. That is the only way we are going to respect each other. This whole notion of ‘there’s God and there’s man’ is a problem, so True Stories is all about that. I also have love songs where I sing about my situation now, the song ‘24th of November‘. I met someone that I currently stay with (Nov 2019?) no, 24th of Nov 2015.
People also say that I am a bully, I always bully promoters on social media, on stage they say I want to perform for a long duration. Promoters will tell you that your performance will be for one hour, next thing you know they give you 20min because of problems that they created and you came early for your performance but someone else who is their friend is on stage before you, so I always speak my mind hence the song “Bully“. I’ll take the name and show them the real bully, most of the songs I didn’t write them just for fun it’s things that are happening out there.
That’s one of things I’ve come to appreciate about Bongo Riot, your song writing skills and they are evident on Next Level
On that Album there’s only one song that I didn’t write: “My life changed“. It was written by Sister Rose from Jamaica and some brothers, they wrote it for me. I am a songwriter more than a performer. I entertain I don’t perform. I think there’s a difference between the two, my performances suck cause they are too formal and that’s why some people say that I am a bully, I talk too much, I am a racist, I am sexist and all those things cause I believe that I must speak my mind cause no one is going to do it for me and I don’t want to leave this planet earth without having said what’s on my mind. Ja, I write my songs, now I’m busy approaching other artists in the reggae scene to write for them, but others are not taking me seriously but they don’t have songs in the streets. It doesn’t mean if you can sing you can write or you can perform or you can entertain, there’s no such thing. I’m not a good singer cause I have a husky voice. I didn’t go to music school and I know I won’t go to school for it, it’s either you have it or not. It’s easy to go to school, you take out some money and they teach you music, but with singing it’s either you can or you can’t. I was fortunate to have been given a talent of writing to express my feelings. Reggae fans will be hearing some of my works on other artists albums, unfortunately, I will be working with Sisters a lot cause they don’t have that pompous air about them, they always want to see progress.
Any last words from Bongo Riot to his fans?
I’d like to say to my people, I like to call them my people I don’t like that word ‘fans’, They mustn’t give up on us, we are also like all the celebrities that they see on TV, it’s just that we are Rastas, they must remember that the media doesn’t want to show the True Story of Rastafari, they only want to show that side which was created by them so they mustn’t be shocked if they don’t see us on TV’s or can’t find our music in record stores and say we don’t exist, no, we do exist. If you take your phone and google Bongo Riot, you will find my music and all the information about our movements, don’t concentrate too much on your big screen TV cause cellular phones are the new TVs as far as technology is concerned, it’s just that they hide this information from our people, A PHONE IS THE NEW TV, We are the only ones who still want big screens “I want a big screen” which is not bad but duh! Let’s move with the times, Nyaope boys will steal those things (laughs) so I’ll encourage my people to check us on their phones, you want Riot, you want Momo Dread, you want Jeremiah Fyah Ises, Skeleton Blazer, Reign Africa, Dillinger etc CHECK US ON YOUR PHONES so please people mustn’t give up on us we really need their support.
What can we expect from you in 2020.
2020 expect music videos, we will have one or three, expect a Bongo Riot one man show, I’ll be doing a lot of those but Jeremiah Ises and Reign Africa will always be in those shows.
So you will be travelling across the country?
Yes, and I’m certain they will always be there as much as we don’t have the budget but I’m talking to some sponsors about it cause those youngsters are very talented and I feel like people haven’t taken them too seriously especially here in Mzansi. Rastas know them but that’s a minority market, you can’t stress yourself about it, it’s a small market. We want to concentrate on the whole country so that they can see that reggae is also sang by the youth not only by old men with beards.
And it’s positive reggae also
YES, positive music and lovers rock you know. With Reign Africa, women will see that you don’t have to expose your body for you to be known and travel the world. Jeremiah Fyah Ises will show that you don’t have to take drugs or alcohol for people to accept you, you can still be cool by just being you, that is what we are promoting as Rastas, we promote clean livity, that is why the media doesn’t like us, they don’t want us to promote a clean life cause they will loose their dirty business, that’s what they promote isn’t it, they don’t want our kids to be fully dressed. The more the kids don’t dress up the more we get this rape incidents and their business booms. I’m not saying our Sisters get raped because of their dress code but the rapists are the ones with a problem so sisters must always be aware of how they dress up for places that they frequent.
So 2020 they must expect this Rasta Man the way a Rasta Man is supposed to be, TRUE STORIES and nothing else.
Interviewed by SoulSista