On the way to Hlotse, capital town of Leribe (one of Lesotho’s ten districts), one passes a place aptly-titled Crossong – a T-junction that can take one to either of three places: Northward-bound (Hlotse, Butha Buthe, Mokhotlong), Southward-bound (TY, Maseru, Mafeteng), or Westward into the heartland of Maputsoe. Infamous for its youth’s rough living, muggings, and the border post into Ficksburg, Maputsoe has of late had its image bolstered by the likes of Papa Zee and Kommanda Obbs – rap artists who, with varying degrees of success, have managed to captivate audiences thanks in part to Lesedi FM‘s wide reach.
The 4km stretch of road that leads from Crossong to Maputsoe’s shoddily-clustered city centre is interspersed with villages on either side; ‘malaene’ segue seamlessly into family households, a pattern replicated and duplicated across semi-urbane dwellings all over Lesotho. The collective energy of Maputsoe is only palpable further inwards, towards the border-gate, taxi rank, and the infamous Ha S’kekethe hotel/drinking bar.
In his songs, Kommanda Obbs is the archetypal Sputsoe dweller. His lyrics allude to influences from both hip-hop and Famo; flourishes of Afro-Jazz, gospel, and even kwaito overlay “Ts’epe“, the debut album he has been working on since the release of his “Complex Mindset Vol. 1“, an offering he is quick to clarify “was more of a street-tape than an album”.
I bought Complex Mindset after being egged on by a first-time listen of ‘Ke lorile’ (the lead single) on the radio. Its hardcore hip-hop leanings, propelled by expert instrumentation by Dim Light, and a chorus potent enough to strike a chord with any child who was born and bred in Lesotho (the lyric “Ke lorile, ke lorile ke ja bosekana” comes from a childhood game I used to play), ‘Ke lorile‘ slowly gained momentum, ultimately finding its way onto the playlist of Lesedi FM’s Ba2cada. He is the one who truly championed Kommanda Obbs’ sound (and subsequent Ts’epe movement) to a larger, attentive audience. The organic process with which the song developed and became ingrained within people’s conscience was – in a self-satisfying, comical way – a middle-finger to the Internet-generated buzz typical of so many rap/hip-hop releases today.
Complex Mindset was largely a hit-and-miss affair, yet one whose lyrics shifted expertly between social commentary, odes toward ghetto living, and a bitter-sweet admission of an inability to commit to one girl at any one time. These admirable concepts were betrayed all-too-often by flailing instrumentation and sub-par production values, flaws which rendered the product-at-large a laborious experiment in listening.
Regardless of my mixed perceptions towards his initial offering, I awaited with bated breath for my copy of Ts’epe. In fact, my vigour had increased ten-fold; I reasoned that in the four years that had elapsed, Kommanda Obbs had surely learnt a lot about how to focus his energy towards a common set of ideas – a coherent sound notwithstanding. On first listen, I heard a lot of the pitfalls of the last project, but perhaps it was anxiety taking its toll.
Repeated listens have revealed a rather romantic affair with linguistics, flow, and arrangement. Ts’epe features a dizzying array of strong-handed machine-gun rap lyricism. Instead of inoffensive reprisal, the listener is treated to a new type of orthodoxy – one that would be unpopular if it wasn’t so good…so well-delivered!
‘Mahlaba-phieo’ is a seething, obstinate parlance against backstabbers; think Mr Molemi‘s ‘Manong’ meets the O’Jays’ ‘Backstabbers’ over a backdrop of ethereal ululations. The head-nod factor is provided courtesy of Phill the Kritik, a producer very much intent on putting his stamp of approval on any name worthy of mention in Lesotho’s hip-hop circuit. Much like ‘Feet fir’‘ on the Complex mindset offering, ‘Mahlaba-phieo’ deals with the distrust inherent in inter-human relationships; no mercy is shown as Kommanda Obbs dictates over Phill’s trusty instrumentation:
‘Ba tla u lahla kherehla, ba khutle ba u ts’ehe/
U ‘n’o re ke metsoalle, ba tla u juta kaofela/
U lokisa litaba le bona, ba khutla ba u seba/
Ba lula ka pele komiting ea lira, ba u rera’.
It is a song that keeps the level of a bar set by the album opener and title track ‘Ts’epe’.
In-between is ‘Khomo’, an ode to cow-related idioms every Mosotho child must have, at one point or another, encountered during their primary school Sesotho curriculum. The cow is a symbol of unity in Sesotho culture; its ability to bring together families; to win over enemies; and to appease the gods is accentuated with sheer excellence. It is one of Kommanda Obbs’ many moments of glory, highlighting his uncanny gift of using standard Sesotho adages and metaphors to great effect.
For native Sotho speakers, it makes for an interesting juxtaposition of actuality and surrealism. Obbs is talented enough, well-read enough, street-savvy and well-experienced enough to know which part of his vast Sesotho vocabulary to access in order to convey his intended meaning to the listener. For those not well-versed in the intricacies of the language, expertly-crafted production and arrangement (mostly courtesy of M[uzi]k) fills the role of guider, protector, and attention-keeper.
Themes covered range from jealousy, love, loss of cultural values, and the all-too-necessary braggadocio every now and then. Dense vocal arrangement interspersed with powerful metaphorical undertones and proverbs hint at a strong cultural awareness throughout the album.
For an emcee that could be passed on as just another fad, Kommanda Obbs succeeds in keeping the listener enamoured, arguably from beginning to end, with tales which borrow merrily from real-life experiences. Perhaps it is the voice; or the cadence; or maybe it is just that in Obbs, hip-hop has discovered a never-before-explored allegiance with the front-runners of Famo music – the Mants’a’s, Famole’s, and Masholu’s of this world.
Does this then qualify him as a trendsetter? Perhaps it does, but implied within the statement is that his product should be treated with novelty – a pitfall which should be avoided at all costs. Novelty products, by their very nature, are exclusivist; they tend to favour a select audience, while concealing (consciously or otherwise) themselves from the broader context of the society whose discourse they aim to influence.
While Obbs may have introduced another dynamic to Sesotho-tinged hip-hop (one different from, say, Papa Zee, Skebza D or Pitso Ramakhula), his product should – by virtue of its potentially-wide appeal – be treated as normal. In that way, more people are likely to embrace him; more people are likely to see in his music a kindred spirit as opposed to something above them.
And it should be like that! His music is just as suited to a festival crowd as it is to a high school kid waiting for the taxi at Crossong to fill up on a weekday; or to mineworkers waiting for permits to cross into South Afrika at Ficksburg Bridge; or as a backdrop to misdemeanours of inebriated mapantsula at Ha S’kekethe on a Saturday night.
But why should anyone pay attention? What sets him apart in a scene constantly rotating with emcees – some well-meaning, some not so much – intent on using their ‘mother tongue’ to express themselves lyrically? Well, in his own words, Kommanda Obbs states: ‘I think there is a difference between rapping in Sesotho and representing Sesotho. That’s what sets us apart; I represent Sesotho, I don’t just rap in it’.
And that, to me, qualifies him as an artist that deserves a chance to be heard.