The least we can say about Kid X’s rise is that it has been unorthodox. Born in Mpumalanga, Bonginkosi Mahlangu fell in love with rap after watching 8 Mile and truly began his career around 2010 when meeting K.O, another serial hitmaker in the making. Unifying with K.O’s Teargas team members Ma-E and Ntukza, soon joined by AB Crazy and Zingah (formerly Smashis), the boys formed a rap group called Cashtime Fam and quickly became frontrunners of South African hip-hop, a genre still struggling to achieve mainstream success at the time. In visuals like “Stundee” or “Goodbye”, still more or less available on Youtube, you can see what Kid X (and South African rap in general) was about in that moment: a “nothing to lose” attitude, a taste for intensive wordplay and a heavily Americanized style. “Goodbye” eventually ended up being a considerable hit, and Kid X started making a name for himself outside of the group, hanging out with DJs, upcoming rappers and a certain Kwesta, who broke countless records a few years later.
In 2014, Cashtime Fam was disbanded and Kid X, alongside others, became the first round pick for the newly rebranded Cashtime Life. This new entity made a strong mark on the 2015 South African rap landscape. A kind of label, super group and entertainment company, the Cashtime boys (and girl with rapper and television presenter Moozlie later joining the crew) seemed to be everywhere in Johannesburg. Their verses were on every track, high school pupils were fighting over their streetwear clothes and their famous tag “Cashtime Tsotsi [urban thug] For Life” was heard on a daily basis. K.O and Kid X took advantage of that momentum to release “Caracara”. Seven years later, we are only starting to realize the impact the track had for South African hip-hop and street culture. A major crossover hit, it cleverly blended rap culture, still considered foreign at the time, with typically Mzansi cultural elements: the pantsula attire, the caracaras (Volkswagen microbuses, an omnipresent vehicle in local townships), the catchy and simple choreography… “Easily the South African hip-hop song of the decade” for some, it was the first local music video to surpass 1 million views on YouTube.
Kid X followed up this major success with the mixtape 3 Quartier Pace as a free download in 2015, parted ways with K.O in 2016 and released his highly anticipated debut album Thank Da King in 2018, the English translation of Bonginkosi, his name. He continued his roll out of singles and featurings, solidifying his place in the game as rap itself was solidifying its popularity in the country. Then, the rapper took a break, started taking care of himself and changed. In 2014, his “Caracara” verse had started with “S’phum’eGoli, Cape to Cairo” (“We come out of Johannesburg, Cape to Cairo”). He eventually went to Cairo alone in 2019, a trip that “changed everything”. He also embarked on another journey, fatherhood, with the birth of his daughter the same year. Formerly known as the 88King, a “tsotsi for life” that represented the streets, Kid X slowly became something else: the Father of Zen, the name of his kid and his new state of mind. His new album reflects his changed reality and discusses healing, awareness and mindfulness.
PAM sat down with Kid X to discuss his project.
You took a two-year break before Father of Zen. What did you do during this time?
A lot of things happened in those two years! But I think one of the most notable turning points was when I took a trip to Egypt. That trip just changed a lot. It broadened my perspective, it turned my world around. When the invite came, it didn’t have a plus one and I didn’t insist on having my manager or anyone else tag along. So I explored Egypt alone! I saw the Nile river, I went to the pyramids, I rode on camels backs, I rode on horse backs…. For me, it really just opened my mind to a lot of things. When I came back, I felt like I understood so many things about the world we live in that I previously was just oblivious to. I felt like I had tapped into a deeper level of myself and I needed to come out with new music to express that new energy.
The album starts with the track “The Cure.” I think it says a lot about the project, which is centered on being healed and healthy, in all senses of the word. What have you been cured from?
Funnily enough, “The Cure” coincided with the fact that we were faced with Corona. Initially, I was looking to cure specific things of the world, traumas, griefs that we may be experiencing as adult people. And I started to discover so much more… I realized that actually, the main thing I felt I needed to cure was the egoic mind. The egoic mind is responsible for a lot of the things we end up experiencing as destructive. I felt like that’s the main cure. If we could cure the egoic mind, we’d tap into more feelings. So the song is about curing the egoic mind… and then the journey resets after I say that. I go back to a stage of chaos and sort of unpack how I’ve gotten into where I am.
Being cured is also an ongoing thing. Everyday I’m making a lot of progress. What I used to actually practice is meditation. I practice yoga every single day and that really does a lot for how I’m feeling and how I’m getting through my day. It raises my energy levels, and it allows me to just show up as someone who’s very positive about where I’m going.
It’s interesting that as a rapper, you speak about mental health, self awareness and meditation. We recently interviewed Kwesta who was talking about the same things: being healthy, being vulnerable… What’s happening with our tough rappers? Is there some kind of taboo being broken in South African hip-hop?
The truth is this: if you look at the popular messaging in hip-hop, all of it, if we’re being 100% honest, is very destructive. Because what’s popular now is alcohol, drug use… It’s all about an expensive, exuberant and flashy lifestyle. And all of those things are destructive in their nature. Being someone who’s experienced alcohol abuse, lean drinking and weed smoking, when I found a grip on myself and I started to reflect on where I was in my life, I realized that these things were not helping me. I was becoming a prisoner to those things and I needed to retrace my steps to a time when I was actually fully functional and had joy without these things being in the equation. I then realized that the start and the end of it is my mental space. I needed to make sure that I correct that and make that a healthier environment. And actually, if you look at today, in hip-hop, the common messaging is that people are suffering! If you listen to any hip-hop song, you can pick up the undertone of suffering. It’s sad, because the audience totally ignores that message. They all turn up to a song where the artist is basically saying “I’m slowly but surely dying”. Because the beat is energetic, because it’s nice and melodic, that song becomes a party song and people are celebrating your death! It’s ridiculous.
Yet, you also got known for rough street anthems like “Caracara,” “Pass ‘n Special”… Weren’t you anxious to make such a turn in your music?
I did go through moments where I was feeling a bit anxious about how people would receive it, based on my previous work and the precedents that I’ve set for myself. But then I slowly began to find comfort in the fact that this body of work is my calling. Sharing this message for me supersedes anything else that could be hindering my thought process. I feel like the people who are ready to receive this message, that’s who this project is for. I do understand that it might not be very well received by the majority of the audience, simply because I think the majority of the public is obviously moving in a specific direction and this album is totally the opposite. But I’ve made peace with that and I understand that I have to take that and sort of find new tools to mark the success of the album.
You also said you want to break the narrative of fatherhood with this album…
I wanted to sort of bring it to the forefront in the hip-hop space. I believe that hip-hop culture is very influential. If you look at the ongoing narrative, it’s very centred around your lifestyle in the club, you’re changing women, you’re fathering multiple kids with different girls… I felt like it was time to have a different spin on that, or tell another side of the story. Personally, I come from a family where it’s me and my sister and my parents are still married! They’ve been married for a long time, over 30 years and that’s the household I come from. That narrative is not present in hip-hop, the only narrative that seems to be dominant is the narrative of the absent, single parenthood. A very unfamily set up… I had to tell my story as it is and if people resonate with that, it works out pretty well.
Do you think rappers still have the power to change these kinds of narrative?
Yea. I definitely think we still do. I believe in the power of words. And I think art imitates life, and vice. What we’re seeing now is the result of rappers having created soundtracks to the types of life that’s being lived now. A lot of it is destructive, but if you turn on the radio and you listen to the music, you sort of pick up why society is going in the direction it’s going. We obviously need to come back to a conscious level of just viewing the situation, and then figuring out how we can sort of clean up the entire thing and profess a new narrative all together. When the pandemic hit, I felt like as a human being, we were all to blame for the situation we found ourselves in. And then as an artist, whereby I’m someone who creates certain soundtracks, I had to be very mindful of what message I was putting out there, what type of reality I was birthing with the music I was making. I definitely think I went into this project with a bit more mindfulness to create a conscious level of things I want to see when the world gets out of the current set we find ourselves in. It’s going to take artists to give hope to the voiceless. That’s how I arrived at Father of Zen.
The one project that I can think of that had that kind of impact on me is a project by The Foreign Exchange called Authenticity. There are songs on there that had a really profound impact on me, songs like “Laughing at your Plans”. Authenticity for me is a project that really showed me that you really have to dig deep into “yourselfness”, your being, and bringing that forward in your art. The only thing that allows you to be timeless is when you really bring yourself into the music, and allow yourself to be you, your creation. It has allowed me to really just create from a place of wanting to show I’m a very original creator. I try to stay away from appropriating, be it borrowing lyrics or just melodies. I try to create songs that could be sampled in the future.
You’re also very vocal about being Ndebele. This is a heritage you have put forward in songs like “Umraro,” “DMD” and “Vuk’Esofeni.” In a world where every country has its rap scene, what does it mean to be a South African rapper?
I think South African rap finds itself at a very interesting place. For me, just being a South African, I feel like I’m my 33 years of life I’ve experienced so many different environments within South Africa. I went through about seven schools until Matric and that exposed me to a lot of South Africa in its people, in its cultures. What you realize is that South Africa is a very rich place in its culture, in every aspect of it. If you look at our flag, I think it’s the most colourful flag in the world. I’m fortunate enough to rap in five, six languages and I put all of that into my music. I also don’t restrict myself to hip-hop. I dabble into other sounds, which are distinctively South African, be it kwaito, be it ‘piano, be it more traditional sounding like maskandi, umbhaqanga… And obviously, you can get that traditional hip-hop in English or in vernacular. As much as I started as a hip-hop artist, when I started popping up on the mainstream, my aspiration has always been bigger than just be the biggest rapper, I always wanted to just be a full on artist who could create anything at any given time with a pen and a blank canvas. The new kids are slightly more influenced by the American sounds, but we can all relate to that and I guess through time and exploring, and by being intentional about what we create, we move towards creating stuff that resonates with the South African audience. The world just needs to tune in to see how colourful and multifaceted we are.
Yet, you have a lot of tracks on that album that sound like classic American hip-hop: “Do Better,” “Umndeni,” “Pot of Gold”… how do you balance between these kinds of tracks and more South African sounding songs?
It’s not too intentional. I think I create based on whatever feels natural at the time. Some beats gravitate towards something, and you just start writing what comes to mind and it comes out as whatever it is. Some songs you sort of approach with a more intentional idea of like “this is what I want to create”. I started my career as a rapper, so I think my more English-sounding records are more unplanned. It’s almost a reflex. And then, when I create in vernacular, it’s slightly more calculated: it’s more “this is the intention, this is what I want to capture and this is the direction that I want to move in.”
How do you see the future of SA hip-hop?
I think SA hip-hop is in a position where it’s gonna have to adapt. And I don’t think that should be a problem, simply because SA hip-hop will always be hip-hop mixed with whatever sound is South African. Amapiano is a South African genre, and it just needs to link up with hip-hop and to become a new subgenre called whatever it will be called. That will allow SA hip-hop to still be relevant. And we see artists dabbling into it, and the worlds are slowly starting to merge. Once we get more SA rappers on ‘piano beats, even ‘piano as we know it is going to be forced to change, because hip-hop has always been more lyrical. So once we start putting out music that is more lyrical on dance beats, the audience who usually likes less lyrical stuff are going to want more. It’s all very interesting!
Father of Zen by Kid X, available on all platforms.