Big Zulu talks about his journey in the music industry, social issues and pays tribute to PROKid in his new album, Ichwane Lenyoka.
Ichwane Lenyoka is about fending for yourself
Award-winning rapper, Big Zulu, has released his fourth album Ichwane Lenyoka. With a peculiar title that refers to a snake, many were left wondering what the album could actually be about. The vernac rapper has since revealed that the title of his album has a deeper message. Big Zulu uses an analogy of a snake and how it does not fend for its offspring after birth to describe his journey into the music industry- a journey that was solitary and without any form of guidance or support.
He refers to record labels as parents to an artist, a privilege he did not have.
“When a snake lays eggs, unlike a bird that feeds and nurtures its children until they can fly and live on their own, a snake leaves its children after giving birth to them. It doesn't raise and feed them; they have to fend for themselves. As soon as the eggs of a snake hatch, they scatter into the environment and learn how to survive on their own with no guidance.
Bringing it back to the album, when I came into this industry, I received no guidance or structure. No company took me in and mentored me, helped me record or showed me the ropes in the industry. It was just me and my talent. I had to learn how to survive in this industry. I had to teach myself how to record, what to do when I get to a studio and what to do with my music after recording it and how to release it. Everything I did, I did it for myself. I had no mentors or a label to push me. When an artist gets signed to a label, it adopts a new family. The label promotes the artists and helps them get gigs and grow in the industry. I didn’t have those privileges. My success relied on me and the actions I took. iNkabi Records relied on me.”
Big Zulu - the little boy who wanted to make his father proud
The lack of support and mentorship in the music industry is a narrative Big Zulu was also privy to in his personal life where his father left him and his mom, leaving him to fend for himself. Although raised by his mother and grandmother, Big Zulu evidently yearns for his father’s presence in his life. In Baba Ngiyakukhumbula, fans get to experience and hear from a young man who just wants to make his father proud. Big Zulu shared that his father who was an incredibly talented football player had wished for Big Zulu to take the baton and become a huge sensation in football.
“When I write music, I don’t write music to make hits. I write to touch people’s hearts. I write about things I know people can relate to and things that most people go through. The song “Baba Ngiyakhumbula” is a letter to my father to tell him that I miss him and just to let him know how things have changed since he left us. On the song, I make him aware that I know what his wishes were and to show him how things have turned out instead. I let him know that this is what I am doing now. I wish he was here to see me do music and everything that is happening right now.”
The secret to sustainability- making music people can relate to
Pursuing a life that is different to what his father had in mind is a story that many young people in South Africa can relate to. Throughout the album, Big Zulu seems to yearn for the support of those around him – be it friends, family or peers in the industry. Allowing himself to be vulnerable in his music is a trait that enables his fans to get to know him, to walk this journey with him through thick and thin. Big Zulu says writing about true experiences is what has helped him build his community of audiences, the iNkabi Nation, because audiences can relate to what he is talking about. Thus, with his music, he can encourage and heal people, and give them the space to express the emotions they need to.
When artists make music, they often rush to get to hits that will get them gigs and take them to stardom. However, this often poses challenges when one stops producing hits and audiences lose interest in their music. Big Zulu says not connecting with audiences is what makes them lose interest and forget about artists over time.
“When I write, I write about things happening around me, things I go through and things I know the iNkabi Nation needs to hear. In Ichwane Lenyoka, you’ll hear how the title actually fits the story in the album. It touches on everything; there’s a reference to a hungry child who went to ask for food but was asked where his father was and why he was asking for food from other fathers. It speaks to the fact that I had no one to provide for me what other children had.
The album explores personal experiences that people can enjoy and need to hear. If I can write a song such as Inhlupheko and see it bring people to tears when I perform it, perhaps because of how I convey the message, do you think that person will ever forget me? They won’t. I’ll always remain in their hearts.
Inhlupheko is a song you can play when you’re down, it’s a very encouraging song. If it makes you cry, there’s nothing wrong with that. It helps relieve pain in your heart. It helps you make peace, forgive and let go.”
Social issues addressed in Ichwane Lenyoka
Ichwane Lenyoka explores various social issues that we continue to face in our society. In this album, not only do we get to find out who Big Zulu is and his stance on various social matters but we also hear him call out the wrongs that happen in our society. We also get to understand some of the things Big Zulu values in his life and why.
1. Big Zulu and alcohol
Although his brand and identity are often likened to that of a local taxi driver, Big Zulu is rather intentional about who he is and how he presents himself. This is influenced by his past, his upbringing and his vision for how he wants to be received in society. The taxi driver identity would leave one to assume that Big Zulu is a staunch Zulu man who enjoys his traditional beer. Based on the interview he did with Slikour, it can be assumed that Big Zulu is indeed a staunch Zulu man who simply enjoys his Hennessey but drinks moderately. He shared that his father abused alcohol and seeing his father become abusive when intoxicated, made him choose a different relationship with alcohol. This experience has left Big Zulu feeling like he needed to right his father’s wrongs and pick up the responsibilities that his father left.
“I do consume alcohol but moderately because my father used to drink but couldn’t manage his drinking habits. Liquor turned him into a bully. Many feared him because he was violent, and he’d become violent at home too.
With everything that happened with my parents fighting, I had to find a way to make up for my father’s mistakes because everyone who knew him said I looked like him. People would tell me that I was my father’s son. They said I was good at football like he was. They also warned me not to abuse alcohol as he did. Those things made me realize that people actually loved my father but hated his drinking. That’s when I attempted to make amends for his past mistakes and not walk in the same footsteps. I also needed to realize his mistakes and the things he needed to do and make sure I covered those things.
Yes, he used to hit my mother but I loved my father; he did a lot for me. I was young but I remember he would take me on his bicycle and we’d go to all his games. When he bought clothes, he bought us matching outfits. I saw him do a lot of wrong things and that made me want to do better like building my mom's house and asking her to let go of the past and reassure her that I would make up for those mistakes. As people keep mentioning that I take after him, I get encouraged to do better so that people know that he lives within me and his mistakes are restored.”
2. Poverty and looking after the less fortunate
In the Inhlupheko music video, Big Zulu is seen giving back to various communities of people who are in need and even building a shelter for the homeless. With artists having suffered a lot during Covid-19 with not being able to perform, host shows and make money, it is commendable to see Big Zulu reaching into his pockets to share the little he has with the needy. This is yet another example of Big Zulu showing how much he cares for people and how much he wants to connect with people, not only through music but in real life too.
“I am a giving person. It’s hard for me to watch someone else struggle when I can offer my assistance. When I was giving back and building a home for the homeless, we used iNkabi Record’s money to do this. I did it out of love and not expecting anything.
There was a time when I was performing in Giyani and I was running late, and there was a gentleman who stood at the front of the crowd, waiting for me. He sang all of the songs that I performed on stage at midnight- cold and without a jersey. This made me realize that these are the true fans. I took off my jersey and gave it to him and continued performing. I am observant when I am performing, I don’t know how many pairs of shoes I’ve given to fans where I saw a need.
I cannot write about poverty and be out of touch- I need to reach out and help people where I can. People see me and think I am big and strong but I’m a very emotional person. I cry when I see hurtful things but I also cry tears of joy.”
3. Abuse against women and children
uBaba uLala Nami is a song about women and children enduring emotional, physical and psychological pain at the hand of their partners, fathers and brothers. Zulu addresses fathers who sexually violate their daughters, leaving them helpless. In this scenario, he calls women to fight harder for their children. He encourages women to fend for themselves and their children, report abuse and have the perpetrators arrested. Zulu expresses pain for the young girl who is constantly violated and the mother chooses to look away for fear of poverty if the breadwinner gets arrested.
“All the songs I write are about encouragement and social commentary. People need to get themselves out of bad situations. For how long will children be abused because mothers are afraid to take a stand?”
Ichwane Lenyoka on a lighter note
This album also explores light-hearted topics such as collaborations, relationships, friends outgrowing each other and love. Understanding the context of a Zulu man who grew up in South Africa will give you an idea of some of Zulu’s ideals when it comes to love interests and women. “Zulu men love full-figured women” may be a stereotype but in this case, it is very true. That said, Zulu says he values respect over physical attributes.
“Itype yami itufuze - I like big women. Respectful women are my type. I don’t need love from women but respect. I’m the one who will love her. If a woman has respect for me and gives me the reign as a man, then that’s my type. I like them a bit chubby but that’s not very important because even a skinny girl can also be loving and respectful and she would fit the criteria. All I need from a woman is respect. I will give her love.
Ivolovolo explores experiences that often happen in rural areas and are all too familiar for Big Zulu, where a boy is interested in a girl but her father is strict and everyone is afraid of him particularly because he owns ivolovolo- a gun. Thus, restricting the boy’s access to the girl, although they love each other dearly. His only opportunity to see him is when she goes to the river to get water but it could be months before he gets a moment to talk to her and fully court her.
“Back then, you’d pursue a girl for a year and she would keep you on your toes. Not like today where we exchange numbers on WhatsApp and things happen, where we meet women at clubs, women who are barely dressed and just want champagne and then next morning she can’t remember her name.
Back then, you had to make an effort to get her. We walked long distances to go see the girl who is not even your girlfriend as yet. Sometimes you’d come back without seeing her because her family was around. The current generation are the impatient ones. In the homelands, you’d pursue a girl for a year.”
In uMuzi eSandton, we get to hear some of Big Zulu’s strong beliefs about polygamy. As more and more reality shows in South Africa explore polygamy and the lives of people in polygamous marriages, it was interesting to hear someone people look up to and can relate to express his views- definitely living up to the stereotype about Zulu men and polygamy. He will get a second wife!
The song is about a man who leaves his family in the homelands to go work in the city. This is a relatable story for the average black couple who lived through the 1950s where the husband left his wife and children to go and work in the mines. He would only go home once or twice a year and only send letters and money in between. As time goes on, the man would find a new love interest in the city while the wife patiently waits for her husband’s next visit.
“Let me tell you something, a man’s heart doesn’t belong to one person. A man can’t just love one person. A man must be strong enough to take care of his family so that his wife can allow for him to take another wife.
If she loves and respects you, she’ll agree. The most important thing is to respect one another and for the man to provide for her. Why would she not agree for me to get a second wife? Respect is very important in a polygamous marriage.
I am still looking for a second wife even though this might cause friction at home but she will come around. I will provide for all her needs but I need to grow my father’s legacy at home. She knows. I don’t do things secretly. If you are wise, you must be open with your wife.”
Maintaining friendships when pursuing career ambitions can put the friendship to the test and sometimes strain the relationship to a point of no return, especially where money and fame are involved. This was no different for Big Zulu.
“Ngiphilele is about hardships whilst hustling with friends and how we were separated by fame. It touches on the origins of Ushun We Nkabi and being there for each other. It was all good when we started and had no money. Problems started when others became successful and others got left behind. We lost the unity. Others felt that they were better than others but the wheel turns.”
Ushun Wenkabi features Zulu Boy who met Big Zulu on the set for uZalo and while Zulu Boy was adamant that he wanted nothing to do with Hip Hop, Big Zulu won the battle of the Zulu men and made a song with Zulu Boy.
“After he agreed, we announced it on a Facebook live. I felt it was crucial to get him on a song to give him his flowers. Working with him is a major for me.”
In his album, Big Zulu pays tribute to the people he values and iStradi which features PRO Kid, Red Button and Touchline is one song where he pays tribute to PROKid for the strides he made in the music industry.
“I was very close with Pro before he passed on. We worked on a show called One Mic together. Every time we were on set, we would talk about collaborating but things were not aligning at the time. Sparks asked me to feature me on a song with Pro and over time, I went to the studio and heard Pro’s verse on a different beat. We switched beats and it was a hit. I wasted no time, wrote and finished it in no time. My manager was in tears when he heard the song. It’s for culture. This was a letter to Pro. He is our ancestor in Hip-hop so we need to write to them and tell them what’s happening.”