An alternative underground hip hop performer, actor, writer and filmmaker of note, he is a creative of eclectic ability. Based in Johannesburg, South Africa, his portfolio has traversed many stages. He is an inductee of the South African Hip Hop Museum’s “Wall of Fame” (2020), and has critically acclaimed albums under his belt, including ‘Error Era’ (2001), and the ‘Age of Horus’ (2007). His numerous contributions to film and television have garnered accolades including a Silver Loerie Award in the Cinema Commercial category in 2003; a South African Film and Television Award (SAFTA) in 2009 for Best Documentary, Documentary Short with ‘A Blues for Tiro’; and awards at the Lesotho International Film Festival (LIFF) in 2014 for having won Best Documentary, Feature Documentary with ‘New Dawn’ and Best Film in the Short Film category with ‘Mercy’. While in Lesotho for his latest project with the Unsung Collective (an ensemble of activists, artists and legal practitioners) for the short film ‘Unsung: Defending Human Dignity’, I had the pleasure of sharing a word with Thabiso Mohapeloa, widely known as Tha Hymphatic Thabs, on his journey in artistic expression.
Q: You are an artist. Describe your relationship with art in two words.
A: First of all, there is no such a thing as a person or a being, becoming labeled an artist. That which they say an artist is, I cannot quite describe in my own words. What is an artist? A rapper, a painter, a dancer, a poet etc. How do you expect me to answer what art is in two words? As a matter of fact, it’s not one thing you can define in the first place.
Q: Music and film are the mediums of your artistic expression. Which is the main and which is the side chick; or are they loved equally?
A: Yeah that’s a deep question. That, I cannot be quite sure of. But I’d say it’s a combination of both music and film. My rapping is underground. If people dig the Hymphatic Thabs, they must build a mine, as I dwell underground like precious minerals, gold, diamonds and platinum. I’m different and that’s special. Lyrical expression involves me going to other sacred places and I cannot separate myself from my body. Therefore sometimes I have to be in those realms, essentially underground within myself, for me to find that true kind of ignition so I can ignite that spark. Same with filming; at times I find myself uninspired and so when opportunities and moments present themselves, I just have to go into that parallel kind of space, and then get shook a little bit, reminding my own body what this soul belongs to. Film and television, are my bread and butter, but when it comes to my music and underground hip hop, no one is paying me. With my rhymes, it’s not really for sale. I enjoy making it and sometimes people discover and enjoy it.
Q: Where do Hymphatic Thabs, the hip hop artist, and Thabiso Mohapeloa, the filmmaker, intersect? Do the two influence each other or do they act autonomously?
A: I am under the illusion, and stand to be corrected that, you know, Thabiso, he’s just a guy walking around making and editing videos and films; and then there’s the Hymphatic Thabs who is a superhero – always delivers when you give him a stage. The two coexist and need each other.
Q: It is over two decades since the release of your debut musical offering ‘Error Era’, an album that is a collector’s item for underground hip hop purists in South Africa. Of the four albums and other musical releases, which project or track holds the most significance to you?
A: There are various songs from different albums but off the top of my head is a song called ‘Those Who’ and it goes like “those who, go through hell to tell what they do not dwell, have no true skill and will get drilled into them and what is supposed to, that is, honesty alongside modesty and if they boast too much it’s a problem to solve them, I’ll put them in crutches just to show you that in a small town called Maseru…” (‘Error Era’ 2001). Then I took a hiatus for a few years and there came the ‘Age of Horus’ which got the Album of the Year at the Hype Awards in 2007 and in 2008, I was nominated ‘Lyricist of the Year’. 13 years later, I released the ‘Center of the Universe’. All the things that I had been rapping about over the years became more diverse- I started rapping more about all the creative and alternative experiences I had come across. There is a ganglion of unreleased music. But yea, off the top of my head, those are what come to mind.
Q: Center of the Universe is your most recent compilation, and earned you your nomination in the South African Hip Hop Awards’ (SAHHA) ‘Lyricist of the Year’ category in 2020. How does this album speak to your musical journey; what do you draw on to push on with your love for music?
A: Center of the Universe is the one album that taught me how to never respond to other peoples’ expectations, therefore I must just continue on my journey. I am on a one-man journey and I live everywhere. I am ubiquitous.
Q: “The thing I want to spread is the statement |The system needs to get a taste of how victims feel” (The Age of Horus; 2007). Your music gives voice to the socially vulnerable, speaking to challenges people face in daily life. This also comes across in your film work. Your latest cinematic contribution, the short-film “Unsung: Defending Human Dignity” addresses the great societal ill that is human trafficking. What is the Unsung collective and what brought about this short film?
A: ‘Unsung’ is the reason I am currently in Lesotho. We, as the Unsung collective are defending human dignity. It is about dealing with a pathology called trafficking in persons. We are dealing with a problem that a lot of people in Lesotho are becoming victims of as many people in Lesotho do not have enough money to sustain themselves and their families. So, when somebody promises them work or university or whatever the case may be, they see an opportunity for a better life. There are too many stories of people leaving home only to find themselves being trafficked. Lesotho is in Tier 2 with regards to human trafficking[i]. Unsung is comprised of artists and lawyers raising awareness around human trafficking. The reason we are doing this is for victims of human trafficking, who find it very difficult to come forward. It is also difficult for law enforcement to seize perpetrators and so the victims live in fear. Even after having been trafficked, victims need to be rehabilitated back into society. The film is a contribution in creating awareness around human trafficking. Unsung is a series of films started with Lesotho, then we will move within South Africa, SADC and then the rest of Africa. Unsung is a movement so what we are doing is a series of different ideas and contributions on how we can try to change people’s lives.
Q: Knowing what you do now, of the peaks and valleys you have experienced on your journey, what would you say to your younger self?
A: If this interview is directed at Thabiso, and now I have become the Hymphatic Thabs, I would say to Thabiso: do not do what others have done. Try and ignite something new within yourself and blossom. Young Thabiso, walk down the road and recognize that you are an amazing human being.
Q: And lastly, what words do you have for the youth?
He has been able to grow his voice while staying true to his distinctive tone and in so doing, continues to create works that resonate with the issues of the socially vulnerable. The film Unsung: Defending Human Dignity (which is to go on a screening tour across Africa) speaks to salient cruelties that affect people in our villages and communities, particularly adolescent girls and young women (AGYW). Efforts by the Unsung Collective in casting a wider blanket of sensitization regarding human trafficking are necessary and admirable. To echo his message to the youth- “Light”, go forth and remember that every light matters and every voice deserves to be heard. Indeed, in all of us, as in Tha Hymphatic Thabs, is the Center of the Universe.