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The Lazarusman: "Not being racist isn’t enough, you need to be anti-racist"

The South African spoken word poet, vocalist, DJ and producer talks anti-racism, post-apartheid South Africa, and more

  • Words: Nick DeCosemo | Images: Dean Blumberg, Justice Mukheli, Andile Buka
  • 21 October 2020

Lazarus Mathebula aka The Lazarusman is a South African spoken word poet, vocalist, DJ and producer. His unique vocal and lyrical style have seen him work with some of the biggest names in underground dance music – including Stimming, DJ T., Xinobi, Kaldera, Florian Kruse, Tigerskin and Hyenah – and release on respected labels like Get Physical, Diynamic, Moon Harbour and Freerange.

Thought-provoking and often political, but always positive and progressive, his work reflects a wide range of topics and tones.

His recent release ‘Not Enough’ (made in collaboration with SA-born, Berlin-based producer Hyenah) explores the topic of what it is to be anti-racist – and how all of us can work to be better. Having grown up as Black kid in a predominantly white neighbourhood in post-apartheid South Africa, he is more qualified than most to discuss the topic of racism and what we can all do improve the situation and move forward together.

I was born in the township Soweto and grew up in the East Rand, which is the eastern section of the city. My father was very ambitious, so we found ourselves living in a very white community shortly after Nelson Mandela became president. This period would ultimately inspire me to start writing. Racism was still rife in South Africa, particularly in the area we lived in. So, we had to learn how to be fight and how to be slick with our tongues from an early age.

I really just stumbled on this art form, they taught poetry at school and one of the assignments required us to write a poem. My teachers were astonished at my ability considering it was the first time I did it. So, they pushed me to write more, entered me in competitions, and things snowballed after My high school also played a key role, it was unheard of for a school that had Black kids as a majority to champion arts and culture — we were expected to play soccer, run, the typical stuff. But my school had slam sessions, drama, our talent show was attended by local celebrities — wild times. It was an incredible place to learn and grow as an artist.

Slam poetry was everything to me; I loved going to compete, to perform, but I had this underlying love for house music, which is everywhere in this country. It wasn’t viewed as something that was very intellectual by my peers then, so I’d just DJ at home on Atomix and VirtualDJ with the music I got from buying compilations like Fresh House Flava, Mmthi’s and the Soul Candi Sessions. I didn’t know I wanted to do music until I discovered Martin Stimming. That really changed so many things in my life.

My real name is Lazarus and it used to bother me a lot man; I didn’t get it, it felt lame. All the Lazaruses I’d ever met were lame and the guy dies in the bible; it wasn’t a vibe. But I started to do some research, and basically found out that in in Hebrew Lazarus means ‘God will help’. I just added the man at the end. Lazarusman: God will help man. Chinua Achebe also has great story titled Lazarus. It kinda just became badass in the end.

The artist Stimming is who really sparked my career. After working with him I started using our collaborations to open the door to working with other artists. I named dropped him a lot. In the beginning I was working with artists that had been my childhood heroes. “Hi, I am Lazarusman, I did a track called ‘The Song’ with Stimming and I was wondering if you’d be interested in collaborating?”, that’s how the text would go. The list of people I’ve worked with is extensive lol.

I recently I realised that I don’t have the guts to release an album even though I’ve been working on one for almost three years now. So, I am putting out a ‘mixtape’. In my mind it is a near perfect amalgamation of slam poetry and dance music. It’s due later this year.

You know this may sound weird, but I am so fulfilled as an artist. I achieved all my goals very early in my career; by the time I was 25 I was almost out of ideas. I’ve been grateful to have people see and want more for me, thus putting me in very opportune places. So, it’s hard for me to pinpoint one thing, but being able to slowly put out my own solo projects and getting a crazy reception for that has def given me a new lease of life.

House music is part of the curriculum here; it’s in our veins. Even if you are the staunchest hip hop head, you will have some affinity for house in this country. Personally, I think it’s because of the sense freedom the music gives us. Our movements were restricted as a country. Now we can go anywhere, do anything, and move when we wanna move. House is the genre that inspires that.

You know, like a fine wine it ages well with time, the talent in South Africa has been generational – from when I was 11 there were pioneers of house music in this country. We have been learning, thriving and perfecting this sound for decades and the new generations just pick up and improve from where their predecessors left off. It’ll continue to get better and better.

It was hard work, humbling, and just so amazing. No one from Mixmag really knew who I was lol until midway through the series. It was surprise, that synergy with other artists, that made the The Lab so special and dear to a homie. I got carried away at times but it’s something I’ll never forget.

I was in Berlin at the end of 2019 in a studio session with Hyenah, he was aware of how difficult it was for me growing up and living in a racist society from past conversation. He had encountered various forms of racism from his visits to Africa, and from people around him as well, and he wanted to say something about this. So, we had a long session, we were both adamant that the message needed to be right, and it also needed to help people understand the concept of anti-racism. That not being racist isn’t enough, you need to anti the idea completely.

I think it’s about damn time, racism has been around for so long that it’s become almost socially acceptable, we just sweep it under the rug and move on. People, countries and governments must be held accountable for their actions.

I think a lot of what can be learnt is from the newer generation of South Africans. The old guard of this country are still set in their ways and you can see it in the gross inequality across the nation.

Tolerance, understanding and the willingness to learn is what has assisted us as a country. We see a few white South Africans learning our languages and partaking in our culture. This has always been the best way to understand people.

This is an interview on its own lol, a mini thesis if you may! The values that Nelson Mandela upheld and lived by shaped this country. However, values alone won’t put food on people’s tables. We needed to match those values with economic empowerment of people for a better society. Our people were failed in this department so the rainbow nation remains a pipe dream.

At the core of cancel culture is the desire to hold people accountable and to call them out for their wrongdoings, and I will always respect that. However, it has been misconstrued and its purpose blurred by people with grudges. It’s watered down the true purpose of what cancelling someone was meant to achieve.

Wild times. I try and see good in everything. People have lost their lives; we need to ensure that something like this doesn’t happen again, and that means we need to be smarter and more careful and cautious about how we do things. I look at this as a lesson, it’s def changed my outlook on life. We will overcome, it’s just come at a price.

As mentioned my first full-length project is due out soon. I think at the time this goes out my new solo EP with remixes from Julian Gomes will be out on Suol, as well as something on Lee Burridge’s All Day I Dream and a project with Swaziland-based producer Sooks on the Atjazz Record Company. I am hoping to complete my intended tour in Europe when all everything in the world is Gucci again.

Hyenah 'Not Enough' feat. Lazarusman is out now, get it here

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