ByLwansta has found a way to make himself stand out from the steady onslaught of internet rappers tagging their Facebook friends or Twitter followers on their SoundCloud and Datafilehost links.
The Durban-based rapper cites studying graphic design as one of the tools that helped him set himself apart. “Graphic design helped me more than sound engineering would have,” he tells me over the phone. He has just gotten back from campus an hour ago. “…because the latter is more about the technical aspect of music, but graphic design taught me how to present myself. It opened my eyes. Even the whole NORMVL thing, without graphic design, it would have been just the name of a mixtape.”
NORMVL is the Durban-based rapper’s mixtape, which preceded his latest EP Your Absolutely Right. NORMVL became his landmark project, partly due to the unique ways he promoted it online. The word “normal” became “NORMVL” when the rapper decided on a unique hashtag that would lead to nothing else but his mixtape on Twitter. He also made a few t-shirts and caps emblazoned with the word, which he sold to ‘The NORMVL Nation’ the name given to his fanbase. NORMVL also earned ByLwansta a Mixtape Of The Year nomination at the South African Hip Hop Awards in 2014. A performance at Back To The City followed shortly thereafter.
ByLwansta, then known simply as Lwansta, was no longer just another Internet rapper.
The Back To The City performance, however, wasn’t the glitz and glam his social media snapshots sold it as. On the song ‘The Routine’, from Your Absolutely Right, the 20-year-old rapper details the technical mishaps of his performance over sultry production by virtuoso Pretoria-based producer Trompie BeatMochini, who has produced gems for the likes of Khuli Chana, Reason, Mr Maliq and Boy Wonder.
“When Trompie sent me the beat,” says ByLwansta, “that’s the first thing I had in my heart, because I had kept it inside me for a very long time – it affected a lot of my shows. So it felt right to finally deal with it and get it out of me.” Rapping, for ByLwansta, is an outlet for his personal frustrations, more than anything else. A great example is the song ‘The Sigh‘, in which the rapper voices his frustrations about being overlooked in the industry because of his style, which isn’t necessarily ‘commercial’. ‘Grey’, also on the EP, is a conversation to the mother of his girlfriend. Kimosabe, the vocalist who appears on DJ Dimplez’s “Bet It All” single, who also happens to be ByLwansta’s elder brother, appropriates the hook to Outkast’s “Miss Jackson” on the song. Both brothers are in interracial relationships which the song is addressing.
ByLwansta raps. His energy, delivery and storytelling reveals a young man who’s a huge Eminem fan. The clever humorous skits are also reminiscent of those off the Detroit legend’s best albums. On the intro ‘Your Absolutely Right’, he role-plays himself and a friend who is advising him to “try make something turn up so people would know who you are” – remember those Steve Berman skits on Eminem albums?
ByLwansta is constantly fighting the urge to make music which will make him blow up quicker. He tells me he has had to scrap some songs on which he was somehow succumbing to the pressure. Some of his fans and people who are close to him aren’t making it easier, too. On ‘NORMVL Still’, the opening track of YAR, he rides a boom bap beat, which smells like the golden era. The song’s concept is tongue-in-cheek though – ByLwansta brushes all these advices by sarcastically saying “You’re absolutely right.”
He certainly isn’t trying to ‘take it back’ or any of that purist bull. “It’s not even like I’m trying to do old school rap, I just want to do what I want to do,” says the rapper. “Maybe next year I might want to do something else. I don’t necessarily want people to bully me into a certain sound.” He continues to tell me that there are some people who think he’s working backwards, because his music is sounding more backpack than it ever did. But he has a plan: “There will be a time when a promoter will be looking for a specific type of artist, and I will be the only one in mind.”
One thing is certain is that he lives in his head. He’s currently collecting CDs of albums he loves – the likes of Miss Lauryn Hill’s The Misseducation and The Weeknd’s mixtape trilogy. “As much as it’s not planned, those albums do inspire the music I end up making,” he says. His fans connect with him personally, it seems, mostly owing to him typing out extensive status updates about his journey, what he’s trying to achieve and he’s never shy to admit he will need them. He will need them to believe in him, even if some don’t always understand why his music ends up being more left-field at a time when the industry is open more than it’s ever been to mostly trap-related rap music.
He waxes poetic about how the term ‘commercial’ is now a sound, whereas the term used to just refer to music that did well commercially, regardless of what it sounded like. It’s this kind of public thought-sharing that also sees him, maybe inadvertently, painting himself as one who considers every aspect of his work; from the role it plays in the subcultures it contributes to, the way it’s digested and assembled to the interplay of press and media and the sellability of his work.
It’s this dedication to religiously stick to what he wants to create as opposed to hitching a ride on the highly profitable bandwagon, that makes ByLwansta an exciting act. That, along with the scrupulousness with which he controls how his narrative and visual identity is portrayed – be it through a lyric video, the sleeve design of his projects or his music videos – point to him being a true artist, and one that isn’t necessarily seeking out our validation to be valid.
ByLwantsa is currently working on a video for the song ‘Funny How’, which he doesn’t even want to label a ‘single’. Grab his latest EP, Your Absolutely Right via his website ASAP, and keep eyes on his socials to catch a performance yourself.