Robin Thirdfloor (Simphiwe Nyawose) is a hip hop artist from Umlazi in Durban, who sees himself as a misfit. Both personally, and as a musician, Robin is an explorer who considers just about every city he has visited his home. This label of “misfit” is something that is popping up more and more in the South African music scene, with a handful of artists deciding not to entrench themselves in any particular place, but choosing instead to wander, both creatively and geographically – and doing it well.
One should resist the temptation to read this labelling of ‘misfit’ or ‘weirdo’ as something pejorative or self-deprecating. These artists, especially Simphiwe, fly their misfit banner high; embracing it as an example for younger generations to experiment and to express themselves despite fear of ridicule.
“I want to be the guy that is known for telling his story, but I also want to be an example for kids going through a tough time, and maybe let them see that it’s OK to be a bit weird. It’s OK to be a misfit”.
So what does it actually mean to be a “misfit”, in the way that Simphiwe suggests?
It would appear the label is multifaceted. On a personal level, Simphiwe was certainly an outcast during his schooling years, which played a huge part in his finding hip-hop, “I was bullied a lot in school, and used rapping as a kind of therapy. It was a way to tell my story. My first raps were all quite dark. When I was growing up and getting into music and hip-hop, I was always into different stuff that other people weren’t listening to. I fell in love with hip-hop through Eminem. I could relate to his storytelling ability. He inspired me to tell my own story, which helped a lot with the things I was dealing with.”
On a professional and creative level, however, the term ‘misfit’ seems to be an altogether more positive self-descriptor. In quite a literal sense, Simphiwe finds that he doesn’t (or perhaps he chooses not to) fit in completely in any one city or scene. Despite being a proud, Umlazi-born Durbanite, Nyawose opted for Joburg to be the place to launch Bhotela, his latest EP (a slang word for misfit, meaning, literally, butter).
“I really wanted to do the launch here, but I’ve built something of a cult following in Joburg. My manager insisted that we take the risk and do it there, and it definitely paid off.” He tells me about the vibe and response he gets playing at Kitcheners from the Joburg faithful, and the launch was no different. “It was amazing man, there was a great energy and so many people came through.”
He certainly holds no ill-will towards his home city, and has a lot of faith in the scene here. “I see a lot more diversity in the scene these days, with artists being brave enough to explore new styles, instead of just sticking to what they think they should be doing to get big. I think in about 5 years, people will really get to know about Durban.” Does he feel he’s not necessarily appreciated for his music in his home town? “There was a time when I was a bit angry that people were sleeping on me, but I came to realise that everything happens in its own time. I just do what I do, and then leave it up to the people”.
Nyawose’s humility is one of his defining characteristics. He is soft-spoken and thoughtful in person; traits not often found in artists who have attained the kind of recognition that he has. He approaches life delicately, but with purpose, dropping tracks and albums without excessive fanfare, opting rather for letting the music speak for itself. This approach has its drawbacks, however, and accounts for how Nyawose’s music sometimes falls through the cracks. Everyone seems to know who he is, but not everyone has heard his music, something I’ve experienced during chats with several of Durban’s hip-hop heads.
Sonically, Robin Thirdfloor sits firmly within the Durban tradition cultivated by the likes of Spoek Mathambo. He weaves together influences from house, hip-hop, and electronic music, combining the heartfelt and personal with upbeat turnup jams. As a result, Nyawose is a misfit in the true Durban sense of it. Coming from a city without the established industries and scenes of other metropolises, Durban artists tend to end up with a highly-varied pool of influences to draw from, which is reflected in a typically eclectic final product.
Two significant moments that highlight the recognition Nyawose has achieved in his career so far, came in the form of being appointed a Deezer SA representative, and performing at the SXSW festival in Texas earlier in the year. Being a Deezer representative is important for Simphiwe: “I get to work with an established brand that believes in my art, and is always willing to push boundaries, and get my work heard, not only in SA, but across the world”.
Bhotela debuted in the top 25 most streamed albums in South Africa, with the release exclusive to Deezer for 2 weeks after its release in August, after which time it became available on other platforms. Simphiwe doesn’t feel as if the exclusive launch has hindered him in any way: “The new Deezer campaign hasn’t affected my release at all. In fact, it’s actually helped me find a wider audience”.
He credits his booking at SXSW to being busy online frequently. “I’m definitely an internet kid. I was always online, checking out artists and then getting in contact with them. It’s important that you always have work online that you can point people to as well”. There are millions of artists from all over the world who are reaching out to big labels or big artists every day, so, it’s certainly a testament to the quality of Nyawose’s work that he got noticed, subsequently secured a manager – Tshepang Ramoba, who is a producer, director at Post Post and drummer for one of SA’s most prominent misfit acts, BLK JKS. “My manager has always been trying to hook me up with gigs overseas. With the SXSW thing we approached them and I happened to have a good catalogue of work out online. They checked it out, liked it, and then booked me”.
He expands on the international experience, exclaiming that, “SXSW was crazy. The people over there are really eager to hear and learn about the music coming from South Africa. It’s crazy that so much of the stuff we take for granted here is so new and interesting to people overseas.” Durban-raised electronic musician, Muzi is another proud ‘weirdo’, who credits his success overseas – compared to his relative obscurity back home – to this very same phenomenon.
Although there is the risk of this being a kind of fetishisation of African artists by the West, both artists appear to have a lot of faith in the genuine interest shown to them by audiences overseas. This isn’t to say that there isn’t still ignorance surrounding South African and African music in the West, but the enthusiasm with which artists like Nyawose speak about global audiences must certainly indicate a deeper understanding and curiosity from them.
For his EP, Simphiwe teamed up with Swiss producer, Dejot, who spent some time with Simphiwe in Joburg in 2016. “The EP was only supposed to be two songs,” Nyawose tells me, “but then I got linked up with Dejot, who was looking for local acts to team up with. We ended up doing a total of thirteen songs. He is really hands on and great to work with. He spent a lot of time here just studying local music before he started making any beats. It was a breeze”. Dejot himself is not new to the South African scene, and has worked on various Gqom collaborations in the past, with Durban acts like Dominowe and Citizen Boy.
“I guess I see myself as kind of a wanderer. I want to bring my music to as many people as possible. I kind of feel like everywhere is my home”. This sense of wandering is something which makes Simphiwe unique, and part of a rare, but growing sensibility among local artists who don’t confine their identities to a particular place. The world for them is open and available, both as touring destination, and creative inspiration.
“At the moment I’m working on a national tour. I really just want to travel. I’m in a good place for travelling now. Recently, I saw some kids in Umlazi rocking red dreadlocked hair, and it reminded me of a time when people weren’t able to do that. It wasn’t seen as a way of expressing one’s self. It meant that you were weird. It makes me happy to see the change, and I hope that through my music I can inspire more kids to experiment a bit and truly be themselves.”
Take a listen to Robin Thirdfloor’s ‘Bhotela’ EP below:
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