The Melody of Meaning: A Dialogue with Modise Sekgothe
Modise Sekgothe is an award-winning poet, actor, vocalist and percussionist from Johannesburg, South Africa. His work has been published in Home Is Where The Mic Is, a poetry anthology by Botsotso Publishers. His awards include: the Word N Sound Innovation in Poetry Award 2015 and 2016, the WNS Showcase of the Year Award 2014 and 2015, as well as the WNS Perfect Poem Award 2015. His audio work includes a poetry and music EP called DIPOKO tsa DIPOKO and a solo album called Meera Me. He has performed at the Split This Rock Poetry Festival (Washington DC), Speak Out Loud Festival and Grahamstown National Arts Festival, to mention a few.
BY JALIYA THE BIRD
This conversation took place via WhatsApp.
Jaliya: Hi Modise, thank you very much for accepting my invitation to have this conversation. I’m delighted, it’s a pleasure.
I enjoy how layered your work is, it feels like diving into galaxies. And I feel this not only when I listen to you or watch you but also while reading (although it doesn’t bring your sound which so easily takes one on a journey) because your words have matter, they carry weight. I think your work is intimate and this makes it a spiritual experience.
How did you arrive at this? Where does your writing style come from and what led you to combine all the different elements and layers that you bring into your performance work?
Modise: Hello Jaliya. Thank you for the invitation and for your interest in engaging the work.
Generally speaking, the core influences in my approach to writing and performing poetry are rooted in my fascination with rap music, theatre, spiritual literature and self-introspection.
I was, in many ways, driven to poetry by rap music, particularly underground or abstract rap, which is a lot more poetic in its approach, certainly more so than the typical/commercial sound you might imagine when you think Rap/Hip-hop. When asked who my favourite poets are, it would be more accurate to mention rappers; Aesop Rock and Hymphatic Thabs before I do Rumi and Pablo Neruda. This is to say, the strongest influences in my work are first from musicians before they are from poets. As a result, I’ve never been able to divorce music from my process and from the poetry itself. With regards to process; the first place I go to before I get to any poem is to music, whether in the form of rap, or jazz or some form of classical music. Music is there before I write and all the way through to the other side. It’s from the music that the words spring up and in some way it is precisely back to the music that they return. Meaning, that in some way, I have unconsciously approached writing poetry the way a lyricist approaches song writing. The music eventually finds its way into the performance of the poetry, in either the live or the audio context, where the music of the poetry marries that of the actual song, whether sung by myself or in collaboration with other musicians.
Essentially, the most exciting aspects of poetry for me lie in its musicality, in the sound and rhythm-based devices. And then of course meaning has its own melody, narratives have their own tone, all of the layers of sound, song and story come together in what one hopes is at least something reaching for sacred harmony.
The performance aspect of my work is much influenced by my experience in the theatre. This contributed a lot to my understanding of performance in general as well as in the context of poetry. Thus influencing the specific ways I could embody and articulate the poetry, having understood the various mechanics behind performative expression.
Another pivotal primer in my thought is my immersion in various forms of spiritual literature, which have made up the bulk of my reading and practice over the years. And so, in a way, I think my orientation is as a seeker of meaning and purpose and the exploration of our spiritual nature. The work attempts to dig through the many layers of awareness that stand between Self and the unified All.
Along with this, the direction of much of my work has been introspective. Much of what I project reflects from somewhere within, likely in the least accessible of places, perhaps what one would regard as most personal. It’s my opinion that in the larger scheme; there is nothing truly personal because there is little truly original in the human experience. It appears to me that the truest I can be with myself is the truest I can be with my audience. The truer I get, the closer I get to myself and to my audience. It seems a logical conclusion that; the personal, when taken to its core, is the universal.
Jaliya: I think we are really similar in terms of the influences that stir us. I´m also from the school of rap/hip-hop and rappers are some of my favourite wordsmiths. I’ve had a complicated relationship with hip-hop just like many other women for obvious reasons. As an adult (of sorts), I can exercise discernment and only choose to actively consume a certain type of content and this brings me some peace.
I really like what you say about music and it makes so much sense, thank you for the description.
Theatre, the vulnerability, the introspection… You remind me of another poet whose work I thoroughly enjoy. Something interesting happened recently when I told him that I would be interviewing you.
“Essentially, the most exciting aspects of poetry for me lie in its musicality, in the sound and rhythm-based devices. And then of course meaning has its own melody, narratives have their own tone, all of the layers of sound, song and story come together in what one hopes is at least something reaching for sacred harmony.”
I had a list of things I wanted to show him and excitedly pressed play. He heard you for seven seconds, and said “ok, that’s enough”, I looked at him with curious eyes and he said in defence, “I’m sure I’ll meet him one day, cool stuff!” I can’t recall my words verbatim but I remember saying “You’re hurting my feelings!” He ended up watching a whole performance. After it was done, he said that he had picked up the resemblance and it was precisely why he didn’t want to listen any further because he’s in a delicate space of developing something and is extra cautious about what he takes in, particularly work that is similar to what he is doing. He went on to clarify his point by asking me, “How do you manage what is of you (your thoughts and ideas) versus what comes from other people you are actively listening to and reading?”
I looked at him, I didn’t have an answer, not an articulate one. And I would like to extend the same question to you; how do you stay original? Considering this danger of becoming the artists who inspire us, simply replicating them in our own words and losing ourselves in the process. How do you sustain your essence?
Modise: It’s interesting to learn that you’ve been influenced by rap as well. Which artists would you say have impacted you the most?
I’m very keen on seeing Angola soon so your friend and I might just meet indeed.
I can relate to his apprehension towards taking in anything that might interfere with the process of his developing a specific voice. It’s a necessary strategy that I have employed at certain points along my journey when I could tell that a particular artist’s voice was creeping into my throat.
It’s not something I’ve struggled with or even thought about much recently. I’ve been in almost complete isolation, not taking much in, not very interested in much while I chase whatever the cloud is that I’m chasing now.
Fundamentally, I think originality in artistry is a consequence of originality in being. The original human being is thus; in thought and in deed. This individual sees the world in their own very specific way and depicts it as such. They embrace the most peculiar aspects of themselves, the parts most out of sync with the common song and thus riskier to perform. It’s precisely at this dangerous place that the true source belongs. To find it takes us back to rigorous introspection and self-awareness. The process is of digging into oneself to find the core of your message and your truth, and then figuring out how it should look and sound.
Jaliya: The complexity of my relationship with hip-hop is not only fed by hip-hop’s relationship with women but also due to it being the soundtrack to so many moments and memories in my life. Hip-hop is a sacred place for me but one filled with the sense of saudade, nostalgia, loss. I need to switch off from time to time. And your question, as simple as it may sound, really got me thinking about some things…
As a teen I listened to a lot of Valete, Phay Grand o Poeta, Gabriel o Pensador, Azagaia (lusophone rappers), K’naan, Immortal Technique, Lauryn Hill…
Angola is waiting, come through.
Originality in artistry as a consequence of originality in being, I love this. And like you say it is a procedure of rigorous introspection and self-awareness. This makes me think of isolation and loneliness… Life is so personal and this process of digging and uncovering the core is an individual affair. The other thing that comes to mind is your piece “The Dark Knight of The Soul”, I think it beautifully touches on the loneliness that comes with craft. I drew my own conclusions about it but I would love to hear from you about this piece, furthermore, I am interested in knowing how this isolation, introspection that art subjects us to has affected your relationships particularly with people outside of the arts.
Modise: The mention of Immortal Technique really excites me, his music played a significant role in my formative years as an artist. I’m also quite curious about the lusophone rappers you mention and will certainly be checking them out. There’s something quite beautiful about the word “saudade”, I had to google it of course, (laughs). The experience of listening to rap is always a pleasant saudade for me.
The “Dark Knight of the Soul” is a reflection on the ‘call to adventure’ that is characteristic of the individual human experience. The perspective is of life as a kind of ‘hero’s journey’ that presents itself in the form of a battle between your higher self and your lower self, as well as the tension between your higher aspirations relative to your lower beginnings. The narrative strives to acknowledge the almost insurmountable task of overcoming the self-sabotaging voice in your head, as is the product of low self-esteem and self-doubt. This voice also reflects the collective voice of the world around you; your well-meaning family, friends and lovers; who project their own fears onto you and are compelled to punish you for having the audacity to dive into the wilderness of your dreams, as this is the very thing they/we all wish for but are too frightened to dare. These are the voices that echo in your head as you dare the climb towards the highest peaks, forcing your way through the odds while fearing the resulting ridicule that will certainly follow from your failing. And so, in addition to battling the elements, you’re also at war with your own inner and outer demons, which are in some way a greater threat than the immediate challenge.
To follow your truth often manifests as a deviation from the collective path. The collective however does not appreciate deviants (laughs). It resents them and if it cannot discourage them enough, it curses them to misfortune; to some fate that should befall them precisely for having chosen to go their own way. Still, the deviant heads off; all alone and “doomed” to fail, fearing personal and public shame. The collective says: “Who do you think you are? Who told you you’re special? Go ahead and let’s see where it all ends.”
The concept of “The Dark Knight of the Soul” is a borrowed one from several ideas in the spiritual literatures of the world but also in Joseph Campbell’s “Monomyth”, which is another word for “The Hero’s Journey”. I’ve interpreted it as defining the deepest, darkest, most brutal part of any significant voyage, often resulting in the death and rebirth of the individual. One emerges triumphant and transformed or unfortunately swallowed up by the tragedy.
In his poem; “Go All The Way” Charles Bukowski speaks to the deviant and says: “If you’re going to try, go all the way…”
“It could mean derision, mockery, isolation.
Isolation is the gift.
All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it…”
“It’s the only good fight there is.”
This in a way encapsulates my experience as it pertains to how my path has affected my relationship with the world around me.
Jaliya: I really like that I asked you to expound on “The Dark Knight of the Soul” because it is actually bigger than what I thought.
You speak of a “tension between higher aspirations relative to lower beginnings”. And now I’m thinking of an interview you did with Bubblegum Club in 2017, in which you say “There is a period when the weight of what you’ve done sort of interferes with what you’re able to do moving forward.” What has this looked like for you? What is this interference? At what point did you become cognizant of the “weight” of your work?
Additionally, it is not lost on me that you were the recipient of the Word N Sound Innovation in Poetry Award in 2015 and 2016. What’s your relationship with innovation? And how do you keep your work refreshing and move forward considering some of the big things you have already done?
Modise: I think the tension between past work and what should follow is a natural one with most artists because of the persistent temptation to duplicate what’s worked before.
There’s also the pressure of expectation; the more you create successfully, the more it is expected of you, as you do of yourself. This can interfere with the freedom of the creative process, which requires a certain innocence and ‘beginners mind’ that is very difficult to recycle as time goes by.
So, from time to time, I fall into a strange spell of not being able to get the audience out of my head while I create which makes the creation itself impossible if not repetitive.
With regards to innovation, it certainly does serve as an ideal. I have always been more interested in how poetry manifests itself in the body, through the voice, in music and several other mediums of expression available to me as an individual but also through collaboration with artists across the genres. This has led me to explore the forms it can expand into through film, animation, photography and theatre.
The process of writing poetry and figuring out how to present it has always been experimental for me, this was more so in the beginning than it is now, but I try my best to keep that approach at the root of the process and of my thinking around the work. This does a decent job of helping me break away from the formulaic trap.
Jaliya: I have enjoyed the collaborations you have done.
I love art about cities: I like to hear songs, read poems, see paintings, watch documentaries etc. One of my favourite songs about Luanda is Tanto by Aline Frazão, I love the lyrics. Naturally, I took immediate interest in Metropolar. I can’t explain why I am so fascinated by the stories of cities…
Your collaborative project with Itai Hakim, Children of the Wind is very rich, it feels like one is eating a delicious meal, it’s nourishing. I love how you describe your sound as “two songs playing at the same time but merging so seamlessly that you can’t tell” this “mess with a very clear message” that you speak of is how I interpreted it as well: my senses feel pulled in different directions but there is harmony. This “merging” of sounds, is this how you know that a collaboration will work? How do you choose the people you work with? What do you register that makes you feel like, yes, I want to work with this particular person?
Modise: Tanto is a beautiful song. Even without understanding the language or having been to Luanda, I feel drawn in by the melodies and visuals; towards what I imagine is some essence of the city that is only known by a true insider.
I am genuinely inspired by everyone I’ve worked with and sincerely look up to them. Perhaps it goes without saying that that’s always where it starts. However, there are many artists who inspire me that I would never be able to work with. The ones I have managed to create something with seem to speak the same language I do, some tongue from some far away place that we seem to recognize each other from. You know this the first time you see or hear them and then it gets confirmed as you get together and jam or share ideas. The process unfolds organically and the pieces fall into place in some curious way that can’t quite be explained.
On the other hand, there are times when you attempt to work with someone and it never quite comes together. The process starts off slow and never quite picks up until it eventually just fizzles.
The people I work with are also usually my friends prior to the work or as we go along. So, if we can’t connect outside of the work, we definitely won’t be able to do so within it.
Jaliya: I love to archive and keep records of things, it’s how I function as a person. Naturally, I own several journals and have random notebooks for jotting down whatever you can imagine. About two weeks ago, I bumped into an entry about an idea I had in 2014, the thing never picked up but I’ve recently been involved in something that is this idea I had but delivered in another way. It gave me a fuzzy, warm feeling—the sensation that I am on track and that some dreams are not meant to be forgotten even if the window for achieving them looks closed, we just need to adapt them according to the context of time. Having said this, I would like to know: Do you feel on track? Looking back at some of the aspirations you had a couple of years ago, have you done what you wanted to do? Are you where you wanted to be? Where are you? What have you been up to lately?
Modise: I do feel on some track. I’ve done much I’m proud of, and am grateful to have had the opportunities to do so. However, there’s much still to do. It’s occurred to me that it’s going to take a very long time to build and manifest much of what I feel called to. In light of this, I have recently developed the sort of patience required for the type of journey I’ve come to understand myself to be on.
Where I am now is in a kind of liminal space between two phases, in both my life and work. I’ve been gathering light and shedding off the rest, with the hope of an expansion that would yield the sort of alignment I will need going forward.
I’ve spent much of the last year exclusively writing, having taken both a voluntary and imposed hiatus from performance. I’m formulating the text for my debut collection, which I’m allowing to unfold as it will, in its own time.
Jaliya: Congratulations on all the things you’ve been able to achieve. A debut collection certainly sounds exciting. I’m happy for you and look forward to it, good luck!
And now to wrap up: What you’ve been writing, is it mostly intended for the collection? How do you choose what work is presented to an audience? As someone who writes from a place of deep introspection, and presents work that is personal, raw and vulnerable, where do you draw the line? Where is your privacy? How do you know whether a certain story, thought, poem is to be publicly consumed or not?
Modise: It’s occurred to me that the most personal and thus private parts of our lives are in fact the most universal. It is at this level that we are most alike and thus most significantly connected. This connection is more significant than our precious little personal stories that we are so obsessed with keeping private. It’s absurd because, at the core of it, there’s really nothing special about the supposedly sacred individual narrative, unless its lessons are shared with the collective in some meaningful way. For this reason, I have been willing to share far more than what I should be comfortable with as a social being. I’m convinced somehow that the social is superseded by the spiritual. The spiritual is embedded in our stories and is triggered by our ability to transcend them and transform the base metal of our basic lives into some kind of gold in the form of the lessons we extract from experience.
It is tricky for me because I am a social being and I am surrounded by others, so at times I have felt the discomfort, as humans will be humans and will use whatever information they gather about you as material for gossip or judgement. This however still seems to me a manageable occupational hazard, I am still quite willing to walk the tightrope and see just how far I can push into the deep dark dungeon within, to have from it spring some meaningful thing I can share with my kin (laughs).
Jaliya: Thank you for pushing into the deep dark dungeon within and sharing narratives that have been meaningful to read and hear.
Thank you for everything you’ve shared here, it was a pleasure to hear from you.
Thank you for your time, Modise.
Photo credit for featured image of Modise Sekgothe: Jonathan B. Tucker.
Jaliya The Bird is a writer, poet, performer from Angola. Her work explores Womanhood, Blackness, Africanness within the concept of [Inter]Sessions: UnSpoken Words. [Inter]Sessions is provoking, celebrating, releasing emotion and thought through storytelling, writing, poetry, and performance art. The artist is passionate about freedom and authenticity, living life from the core of who we are as we respond to the causes that move us. Her award-winning spoken word film Idle Worship produced by Ariel Casimiro via Usovoli Cinema has screened at various poetry festivals. You can read her work here www.jaliyathebird.com