Hip Hop and Social Realism: A Q&A with Sipho the Gift

Kimberly born, Stellenbosch based rapper and producer Sipho the Gift hasn’t achieved the level of fame he hopes to just yet, but make no mistake, he plans on being a South African household name. Traditional hip hop heads may liken his beats to Kanye West or his lyrical style to Vince Staples, but really, Sipho’s part of a new wave of distinctly South African hip hop that’s as serious about navigating identity politics and its place in the world as it is about making good music. 

A year ago, Sipho the Gift declared his musical debut with ‘Poundcake Freestyle’, a track comprised of poignant lyrics and an unwavering beat that still serves as the perfect introduction to the kind of rapper he is. Now he’s released his first full-length album, Coming of Age which details the unapologetically honest journey of a young male growing up in South Africa.

We had a quick chat to him about the process of putting the album together and where he sees himself now that he’s all grown up.

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Coming of Age is premised on the transitions of a 20 year old turning 21. What’s the significance of this stage of your life?

This was an interesting time in my life. I was transitioning and maturing both in my life and with my music. I went through a brief depression that compelled me to create and define who I wanted to be when I came out on the other side of what I was going through. That’s why I reflected a lot on the things most important to me in my narrative. 

Like many producers, you started out wanting to emulate your influencers. How old were you when you started producing music and who was influencing you at the time?

I had studied music academically and was playing guitar by the time I started producing my own music. I was sixteen when I got my hands on the producing software. My first introduction to hip hop was Eminem, Dr. Dre, 50 cent, Kanye West and G- Unit so I emulated a lot of Dr. Dre’s production as well as Kanye. Locally I first loved Proverb, HHP, Khuli and Prokid and the productions of Ivy League.

Who do you look up to locally for inspiration?

I like a lot of the music coming out of South Africa recently but I mostly admire those who aren’t afraid to go against the grain. I admire Riky Rick’s attention to detail and content in his music/art. I admire Khuli Chana’s bilingual lyrical prowess and ability to reinvent himself and I’m a fan of rappers who push the boundaries lyrically. Other musical inspirations include Beatenberg, Spikiri, OkMalumKoolKat.

You call yourself a ‘social realist’. What does that entail? Do all artists have the power to be social realists?

I remember studying the artworks of George Pemba in high school and he would paint scenes of everyday people doing everyday things in his immediate environment. He was able to tell you the life stories of the people in his paintings, their circumstances, their aspirations and bring their characters to life by being equally present and absent enough to let them be the stars. That’s what I believe to be a social realist. I colour my canvas with colours of the experiences of my immediate environment and the people in it. All artists have that potential.

Kimberly isn’t exactly the creative capital of South Africa. Growing up there, where did you draw your musical inspiration from? Did much of your lived experience inform your music?

I was exposed to a lot of music from the states, lots of traditional choral music, jazz as well as church music. This inspired a melodic curiosity and eventually I picked up an instrument. All of my music is informed by my lived experience or the experiences of those close to me. It’s all just a creative interpretation.

siphothegift_shot by Tseliso Monaheng

You perform and produce your own tracks rather than bringing in an external producer. Is it because this album is particularly personal to you or is producing as much a part of your process as making the music?

I actually started producing my own beats because I couldn’t afford to buy beats and I couldn’t think of anyone better to express my initial creative ambitions. It’s very much a part of my creative process and is often interchangeably just as important as my rapping. It helped me grow in other spheres of music creation too. I now know how to conceptualize a song, compose it, arrange it and incorporate enough elements to make it catchy and relatable, from a producer’s perspective.

‘Poundcake Freestyle’ was your first big single before this album and discusses the struggle of making it in the music scene as a young, aspirant rapper. What’s happened between that track and the making of your debut album? Do you still relate to the lines in your first single?

Haha I went through even more adversity and trying to get through a larger audience but there were even more breakthroughs. I shot a video for ‘Phanda More’ that got rotation on MTVBase, Channel O and BET2. I’ve managed to get more releases playlisted on radio and some coverage on digital and physical publications. I relate even more to the lyrics because they proved to be prophetic in many ways.

12 shot by Nikiwe Buhlungu

Coming of Age carries clear themes of a young man growing into himself and navigating his place in the world. What was your process in putting the album together? Did you have to individually revisit certain times in your life?

The album happened organically, meaning every song was produced, written and recorded at the exact time I was going through the thing I happened to be speaking about.

You describe yourself as a quiet guy who takes comfort in writing, although you’re unapologetically confident when you rap. What informs that outgoing side of you?

I think every introvert has an explosive side that’s somehow dying to come out. Mine just happens to be most expressive when I’m rapping and performing. Music and life are energy and I love injecting as much energy as possible into my music and the creative process.

With such personal narratives throughout the album, how do you think your music translates to your fans? Will they be able to relate?

I hope it’s relatable. The narratives are personal, but vague and universal enough for everyone to identify with. Coming Of Age is part of the human experience.

Now you’re 23 years old with your first album out. What lies ahead for Sipho the Gift?

Performances, videos, getting #ComingOfAge to even more ears, making more music, getting even better at this rapping/producing thing and world domination as a long term goal.

Keep up to date with Sipho the Gift on his Tumblr, and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

8 shot by Nikiwe Buhlungu

Photographs by Nikiwe Buhlungu and Tseliso Monaheng. 

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