Leslie Tongai Makawa, aka Outspoken Alpha Intellect, is an up-and-coming rapper and activist from the southern African nation of Zimbabwe. A regular at the House Of Hunger poetry slam series in Harare, the capital, Outspoken’s reflective poetry delves into the joys and hardships of everyday life amidst the severe economic hardship and horrifying government-sponsored violence of the past decade. On the twenty-ninth anniversary of Zimbabwean independence, Outspoken spoke with CMG just before he performed a concert in Washington, DC. In an insightful interview, Makawa discusses his upbringing in Harare, the Essence (his band as well as the state of mind), and toyi-toyi—a dance dating back to the war for independence that fellow Zimbabwean slam poets have adopted as a symbol for the struggle for human rights.
CMG’s Peter Holslin (CMG): How has the tour been? [At the time, Outspoken was touring the East Coast with Comrade Fatso, another Zimbabwean poet, and Fatso’s backing band.]
Leslie Tongai Makawa, (LTM): Well, it’s been an experience. Because it’s like good energies you get from the band and from the crowd, but at the same time, you now, you do get tired. Funny enough, it’s something that you feed off of, like even the fatigue and all of that.
CMG: Is this the first time you’ve been to the United States?
LTM: This is the first time I’ve been off Africa. It’s been dope. It’s been unreal. I know I’m in the States, but I’m like looking for the American experience. I don’t know what that is. It’s like I’m waiting for something. I am getting so much from it, but at the same time I’m hesitant. Like, ‘You know, the American experience is about to happen any day now.’ It’s not the movies I’ve seen. Maybe that’s the thing. You expect so much, because in an hour, hour fifteen, if it’s drama there’s so much drama packed in. If it’s action, there’s so much action. You expect stuff to be happening. Like, you know, the world to stand still for a day.
It’s been an experience. I became a fan of hip hop again. I was in it. This is what I wanna do.
CMG: Were there any experiences you had that were extra-special, that you’ll take home with you?
LTM: Yeah, like having people coming up to you and giving you a jewel from something you said in your poem, and saying how something affected them in a positive way. It’s something that reminds you why you do what you do. I remember like three or four, it’s just that I was so tired I don’t remember where it was. But I’m sure one was at Tufts [University], the other at [the Trinity International Hip Hop Festival.]
CMG: What happened?
LTM: Someone comes up and they’re like, “You know, the piece you just did, it touched me deeply.” It always leaves you, like, “Wow.” I know they were good, but when it actually does happen, it’s always like, “Wow.” That’s pretty big.
CMG: Did anybody toyi-toyi?
LTM: I did. [laughs] Yeah, like some people in the crowd. The girls at Wellesley, there were some that were actually from Zimbabwe and Zambians and quite the number that could toyi-toyi. And, you know, they got into the groove. Funny enough, it was one of our not-so-big crowds, but the energy that they had, to date I can say that was one of the best performances because we really got connected with the crowd. It was like one energy, and it was beautiful. Plus, they were all girls, but you can leave that out.
CMG: What is the significance of toyi-toyi? What does it mean to you?
LTM: Toyi-toyi—to define it I would say it’s more like, celebrating the freedom that they can’t take away from you. Celebrating the fact that, even if you are in shackles and chains, in a cage, the inner self cannot be tainted. They can get to the point of killing you, but they can’t kill you. They can just destroy your body. So it’s like realizing that everyone does have a limit, and you really cannot control a person. The only way you give that across is when you give the people an illusion that you can. So, it’s like a defiant celebration. You can see it in the dance. It’s like egging people on, like “Yeah, what?” Funny thing with Toyi Toyi, it’s used before a battle or confrontation, but it comes across like a celebration in itself. It’s just a beautiful state to be in. You’re saying, ‘I refuse to lose!’
CMG: What do you hope to get out of this tour? And what do you want to express, to give to the audience?
LTM: All I have to give is my message and my experience. And funny enough, I’m one guy that thinks that when you don’t expect nothing of no one, that’s actually when you get something going. As long as I can get to a person’s mind, and enlighten them about a situation, and have them thinking and spark up a positive image, I think my work is done. Because a lot of people wanna go straight into action, like, “OK! We heard your problem, man! What you need?“ I just need positive energies to support a brutha. I think that’s like the most powerful prayer someone can give to someone else.
CMG: So tell me about yourself. Where were you born?
LTM: H-town, Harare [capital of Zimbabwe]. Born and raised in Avonlea [a suburb of Harare]. But my heart stays in Mufakose. That’s like a township. That’s where the black laborers were allocated [during the colonial period, when Zimbabwe was called Rhodesia. Thing was, you’d have people that would make it from that township, but it was named Mufakose ‘cause, you know, even if you kind of made it in life, you probably would be robbed in that neighborhood, and killed. Or if you did make it, you’re still gonna die. Either way, you’re gonna die: that’s what it means.
CMG: And you grew up there?
LTM: That’s where my mom was raised, and that’s where my mom’s family was. So that’s where I grew up. That’s where people actually were.
CMG: What did your parents do?
LTM: They both retired. My mom was like a bank teller. My pops used to work at the Ministry of Education, retired, became the Director General for the Zimbabwe Association of Pension Funds. That’s what he retired from. Now he’s a counselor for the University of Zimbabwe. He goes there every once in a while, says where they’re messing up, they don’t listen, and he goes back to the farms. [My parents] are now farming full time.
CMG: Do you have siblings?
LTM: Yes, I’m the last born in a family of four. First born being my sister and two other brothers. And they all used to rap. Yeah, I grew up in that. My sister was called Constable Rhyme.
CMG: Constable Rhyme?
LTM: Yeah. Don’t ask. And my brother was Professor Tricky. My uncle was African Chemistry. My friend was Prince Neka.
CMG: So you grew up around hip hop?
LTM: I was listening to Run-DMC, just trying to be down. I was a little kid, you know. LL Cool J, “Mama said knock you out!” And then I kinda chilled. When I was trying to discover myself, I moved away from the music. I found myself going back into it, but there was more reggae this time. And then I started hearing like, Notorious BIG and 112 and stuff, and I was like, this is nice. Happy music! And I found myself back in hip hop. This was before hip hop was like underground and commercial. It was just people doing what they do. For me it was the golden days, like ’94, ’95, ’96. You know, Lost Boys, Craig Mack. Ah! I can’t stop. Skinny Busta Rhymes, with the locks. Skinny Busta with the good locks. Crazy. Yeah.
CMG: When did you start writing?
LTM: Well, I started writing in primary school, like fifth grade, sixth grade. Instead of doing my homework, I’d be writing stuff. I wouldn’t call them like poems or verses, I was…expressing myself. My moms beat me, telling me, “You need to do your assignments, not this stuff.” I just went to school for her sake. My literature teacher, who happened to go to the same school as my father, and was bullied by my father, he used to pick on me to provide the answers. Like, you know, put pressure on me. He used to call me by my pop’s name, he used to call me Hilton. He wouldn’t call me by my own name. So this one time I wrote a poem, and I got in trouble because it was so good, he thought I had lifted it from some other place. And with me trying to explain so much, I got into more trouble. So that kinda fizzled me out and I was like, “You know what? Forget you.” So I kinda stopped, but then I only stopped writing for them. I just kept on [makes a scribbling motion] for me.
CMG: I’m really interested to know how you started writing more politically-motivated stuff, and how you got involved with the House Of Hunger poetry slam.
LTM: It kinda started when my education started. It was like, But what is this? What…what…what’s going on? Why should I learn what you want me to know, that I don’t want to know? What does it help me? And what does it help you? I’m not gonna work for you. I’m a part of the system, but why can’t the system attune itself to my needs? It was a whole bunch of questions that needed to be answered. The House Of Hunger poetry slam was like the perfect podium. Now I actually have an outlet where I can actually bring out my frustrations.
[My poetry] is labeled as political but if you actually do listen to some of my stuff, it’s more like a question to individuals. Like trying to analyze a situation. It so happens that an individual is in society, and a society is governed by politics, but that’s how the pieces become political. You know, you can have pieces that actually incite people into doing things blindly. Instead, I would rather have pieces that might not move you physically, but move you mentally, to a better place.
CMG: Who are some poets and writers who have inspired you?
LTM: Ah, well, that one is a tough one. Like I said, I really didn’t like the education system. I really didn’t like reading the books they wanted us to read. So most of the time I actually found inspiration in the everyday race, like, you know, the struggles that mothers would go through, the struggles that our parents would go through. I could see relationships breaking down because of external forces that have no relation to the family. There are people that inspire me, but it’s like people that are so close—like the words that come out of sister Chi’s mouth. [He is referring to Chiwoniso Maraire, a Zimbabwean-American songwriter who performed at the concert that day.] You know, it’s like I’m a fan more than an artist. Every experience for me is so humbling that sometimes I wonder if I’m playing the game from the opposite side of the fence. Like I should be in the crowd, and watching you guys.
CMG: Do you go by Outspoken Alpha Intellect, or is it just Outspoken?
LTM: It’s funny, it was a joke, my whole name. ’Cause I was looking at hip hop and how, you know, guys have these names. I was like, “You know what? I wanna have one of the longest names in hip hop.” So the whole name, the whole tag, is Outspoken Alpha Intellect The Humble Neophyte True Indeed I Am Proof Of Emcee Also Known As I The Kept Brother Inner Silence Love Thy Neighbor. Those names represent different parts of self. The Outspoken…sometimes you just need to stamp your authority. But then the counterbalance to Outspoken is Inner Silence, the place where I exist before I let out. And then there’s the Alpha Intellect [he pronounces it “eye-ntellect”], which represents the first thought. What I said right now is like the first thought that is coming out of my mind. But then, in order for me to have these full thoughts, there is the Humble Neophyte, which is the guy that chilled and, you know, has to learn and experience life in order to give something back to life. And then there’s True Indeed. That explains itself. Whatever you say, it has to be true of you in actual action. I Am Proof Of Emcee…that’s just for hop hop’s sake. Don’t ask what an emcee is. When I do what I do, or when I am who I am, that’s me being an Emcee. Love Thy Neighbor, that says it for itself again. And I The Kept Brutha…I am the kept brutha. I’m in a crew called Dialectric Blue. My rhyme partner is called Upmost Mybruthazkeepa Rhyme For Days. And we roll deep. He is like my brutha, you know? We look out for each other. And as much as I am the kept brotha, I keep my brotha close.
They all have like different parts that I am learning of myself. But then it was also like a piss take, just bein’ Outspoken Alpha Intellect The Humble Neophyte True Indeed I Am Proof Of Emcee AKA I The Kept Brutha Inner Silence Love Thy Neighbor! I find beauty in that, as much as it is comical.
CMG: When did you start playing with the Essence?
LTM: Two years ago. The one dude I went to high school with. He used to close me on my hip hop tapes and stuff. I used to close him some of his. “Close” is when you borrow something and you don’t give it back. “Yeah, I closed you man!” Yeah, he’s the guy who plays the guitar. His younger brother plays the bass. And this other kid plays the drums. Verity [Norman, a South African woman who helped organize the event] plays the violin.
I wanna learn the kora). I wanna learn something that’s just, [makes carnal sound of enjoyment]. A message can be communicated just by the different instruments that’s being played. I’m trying to make beauty. I wouldn’t label my music as poetry or hip hop, it’s just a bunch of beautiful crazy stuff that I’m yet to get at. We just wanna create beautiful things.
CMG: In your life, did you have any experiences that inspired you to write, or make you rethink the way of the system?
LTM: Growing up was like an accumulation of events. They always get you. Like, constant triggers. Like, Hey, that can’t be right! Is that right? And while you’re still twisted in that situation and you’re growing with it, you get triggered by another one. There were like small instances. I can’t say there was one thing that was like, Paradigm Shift!
CMG: But even a small thing…
LTM: OK, growing up in Avonlea, we were like one of the first few black families to move in. I didn’t know racism or anything like that. You’re a kid and all you see are kids and grown-ups.
When black people would talk to other black people, they wouldn’t give each other as much respect as if they were talking to a white person. So there was that in-built superiority complex. And I started questioning like, Yo! But… If you go to Zimbabwe now, a person who is like a boss or whatever, is referred to as murungu. Which is, “white person.” It’s like slang but it’s been accepted.
CMG: So in the word itself, being white is associated with being the boss?
LTM: Yeah, and superiority. Regardless if you are a black boss, you become a murungu, which is white person. So it’s that inferiority complex that’s embedded in us. And it like thrives below the radar. It’s even engaged in an argument with us. It’ll rage on for days. And there’s another statement, “MaBhoi.” Someone would say, “Ah, MaBhoi!” Like, “Ah, these blacks!” It’s like a generalized dis that would bring down a whole race.
That stuff would weigh heavily on me. You would find those energies, that chop you down from these angles. As much as you can blame it on a black and white dynamic, there was a black and black dynamic. That’s why my poetry is more like to focus on self. Just to feed the beauty that you are, the being that you are. That’s the only way you can play a pivotal role in society. ’Cause when you’re saying, “Yes, I’m a being in society, but I’m mad weak,” you’re not going to hold up the burden for everyone else. That’s what made me who I am today.
CMG: Artists and activists have told me, and I’ve also gotten the impression from news reports, that everything has become politicized in Zimbabwe. How do you feel about that?
LTM: The newscasters have their agenda. Fair and fine. But I believe that once you take someone’s pain, and someone’s tears, and just break them down into mere statistics, and facts, it’s like robbing the story of its essence. The story that was gonna be said by that person’s mother or brother is not the same story you’re gonna get when you switch on the news, when you read the newspaper. Because that agenda has nothing to do with the people involved. It’s the bigger picture—This place is messed up! He’s messing it up! So many people have died! But it doesn’t have that humanity aspect to it. It’s like I’m not Outspoken; I’m not Leslie Tongai Makawa—I’m a Zimbabwean; I’m the guy coming from the place with the messed-up economy. These are all the labels that I have now with me. I’m broken down and categorized. It destroys you being a person, you being a being, and it makes you this whole question mark, which I don’t believe in. I’m like, What?
Beyond the troubles, beyond the beauty that they advertise in the tourist sector, beyond the political, the economic, the health problems, beyond the smiles, the hate and everything, there is that essence that lies there, that makes it what it is. We can’t be defined by events, or history, or how our future’s gonna be.
CMG: Is that why your band is called the Essence?
LTM: Yeah. I like to chill in a realm. I know I’m not yet there, but I’m gonna be there in the next two years—like a realm where it’s not music and it’s not poetry, but it’s words, sounds, emotions, feelings. That thing that’s beyond the musical notes, the notations, the jargon they have in music school. I just want to exist with the feel-good shit, or the make-you-think shit.
You can’t say, “Ah, this is wrong.” I think that statement is true if it’s finished with ‘To me.’ Like, that is wrong to me. ’Cause what’s wrong to me might be right to you. And I think that’s the breaking point of understanding self and understanding others: realizing that we are different. This world would suck if we had nothing but Outspokens. Probably argue all day and kill each other off. So we need to understand that we find that beauty within the difference in existence.
Life is a beautiful thing, man. Every breath we get is a blessing. A lot of the times we don’t realize that. We don’t take the time to appreciate that we’re here. It’s beautiful. I love it when I’m sick, because every time I’m sick, I remember all those times that I wasn’t sick. I just let those days roll on by. You remember all the times you’re sick, but never when you’re OK. You remember all the times you’re broke. Like, “I’m broke. I’m broke, man. Been broke for two weeks.” I don’t know why we always focus on the negative, you know? And even when you are broke, that doesn’t finish you. That’s not the definitive moment.
The first two words that exist in that statement is “I am.” And that’s a state that you have to appreciate. Yes, I am…broke? Whatever. But I am. Those are powerful words. It’s like a breath of fresh air for me.
This interview was published today on Cokemachineglow.com. Photo courtesy Outspoken.