Words: Richard ‘The Hobbit’ Bamford
Mpho Skeef has led an extraordinary life for her twenty nine years. Celebrating her first birthday in a South African prison during the ’70s due to her mother’s alleged activist pursuits, she has since grown into a confident, intelligent woman with a world awareness beyond her years. “My mum was particularly active, not in some mad blowing things up way, but she knew what was going on in South Africa was wrong,” Mpho says of her mother, who moved to South Africa to “gain a different experience to most white people of her generation”. It was during this time that she met Mpho’s father, and as it was illegal to be in a mixed relationship in South Africa at that time, “once they’d had me, they were right in the thick of it all”.
“Before I was born my mum went to the hospital for a check-up,” she recalls. “She asked them what they’d do if a white woman gave birth to a mixed child. They told her that they’d treat it like a rape case and call the police.” Mpho’s mother refused to bow down to such an erroneous government and when the church refused to assist her, claiming that “it was a sin to have a mixed baby”, she knew it was time for more pro-action. As a teacher in South Africa, she became increasingly involved in the uprisings, and coupled with the fact that she lived among black and mixed people, things eventually led to her (and Mpho’s) imprisonment.
Soon after, Mpho and her mother came back to England. Here she learnt a completely different way of life, attending a mixed school. Imagine then how weird it must’ve been for a ten year old child to return to an apartheid-strangled South Africa, recalling it as “just plain mad. The fact that that only ended 12 years ago and was supported by western governments is crazy!”
Just as growing up and witnessing these events had a huge impact and influence on Mpho’s music, her rhythmic roots and penchant for percussion also trace back to her roots: inspiration from her famous percussionist step-father.
“Rhythm is very important to me,” Mpho explains passionately. “In music, rhythm is everything – even down to the way I sing something. I play a little percussion and I want to develop that and bring it into my live show. I’m getting into beatbox too,” she enlightens with a giggle.
Personal heritage aside, it’s no surprise to hear that she is a massive fan of The Artist Formerly Known As… “Prince is one of my musical heroes,” Mpho affirms. “He can write a song which is so accessible to so many different people and within that he does things that no one else has thought of doing. I think he actively looks for those different bits and makes them work. I wanna be an artist like that. I wanna be able to write good hooks and melodies and write lyrics that will broaden the listeners’ way of thinking.”
Mpho has an extraordinary vocal range and, like Prince, enjoys including a range of different styles in her sound. Though she loves hiphop, soul and reggae, she worries about making sure her output is representative of her, and not a genre. “That’s the thing; it’s none of those things but all of them. My parents listened to Joni Mitchell and Sun Ra and lots of South African music, and growing up in South London I was into reggae, soul, RnB and ragga – I was a proper dancehall queen at one point; I had the gold catsuit and lop-sided hair and big gold earrings!”
To further facilitate her unique sound Mpho insisted on working with people and producers that she felt would stretch her musicality. “I featured on Spacek’s last album and I just love what they do. I mean, it is hiphop, but it has a very soulful edge and it’s very imaginative electronically. That’s why I had to get them working on my album, alongside Yan Murawski and D-Bridge from Bad Company.” The production certainly complements Mpho’s cauldron of simmering influences and experiences, and so although the finished dish should be digestible by everyone, it’s a million miles away from the tepid mush of RnB that is currently poisoning the world.
“The history of RnB is so rich and so strong; I don’t know how we’ve ended up with what we’ve got. I just don’t think the current music warrants the title.” She remonstrates, adding: “it’s a real shame because there are some great singers. I mean, take Beyonce: she’s a great vocalist, technically what she can do is amazing but I don’t think I’ll want to be listening to her music in fifteen years time.” And while gripping the table to express distain, she concludes: “the Ashanti’s and Christina Milians of this world just really annoy me.”
Dislikes aside, Mpho does have certain mystical qualities and is very in-touch with her spirituality. “That’s why I have that creature as my artwork on my covers,” she explains of the Centaur-like being on her sleeve-art. “It represents metamorphosis, the different elements of me; the womanly just me, parts of me that are dream-like and lots of fantasy and romanticism. It’s my mystical creature that is a conglomeration of who I am.”
Her opinions and knowledge of music are wide and vast, like a Grand Canyon filled with rhythms, notes and melodies – and so it makes perfect sense that Mpho once taught music. Unlike many music teachers, her ethos isn’t one of purist sensibilities, and on the subject of song structures and composition her views clearly operate outside of the box that can sometimes imprison a writer’s imagination.
“I get so bored when I find myself thinking like that because I don’t think you have to obey all the musical rules. People that think and listen like that are just lazy and do it for ease of absorption. Even though a lot of so-called song-writing has gone to the point where it’s no longer about telling a story, or to say anything, it’s just to keep people hooked. That’s probably why there’s a big drug culture at the moment in the West! People are looking for things to hold onto and to give them something without having to do much work. Just quick easy fixes – people don’t wanna think too hard. In the Western societies, people work hard all day long to earn money to survive, to live, and they have the leisure of not having to think too much provided that cycle works for them. So they just wanna chill out. It all becomes escapism.”
Mpho reasons that though her tastes are extremely left of centre, it doesn’t necessarily come across in her music. “I’m of the hiphop generation but as much as I love to listen to Mary J Blige and Jodeci, I also love listening to Bulgarian folk choirs. But leftfield is just a term used by the industry and it only becomes leftfield if you compare Bulgarian folk to Britney Spears, and it’s just a completely different world.”
While Mpho understands why people wouldn’t necessarily rush out for copies of Best Of Bulgarian Folk, she concludes that, “I want people to get a sense of freedom in terms of what they hear, and I’d hope that in listening to my music, when it’s placed among other things going on in the mainstream industry, they will be encouraged to stand up for who they are, because it’s not always an easy thing to do.”
Mpho Skeef’s music is as innovative as her character and presence; its beauty, its depth; its maturity is just her and a soundtrack. To boot, her live performances always bring about something new and invigorating. We can but hope that her album gets a full release and receives some of the attention she deserves.