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“Don’t call it trap”

Focalistic talks independence, hope and home

By Martin Guttridge-Hewitt
Focalistic interview

The ‘Pitori Maradona’ is an MC for our times. In the decimated wasteland of a music scene shuttered by COVID-19, energy and entrepreneurship aren’t just valuable traits, they’re essential. Qualities the 24-year-old South African has in spades. Not to mention first team talent, hence the partial name-share with that recently departed Argentine footballing legend.

More widely known by his moniker Focalistic, real name Lethabo Sebetso, his first big score came via 2018’s Major League DJz smash 19 Tobetsa, the upstart’s bars leaving a lasting impression on everyone in earshot. Since then, a barrage of standout releases have landed thanks to a relentless work rate. For proof, think three singles, an EP and the albums Sghubu Ses Excellent and Quarantined Tarantino in the last 12 months alone. A pace the lyricist matches with an endless supply of fresh ideas.

Nevertheless, he’s arguably most vocal about the fact this is a completely independent operation; he retains full control over every aspect of every project, his image and trajectory. With that in mind we can completely understand why the only opportunity to answer our questions comes just before Christmas, when he’s still on the road having recently headlined the Johannesburg edition of Ballantine’s x Boiler Room True Music In The Round. It’s hard to switch off when you’re running the show.

“I think for me the move to be independent was not inspired by anyone, but it was inspired by the need to own and just be free,” Focalistic tells us when we ask why he decided to reject standard music industry trappings like labels and agents. His phrasing invoking lines from 19 Tobetsa. “For me, music is not like accounting or something. You know? It’s an emotional thing. You can’t have a boss within that, if you’re being as free as possible. That’s what made me want to become independent.”

“It’s not easy, but it’s all about finding the right deal. I could have done it easier, internationally, if I had a big machine behind me, working behind me, but what would that mean in terms of the music touching people?,” he replies after we ask about the challenges that come with being a one man army.

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“It’s always important to have a solid foundation, and then you can have the machine to push the music, but the music has to remain as pure as possible.”

Central to the Focalistic philosophy is the term ‘pina tsa ko kasi’. Shorthand for a musical framework partly laid down on  another collaboration with Major League DJz, 2019’s six track collection Asa Trap Tse ke Pina Tsa Ko Kasi, the English translation roughly reads: ‘It’s not trap, it’s from the hood’. Sonically spanning warm Balearic piano grooves, purist kwaito, hip hop and R&B, in reality aesthetics are secondary to message. Identity and staying true to yourself are what’s important.

“Yeah, it’s not trap it’s from the hood. Basically it’s about using all your experiences, admitting or seeing the influence that location has on you. For me every hood in the world is the same, they are always the same. So it’s about telling my story and making sure that people around the world can understand,” says Focalistic, making it clear that while born in his area, the doctrine can be applied to just about any artist in any country. “That’s why it’s a movement, because everyone is the same and so everyone is going to understand — it’s not so much about what you’re saying, it’s the feelings you get.

There are a lot of kids that want to represent where they come from, because it’s most natural to us. We’re making it fashionable, comfortable. How it began, coming from South Africa I was influenced a lot by the media, a lot coming from America, trying to rap like your Drakes,” he says, before recalling something of a personal and artistic epiphany, which helped to catalyse ‘pina tsa ko kasi’. “At some point in my life I became obsessed with my own voice. I mean having my own voice, talking about my experiences. The things I’m proud of, how I grew up. That’s how the movement started.”

Although wearing his roots on his sleeve, which for Focalistic lie in South Africa’s executive capital city Pretoria, a relocation to Johannesburg helped in terms of exposure and profile. Home to most of the country’s music industry, a huge population and therefore also audience, despite the move he believes artists can gain notoriety in smaller towns. It all depends on whether they use their assets wisely. “I think there are a lot of opportunities outside the big cities, it’s just about harnessing your fan base. For me, as a lot of people know, it’s about making music about where I come from. So I’m a strong believer in representing. That’s what makes your music unique. Special to you.

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“Music is about location, and location is in music, culture, demeanour. So there are opportunities to build and grow your identity,” says Focalistic, explaining this doesn’t mean there aren’t barriers for regional artists. “For me it’s the limited resources, that’s the problem. Outside the big cities there’s a lack of resources for artists. That means maybe the move to a bigger city will be necessary for young artists, and that’s why it’s most important to never forget where you came from.”

This attitude counts for people, not just place. We mention his friendship with producer Herc and are told this dates to childhood. “I think I was in Grade 2, he was coming up from Grade 1, Primary School. We have been friends ever since,” Focalistic recounts, betraying the importance of relationships and human contact to him, and how tough 2020 and the ongoing pandemic have been as a result. “It has been a difficult year but I think we are not doing as bad as people think. Music has definitely become the happiness and lifeline that people needed.

“In terms of government, there’s a lot of improvement needed to control the virus, and to allow spaces more freedom. Because as much as there needs to be a clamp down, this isn’t only about what happens at performances or festivals,” he says of South Africa’s response to COVID-19. “You know? The virus is in the church gatherings, nobody spoke about that. What about the rallies for more than 5,000 people? We can’t perform to 500. There’s a huge disconnect. And I think also the police brutality on party goers is uncalled for. As people we are trying, it’s been a depressing time for everyone and the government needs to start focussing on what really matters.

“I think the biggest change should be about connecting more. Just connecting more. Telling our stories,” he replies when we ask what the world should focus on in the coming months. “My real name is Lethabo, which means joy. I like to spread positivity even in the darkest times. I’d like to be remembered as the person who reported on how the world was at the time. We are making history as we are going, and we will be part of the history books. And as a person who pushed family, God, positivity, and making money — inspiring the hustlers around the world.

“In 2020 I was speaking about what I was going through, so it’s the same for 2021. But they are different situations” Focalistic continues, before leaving us with a closing statement as resonant and personal as it is impressively off the cuff. “I’ve grown a lot since people last heard me, because like everyone I’ve been through so much. I’m on my way to Zambia right now, and already these experiences have again opened up my mind. For me it’s about making sure that our stories as young, Black Africans get to the world. And people relate to them. So I think that’s what’s going to change, you know.”

Martin Guttridge-Hewitt is editor of Design Exchange Magazine and frequently writes for DJ Mag, Mixmag, Resident Advisor, XLR8R and The Guardian.

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