“I’m not arrogant, just honest”The rising star of New Zealand hip-hop is channelling his self-belief into a series of EPs that take stylistic cues from unlikely sources
Auckland rapper Mzwètwo is hands-down this country’s most unswervingly confident hip-hop artist, serving up chutzpah in his music and interviews to rival Kanye West. Mzwethu Manrich Ngubane was seven when his family came to the North Shore from Zimbabwe as refugees, yet there are few references to former or current homes in his music and how he presents it. Instead, he channels the dandyisms of the US rapper Theophilus London and the Ramones’ rock ’n’ roll fundamentals.
What else you should know: before he released music under his current guise, he went by the alias Loui the Zu. He designs his own clothes, directs his own videos and declares himself New Zealand hip-hop’s best dressed. He consistently achieves high production values on a shoestring budget. Not bad for a 21-year-old.
THE RED BULLETIN : Why did you drop Loui the Zu in favour of Mzwètwo?
Mzwètwo: I used to be called ‘Zu’ in primary school because no one could pronounce my name. It’s only now that I feel like I’m really finding my voice as an artist, so the time was right to use something closer to my name. It comes down to what I’m now bringing together in my music. I like to call it modern rock ’n’ roll, taking influences like Morrissey, Hendrix and James Brown, and then mixing them up with hip-hop. It’s a shame that there’s not music out there that allows all those influences to live together without conflict, and I bring them together because it’s what I want to hear. Everything I write and everything I do, I try to do it as selfishly as possible; to make stuff that people have never heard before.
Loui the Zu was 100 per cent hip-hop. Why is Mzwètwo name-checking and channelling rock stars?
I want to be a rap artist trying to make the best hip-hop songs that have ever been made. Rapping’s great, but I feel like hip-hop musicianship, compared with other forms of music, is not up there. So my vision is to bring the spirit of Axel Rose when he was leading Guns N’ Roses in their prime, or Michael Jackson moonwalking across the Soul Train set, or Jay Z’s supercool, super-minimal stage presence – to bring all these threads together, without conflict. As Mzwètwo, I’ve figured out what I’ve meant to do: bring choreography, a live band and the grand-scale simplicity of hip-hop together in one package. That’s the alchemy I’m trying to achieve.
Gallantino 3 (EP, 2015)Gallantino 2 (EP, 2014)Gallantino 1 (EP, 2014)
Serving as a statement of intent, Mzwètwo’s Gallantino EP series is so named because it is Gallant In the Name Of. “I want all my art to be brave,” he says, “and that name captures that spirit.”
The A$AP Mob member Ferg listened to a selection of Mzwètwo’s songs at Red Bull Studio Auckland recently. “That totally blew me away,” admits the latter.
Where does your self-confidence come from?
From my mum, she’s a very confident woman. Most African woman I know are confident. You don’t need to tell them they look good, they’ll let you know; you don’t need to ask them how they feel, they’ll just tell you. I was raised by a female, grew up on the North Shore; I’m African, I like hip-hop and fashion – because of all that I was always made fun of at school. Going through that made me say, ‘F––k it, this is what I am and this is what I like. It doesn’t matter if anyone else likes it or not.’ I believe that art is selfish, so I make sure everything I say is 100 per cent true. Some people might say I’m arrogant, but I’m just honest.
You direct all your videos. How important is it for you to control how your music is presented?
Honestly, I just want everything to look right. Visuals are very important to me. I think about music and clothes in the exact same way. The jeans I’m wearing dictate what shoes I’m going to wear, and it’s the same for my music: the kick or the bassline or the melody will dictate the type of snare I use or the rhyme I write. I think of my first two Gallantino EPs as couture collections: not for everyone, you need a certain amount of taste. The third one is more like a ready-to-wear collection that’s for everyone, for the masses – but you still need taste to get it.