It feels almost unnatural to write about one of the biggest flag-bearers for the Afrikaans language, in well English, but when your subject is as inspirational as him it becomes a whole lot easier.
HEMELBESEM – the rapper, writer, poet, actor, activist, motivation speaker and all-round entertainer whose passion for Afrikaans is contagious. And we are not referring to the stiff language books gathering dust… somewhere… No. We are talking about Afrikaans in its most raw, natural form. That Afrikaans in which you think, feel and love. (Just read on, you’ll get it eventually.)
With poetry and lyricism that hits home, he reminds us of the beauty of the language and the need for perseverance but at the end of the day, he is asking only one thing, whether you are Afrikaans or not, “Be Silent. Listen. And Think.”
With numerous tv appearances, music festival performances, nine albums, acclaimed theater productions and powerful collaborations to his name, Hemelbesem is no stranger to the limelight but 2016 saw him soar to new heights when he was asked to write the theme song for Call me Thieve (SA’s 2017 entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars) making it impossible to deny his talent.
We caught up with him to chat about his new book God Praat Afrikaans, his role in Call me Thieve, his love for tattoos and of course Afrikaans!
What are you up to right now?
I just finished the Namibian leg of my book, God Praat Afrikaans, tour. It included speaking at schools, churches, and corporates etc.
Tell us more about who HemelBesem is?
HemelBesem is an artist, or I’d like to think so at least. Apart from performing and recording as a hip hop artist, I also do a lot of activism work in the field of language and culture. Music and art in itself is a powerful tool, in modern society especially. It shapes the minds of most people and I’m fortunate to be a part of the movement, given all the negativity that’s out there.
Where did your interest in the arts originate?
I guess some people are born with it. I’m a case in point. I was always fascinated with how art influence people and environments. How colours change moods, sounds change emotions, etc. and I have had so much respect for artists from a young age already. I think because I grew up impoverished, we always wanted to escape to some sort of Utopia “’away from here”. Music, for one, can get you there. It’s something that is used to manipulate, as any distortion will do, but I honestly try to use my “powers” responsibly.
Who are your musical influences?
I listen to everything except maybe genres like “trash metal” and similar stuff because I love lyricism so if I can’t make out the music/ melody it doesn’t grab me. So yes, from the Afrikaans greats like Coenie de Villiers, Stef Bos, Gian Groen, to international sounds like Immortal Technique, Kevin Max, etc. and of course all Afrikaans hip hoppers doing their thing. I also love Hindi music and old Chinese folk music. My iPod is always on shuffle in my car and in my ears, and I search for inspiration in everything I hear.
Tell us more about the song you wrote for Noem my Skollie and the experience as a whole?
It was special to write the theme song because the story itself is so close to home. Mr. Fredericks, whom the movie is about, is also one of the first local “professional” videographers documenting the story of the late “Mr. Devious”. I really respect him for investing time and money in making the documentary. So, when I was asked to do the song, it was an automatic yes.
I was in the movie as well, so I got a sense of the whole vibe physically being on set. To stand in the shoes of a struggling storyteller in the early sixties and the challenges that came with that is actually not that different to an Afrikaans hip-hopper today. We also feel that our work is not accepted in professional circles or commercially because of the bias that comes with the language and the way in which we speak Afrikaans. So I mixed his story with mine and other hip-hoppers, and I guess a lot of so-called coloured Afrikaans artists as well…
You have a few tattoos, what the meaning behind them?
Haha, I have a lot of tattoos… and I treasure all of them. I’ll give a little background to two of them. I have Kaptein Hendrik Witbooi (King of the Nama people) on my left forearm. It’s the exact portrait as seen on the Namibian 50 dollar note. He is a special person, not just because of the blood relation, but because of his spirit. Yes, he was a revolutionary in his own right and a fighter, but he was also a bridge builder, a linguist and a man of the people, putting everyone above prejudice and integrity above intellect. I appreciate that and somehow it flows through me as well.
Alongside the portrait, tattooed in “rock painting” style, is the words Khaob !Nanseb /Gabemab loosely translated as “The captain that disappears in the grass” (because of his skill to not be caught during fights).
I also have a portrait of a youthful Bob Marley on my left ribs. That was a painful eight hours! I really respect the rawness of his revolution and the simplicity with which his music strike the soul. I envy that gift. I explain all my tattoos in my book God Praat Afrikaans.
Who would you like to collaborate with?
I’m lucky to say that a lot of my dreams already came true or are in the process of coming true as we speak. That being said, I’d still like to collaborate with Immortal Technique, Bjork, Leigh Nash, Casper de Vries, Nataniel, Tumi and Julio Iglesias.
Most memorable career moment?
It’s tough to single out one or two… but I will quote something that happened recently. I was speaking at a church in Windhoek and an elderly lady brought a kid around the age of seven to me and said he is my biggest fan and he loves my song “Hoe Salla”. I decided there and then that I will do the song for him. They made him stand on a chair and as I performed I almost only looked at him and he was looking at me rapping with me and going through the motions with beat. There was so many cameras around him and people reacting to his reactions, but he was in a zone flipping with me. That was very special. I guess all the inboxes, calls and messages I get stating how my work has positively influenced a person is always memorable.
Who makes you totally star struck?
It has happened twice, with comedians Casper de Vries and Barry Hilton. I guess rugby players like Victor Matfield would too.
If your life was a song/movie what would the title be?
I guess it would be the title of my book God Praat Afrikaans.
What is something no one knows about you?
I wish I was a crooner like Engelbert Humperdinck or Julio Iglesias.
If you were to die and come back as a living person or thing, what would it be?
Some “uncivilised” tribe child with no sense of modern technology and knowledge except what has sustained them for thousands of years… coz unlearning is so hard to do!
What is your wildest fantasy?
I want to see the earth from space!
What is your favourite Afrikaans word/ phrase?
What according to you is the future of the Afrikaans language?
It’s healthy! As it becomes more inclusive, you will see and hear all the new sounds and sights that Afrikaans is capable of.
What is next for Hemelbesem?
Amongst other things, I will be working on my own tv show that underscores my passion for Afrikaans…
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