So we hooked up with the multi-talented Lebo Mashile on a nice and warm Saturday. Bathong this woman is so pretty tlhe. Even more so in person. What a sweet soul, so real shem.
Who’s Lebo Mashile?
I’m a poet (which most people know me as), performer, published author, columnist, actress, TV presenter and a producer as well. I’m also a new mom, partner, sister, daughter but I think the two big things that define my career are writing and performance.
I’ve done some theatre work. Hotel Rwanda was my first time in front of a camera before I did L’Attitude & TV presenting. I think that’s where the acting bug hit me but now most of the time when I perform would be as a poet. I love acting and I love theatre because it helps me to kinda sharpen my skills but I do so many different things and poetry is such a big part of what I do that it’s kind of taken over; but I would still happily take up acting given the opportunity and would really, really love [to do] theatre. I think, for me theatre is the original thing.
My parents left South Africa as students; my dad in the late 60s and my mother shortly after 1976, they met in the US started and a family there… So the bulk of my childhood was in the US. I think what helped me the most about growing up in America was the fact that I felt very free. There weren’t the same issues of crime. The US has already kind of been through a lot of what SA is going through right now. So I grew up in a society that was post-feminist, post civil rights movement. So the idea that I could be limited because I was black, female or a foreigner was absurd to me; but at the same time it’s still a very white dominated society. There’s a lot of different foreigners from all over the world but we all met at the level of American-ness (Nike, Queen Latifah, Janet Jackson etc). I think one of the most valuable things that I gained from the experience was realizing that the black experience is universal. It helped me to understand what was happening in SA; why my family had to leave, why we were there and what was going on.
America in many ways is a lot like SA; we’ve got similar demons and blessings. America dominates the world the way SA dominates the continent. I feel like in some ways, growing up in America was God’s way of preparing me for eventually coming back to South Africa, you know. That’s why I love living and working here because it forces me to question my politics and beliefs everyday.
What’s Lebo up to lately?
There are some big projects I’m working on but I can’t talk about them right now. There’ll be some big collaboration – poetry and visual arts (photography). I love collaborations – I’ve collaborated with filmmakers, dancers and this will be my first time with a photographer and I’m very excited about it.
I’m also an ambassador for the Say No To Child Pornography campaign, which is an initiative of the Film & Publication Board (FPB). I’m an ambassador alongside Meshack Mavuso (Vusi from Isidingo). Sis’ Yvonne Chaka-Chaka is patron of the campaign. What’s really fantastic about it is that it opened my eyes to this cause. Kids carry cellphones now. They have such a deep understanding of technology. They’re exposed to the blessings of it but also to the curses of it. Look for example at what happened at Jules High School last year. So for the past year I’ve been going around the country with FPB talking to parents, professionals, and different stakeholders, from NGO’s representing child rights, to people who work directly with children who’ve been sexually violated and to the children themselves by going to schools.
Right now we’re doing a back-to-school tour with the FPB; myself, Meshack and sis’ Yvonne have been going around schools in Gauteng. We’ve also been to Jules High. It was a big gig because even the MEC for education was there and Vodacom sponsored. It’s was a fantastic event. I mean with the stuff that happened last year at that school, I was expecting to see these rebellious kids who are full of themselves but I was shocked to see instead these kids were smart, disciplined, wearing their uniform…really beautiful young people. I just thought “Wow.” Three people at this school created this massive reputation that all of these young people had to bear, and it’s so unfair you know. And last year’s incident is still very much at the forefront of everybody’s minds, which is sad and painful but at the same time I think it’s presented an opportunity for awareness of what happens at schools.
Lebo the TV presenter: L’Attitude
L’Attitude was a great opportunity for me to understand my country better, to understand myself as an artist and to understand mainstream entertainment; that you have to always push yourself; how versatile you have to be; how many sharks are out there (laughs). We only travelled in South Africa, the only outside country we went to was Lesotho. However, I spoke to people from places like Ghana, Congo, Nigeria living in SA. We also covered the Khoi and the San, the Nama…you know the real indigenous parts of SA.
But most of the travelling I’ve done outside of the country would be to Zimbabwe, Kenya, Mozambique, Malawi in Africa. In Europe I’ve been to Switzerland, Austria, I go to Germany and the UK quiet a lot. I’ve only been to the US once since I left there; also been to Jamaica and I’ll be going to Colombia in the near future. I’ve travelled the world and always find people who are passionate about our history; who are really interested in SA. People are fascinated about this country. Being a South African in this continent is like being an American in the world. There’s a lot of similarities between the two. As much as they (other Africans) are repelled by our arrogance and the way we are recolonizing the continent in a way, they also are fascinated because South African culture makes it out there. I’ve had people from Tanzania and Nigeria during L’Attitude interviews. So people are very much aware of what’s happening.
Lebo the poet…
If I compare the poetry landscape now to ten years ago when I started, I think there’s a hell of a lot of growth, you know. You go into any high school or college campus; you’re bound to find poets. Everyday on Facebook, Twitter and on my website I get communication from young people…and adults; people who are passionate about poetry looking for information and places they can go to for poetry sessions. Ten years ago it wasn’t like that.
I also think that in South Africa we’re very fortunate. I’m yet to travel to a country that has a mainstream media that is as receptive to poetry as our media is. As much as poetry is not as popular as Hip-Hop or soapies but the fact that a Lebo Mashile, Napo Mashiane or Tumi Molekane can exist, means that there’s something in SA that’s not happening in the rest of the world which is really exciting, you know. You don’t get poets performing at the opening of parliament in other countries. You don’t have poets hosting their own shows in other countries or featured in celebrity pages and newspapers, TVs and blogs. There’s a wonderful opportunity for poets here at home. It’s difficult living as a poet though; you have to be really, really good, hardworking and versatile. That’s the bottom line. There are only a handful of people who earn their living as poets in SA — really. I can count them with one hand and I consider myself to be very privileged and blessed to be able to be one of them and I don’t take that for granted. However, I think there are other opportunities and ways to grow the culture and nurture people’s interest in it, you know. That’s what I’m excited about.
Fil’asista was formed collectively in 2003 by me, Ntsiki Mazwai, Napo Mashiane and Maishe. We worked together for about two years. We still kind of collaborate but not as Fil’asista, more as individuals. But that was great! We didn’t realize it at the time but that was the first time that poetry in SA started to get a lot of mainstream media attention and I think we tapped it in such a way that we made it appealing to the mainstream. We made it look very professional and very polished. Mzwakhe Mbuli was already pushing the game at the time and his voice was really necessary. I probably wouldn’t be doing what I do if people like Mzwakhe hadn’t existed. That’s the reality. He made it possible for poets, for people to go to a music concert at a stadium and not feel like something was out of place when all of a sudden you hear a poet. People got used to it because of Mzwakhe, you know. He’s definitely a reference point for what I do but now it’s about kinda taking it further. I now live and work in the digital age and mainstream media so I need to use this space to grow it further so that the next person that comes up takes it further and has more reference.
Lebo the new mom..
You know when they say babies change your life…that is the biggest understatement in the world. It’s like yoh…yoh…yoh!! When I finally came out a month after I’d given birth I asked my friend “You didn’t tell me??!! Why le sa mpolella?” I did have a baby shower but it was more like a party, there was dancing, music and all…anything but advises. I loved every second of my pregnancy. It was beautiful; it was great, I was so happy. I am now breastfeeding; he’s on mixed feeding as I couldn’t cope post-natal. I had some complications after giving birth and was mostly on heavy pain killers. The problem was that when I came back from the hospital, I acted like superwoman and didn’t rest. I remember my mom came over and I was up and down trying to be normal. I am a workaholic. He’s 10 weeks now (at the time of the interview). Three weeks after giving birth I started getting gigs. I remember getting on the stage, my partner was backstage rubbing my back in between performances.
I fortunately have a good support system. My mom and I work together so she’s at the house everyday plus he’s it’s her first grandchild. So my mom has been there for me. And I have a nanny who’s staying with us which really helped. Yoh! The day the nanny came was like my wedding day. I was so happy. She makes life a 1000 times easier. So in December I was doing everything (washing, cleaning, cooking etc) myself after giving birth. Ke le motswetse??!! I’ll never do that again. I guess I was trying to psychologically cope with what it meant to be a mother and trying to integrate these different parts of myself into this new life. I don’t know what happened to me, but never again! If I have another baby, I’m gonna book myself into a spa for a month because that’s what we need after giving birth, to be spoiled and pampered.
I’m blessed that I do a job that allows me to be flexible in terms of working hours. Any day’s a work day and any day I could be off. I work from home, so I’m lucky in that way as well. But it can be challenging. I only had my fifrst getaway weekend recently and my heart ached for him. I mean my mother & the nanny were there with him. It wasn’t like he wasn’t well taken care of…it was just that I wasn’t there. I think there’s so much pressure on mothers, so much blame. If anything goes wrong, ke wena. I mean I’ve got to work for my son but at the same time I feel like I have to be there for him full time and I know that it’s impossible.
And finally…we talk natural hair…
Photographer: Carl Collison
As a black girl growing up in America, I relaxed my hair…I begged my mother for it when I was 7yrs old. And I’d relax it religiously…faithfully until I was 20. My mother kept her hair short and natural for most of my life. She went through one brief dark period where she had a perm. she doesn’t want to admit it but i remember. (bursts out in laughter). I remember in high school, I’d wake up around 5am to curl (aka tong). I’d get burns on my ears from the tong. I was like a disciple of my hair…I worshipped it.
As soon as the new growth came out, it was something that had to be fixed, tamed — it was a crime. And then eventually during my 2nd year at varsity, I don’t know what hit me but I was like “No man, I can’t keep going through this.” The dandruff, the damage, breaking hair, the burns… I don’t know what happened there, maybe self-realization or trying to find my own creative identity through poetry and working with some of my inner issues. But yah, I decided I didn’t want to relax my hair anymore. So I grew out my relaxer with braids (singles) the whole year and then on my 21st birthday I took the braids out and had this big afro, which was a huge change because I had short hair for most of my teenage years.
My signature look was the Toni Braxton, Halle Berry cropped look — the bob. But since that day I made the decision of going natural, I never looked back…ever. This is my 12th year wearing my hair natural….You know, sometimes I do think that maybe I would make more money in the industry if I just woke up one day and got a weave or maybe I’d be able to get an endorsement deal…be the face of something. I think there are people who defy expectations in their work, which makes it possible for them to push boundaries in the mainstream. Take somebody like Lira, she can get a major endorsement deal with her natural hair just because she’s so bloody good at what she does. So it’s her excellence and her domination of the market that makes it possible for her to do things that hasn’t been done before by somebody who fits into that mould.
Looking at endorsements, if you look at the most magazine covers, very few people who represent beauty products have natural hair. You can even count them; Lira & Unathi (Shield), Zizo (Garnier), Geri Rantseli (Avon). But Garnier should be praised because Nzinga was the first face of Garnier to wear her hair natural. I’ve seen a lot of our celebrities who had beautiful natural hair give in to the pressures and trends of the industry by relaxing their hair. But I think the thing that I’ve always found inspiring about SA is that, you find women with dreadlocks in parliament, women who are CEOs of companies and short natural hair on managing directors of banks. That’s exciting, you definitely would not find that in the US, it does NOT happen. By the time you reach that level in America, you’d have relaxed your hair, or you have a weave.
There’s a flippant way in which we deal with white supremacy. We don’t acknowledge it’s inherence inside of this pressure to wear straight hair, you know. In an ideal world I could be straight today, natural the next day, if it wasn’t so loaded with racial connotations and the pressure to conform to white standards. There’s a reason why Beyonce’s the biggest star on the planet; a reason why you have to have straight, long moving hair to get an Oscar; why you have to have this particular look to be on a cover of a magazine. Which is why I’m so excited and such a big fan of people like Lira or Simphiwe (Dana) when they push it because it gives us something to aspire to; the fact that who you wake up looking like is OK.
How do you maintain it?
I cut my hair once a week and have been maintaining that for more than a year. Hair is time-consuming. I mean, for my sense of pride, natural hair makes me feel better about myself but it does take up a lot of time. I’d wash my hair, do a cholesterol treatment once a week. If I was wearing it as an Afro, I would plait it at night (cornrows) to avoid knots or I’d do maphondo, put on a doek; wake up in the morning, spray it, comb…comb and comb. The most convenient thing for me was cornrows or twists. But I also suffered from dandruff and dry scalp so I had to be very conscious and meticulous about how I maintain it.
I used Sulphur 8 for dandruff (the one in a yellow tub), washed with Jabu Stone anti-dandruff Tea Tree oil Shampoo, treat it with Dark ‘n Lovely Ultrarich Cholesterol (left it for min 2-3hrs or even leave it overnight). Somedays I would even put on the Cholesterol, cover with a shower cap, followed by a nice duku and go out and hope I don’t get hit by a car.(bursts out laughing). I learned how to cornrow myself when I lived in the US. African Americans are big on cornrowing themselves so I grew up plaiting myself and my sister. Growing up there really clued me up about black hair.
I’d recommend sleeping with a satin cap on (those shiny dukus) as it keeps the moisture trapped in. I also used Indian oils like Amla and Coconut oil, palm oil. The Caivil hair food range was also good. I guess I was lucky because I’ve always been good with hair, so I never struggle when it came to doing my own hair. I didn’t have the luxury to go into a salon. For a long time people thought hore ke a choma. When I went back to gym 2years ago, it became hectic. People would laugh at me as I’d gym with my tuku on. I loved twists because they were versatile. Shaving my hair off was very liberating; my sister is growing an afro and I say for now…good for her but no thank you…not now, at least. I think Claire Mawisa’s locks are fabulous.
…And that was the end of our talk with Lebo & what a lovely time we had…Thanks again Lebo for your time :-)
The FroChic ladies hanging out with Lebo Mashile