A potent voice that respects versatility
NAPO Masheane calls a spade a spade — and a big bum a big bum. Loud and proud, this provocative poet, performer and playwright doesn’t tiptoe around the hot potatoes of African body image, sexuality and beauty, yet she is no ballbuster and certainly no diva.
What she is, though, is one of those rare freelance professional performers who applies business principles to her craft and has nailed down the art of being a risk-taking creative chameleon to survive. Oh, and she’s also "the first black ninja girl in QwaQwa", for what it’s worth.
The Soweto-born performing artist has walked a long road since growing up in that dusty Free State backwater. She drew creative nourishment from her parents’ Sunday newspaper-reading routine and a paternal grandmother with a remarkable gift for storytelling. Plus she kept a journal, and still does.
"When the world doesn’t make sense, it’s a space I need to go to. I think that’s where the poetry came from," she says. "As you grow, you start saying less — there are things you don’t want your mother to hear. I’ve always had questions about life, God, the state of humanity. My journal has been a space where I interrogate and make sense and have conversations with myself between the paper and the pen."
Ditching her initial dream of being a famous soapie star, Masheane was inspired to enter the arts after seeing John Kani and English theatre director Peter Brook in conversation at the Market Theatre in the early 1990s. She was bewitched. "I thought: ‘People get paid for this. I can actually make a living out of this’."
Her mother wasn’t convinced and insisted she obtain a marketing management diploma as a failsafe.
Realising it was going to be tough to earn a sustainable living solely as a performer, Masheane has branched out to earn her daily bread and support herself and her son. And even if that daily bread is sometimes only crumbs, at least she doesn’t have to beg or, even worse, resort to complaining about the lack of work.
She has little time for "South African young people’s sense of entitlement". She will take on small jobs, yet has the creative aptitude to work alongside the finest in the world — such as the continuing Colours of the Diaspora collaboration between African-American and South African women theatre makers.
Her business-savvy approach to managing her career has seen her embrace a spectrum of work and she continues to add new strings to her bow. In addition to her performance poetry, she’s a motivational speaker ("there’s an artistic element to inspiring audiences") and an MC; helps out as guest director, playwright and mentor at the University of Pretoria’s drama department; and has written and performed in theatre works such as My Bum is Genetic, Deal with It and The Fat Black Women Sing.
Conscious that being a published poet would add that much-needed edge to her CV and her "brand", she called in favours, did some barter deals and self-published her first and second volumes of poetry, which she sells online and which can be found in some bookstores. "I own my own legacy – the copyright is mine."
As MD of Village Gossip Productions, she handles her own marketing, publicity, bookings and even e-commerce (that marketing diploma — her trusty backup came in handy after all). And, having interned at the Market Theatre, she "can even sweep up" if she has to. She also puts a percentage of her earnings back into her business.
This is a creditable attitude in a country where a drought of artistic management skills — and a mind-set of being a follower instead of an initiator — is proving a stumbling block for many arts practitioners.
Most important, though, is to maintain a professional work ethos. It’s as simple as making the effort to pitch up on time at theatre or corporate gigs well prepared, well dressed and armed with business cards, to deliver a value-for-money performance that people are paying to see.
"I can’t get on stage without being rehearsed, no matter how many times I’ve done a poem before," because sometimes she’ll be called on to deliver the goods under the most trying of circumstances — and she has her fair share of horror stories.
"But it’s not about Napo the diva; the show must go on. I’ve seen peers who throw tantrums .… You may not be the most talented, but you’ll get far if you’re reliable, reachable and accessible. The secret to being a freelance artist in SA is to be versatile."
Masheane has become recognised for her hard-hitting spoken-word poetry and theatre works, picking at scabs and challenging taboos around body image, especially the disconnect between western and African notions of beauty. Her early work explores how to "best interrogate the identity of a black woman in the South African within the landscape of art, but also culturally and in the urban areas".
Consider this lyric from her poem, Dress Up: "That tight jean/better fit all of me in…/I want to wear my confidence on my bum/tell the mirror to act blind". Or this extract from Lost Director: "Some men just love giving it to fat sisters…/They really love/the twisting climbs, sudden valleys, the crags, the craters/and the amazing mountains to explore:/a man without a compass…/unable to reach the place./Bored, she asks him/if he has a GPS".
Such works have established Masheane as a potent voice, but she is wary of being pigeonholed as having an obsession with "the body issue".
"I’m now moving into a more holistic space, to a more human level with my work." While she remains an activist and feminist, "I’m raising a son and I need to make sure I create male points of reference for him, because we come from a culture that politically, traditionally and socially doesn’t affirm men. And at times it might look like we’re male-bashing."
Some of her most valuable lessons have come from working with a multicultural group of drama students at the University of Pretoria. "It has reshaped my voice completely."
There are a couple of films in the works this year, including one being shot in Ghana and The President’s Patient, shot in Joburg. She would also still love to adapt the Sotho folk tales her mother and paternal grandmother told her as a child for the stage.
Masheane believes she is nowhere near the end of her journey. She knows there will be dry patches, where work is thin and inspiration low, "but you have to go through the valley to get to the peak and enjoy the view". And one of her biggest joys is earning the respect of her peers. "There is no money in the world equal to that. One may not be getting a big fat cheque — but maybe one day a street will be named after us."
As for that journal, some of its secrets will go with her to the grave.
But there is a part of her that knows that "as artists, we don’t belong to ourselves", so we can bet on many more of her musings seeing the light of day.
"Writing is a very personal and lonely journey, but there’s nothing as beautiful as seeing an audience buying into a show and seeing the similarities with their lives. It’s a beautiful cultural shock."
Napo Masheane and The Fat Black Women Sing will be performing at the Speak the Mind poetry session at Arts on Main in Fox Street, Johannesburg on Friday, September 7 as The event, which forms part of the city’s Arts Alive festival, features a number of local and international spoken-word artists. Visit www.arts-alive.co.za for details.