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Beneath the Underdog

Fighter, soldier, poet, arguably the PR-unit and embodiment of the Economic Freedom Fighters – he is the current holder of the People’s Poet Chair of South African politics. Kwanele Sosibo meets the Bigg Dogg.

In the track “Asijiki Remix”, Bigg Dogg, the Mzwakhe Mbuli of our time, runs through a breathless castigation of the Gupta family and the unnamed instigator (Number 1?) of Guptagate. By the time he finishes the first verse he is on a witch-hunt for the nameless but very obvious culprit:

So, who is that person? Come out and confess.

It’s either you’re in or you’re out.

You tell us the truth or you go.

Someone granted Guptas the right to land in our national keypoint.

Chief! Who is that person? I wanna know. Yes.

There is something in his gradually rising anger that evokes Economic Freedom Fighters’ commander-in-chief Julius Malema’s now classic bullying of BBC journalist Jonah Fisher (“Come out… Go out. Bastard…. Go out…”). Toward the end of the second verse, as he wraps up his high-altitude screed, Bigg Dogg lets you know how implausible it is that he is still standing, despite his poisoned tongue:

I survived three bullets.

They want to kill me for expressing my views through my music.

They shot me three times.

Thanks God I am still breathing.

These lines emanate from a real, near-death experience, an occupational hazard, while also invoking two of his idols (Bob Marley and Tupac Shakur), but they are less about personal circumstances than they are about a personalisation of the EFF. Bigg Dogg the fighter, soldier and poet will tell you that he is “just an ordinary member of the EFF”, but his project is the party itself. In the EFF, Bigg Dogg occupies two roles: one is to delineate the party line, layman style, to the masses and the other, more mercurial role, is to live the party, to literally embody it. To some degree, the roles mirror each other.

Chronic Bigg Dogg

Born in 1983 in Limpopo Province (“in a very small village with no electricity, nothing”), Bigg Dogg first started putting his poetry to music in 2011. He was already living in Tembisa and was among the ANC Youth Leaguers swept up by the call to nationalise the mines.

“I wrote ‘Asijiki’ in 2012, before the establishment of the EFF,” he says from a tiny studio in Tembisa’s Winnie Mandela section. “I was a member of Asijiki Defence Force, it was an NGO under the ANC. By that time Julius Malema was a president of the Youth League. In supporting what he was saying by then – talking about expropriation of land without compensation – I was like, I mean this man is speaking our language as the youth of this country. I felt it was time for me to go out and spread the very same message that this young African lion is spreading. I believe that through music, the message can reach the nation.”

Bigg Dogg’s oeuvre not only charts the travails and successes of the party’s young life, it also immortalises its leaders. He is the party’s archivist. In “Sekhukhune”, he adapts the form of a classic struggle song into a praise song that pays tribute to the parents of Pebani Moteka, a member of the EFF Central Command. The homage has a history. It was Moteka who first corralled Bigg Dogg into an “official” singing role within the EFF.

“At the first EFF planning meeting I attended, Pebani Moteka asked me to get up. He explained that we have a man here called Bigg Dogg, he’s a poet, he’s a musician. I got up and I did my thing. At the next meeting in Orion Hotel, I was there as well, until the national conference in Uncle Tom’s Hall in Soweto. I was there – the only musician there. Then that’s when everyone they knew, that we have a musician here who is singing our revolutionary music, in supporting economic freedom in our lifetime.”

Aside from praise songs, Bigg Dogg has perfected bite-sized renderings of history, such as in the song “EFF”, in which he narrates the party’s history from 1948 to 1996 (the commencement of the TRC), in the span of a few lines. The song is important for both its pace and compression and how it situates the EFF within a broader South African history.

Bigg Dogg is equally adept at the personal. One of his earliest Malema songs, written in 2011, was an exercise in self-reflection:

Everybody talk about Julius Malema

Enemies talk about Julius Malema

Call everyone call everybody when you see Julius Malema

This is a young black male from a dusty background…

Since then there has been a proliferation of songs about Malema in Bigg Dogg’s oeuvre. Usually focused on Malema the person, these songs are in line with the party’s attempts to sell their leader as “a son of the soil”, but they also point to the lack of other song-worthy personalities in the party. There is also something else at play here: Bigg Dogg repeatedly points to the all-pervasive influence of Mzwakhe Mbuli on his cadences, but his real model is Julius Malema. It’s Malema who he hopes to become, and is, in fact, fast becoming.

In the popular song “Thupa (Malema is Delivering Hidings)”, he pursues a kind of theology centred on the red imagery of the party. After calling the red beret “the solution”, Bigg Dogg shifts focus into a more biblical terrain:

The blood of our fighters

Shall start flowing from Marikana to the rest of the nation

Blessed my land

Their spirit shall reconnect and celebrate with us

At other times, he seems to be deifying the EFF’s supreme leader:

Christians do not forget that Jesus Christ’s name starts with a letter J

Here on earth planet we have our commander his name start with a letter J

The “commander” is also beseeched to allow party endeavours to prosper. In the song “My Commander”, the commander is asked to “allow” fighters to paint the country red, province by province.

The music is secondary in Bigg Dogg’s repertoire, African Youth Band-lite, always just coasting beneath the lyrics, barely within earshot – there just to encase his polemic. His delivery is jagged and his rhetoric sometimes stutters but there’s a method to his broken syntax. In “Asijiki Remix”, he mimics his leader’s manner of speech, asking, “Did Gupta family make application for their diplomatic before landing in our national keypoint?” This casts him as an autodidact and, more importantly, bonds him to the bereted masses.

Bigg Dogg’s project to live the party extends beyond proselytising. He lives in Tembisa, a township of half a million people where the party launched its manifesto. It is a strong party support base, home to thousands of Limpopo migrants. One night in November 2013 Bigg Dogg was attacked there, injected with poison and dumped in a river following a performance. He became a symbol of the dirty tricks the ANC was said to employ to counter the rise of the EFF. In 2012, before the EFF’s formation, he was pepper-sprayed and shot at before his CDs were confiscated for “popularising an ill-disciplined Julius Malema”, who had just been expelled from the ANC.

When we finally meet for an interview, Bigg Dogg is clad in a red EFF fitted cap, twisted at a diagonal angle. He is literally built like a fighter and chauffeured in a black Mercedes CDI by a skinny man playing the role of bodyguard. The man stoically asks for credentials and films parts of the interview “for security reasons”. In the small studio, at the bottom of a double-storey house in the Winnie Mandela section, Bigg Dogg sticks to the “volunteerism” script when asked whether he makes any money from his EFF activities.

“I don’t. I joined EFF voluntarily. I make money through selling my CDs, when I perform I’ve got people down there selling my CDs. If they give me petrol, I go there. I’m not doing this for money. I didn’t join the EFF for money. I want the people to get the message clear. If there is indeed money in music, then it will come.”

Whether the EFF realises it or not, it has a selfless, self-contained PR unit in the form of Bigg Dogg.

covers togetherThis story features in the new edition of Chronic Books, the supplement to the Chronic. Through dispatches, features, interviews and reviews, we explore the reach of public relations and petrodollars.

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