For The People

Words with music is his craft

When his scholarship was suddenly withdrawn because of the recession that suddenly hit the economy, Mkhululi Mabija found himself stranded in New York with no money. This tribulation only pushed him to work harder and keep the wolf from the door. He worked four different jobs to make ends meet while studying his Master’s Degree in Musical Theatre Writing in 2008.

The determined student worked part time as an administrative clerk, babysitting and bartending. His hard work and perseverance paid off and the New York University (NYU) where he was studying at the time, awarded him with a scholarship enabling him to complete his studies, “I could have given up and come back home, but I felt that I was in New York already so why not make the most of this opportunity, you either sink or you swim,” says Mabija.

Mabija says that he is grateful for the struggle because through it, he was able to create a good network in the city and also meet some phenomenal and influential writers such as Toni Morrison, Angela Davis, Quincy Troupe and Amiri Baraka among others. Earlier to his journey in the United States of America Mabija graduated from the Tshwane University of Technology with a BA musical theatre performance in 2006.

Mabija is a librettist from Kimberley, a profession that is not quite known to many, his job entails writing the script and lyrics for musicals and opera, “I have always known that I wanted to be an artist, it started quite early as I grew in a family setting that loved music and story-telling. I was raised by my maternal grandmother who was a beautiful story teller. She used to tell us tales when we were young all the time and at bed time,” explains Mabija as he reminisces on his childhood.

The librettist’s works includes the theatrical piece, Tsotsi (Cape Town Opera 2018) which he collaborated with well-known singer and composer, Zwai Bala, he also wrote BESSIE: The blue eyed Xhosa (Cape Town Opera 2015), Mongezi (BLK JKS and Market Theatre 2016) which he composed with an African rock musical group called the Black Jacks, which is South Africa’s African rock musical and narrated issues of the mining sector such as exploitation and poverty based on German play “Woyzeck”  by George Buchner. Mkhululi also wrote a dance musical titled, “The Road between the Desert and the Ocean” with Australian composer, Paul Castles and choreographer Clare Cook. The show had a workshop in Lafayette, Louisiana at the beginning of August 2019. 

“I am one of the few black Africans who do what I do, consequently this becomes a bit of a challenge for me because it is difficult explaining to your African brothers and sisters what it is that you do and to also get them involved,” he explains. Mabija feels that there is lack of understanding of theatre and arts culture within South Africans and says that this is unfortunate because art has the power to heal, inspire, offer hope, and generally boost personal growth. He finds the lack of interest ironic because in his view Africans were born in theatre “storytelling, drawing, singing, and dancing has always been a big part of the African culture when we look back on our history,” he adds.

His hard worked has earned him several awards which include, the YIP Hardburg Award for best lyricist in 2009 and 2010, followed by the Really Useful Group Award in 2013, in the same year his list of awards was decorated with the Eugene O’Neill Music Theatre Conference for GODDESS. GQ Magazine has named him one of the 20 Top Game Changers alongside Elon Musk and James Corden and Mail and Guardian Newspaper named him as one of the 200 Young South Africans.

He recently received an award for writing and producing a new musical called Umthambo with Bangiwe Ka Jobela which made them walk away with a Silver Standard Bank Ovation Award at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival in 2019. In 2018 they also won an award for another musical, Emathongeni. Mabija and Bangiwe are co-founders of a musical theatre academy called Amandla Danca Teatro ZA. They have 150 children from across Galeshewe and surrounding townships whom they offer free singing, acting, dancing and music classes.

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