New kid on the block TDK Macassette has engineered her communications knowledge and social media fame into a popping gqom career. Now she’s learning to juggle everything that comes with it, writes Rhodé Marshall.
Driving to the office on a Saturday morning to interview Durban-born Thandeka Mkhwanazi (26) – known as TDK Macassette – I happen to hear her on the radio, being interviewed on Metro FM. It’s clear after every song played that she’s enjoying listening to her own track just as much as those probably blasting it on the radio.
Soon after, when she gets to the City Press office, she hops around in the reception area a couple of times to get the perfect Boomerang for her Instagram page. The Gqom Barbie, as she calls herself after the famous doll she’s based her look on, acts as if she’s not being watched, despite that she has built a brand around being watched; built herself to be watched.
As a child TDK Macassette hosted an Ukhozi FM kiddies show. Later she studied journalism at Boston College. She’s now studying public relations management at the Durban University of Technology – and becoming a gqom artist. Listening to her radio interview it’s clear she has learnt how to speak in sound bites and how to reveal enough of herself, seemingly unfiltered, to be interesting.
But that’s not the real charm of gqom Barbie. It’s her gift to not let her meticulous nature get in the way of what and who she actually is: Funny, a little obsessed, brazen in her ambition and desire for wealth and success and yet sincere in her connection to how and where she grew up.
TDK Macassette is set to release her first full album soon: “I’m definitely going to release next year – I don’t know when. I don’t want to rush because I want to give it my all. I want it to be big and I really want people to relate to it and buy it. It’s going to take a lot of work. I want a body of 10 to 12 tracks; I’ve already worked on four.”
If there is a brand filter it could be that she has learnt to be strategic in self-censoring – keeping private the things that could land her on the wrong side of public opinion.
TDK exploded on to the music scene when she was featured on the original version of DJ Maphorisa’s hit IWalk Ye Phara in January this year. That was before she was controversially replaced on the remix by Moonchild Sanelly a few months down the line. Soon DJ Maphorisa and TDK were embroiled in a nasty war of words over the remix – but are said to have made up since.
When it comes to the technicalities of living and thriving as a human being, she’s unashamed, unpolished and unapologetic. That is what could well make her one of the biggest gqom artists if she continues. In her music video, Domoroza ft. Mnqobi Yaso, she’s precisely dressed as a doll with blond curls, large bejewelled sunglasses and a costume that shows off her tiny fit form; it’s consistent with how she wants to be seen in public.
She doesn’t want empty compliments, but that’s the attention that comes with mainstream success and you’ll either be intensely liked and celebrated or you’ll just as quickly be kicked out. As with Babes Wodumo, “I have more women than men followers, which is a blessing,” she says with genuine incredulity.
TDK combines self-awareness with a certain unselfconsciousness. She’s taken the concept of being a pretty girl with strong sex appeal and played with it to her advantage. She’s skilful and understands on a cellular level what might go viral and, if that happens in a way that is uncontrolled by her, how to turn the trolling into cheers.
An example is the way she embraced her wig coming off and flying across the stage during one performance.
“I felt like there was an evil spirit doing it to me but, when I looked at it as a bigger picture, I realised that was actually my breakthrough because when that happened I had two choices – either I walk off stage and feel embarrassed or I take over the stage. And that’s when I decided, seeing the wig fell off, I took it and I threw it back – the show must continue.”
But many don’t know that her cavalier industry awareness comes from her being an entrepreneur who owns her own communications company called Tdeeiosion Communications Management. The company has done some work for DJ Tira’s company Afrotainment, the Metro FM Awards, the Durban July and the Goven Mbeki Awards.
Onstage you’ll see her flip her hair – sometimes so much that her wig detaches from her head; you’ll see her grind her hips and fire up the audience in a way you’d see only at a place like Eyadini Lounge. TDK loses her inhibitions when she’s hyped onstage.
Offstage she possesses a certain poise to her brand, one that many in the past couple of months have accused her alleged nemesis Babes Wodumo of lacking; they believe her personal life started overshadowing her musical successes once fame hit.
TDK’s savvy image-making, entrepreneurial ownership over herself as a brand and tightly packed air of control is indicative of the genre’s growing maturity. But that is if the audience remains forgiving to the young star who is still growing, learning and maturing as a person outside the limelight.
I ask one of Durban’s most influential women in music, DJ C’ndo – who is often attributed for encouraging TDK to embrace the stage – what she thinks of TDK as an artist. “She puts so much effort into her image. She’s a hard worker, she’s vibrant, energetic and crazy on stage. She has this infectious positive energy that draws people to her.”
TDK tells #Trending that tagging along with her friend DJ C’ndo to gigs and performing out of pure love for it encouraged her to pursue music full time. “She’s one person I will forever thank and embrace.”
DJ C’ndo says: “I started seeing TDK’s performance at Eyadini Lounge in Umlazi. That was when I encouraged her to get used to performing for people, starting from home and, of course, growing to perform for bigger crowds. I would usually ask her to perform in between my sets, just to build up her confidence.
“One of the things I admired about her is that even when she made mistakes in her sets, she did not get discouraged. She kept on going and that to me is the definition of a true performer. The show must go on.”
Although many artists pursue trends and make artistic decisions that are actually business decisions, few are brave enough to declare them as such. TDK is very clear about her ambitions: “I want to continue my studies and take advantage of this industry. And, by doing that, it means looking outside the box; I don’t see myself working only in my country. There’s a lot that we can do outside the country. People also take you seriously if you’re intelligent and have a good work ethic. It all interlinks. I want to work with international companies and become a consultant within the industry – it could be PR, communication management or image consultancy.”
But part of the challenge of turning her passion for music into actual money is knowing that, in the eyes of the public and because of her strategic brand and character, she is sometimes seen as more of a personality instead of as an artist.
“For me, identity and image are important. People don’t just want to listen to your music; they also want to see something beautiful in front of them. I did research and saw my career in the music industry was growing. I came up with the name Barbie with my management team. I did a spider diagram and asked myself what is a Barbie: she’s sweet, playful, she’s for kids, she’s neat, she’s cute and always beautiful. She has simplicity and she is also glamorous. That’s how I created this look. So whatever I do must have a touch of cuteness, pink, neon colours; must be bright and catchy.”
And now, decades since the birth of kwaito, we have once again created a world-dominating music genre that, as of the past three or so years, has reached an unwavering commercial power.
TDK Macassette has a certain competitive advantage over her predecessors. Her image is almost a remix of the influences of those women who came before her.
Her voice and rhythmic pace is what turns gqom chants into cult-like sensations on dance floors, but her charm is undeniable, attractive even.
As a child she was often seen onstage singing in the United Congregation Church of SA’s Sunday school.
At school she was a popular girl and chose performance art over every other activity that would interest other kids.
Born on September 22 1992, in Woodlands, Montclair, Durban, she’s the middle child of Zami Mkhwanazi, a strict mother who was a school teacher.
Mme Zami told #Trending that Thandeka performed all the time as a child, and has come to live up to her name, which means something that is loveable.
“Growing up, she was always full of energy: A capable, positive and independent child who has always had the attitude of being a lifelong student,” her mum says proudly.
TDK wasn’t afraid of anything and took easily to people, her mum says. “Whether she was new to an environment or not, there would never be a moment when she would doubt her place.” Even as a pupil at Durban Girls’ High, she had a big personality. “In grades 10 and 11 she decided to take drama as a subject and, since then, even when she was sick, and always when she was in high spirits, she would perform concerts for us.”
TDK Macassette is not interested in being drawn into the unwelcoming culture of the Durban music scene. “People I thought were family and there for me were actually against me – especially from my city. There are a lot of artists in Durban and not all of them support what you do. It’s very hard and sad because imagine if we all worked together how big we would become. We would probably be at the level of Johannesburg.”
Even with a Universal Music publishing deal, she’s still feels she is being pitted against South Africa’s so-called queen of gqom Babes Wodumo.
Still, she’s only 26 and she is learning how to balance her career ambitions and her personal desires – something that’s complex enough to handle before you throw in prying fans, the expectations of a major record label and the intrusiveness of tabloids.
As TDK’s star rises and she builds her public image, she could well become a gqom artist known for representing the genre zeitgeist for the next decades. But we’ll have to watch and see.