Stardom often announces itself ahead of time. The flashing lights, the selfies, the questions and the hangers-on that make up the celebrity bubble. Everyone wants a piece of them – in an irrational, self-serving way. Hashtags of praise these days are either the fruits of an impressive body of work over a prolonged period of time, or the false peaks of a short-lived, one-hit career.
But for a man who has won countless awards, scaled unthinkable heights and thrilled audiences across the world, Black Coffee is as unassuming as they come. It’s a Friday night, and he slips quietly into Cape Town’s Shimmy Beach Club. Amid the swarm of clubbers, posers and socialites, few saw him coming and even fewer fully appreciated what it took for him to get here.
Dressed as always on point – black jeans, iconic White Stripes sweater, and an olive green Fedora hat completes the look. He is accompanied by his managers, walking briskly next to him.
It’s 15 minutes before midnight and when the fans expect to see the main attraction – the man they’ve waited to see and hear, to share in his success, to celebrate Black Coffee, the indefatigable DJ, producer, businessman and family man. The reason many tolerated the train wreck of 2016.
Five minutes. I could get five minutes with him before his set, or I could wait until after. Decisions
I choose to speak to him before his set. I wanted to understand what he’s like ahead of a major gig, how he approaches a December residency at Shimmy and how he reflects on the year that was.
I’m ushered to a private lounge. Inside, Coffee talks casually to a few acquaintances and fans, the throbbing walls are a backdrop to idle chit-chat and laughter as the clock winds down.
Finally, we sit down for a chat and the world outside falls silent.
Nearby, his tour manager cuddles Coffee’s iconic Africa Rising headphones with great care. Waiting. Watching the clock.
How does he do it? How does he continue to make hits? “I’ve been very blessed. It’s been another incredible year for us. My sound has evolved over time, but I stay true to my influences, whether they are current artists or musicians I listened to growing up. Rather than make hits I try to work with different artists and create something unique and beautiful,” he says. “My fans have been amazing, and loved what I’ve been doing.”
Let’s pause for a moment to consider the facts as they stand over the past two years.
Black Coffee kicked off 2015 with a world tour that started in Mexico and finished in Ibiza, Spain, in August of that year.
He returned to South Africa to release his fifth album, Pieces of Me.
The groundbreaking album garnered four awards at the 2016 South African Music Awards.
Just over a month after its release in September 2015, Pieces of Me went platinum in South Africa.
A fortnight later he won Breakthrough DJ of the Year at the annual DJ Awards in Ibiza.
He played Coachella and Ultra Miami in 2016 – some of the biggest music festivals in the world.
Black Coffee won again at the 2016 DJ Awards, claiming the title of Deep House DJ of the Year.
He became the first South African to win a BET Award for Best International Act: Africa.
In December, his latest EP, The Journey Continues, went gold within hours of being released.
The year was not without its controversy for Black Coffee though. The “klap” heard and seen around the country after an apparent argument over time slots at a Polokwane event, triggered memes and the social media machine shifted into gear. Coffee apologised a few days later. “I’m not that guy,” he famously said during one of his sets.
The wider deep house movement, along with genres like hip hop and gqom, has amplified the voices of restless and energetic young people in South Africa; a demographic deeply invested in the struggle against post-colonial hypocrisies and institutionalised discrimination. They are a generation committed to changing the status quo, and improving the lives of the poor and disenfranchised.
There is angst and deep disappointment with the country’s leadership, and Coffee, having grown up and walked in their shoes on the hard streets of Mthatha and Durban, understands his audience better than most. He knows that in the right setting music is able to elevate even the darkest of moods, and be a conduit for a deeper expression of emotions. This is the genius of Black Coffee – his intuitive understanding of music and its effect on people. In an interview earlier this year, Coffee said: “People questioned me why I was going to Greece at the time things were really not going so well there and I said: ‘Well, I guess that people want to go to the club and forget their problems.’ That’s what music does, it frees you. People go out to be free and music is the answer in that sense. Whatever you are going through, music becomes that place of freedom.”
While 2016 knocked the wind out of many and robbed us of our biggest music legends, a stellar year carved out a place for Nkosinathi Innocent Maphumulo to stand among the greats.
He typifies the optimism we wished we could bottle for those restive months of 2016 when the rand fell, but fees didn’t. When the state was captured, but hate and discrimination walked free. Black Coffee was one of few bright lights in a murky, unforgiving season of discontent in South Africa.
But by his standards, it’s just another year to be grateful for. There is no pursuit of accolades or fame, only a journey of discovery.
“People have been saying I’m the man of the moment since 2005. I don’t understand that. People say ‘this has been his year’ but for a while now, I’ve been consistent.
“This is a journey, and every success plays a part in a bigger success. I’m very thankful for it all,” he says.
His talent for music was honed in the lecture rooms of Natal Technikon in Durban in the late 1990s, and while working alongside stalwarts like Madala Kunene.
Critically though, his keen appreciation of deep pulsating bass rhythms, soaring soulful vocals and mid-tempo beats can be traced back to the early influence of producers like Masters At Work and Osunlade and the Yoruba label.
He remains inspired by South African legends Hugh Masekela, Busi Mhlongo and Lucky Dube, and yet having barely entered his forties, he stands among them in musical history.
“It has been an amazing journey, and I’ve worked with the best. I owe a lot to those that came before me and those I looked up to. I’ve had the honour of working with some of my idols too.”
“But my music comes from within. Anything that inspires me comes from inside me. I started this on my own. It was always my direction. Wherever I move it follows me.
“My music will grow as I grow. It will grow with the places that I’m playing with the fans that I’m exposed to.”
It’s five minutes to midnight and the man seems as calm as anything. Where is the sweat, the nerves? How does he prepare for a gig?
“The more often you do it, the more you understand how to read a crowd, and connect with them through the music. A lot of preparation happens on the road. I like to take the fans on a journey. Music is universal and people will react one way or another.”
On stage at Da Capo, the diminutive dynamo and crowd pleaser is warming the decks. The venue is packed, tickets sold out. All shapes and colours flock here the moneyed elite and the die-hard party bumpkins, the older gents clinging to youth like skinny jeans to their thighs. And then there are the toned, fragrant beautiful young beings trying to be noticed.
Midnight. Time was up for me. And it was time for Black Coffee. He is escorted out of the lounge. He ghosts through the crowd towards the left of stage, and waits.
Some see Black Coffee and let out screams of joy. They know what’s coming.