A Journey into Character Theory With Nelson Mondlane of POW! Negro

Nelson Mondlane, the lead MC of the energy enthralled power group POW! Negro discusses with Avenoir the importance of stage presence and the energy that exudes the inner psyche.

Having supported Sampa the Great, Remi, and taking on Southbound, how has the journey of POW Negro came about?
So initially I was asked to do a solo rap set at Mojos for Hustle Hustle. We used to play in this band called Casual Sets, which is how Koi Child started. And one of my good friends from high school Rhys was like ‘man you should get a band together’. We had a week to make a set, and if we fucked it up I don’t think I would be asked to play again. So we got some friends together, made a set in a week, played our first gig and we just got asked from there. It’s been more than a year now so it’s been pretty crazy for everything to happen so quickly

Considering the name of your band, is it a way to display a sense of pride and power? Would you call it Afropunk?
Yeah, definitely. The way we see it is that POW Negro is a character. I’m a mixed race kid. So my dad is Mozambique and my mum is Caucasian Australian. Living around my dad’s family and friends there’s all this music and culture that we have. It’s either we’re taking from Africa or we kind of have to make our own, and a lot of the music and influence that is prevalent in Perth and Australian society, you know American music or English music, doesn’t quite have the same connection. It doesn’t speak to me about troubles that I’ve been through, and if it does I feel like it’s not enough to be talked about for a mainstream audience, or people like myself to hear. And by expressing my experiences I hope people can vibe or find solace and power and to be acknowledged in having similarities in a story. It is the experience that POW Negro goes through.

The music is the world POW Negro inhabits. I feel POW Negro is the personification of the spoken word of that journey in the story.

According to Triple J Unearthed, your aggressive vocal style “falls somewhere between the energetic bounces of Zack de la Rocha and the funk come street verses of Mos Def”, would you consider them an influence? Would you extend yourself politically as they do and would you align POW Negro to a movement?
To begin with, I do listen to both of those artists, they’re not my go-to artists or top of my list. But definitely Mos Def in the way he can tell a story in good rhyme schemes and flow. Zack de la Rocha’s energy is something that I respect a lot and when people say that we rage in that sense I find that very complementary. It’s good to have energy on stage. In terms of being political, like I’m educated reasonably, I think it’s more in terms of politicism, its something that I think if that’s the way the music comes out then that’s what it will be but we aren’t aiming to really politicize. But there are things to say about that which becomes politically charged.

It’s more about bringing people together, but the way I see it I aim to bring people together in one place. It doesn’t often feel that lots of people get to be in a place where they experience something together that is meaningful. Parties are great, but everyone is kind of scattered and doing their own thing. If the right people play at music events understand they have the power then there’s so much we could do to change things. Music is making people aware and as well to pose questions. It doesn’t have to be mind-changing but it’s good to have everyone in one place and to experience a catharsis where people can acknowledge what’s happening around us.

One of Fela Kuti’s famous quotes refers to using music as a weapon. What is your way of using music to combat or bring awareness to?
By bringing energy. As performers, we have to make the message that what we are presenting is as accessible, like pop music. You hear pop songs that are pretty powerful in the way they get stuck in your head over and over again till eventually you’re to realize what the person is saying. Like you saying something really deep but is easy to digest. So by the time you’re singing the tune you’re almost conned into the message, almost as though you’re happy to be conned into it, because it’s so good. I feel music is a powerful weapon. Energy carries good intentions and can be more so infectious. There has been some aggressive stuff that I’ve seen and heard that I wouldn’t exactly align with.

What do you find aggressive?

Like Death Grips. MC Ride says stuff I wouldn’t do or agree with. See, he has such passion behind what he’s saying that you could end up thinking in the same vein or experience the same way as him. It’s cathartic and powerful because it’s raw, and sometimes you don’t want to hear it but you need to because it’s something that we need to really acknowledge.

What would you want to be acknowledged?

I would say that people need to express themselves more. And I want to take them on a journey. There’s some things that are said that resonates and people don’t feel as alone. Our latest single release is a song I wrote in the perspective of anxiety, like it were a person or creature. It is kind of like a voice in my head that is always there and sometimes you could hold it back and shove it in a box for a good while, but every now and then it sneaks its way out and fucks with you. For me, just to write about that is cathartic for myself to begin with. For me to acknowledge that in myself I could start to think about shutting those things away, and to a degree those things serve a purpose. And not that you should give into those things, but to show people a way through it. Though not acknowledging the anxiety or depression can be detrimental, you’d have to think why they [anxiety, depression] are there. If you manage to get around them, then you feel better.

Is location the most important when it comes to POW Negro’s sound?
A lot of the issues that are happening in, for example America, wouldn’t be happening here. Like I’m in a particular place at a particular time. If I’m making art I might as well make it about the place and time I’m in, or otherwise it’s not relevant. I want to enrich people’s lives as much as I can and music seems to work in making people come together and enjoy themselves. If they’re learning then they’re learning in an enjoyable and positive way.

We’ve been really lucky in the sense that there’s been a pretty strong hip hop scene before us. Like Koi Child set the stage and Downsyde haven’t been active for quite a while, but Koi Child would be the next gen and we came up soon after them.

With venues in Perth – J Shed was great, Jack Rabbits was pretty cool, Mojo’s is always really great but just a bit small. Rosemount would be one of my favourite places.

In reference to the days of Nirvana, if it wasn’t for the audience Nirvana wouldn’t have gotten where they were; like they say it takes two to tango – so how have the venues in Perth reciprocated your energy in the jazz/hip-hop fusion genre?
We’ve been really lucky, but there have been a few places where they haven’t reciprocated – usually when the crowds are a bit older. When we went to Dunsburough one time and a lady came up and asked us to stop playing. It was a festival that we got asked to perform and we were the last band playing in this little mini festival. It was hilarious because she was like ‘I’m trying to eat my food and you’re making all this noise” [laughs] well she came to a festival and it was like she couldn’t have chose a better time to say that because we only had one song left to play and the chorus was ‘Young Motherfuckers’…. and it was about generational divide of people and how every generation thinks the next generation are just fucking it up, got no brains and have no respect for anything and just destroying all the things and all the foundations that they laid. So that was the next song and she literally was the personification of what we sung about, and the audience just lost their shit when we started playing and were on the floor laughing and people just jumped up and started dancing hell hard. And I felt so, so sorry for the lady. But I think I craftily put her in her place.

Also, another one of our songs called Money for Portraits I’d like to mention is more about being a young band in the music industry and how the industry is revved up to be this big cash cow. The early months of our formation as a band there have been a lot of people saying that we’re doing a good job but that we need to be careful not to fuck around in the industry, and how there’s a lot of sharks in record labels and so forth. The song is all about being aware that you are being lured by such temptations but still be able to pull back.

What you’re saying reminds me of Cypress Hill’s Rock Superstar

Yeah basically [laughs]. But in the song the first half is about money being this seductive woman trying to get you into bed with the promise that it will give you all these things that you think you need and realize that you’re trying to keep a level-head, but you’re already being pulled under and resurfacing with the mentality of ‘fuck it I’m just going to do it all and go real hard and I’m gonna get all the girls and all the drugs and I’m just gonna fuck it cuz everyone is doing it and its gonna be great’, and you can’t blame people for doing it because it’s so alluring and the people who make that music it’s intoxicating, but at the same time it’s not us – it’s not real.

As a lyrical MC in the jazz/hip-hop fusion genre has it ever came to a point where it has become limiting for you? Or is it a genre that would push you [Pow! Negro] forward?
We were lucky in the sense that all the people in the band share core tastes, or have very different styles and approaches in doing things and it ranges across a lot of genres. Any one person can bring a song to the table and it would have their main input – whether it’d be heavy rock or jazz or electronic or funk or psychedelia or hip hop. Though I would definitely say jazz and hip-hop would be a strong element that we make, but I definitely don’t think it’ll define it. I mean, we’re not exactly properly trained jazz musicians so I don’t know if it’ll define our sound in the years to come. The thing about jazz it can be so free-falling and unpredictable.

Will you still be keeping the hip hop element?
As a vocalist I feel it’s a very powerful way to express stories. To be honest, compared to the Western World, Perth doesn’t have a huge hip-hop scene anymore. It’s scary sometimes with the scene because they might be like ‘aw man he isn’t putting in as much work’ like all the other places like America with all the movements where they live and breath hip-hop and where it is originally from. They go hard, like so hard. I feel like if we went to America they’d be like ‘what the fuck is this, you guys think you’re rappers? Get the fuck out of here you don’t know how to rap’ [laughs].

For us it’s not a competition, all we want to be is proud of what we’ve made and be happy that we could make music that we like, that’s our main aim.

So you also do theatre, do you feel theatre has strengthened your stage performance as a musician?
My dad was a performer and my mum was close friends with actors so it was already an influence for me to get into theatre. To be able to be different characters, bringing stories and inhabiting other people’s psyches I found it to be cathartic for me. I would definitely not do what I do on stage if I haven’t done acting. It has given me so much technique, in terms of vocals, like warming up. There’s such a massive variety of theorists in music and in theatre, and I have tried out lots of different practices from lots of movement theorists, character theorists to see how it’d influence my performance. So while rapping, whatever you’re saying it has to be spoken with vigor, it has to draw the people in. Just like in theatre.

It has helped me to empathize with people and characters and to better understand their motivation and the reason why they do things. And that can be quite confronting. Especially if you go too deep and don’t have a way of coming out.

So theatre and music is like another portal to the psyche

Yeah like MF Doom is a classic example. When you’re on stage someone questions: how much of you is on stage, or how much is of the character? Mostly it’s the character but there’s always moments where I’m there for a minute but then there’s a character again. You can bear your soul but that’s incredibly raw. Heath Ledger bared his soul for the Joker. But he died. Everyone agrees that was the best performance, but was it worth it for him to die? What does it tell us? It’s not like I’m going to do anything to that degree [laughs] but for the musicians to be themselves 100% it’s a really raw thing. You have to have some sort of armor for your own sanity to come back as the person you are, but you’re doing stuff for other people always. Maybe that’s the point! To make them see that people can get to that extent.

This year was a pretty hectic year for everyone, both culturally and politically, what event would you say had affected you the most?
The Roe 8 highway that was happening in the Beeliar Wetlands in the South of Fremantle. It’s been going on for a year that they’ve been planning to do it. They’re basically bulldozing through these wetlands to create a big highway for the trucks to go through to the Fremantle port. The roads that they are making is going through the wetlands inhabiting unique wildlife and Indigenous heritage

Similar to Standing Rock

Yeah pretty much. There’s all these other routes that won’t affect these areas. However, they’re refusing because they’re seeing it as a quicker route and those involved don’t give a fuck about what they’re ploughing through because of money. In the end of the day, the Fremantle port has a max ten more years left in it before either side of Fremantle becomes bigger. The cargo that the roads are being built for won’t even be going along it anymore because it will be going to Kwinana. To have this massive road destroy the whole lot for no reason is just pointless. In the long run, if they got rid of the port in Fremantle and redevelop it into a shopping centre or housing it will be a liveable place that is going to make more money. It’s monopolizing the shipping industry that is run by certain people who will be making a lot of money. There has been a lot of public outcry, especially those who live in the area – though the protests aren’t as violent.

We would align ourselves with environmentalism, PLANET MAN [laughs]. I think the music that we have made has been self-focused, instead of covering issues such as that. I always find a fine line between being preachy and self-righteous.

Reflecting back to characters in musical performance, in reference to Kendrick Lamar, when he makes a party song he also tries to reveal a deeper message – what is your view on the way he performs and the message he’s trying to persuade?
Kendrick Lamar is in my mind the shining star of performing, but he does it in a way that is more studio-oriented. His characters are the characters that sit in your ears. Swimming Pools is one of those Heath Ledger examples. It’s amazing because he’s making the most turn’t party song but he is critiquing what it is to be in that situation – getting drunk and having that voice in your head ‘alright listen to me man, imma take you to victory, we’re gonna get fucked up man, you’re gonna take that shot because that’s what you do’.

I know what that’s like, and so many people know what that’s like.



About Zaerën Safi-Momand

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Founder of Avenoir Magazine