The Sunday News
Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Reporter
BEFORE the crowds in downtown Bulawayo hear his voice at daybreak, Knowledge Nkiwane wakes up at four in the morning and prepares to go to the gym.
Gym sessions at dawn are a habit that Nkiwane, who alternates between Bulawayo and Johannesburg for most of the year, has learnt is indispensable. Nkiwane is a celebrity of sorts in downtown Bulawayo, where he walks around town with a scania or pushcart, his music blaring from a loud public address system.
“I wake up at 4:30 and by 5 o’clock I’m at the gym because you can’t do this if you’re not physically fit,” he says.
When Sunday Life catches up with Nkiwane, he is on a break, with the speaker that was blaring only moments before completely silent. His microphone rests on the trolley in between the generator and speaker, and once in a while people who are evidently fans walk up to embrace and talk to him, with some showing concern. What has gone wrong? Why isn’t the music playing?
Nkiwane assures them that sweet gospel melodies will soon flow down their ears. All his visitors depart with smiles on their faces. Despite his own assurances, Nkiwane is worried about the price of fuel, as his thirsty generator now sometimes takes two 5-litre gulps of the precious liquid every day.
But the pushcart rolls on and Nkiwane, who says he used to sell as many as 700 copies of his gospel CDs per day, continues on his merry way. This was before the economic pinch and now Nkiwane says he mostly sells between 100 and 150 copies daily.
“Every day at 6am I’m at the markets or Hyper before I leave for Renkini where the buses mostly leave at 9am. From 9:30am we’re in town moving around until the end of the day,” he says.
For some artistes, pushing a scania around Bulawayo would be out of the question. However, for Nkiwane making himself a mobile music vendor was a masterstroke that managed to get him into spaces he never before imagined.
“The idea behind a scania is that it can get anywhere. When I started doing this people would say he has two cars, why doesn’t he use one of them to sell his music but if you go to some termini for example they don’t allow cars in there, only push carts. At Renkini they make you pay for taking a car inside. With a pushcart you can find me at Hyper now and in a totally different place later on. I move around with flexibility,” says Nkiwane, a man who started taking music seriously in 1996 when he became a devout Christian.
While he began only selling his music from a pushcart without much mobility, Nkiwane says he realised that moving around was a more effective strategy.
“When we started we would start at Renkini. We would just get a scania and then just lay out our products either at Renkini or Egodini. As time went on and I thought that while we were on our way to these destinations, there were a lot of people that we passed on the way. So this scania that we use to carry the music we’re selling, why don’t we also use it play the music and advertise it to people that might want to buy while we are on the road,” he says.
Nkiwane, who hires his scania for $20 daily, says he was forced onto the streets when he realised that taking his music to radio stations was futile.
“One thing I also realised is that when you’re a young artiste and trying to catch a break in the industry you meet one obstacle, and that is the fact that when we take our music to radio stations it just accumulates without getting airplay. Maybe things are a bit different now with the emergence of the likes of Skyz Metro and Khulumani FM who try to look after local talent.
“Before that, all the music would just get played on the day that you did an interview and on other days it would be quiet. So instead of going to the radio stations, rather we go the streets and start growing our own fanbases,” he says.
Vendors, long distance travellers, illegal money changers and even touts form the bulk of his “customers” and the musician, who left the group Gospel Impact to go solo in 2012, says that their loyalty to him would rival that of any superstar anywhere.
“So far I would say it’s working because I personally don’t got to WhatsApp groups to tell people to vote for me but my music is on Top 10 lists, it’s always there because of the love that people have for the music out of the pureness of their hearts,” he said.
While some artistes might think that dancing is beneath them, for Nkiwane, it is an indispensable part of his work. It is a teaser of what fans can expect if they come to his live shows.
“You must have a way to sell and a way for people to follow your music. For example, some of us dance but not all of the gospel musicians in Bulawayo dance. We did that because we want people to know what to expect when we arrange a show in town. We’ve done city to city shows in Gweru, Kwekwe, Kadoma, Chegutu, Masvingo and other cities and people know what I’m all about.
“The only city I haven’t visited is Mutare. So people’s expectation when they hear Nkiwane is in town is always up there because they know already what I can do at a live show. With other artistes I think they’ll be questioning what this guy can do on stage hence they’ll not be ready to part with their money whenever they know they’ve got a show,” he says.
With two albums this year and a nomination for the Bulawayo Arts Awards, hard work is something that comes easy for the man who discovered his talent at Dlawa Primary School in Nkayi. While others can claim to possess the voices of angels, Nkiwane says this is not enough to make it in today’s dog eat dog world of music.
“It’s good to have a voice but there’s a part of gospel music that’s purely entertainment. You have to entertain fans for them to listen to you. If you don’t they won’t listen and that’s a very important aspect,” he says.
While other artistes moan about piracy, Nkiwane is happy to see his scotch cart push past young vendors selling his music. While some attack these music “thieves”, Nkiwane wonders where they expect people to get access to their music when most shops that used to sell it are now defunct.
“The unfortunate thing that we face now is that we no longer have music shops. Only the boys that pirate music and as much as we might blame them we have to recognise that there’re no music shops anymore and we have to go to the streets if we want to sell our music now. When Nkiwane is not around in Zimbabwe, people know that when they want his music they’ve got to go on the street,” he says.