MOXIE Chats to … Lebo Mashile

MOXIE Chats to … Lebo Mashile

By Michel’le Donnelly

You can rarely get through any list on prolific South African artists without seeing the name Lebo Mashile. And prolific she is. I remember fangirling for about a minute (maybe 5) before I actually dialled her number and when she answered she was so warm and humble, it was such a relief – there’s nothing worse than finding out your role models are dicks.

For those of you who don’t know, Lebo was born to exiled South African parents in the USA and moved back to the country when she was 16. She’s published several award winning anthologies of her poems. She has travelled to Cuba, New York and London performing her rousing performance poetry. You’ve also seen her grace our TV screens, first as a presenter and executive producer of L’Attitude then as presenter of Drawing the Line. She’s also a musician!

I was able to keep my fan-girl shit together for about 40 minutes for a beautiful chat with Lebo over a fancy cup of ginger, mint and lemon tea. Of course, as someone who wears many hats (poet, musician, actress, presenter, mother), I had to ask if there was a medium she still wanted to go into to?

Lebo Mashile: (Excitedly) Woow! Right off the bat, a great question, I love it I love it! God, there’s still so much I want to do. I still want to do playwriting; I would still love to do scriptwriting in terms of film, you know. I’ve experimented with short-film as a form this year, working at the Center for the Less Good Idea. So, uhm, I had an opportunity to collaborate with all kinds of artists and I chose to work with an animator. I also chose to work with a filmmaker whose style is very graphic. And it kind of blew my mind, how much you lose out on being exposed to when you’re just on stage. I think the next step for me is trying to understand recording, recording audio, recording visual – that as an art form.

Michel’le Donnelly: And what kind of themes would you explore in that medium?

Lebo: I’m still a junkie for the same stuff you know, politics, identity, spirituality, gender, how movement shapes peoples identity. How different spaces shape a persons identify. I love South African politics, I love Diaspora politics and motherhood as well, there’s a lot of meat in motherhood as well.

Mich: What does being “a creative” mean to you?

Lebo: I think it’s choosing a life that steps outside of the matrix. We’re moving into a new era where communication is becoming paramount. This is an era where story and narrative and people whose voices have been marginalized are becoming centered because of things like technology. Mozart said that the beauty of an artist is being able to touch the highest as well as the lowest parts of society and I feel like that’s my life everyday, you know. Moving in between worlds, moving in between borders, going form being praised and lauded to being isolated, and shamed. As an artist you kind of have to stretch this finite life.

Mich: At what moment in your life did you decide that this is the space you wanted to go into?

Lebo: I realized that I wanted to be an artist when I was about 21. Studying at Wits, I did a BA in law and international relations and just as I was about to finish I was like, “I can’t do this”. I remember sitting and looking at my 3rd year criminal law paper and it was like “rape, robbery and fraud” and I was like, “fuck this, what the hell am I doing here? This can’t be my life, I’m going to end up smoking crack”. And then just being a young person and exploring the underground art scene at the time and I stumbled upon the poetry scene and the live scene in Joburg at that time, this was post-democracy. Youth culture was pumping; kwaito was living, a very vibrant time. All of these spaces were opening up to black people for the first time. I was nurtured by spaces like Yeoville, Baseline in Newtown, Klippies, and Jungle Connection – where I said my first poem. It was a less commercially driven space as well. The artists I looked up to lived in Yeoville, where I lived. I began to define myself as an artist in that space.

Mich: You’ve mentioned that you’ve been burnt out and tired in your space and I think as young womxn, especially as young womxn of colour in the world today, we kind of jut have to take time out and breath and take a minute. What kind of rituals do you undertake to just kind of take yourself out of this crazy cycle of life, so you’re not always thinking of the crazy shit going on?

Lebo: My children are very helpful in that sense. You know children have a way of just cutting through all that. It’s a humbling experience being a mother. It’s a humbling experience being peed on, coming home after a gig and having to deal with a dirty diaper. You know, it brings a simplicity to my life that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Meditation and spirituality are also very important to me. I believe in my ancestors, I believe in my chakras, [laughs] I believe in my angels and my guides and I make it my business to connect to that power. It’s about your health and your wellbeing, and prioritizing yourself – that’s what matters.

We then realized we should probably take care of ourselves in that moment and have some of our fancy tea.

Mich: So I was watching your TedX talk and in it you focused on collective memory. Why did you choose to focus on that and what does it mean?

Lebo: I think nation building is a really interesting project. The idea of piecing together a national identity out of harrowing, traumatic experiences, you know, to try figure out how we’re going to turn this into something that is cohesive but has a space for everything, to me is fascinating. I’m not a nationalist but because of what this piece of earth means for my life, it matters to me. So I don’t believe in borders, I could just as easily pledge my allegiance to the Republic of Africa, I could just as easily pledge my allegiance to Azania, you know. What is exciting for me about building a collective consciousness as a nation, is trying to figure out what goes into that consciousness. What values do we need to have imbedded in this story of South Africa for it to work? You know, uhm, and that means acknowledging a lot of trauma, acknowledging the full scope of our history means filling in a lot of gaps that we’ve been told about who we are. I find that terrifying, I find that exciting. I think the only way we can make peace with this space is by telling the truth about what really happened, economic redress becomes an inevitability, it doesn’t have to be something that terrifies people. If you start telling the truth about what’s happened and whose been damaged; by tackling misogyny head of; tackling violence head on – it becomes a necessity. I think memory is just a fascinating topic to me and I keep coming back to it because I think memory is ultimately identity.

Mich: Earlier this year you wrote a poem for Khwezi; what is your opinion on the recent abuse allegations on government officials especially as its women’s month?

Lebo: Abuse by men in power has been consistent. Violence towards women and children in this county has been consistent. You know those kind of abusive toxic things have been there.

Mich: It seems like violence against women in this country is just a “meh”.

Lebo: It is, it is.

Mich: It’s heartbreaking.

I have a question from one of our subscribers. They wanted to know how do you – as a light-skinned black women with an accent – navigate the creative space you’re in and do you ever feel like you’re not allowed in certain black spaces?

Lebo: Woow, woow! I think it’s more incumbent on people who have light skin to be conscious of their privilege and to be aware of colourism and be aware of how colourism operates, to own it in spaces, to see it and to verbalize it you know. Working in television I mean, man I remember a couple of years ago one of the biggest production companies here in Johannesburg said that one of their requirements was you must be light-skinned with long hair and 100 000 followers on Twitter. [Laughs]

Mich: Such trash …

Lebo: Complete trash, its complete trash. Uhm, I don’t feel like there are subjects I cannot speak out on or that I cannot interrogate but I think it’s about knowing which space my voice is contributing to and which spaces my voice is taking away from. It’s about knowing where does my voice contribute in the best way, in the most loving way, in the truest way. I can’t jump into conversations that dark-skinned womxn are having about their experiences. That’s not fair, it’s a privilege just to listen, it’s a privilege just to learn, you know. I have never had an identity that fits in comfortably anywhere, so this thing of moving in between insider or outsider, belonging not belonging, that’s a dance I’ve been doing my whole life so I’m very sensitive to just vibes, you know.

Mich: So it’s about understanding?

Lebo: It’s about understanding that sometimes by speaking in certain spaces you’re automatically silencing other people, unless you are specifically asked, and a lot of the time just because of who I am, I am asked. But there are so many spaces I have access to where I can just listen. I think we live in an age where everyone wants to always speak but we can just listen. Sometimes it’s cool to just listen.

Mich: So MOXIE is about getting young WOC creatives to get their work out there, what words of encouragement do you have for those womxn who feel as if no one would want to listen to what they have to say?

Lebo: Man, write and talk and create, speak, dance because you can. Because you have to, because it’s the only way that we’re going to heal ourselves. It’s the only way that we’re going to create the new identities that are going to help us to survive and help us to thrive and live functional, positive, healthy lives. I think just womxn, just by virtue of us moving in between worlds and the power of femininity. There’s something very elemental about the creative nature of womxn, it’s in our being. I think for a long time I felt that I had to fit my voice into something but a real breakthrough came when I realized my story is enough. Your biggest demon is where your masterpiece is, write inside that demon. Especially now and in this era, I mean man, create now, it’s exciting!

Michel’le spent the rest of the day smiling from ear to ear and she’s considering becoming a mother just to be humbled by pee.


  • Penny Williams

    Beautiful interview. Knowing Lebo as a child and watching her grow into this incredible person has been an a wonderful journey. Thank you for sharing
    I live in the United States and continue to follow Lebo and her success.

  • Janelle Lovett

    Poppy and Lebo, I read this interview and I’m amazed. Lebo you and I couldn’t be more different. I’m at a loss for describing it, without seeming to degrade myself and that is not my thought or intention. To me, you and I are at opposite ends of everything you talked about. I am willing to listen to you and to think and try to see how you think and what you believe. We are close to two generations apart, you have a brilliant mind, been exposed to so much more than I have and have a lot more education. Tell you one thing that we are alike. We both love motherhood and value what our children can teach us. I loved you from the moment I met you and nothing is more valuable or precious than that. I will always love you and I value all that you are. I love your Mama, too. Let’s keep in touch. Do you ever come back to the States? One time I went to a show of music and dancing from South Africa. On the program, I saw a listing of someone with a name just like yours. I went back stage, found that person and HE was not you. I was so disappointed. He told me he had heard about you but didn’t know you. I’d love to see pictures of your boys. Funny how your Mom had four girls and you had boys. Bet your Mom enjoys those little guys. I’d love to have an update on the lives of your sisters. Take good care of your Mama, she’s the best and you must know that without my saying so. Love you, Your Godmother, Jan

  • Margaret Logan

    Leno has great insight. It comes across so beautifully in her spoken word work. I’ve been an admirer of her vibrant personality and poetry for years. Enjoyed reading this account of her interview.

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