September 5, 2018 by David Soares
Let’s Have a Word #2: Gerald Mugwenhi aka Synik
Poet, hip-hop head, and spoken-word artist Gerald Mugwenhi, aka Synik, started scribbling rhymes in his notebook while still in high school in Zimbabwe. First, he emulated some of his friends and idols, at the time coming from the flood of American hip-hop on both TV and radio, spearheaded by Tupac Shakur. But Mugwenhi would soon develop his own voice and take to stages wherever he could find them to become a promising member of the Zimbabwean hip-hop scene. His album Syn City (2012) has a plethora of guests from that scene, and the various collaborations he has done since then all bear witness to his own, very distinctive, style.
Where does the moniker Synik come from?
I don’t know, to be honest. I had a moniker that I wanted, but it was taken already. I was living in the second biggest city in Zimbabwe, Bulawayo, and there was a crew with that name, so I thought I can’t go with that.
As for Synik, I think I just liked the way it looked in terms of graffiti. I’m not a graffiti artist, but I just liked the lettering and also, looking it up, there was this whole thing about the Greek sect of philosophers who were more about minimalistic lifestyle. It’s not that I was prescribing to that, I was more about researching into the name, and I thought “Okay.”
What brought you to Lisbon?
It’s a bit of a long story, but, at the end of the day, I wanted to leave home and Lisbon was far enough from anything I’d known to push me to grow, and it was close enough to people I loved and who were not back home. My mum lives in the UK, and other people live elsewhere, now it’s a little bit closer to them.
It was something that pretty much just happened. But I’m very happy to be here. It is not an obvious choice, but it is a good choice, language-wise maybe there might be a bit of an issue, but it’s cool for me because I also want to learn the language, even though I’ve been slacking (laughs). But in terms of the place, it’s a beautiful country and Lisbon is a beautiful city. I didn’t have connections here but I made them as soon as I arrived.
Your lyrics are laden with social activism, initially, in a Zimbabwean context, Syn City is quite centered on Harare and has a very Zimbabwean feel to it (use of mbiras, ngomas, etc). Does Zimbabwe still give you the same inspiration in the distance?
That’s actually a good question, because like you said the whole idea around Syn City was me telling my story from the perspective of where I was in that particular point in time. It happened to be in this city, so the creation of the album was built around me telling stories about how I came to the city, how the city shaped me and also different ideas that came up as well. Now, I think the city inspires me in as much as it will always be a part of me, but there’s also a bit of a disconnect now because I’m experiencing different things, so I think now my subject matter is kind of changing.
Have you transposed this source of inspiration to Lisbon?
Yeah, definitely. For example, there’s a song that I was asked to feature on. It’s a band from here called Fatzilla, so they basically just gave me a beat and they just asked me to do something. When I listened to the beat, immediately I was picturing one of my favorite spots in the city, which is by Cais do Sodré by the river. It was basically just about that: coming back from work, going to that spot, the usual vibe that I experience there. So now, there’s a lot that I’m experiencing in the city and it’s just coming out in the lyrics depending on the music as well.
What do you miss most about Zimbabwe?
It’s the people — I think we’re a chilled bunch — and the vibes. There are certain spaces or events that I would go to where there’s just a vibe and cool people. And, of course, the obvious: certain individuals, ones who would be like, “Man, you should come and check this out.” And sadza (laughs).
How do you see the recent changes there? Hopeful?
There’s that disconnect that I was talking about, because I’ve also been getting it through other people like friends and family back home and how they interpret what’s been going on. For me, the whole thing with Mugabe leaving and Mnangagwa stepping in, it really seemed like a continuation of the same kind of system because, I mean, he’s been a part of the system for as long as the system was there, basically: the whole liberation movement and Comrades and all of that.
And so, when he came in, there was this whole talk about change, these progressive ideas, but I think on the ground — and this is what I get from my friends back home — not a lot has changed. People can’t access money in the bank, unemployment is still crazy, services are still bad. So, from that perspective, I don’t think there was a lot of change that was experienced. And now there were the elections. It’s always been a polarized kind of topic, you’re either for those guys or those other guys, and I know of a lot of people who were hopeful for the opposition and then things went sideways.
Yeah, I think in general I’m optimistic. I don’t think things can become any worse (laughs). I hope not. I am hopeful. There should be some positive things.
You sing in English, but also in your mother tongue Shona. How does the language used influence the content of your lyrics?
I think it does. I find myself limited in terms of themes that I only want to discuss when I’m rapping in my mother tongue (Shona), mainly because the education system is in English. For me, the whole thing with rapping in English is probably coming from how I consume media as well. If some of my topics are political or international themes, I don’t really consume those kinds of themes in my mother language. In my mother language, I can mainly just have a talk with people in the streets or whatever, but I wouldn’t be able to express certain ideas, and this is probably just a facet of how I learned and, yes, how I consume media basically.
So, in Shona, what kind of topics would be more prevalent?
Hmm, that’s a good question. I actually don’t have a lot of songs in Shona. Very few. Like on the album Syn City, I think there was one song that was completely in Shona, it featured another guy from back home who predominantly raps in Shona (Chenjerere), but the idea behind the song was, as Syn City was about coming into Harare and all of that, you’re leaving the rural areas, going to the big cities, and your grandpa sits you down and says, “Look, you’re going into the big city, be careful about this and that, watch out for that, stay focused, work hard,” that kind of thing, so I think it fitted what I wanted to talk about in terms of the whole theme of the album, and it worked out.
But mainly, I put Shona in my music in as much as I conversate normally, which is a mix of English and Shona. In normal conversations, it’s a mix. Sometimes a hook is in Shona, maybe the verses are in English, or maybe I’ll put a chorus or something in Shona.
I read somewhere that you defined your political views as Ubuntunism. Would that be a typo? Tell me about that philosophy.
Really? It’s nice, that could be a thing, though (laughs). Yeah, it’s Ubuntuism. It’s a really great philosophy, how we define “I Am” because “We Are.” You don’t exist as an individual but as a part of a community, as a part of something greater. I think walking through the world with that kind of mindset is a good way to look at life.
There’s a song about Ubuntunism there though….
Do you have any influences outside the world of hip-hop?
I listen to a lot of things, not just hip-hop. But, in terms of things that influence me… I’m trying to think… creatively, a lot of influences have come from the hip-hop world, from when I was a kid, which were mainly American: Tupac, Biggie, Snoop, Drake, the Wu-Tang, which is what I had access to. But since then, and with access to more material through the internet, it’s broadened a lot. But, in terms of being a listener, I listen to pretty much everything. New soul, a lot of new soul.
You never know, it might actually seep into the creative process, without you even noticing….
Yeah, definitely, even as a hip-hop artist I find the type of pieces that I gravitate towards are more soulful, jazzy. The current project that I have with Karlos Rotsen is quite influenced by that, by listening to diverse kinds of music that’s not just hip-hop — lots of soul, jazz, etc.
Where do you go to see live music in Lisbon?
I’m usually at Anjos70, that’s mainly for the jam session. And I like B.Leza, I’ve been there for a few shows, I really liked them.
But one of the things that I really love about Lisbon, and it’s something that happened yesterday, you’re just walking in the street and you just bump into someone busking and playing some really good music and you’re like (makes a jaw-dropping face), you can’t take your eyes off anymore.
Who’s your favorite Portuguese artist?
Even way back before I moved here, I was listening to Sara Tavares, someone introduced me to her music. I didn’t know what it means, I’m slowly starting to get what it means (laughs). Apart from her, I probably need to check out more of her music, but I just discovered this one song and I was like, “Wow, what is this?” Her name is Carolina Deslandes, I walked into a mall and I heard this song and I had to Shazam it. I probably need to check out more, but I think she’s dope based on that one song (laughs).
Let’s have a word then: tell me your favorite Portuguese word.
I’m probably going to give you one that you get a lot: I like saudade, obviously because there’s no translation for it and it conveys such a strong emotion. I wasn’t expecting that question (laughs).
Any other? It can be slang, it can even be rude, there’s no censorship.
Really? I’ve been censoring myself this whole time (laughs).
It’s slang, but you can throw g’anda, I like the way people say it, sometimes in the jam, people go “g’anda groove.”
I’m still figuring it out. There’s the stuff that I’m trying to work on with Karlos Rotsen. We’ll see what that is, so far we’ve just been performing, but ideally, we’re going to try and see if we can create some fresh material and put it out there.
Any follow-up to Syn City?
That’s actually a question I get a lot from people back home. We kinda took the theme, the whole idea, the imagery from Sin City, the movie. I do want to work on my second project, I actually pretty much wrote it all and then I created some of the beats myself, and then I saw some other beats from other people. It’s just been a little bit strange trying to get back into a space of creating that music six years after Syn City in a different place. Back home, it was so much easier just to link up with producers that I know and just kick it with musicians. Now, it was more, “Yeah I’ve got these ideas, but where am I going to record them? Who’s going to play?” Things like that. I’ve been meeting people here and there. There was one guy that I approached who I thought might be good to produce the whole project and piece it together for me. It’s just figuring out the process. Because Syn City had one process, we were just chilling at this park and musicians would come and create lines or whatever, just add and build on, and I’d write lyrics and ideas. Now the process is going to be different.
Also, I wrote some of the songs a while back so I’m not sure if I’m still thinking that way, it’s something that happens when you create and you don’t put it out right away.
Will there be acoustic guitar on it? I know you play a bit.
Oh yeah (laughs). You know, on Syn City, there was a few where we were goofing around and I built ideas of the songs off stuff that I was playing, but I think on the album, it probably won’t be me (laughs).
Any other collaborations?
Features here and there. Some people have reached out. Apart from the Fatzilla stuff that I mentioned earlier, there’s a project that I’ve already done with this guy called Jazzafari. It was called Jazza Experiment, we did a few songs, we recorded quite a bunch of material with Lana Gasparotti and put out one EP, it has five tracks, I think it’s quite accessible on social media.
Synik will be the very first guest of the Freetanic: Live Hip-Hop and Jazz Sessions at Titanic Sur Mer, on September 6th, do not miss out!
Official page: http://www.thisissynik.com
Marching As One (live in Berlin):