They say it takes years for someone to become an overnight success. Bongekile Simelane, who is more popularly known as Babes Wodumo, is proof of that.
According to Entertainment Monitoring Africa, her song, Wololo, which features Big Nuz’s Mampintsha, is the fourth most played local song on South African radio. It has catapulted her into becoming the kind of star who impresses everyone from the ’hood to the ’burbs.
In 2014, she jumped onto Sir Bubzin’s song, Desha, which features Big Nuz and DJ Tira. Then last year, she appeared on Tsege Tsege and Benu Benu, which are both heaters on Big Nuz’s most recent album, For The Fans.
She was then signed to Mampintsha’s West Ink label, and is also fiercely loyal to it and its parent company, DJ Tira’s Afrotainment. But it’s really with her first single as a solo artist that Babes Wodumo is living up to her name.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
When I meet Babes, something on the collar of her pink velour tracksuit top (which has the face of a blonde cartoon in her likeness embossed on the chest) keeps catching my eye. Eventually, I ask the Durban-raised entertainer if there is a pair of sunglasses on the back of her neck.
“Yes,” she flicks her red ponytail to show me the stunners before she laughs: “I’m just crazy like that.” This brand of crazy – coupled with her insane dance moves, anthemic chants on songs and bubbly personality – has made Babes one of the most interesting acts to come out in a very, very long time.
Her stage name – which means “the famous Babes” – is pretty and a prophecy. She tells me: “When I was born, there was a group called The Babes and I had eyes like one of them. So my father used to always say to me: ‘Lo uw’Babes’ (this one is Babes).”
“Then the ‘Wodumo’ came because I used to do everything – dancing, acting, athletics, soccer, everything – and became famous for it. If something can’t talk, it can’t defeat me. That’s what I told myself.”
A BIG NUZ BEGINNING
No modelling agent formed against this preacher’s daughter – who has an older sister and a younger brother – can prosper. Having grown up in Lamontville with her grand-mother and in a flat in Durban’s CBD with her parents, Babes quickly became a people person.
It’s because of this love for people from all walks of life that she started the West Ink Dance Academy that gets kids off the streets and onto the stage with her. She’s also focusing on the Bongekile Care Centre and will one day open an old-age home.
Babes likes to help others, but even she was surprised when she got a hand up by being booked as a dancer on Big Nuz’s video shoot for Hawaii in 2013. Back then, she was signed to a modelling agency and to let Babes tell it, the agent was unhappy with her constantly speaking up about being paid and being paid fairly.
When Big Nuz employed the agent’s services, they thought the girls put forward looked too young to be in the video. They also noticed the agent had turned two zap cards face down on the table so they couldn’t see them. The pair turned out to be Babes and a friend. “The agent said siyahlupa (we’re trouble),” Babes shrugs, “but the guys said: ‘It’s fine, we’ll pay these girls.’”
DJ Tira was so impressed by Babes’s dancing and passionate hyping of herself that “he kept saying: ‘Lengane siyayidinga (we need this girl).’” She was invited to perform on Desha “then we did Tsege Tsege, Benu Benu and now it’s Wololo. So kahle kahle (actually), the person who saw my talent was Mampintsha.”
WOLOLO’S A WINNER
When people hear Wololo, it’s like the ratchet whistle is being blown and only they can hear it. It’s super fun to mimic Babes’s moves and sing along to how she’s impressed by the West Ink and Afrotainment boys.
But Wololo is in fact a cautionary tale about not letting fun get you so inebriated that you don’t know where or how you ended up sleeping. “We were in studio and my friend ashaye amanzi amponjane (got drunk). I was embarrassed so I said to myself, let me go and put her to sleep in the bedroom. She woke up and started screaming my name because she didn’t remember where she was. I said: ‘You get so drunk that you don’t know where you slept?’ No, let me get into the studio and do this gimmick. Even others must know to not just sleep anywhere.”
Although she calls the spoken or chanted bits she performs on songs “gimmicks”, Babes is serious about her craft. If it has come out of her mouth, Babes wants you to know she wrote it.
From her parts on Lvovo’s Next Better Man featuring Mampintsha to Naakmusiq’s AmaBenjamin (also featuring Mampintsha), this artist is mostly relatable because she writes about her reality and ours.
The reality is gqom – a dance sub-genre straight out of Durban – is one of the country’s best burgeoning cultures. Babes is a self-proclaimed gqom star. “Gqom is something I loved from an early age. Ngicabanga (I think) beyond the now – I saw myself dancing on stage already when I wasn’t,” she shares.
“I do gqom because most Durban DJs play that good gqom that people love. But njalo (always) on television and radio it’s hip hop and kwaito. But they don’t pay attention to gqom. Iyisghubu esisheshayo (it’s fast-paced music), but people don’t respect it.
“I am the first woman to put gqom into the industry by force and people love it. It’s such an honour and guyathusa (it’s scary) at the same time. But we must push,” she smiles.
Babes is not having any trouble pushing Wololo, but does want to make more music. She smiles when she says her dream is to work with Chomee and then adds Mdu Masilela and the DBN Nyts. She is appearing on SABC 1’s Uzalo and exploring the opportunities that present themselves. As she concludes: “I always pray to not be like other artists who get famous and then forget God. God won’t give you your blessings if you don’t have faith kuyena (in Him), you know?”