Already a force to be reckoned with online, ByLwansta is one to watch IRL too, writes Helen Herimbi

“My name is ByLwansta,” he says once he’s stepped onto the small stoep of a stage at Kitcheners, a bar in Johannesburg.

“We knowwwwwwwwwwww,” the crowd roars in unison.

The bar is small, but inside that room, bodies brush against bodies as they go bos over the headliner: A self-made star who hails from Kokstad and hasn’t let living in Durban define whether or not he gets to be a voice of his generation.

Just 22 years old, this rapper, producer and graphic designer’s name is actually Lwandile Nkanyuza. But whether you’ve been rocking with him since his Sahha-nominated Normvl (2013) or from when he showed up on the cult Berlin performance show, Colors, you never forget to say the By – which denotes his DIY approach to his art – in front of the Lwansta.

His performance of Lindiwe on that Colors show loops on a screen behind him and once, during his set, he catches himself looking at himself in some meta way that I’m too lazy to decipher and he smiles: “We’ll get back to that guy.”

By the time he gets to perform Lindiwe, he doesn’t have to rap a word. The audience is belting out rhymes at the top of their lungs.

A few weeks later, from his home in Durban, ByLwansta exclaims: “I have never, ever, been in a place where I did not have to rap a single line from Lindiwe.”

Back at Kitcheners, I see the songs I only know from the net come to life and it’s goosebump-inducing to watch young people in their element like this. Whether it’s on Dominic’s Interlude – which is heartbreak weaved over a sample of Corinne Bailey Rae’s Trouble Sleeping or whether it’s the catchy Normvl Still, the atmosphere is jubilant. I hear ByLwansta’s manager, Olwethu, fan out: “Finally, finally!”

The start of Grey – a song ByLwansta tells the audience that he never performs in front of his girlfriend because “this is the hardest song I’ve written in my life” – fills the room. The song is an honest look at his girlfriend’s mother’s disdain for interracial relationships – theirs in particular.

“That’s the song where I have that conversation, in my head, with my girlfriend’s mother,” he tells me later. “When I was making it, I didn’t have putting her on blast in mind. The format is like on The Corner (off the Normvl mixtape) where I have the conversation, in my mind, with my father about making music. Those two songs are linked because these are things I would like to say but I don’t think I’ll ever say them.”

Another aspect of ByLwansta’s music – as shown on his 2016 project, Your Absolutely Right, is his knack for self-deprecation. There’s also the know-it-all aversion to anyone telling him what to do. If the feedback on his social media is anything to go by, many young people resonate with this. On songs such as How Not To Die, ByLwansta expresses how he can’t let his mom know he makes music because she would be disappointed. Part of this comes from being a middle child, whose older brother, Kimosabe, is also in the music industry.

“My brother used to rap at some point and we went through similar journeys,” ByLwansta remembers. “I always followed his journey subconsciously. When I used him as an example while talking to my mother, she was like: ‘Yoh, hayi, he was terrible.’ The content was just shocking to her. Throughout my childhood, I internalised a lot and my mom commented that she was always worried about me because she always knew that my siblings were a lot more vocal and I would just act like nothing happened.”

“When I came to Durban, it was like I threw up everything and it became the music. I explained that to her and she understood. I think the more I grow, the more I treat her as a human and not just as a mother. It’s great. I feel like my music is like screaming into a pillow,” he grips an imaginary pillow in the air and grimaces. “You can’t structure that like: ‘I’m going to hold the pillow this far from my face.’ You just do it. But it’s my outlet.”

ByLwansta also enjoys sticking it to the man – if the man is the recording industry. I haven’t signed to a label; they ask me how come, he raps on Something to Say. Why? Because I’ll f***ing make it without one.

Most recently, on TSA’s Ten Fold, he quips that he’s an independent artist – not to be confused with being unsigned. The chip on his shoulder could keep a Simba factory busy.

“At the moment, it’s already a tiring conversation,” ByLwansta admits. “I don’t want to be the guy who is constantly complaining about the industry because it’s expected of me since I don’t do the conventional stuff. At first, it was a case of ‘the industry doesn’t want me so I’m going to be indie’ but now, it’s more of a flex. Every now and then, there’s a post about me being an unsigned rapper and I’m thinking: No! I’m independent. It’s an important distinction.”