The British magazines are raving about a subgenre of hip hop they’ve christened nerdhop. This refers to music by rappers like Lupe Fiasco, who shun hip-hop’s hubris and hoes in favour of a higher existence. Mawethu Maliwa is a snug fit in this new movement. He spoke to Helen Herimbi about Lord of the Rings, God and his music. Mawethu Maliwa is a soft-spoken rapper whose view of the world hasn’t made him the most popular musician on the scene.

But, he says: “I’m not complaining. I could make many albums a day, full of that jiggy stuff, but I won’t, because I chose this.”

“This” refers to his debut album, A Fool’s Hope, which is propvol of subject matter that challenges certain ideas that the world, including Mawethu, grapples with. Ideas that include “questioning God” and “ignoring your conscience” are explored thanks to Lord of the Rings.

“A Fool’s Hope was inspired by one of my favourite movies, Lord of the Rings,” he opens up. “There is a scene where Gandalf and them are about to fight an enemy that is 10 times larger than them. This kid looks to Gandalf, because he is a wiser man, and asks him if there is any hope for them to win this war. And Gandalf just says, ‘this is only a fool’s hope.’”

So what do a bunch of goblins and men with stringy hair have to do with Maliwa, you may wonder. Maliwa is more Lord of the Rings than lord of the bling. Unlike what’s become the norm, thanks to the advent of the braggadocio lifestyle some rappers swear by, “this album is not about showing you how well I can emcee, I am showing you the good and evil side.”

This Gemini complex doesn’t go unwarranted, as Maliwa lets me in on the fact that his music cannot be separated from his spirituality. “I have this philosophy that I share with Battlekat (of Beats Against The Beast). I think the devil is at the gate of heaven, that’s why a lot of people find it hard to get to heaven, because there is a bigger war to be fought at the gates. So A Fool’s Hope is about going from where I used to be to that gate. That’s why the album is intense, because it shows my fight that’s been going on at that gate.”

Intensity is an understatement when describing this album. It’s a conundrum of sorts that boasts production by the likes of Ootz the Afronaut, Battlekat and Instro and features YFM’s Lee Kasumba on vocals.

The angst-ridden lyrics, which include why “we fear the devil more than we love God” are a result of documenting his moments of soul-searching. “This album documents my life, feelings, thoughts when I was going through a change, rather than just saying I’m making music.”

“In simple terms, I was trying to find God and myself. Both are very important. Because change brings about a lot of challenges, like, ‘oh, I’m gonna change now? This is going to make me umZalwani (reborn Christian). I don’t want to be like that’. I’d been running away from this all my life.”

Maliwa “was explaining a lot of things to myself too” through A Fool’s Hope, which was therapeutic as the album’s harrowing closing track with vestiges of rock, 2nd Year Flush, exhibits.

He explains: “I’m deeply troubled in that song, but was allowing myself to feel all of that change. It’s the last song on the album, because it was the song I wrote before the breakthrough and the last thing before I was finished with the fight at the gate.”

This article appeared in Tonight on 23 April 2008.