by Sihle Mthembu
Now that she's no longer awash with the afterglow of being a newcomer, now that she's disproved the naysayers who said she wouldn't last longer than a year and now that Babes Wodumo has shown she can make songs that rattle speakers across the continent, it's time to talk about the fans that made her – women.
And by this, I mean women of all ages, from mamas in their 40s trying to marry the night, to teens in crop tops and high-waisted jeans.
The Babes Hive is relentless. They're what makes seeing her live a spectacle. When she arrives at Artizen Restaurant & Lounge in KwaMashu, north of Durban, for her Black Entertainment Television (BET) send-off party, groups of women swarm around her, asking for pictures and taking videos. She just smiles while they snap away.
The young girls and their mohawked lovers form a barricade around their queen, and they scream out the lyrics to her songs word for word and dance until their faces are salty with sweat. Babes is the first woman with this type of bewitching command in the South African pop space since Brenda Fassie and Lebo Mathosa dropped their mics.
Dance of the infidels
She has the ability to blend into her own crowd with a chameleon-like ease. When she performs, she often abandons the stage and, with her group of dancers, moves in front of the pack, where she can be at eye level with her fans.
Occasionally, Babes will pull an admirer from the mosh pit and form a circle for a dance-off – this is the part of her show that really gets people going.
Tonight is no different. As she pops and locks, shaking and twisting as if possessed by a higher spirit, she makes even her own dancers look like novices. They stop dancing with her and instead watch as she commands her body, improvising like a jazz master long familiar with her instrument.
"Leadership, leadership, we are led," screams one young woman from the middle of the crowd. By now, the moon is out and her latest single Umngan'wami is bleeding from the speakers, engulfing the night. This is a spirit Jamia, a dance of the infidels.
The affect that she has on her fans is not lost on Babes.
"I love the fact that a lot of them can relate to me because I'm a lady from the township who just has love for dance, and there are a lot of talented young girls out there who look up to me," she says.
The reclusive national key point
Born Bongekile Simelane, Babes' story is well-documented. We know that she's the daughter of a pastor, that she met her former manager Mampintsha and lover (depending on who you ask) at a video shoot, and that she's been dancing since she was a child.
What you might not know is that her road essentials include jeans, shorts, a few pairs of sneakers and caps. Lots of caps. She's also obsessed with the video game Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, or Mustapha as it's commonly known, but, because of her hectic schedule, she can't play it as often as she'd like.
Despite having a best-selling album and videos that have been viewed almost seven million times on YouTube, making her one of the most recognisable faces in Mzansi, the most interesting thing about Babes is how she refuses to lean into her fame. She's almost cavalier about her popularity as if she's aware that this is some kind of long con.
"I've learnt that there are loyal people out there – they've been with me through thick and thin. Over and above that, not everyone will love you, and that's okay," she says indifferently.
Babes hardly engages directly with people on social media and she's reclusive during interviews. Between sets at shows, you'll find her chilling backstage scrolling through her phone and chatting with friends who knew her before she became a national key point. You cannot underestimate her influence when you see the Original Shandis merch sell like hot cakes in Durban, or see Jessica Nkosi on Lip Sync Battle Africa impersonating the popstress in a lively rendition of Wololo, dance moves and all.
Wololo's reach should not be underestimated. It was a single that gained cult-like status, with airplay monitoring service Radiomonitor estimating it was played 6 117 times, reaching 882.98 million ears in South Africa alone. Inversely, Umngan'wami was only played 257 times, with 11 million listener impressions.
Now that the wave of Wololo has hit the shore and is starting to roll back, Babes is aware that she has a lot of work to do – most of it on herself – but she says she's not thinking about avoiding the dreaded sophomore slump right now.
"I've decided to enjoy the success of Wololo and make the most of the opportunities that it has presented to me," she says. "When the right time comes, my team and I will announce my next career moves."
The next time I see Babes, it's in a more controlled environment – she's hopping out of a West Ink minibus (she's signed to West Ink Records) with her signature red hair shining. She's wearing all-black Ivy Park gear and a camo jacket and looks a little tired as she walks into the press conference, where she explains that she won't be attending the 2017 BET Awards in Los Angeles because she doesn't have a US visa. There were several send-off parties for her, and she'd been preparing for the trip for weeks.
A few days earlier at rehearsals, she told me that she was ready to get a taste of life at the top of the pop food chain.
"It feels absolutely great, especially because I'm the first lady doing kwaito, aka gqom, to be nominated for such a prestigious award. I'm over the moon," she said.
"I'm a woman, so, obviously, my hair, nails and everything needs to be on point, it's so exciting. I expect a different world altogether, I plan to have as much fun as possible and enjoy every experience."
But as fellow Durban-born nominee Nasty C moved around the US in the build-up to the ceremony, doing press runs, video shoots and slaying freestyles on Sway in the Morning, the queen of gqom's crowning moment on the international stage was delayed.
"It's not that I'm angry," she says. "But I am disappointed."
Nevertheless, it's been a rough few weeks for Babes. The visa debacle was not the first time she and Mampintsha have had to issue a public apology.
After the SA Music Awards (Samas) last month, there were three main threads that ran through the headlines. The first was how happy everybody was to finally see rapper Kwesta shining (he walked away with four awards), the second was how angry Zahara was with Somizi's comments about her alcohol addiction, and the third was the furore that resulted from two videos posted by Babes and Mampintsha. Uploaded on social media, the pair complain about Babes not getting a Sama and about awards allegedly being sold.
The videos went viral and people started spoofing the duo complaining about not getting credit for certain things.
"There are quite a few of them that I really loved," Babes says before confessing that she's ready to put the drama behind her and is focusing on rolling out Umngan'wami.
"I'm currently shooting as many videos for my album as possible. The Umngan'wami video was shot two weeks ago – it's all thanks to my fans and the gqom music and dance movement. It was done at the West Ink School of Dance and two other spots where there are just my fans to celebrate."
Winner versus loser
The statements about awards being for sale were not false, but, in the moment, they weren't well received because they came from a bitter place. The tide could have so easily turned the other way – Babes could have been praised for calling out corruption in the industry, and think pieces could have been written about her brand of black girl magic and the importance of women publicly calling for what they are owed.
But this is not how that story played out. This business is fickle and, after a year of being adored and praised, people seem ready to see Babes lose.
She confesses that the controversy taught her something that is essential to working in the South African music scene – timing is everything.
"Everything comes from God. And he shows up in his own time. My father has taught me to love family and to rely on God for everything."
What went unnoticed was how, regardless of her disappointment, Babes closed off the Samas with what was easily the performance of the night. Clad in red leather and chains with her army of backers, she invaded the stage, doing complex footwork, throwing sevens in the air and twirling on her haters.
You don't have to be an admirer to know that Babes is easily the hardest working woman in South African show business. You can't coach height. Now all that's left is for us to let Babes be Babes.