Flying on foot down Table Mountain, Dada Shiva felt a sense of holiness.
“I’ve never run that fast in my life,” the 23-year-old rapper-producer said. “That made me feel like I had superpowers.”
In conquering that mountain, the one that “represents the sort of separation and obstacles, physical obstacles, that the city holds against its inhabitants,” he had found what he was seeking—inspiration.
The Cape Town-based musician, on a quest to become the “ultimate artist,” looks for it often.
Take his name, which draws from more than a couple sources—from the European avant-garde Dadaism movement and its focus on self-expression; from Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction; from “Don Dada,” the name of one his favorite tracks by the American rapper Nas, to name a few.
“[The name] means a lot of things. It’s like I’m trying to invoke the concept of a title itself and also the concept of supreme mastery at the same time. What I’m trying to embody is something as holy as possible, something really pure,” he said.
“You just express yourself, then you can read the meaning in it afterwards.”
He’s wholly guided by that philosophy of holiness, the sense of ultimate fulfillment from honing one’s craft. And with a feature by Red Bull Studios Cape Town and shows around the country, the 23-year-old is well on his way, making a name for himself in the South African music world.
Born Karabo Mokgatle, he has been making music since he was fourteen, and when it evolved beyond just a hobby, he came to Cape Town to help catalyze his career.
For so many South African musicians like Dada, the city is a creative mecca, a place where “you can just pick inspiration off of a leaf.” But it’s not because the city fosters a cohesive communal identity. In fact, he said, the divisions are still strikingly deep.
In Pretoria and Johannesburg, where he spent part of his life growing up, multiracialism takes roots, flourishes: “The treatment I get from people there, it’s all like zero-point. I’m not treated before I’m treated. They meet me, then they decide.”
Not Cape Town. In Cape Town, he’s been harassed and assaulted at nightclubs because of his skin color, searched by police in his own apartment building. For so many of its inhabitants, the city is “not a safe space as it should be.”
But Dada stressed that these barriers to integration—like how the city’s infrastructure was built to keep groups of people separated—have driven the development of such distinct pockets of artistic culture unlike anywhere else in South Africa today.
“In Cape Town, every single artist or small grouping of artists has its own completely different look and feel and vibe,” he said. “Even though here people have been working and creating something of Cape Town for as long as they have been working and creating something of Joburg, it seems that here, the differences have remained differences, much more than in Joburg and in places like Durban.”
These differences manifest in wealth gaps, in how those with money and mobility can affect the unfolding of the cultural future. Large corporations still dominate the industry as they have for decades, chasing profit over pushing boundaries, tradition over innovation, Dada said. And that’s not empowering for the independent musicians trying to stir up the status quo.
“The racial divisions… are byproducts or leftovers from apartheid that are perpetuated through the economy. And they just show up like that in our music scene because our music scene is still young and not yet developed into something that can fend for itself.”
But he’s confident that those in his generation, many born into freedom, will continue to seek and find ways to redefine the industry. Smaller event venues are highlighting underground artists and drawing crowds from all walks of life.
“There is something alive there that is free of nonsense. It’s just not very large, and over time it definitely will grow into something better,” he said. “I think the fact that the culture is so young makes people want to build the culture, and they make it clear that everything they do is in aid of the culture. That’s one theme that is really constant throughout Cape Town.”
And by contributing to this culture and embracing their diversity, artists like Dada are confronting the past to carve out their place in the future.
“The way you see other people overcome small aggressions, and the way you see these differences really become something people can be proud of—it inspires a holiness.”