Johnny Cradle readies a new gospel for the underdog
Johnny Cradle has come a long way since its original inception in 2006. Today, it boasts three members and an acute focus on pushing the mission of the underdog forward. This is what the trio had to say about it.
It’s 1 December 1955. You have just endured a hard day’s labour and it is now 6pm. You run into a friend who himself has just come off work and you both make your way to board the Cleveland Avenue bus in downtown Montgomery with the intention of peacefully making your way home. Before you know it, the bus fills up on both colored and white sections as it makes its journey. More prospective white passengers make their way onto the bus with nowhere to sit. Bus driver James F. Blake decides to move the colored section one row down, effectively making it begin where you and your friend are seated.
“Y’all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats.” In the row of four in front of you, all but one person gives up there seat. The defiant woman only moves to the window seat before Blake calls the police to have her arrested. You and your friend make it off the bus. For a while you both walk in silence — and then the conversation ensues.
“So this would be my everyday context where you have two black guys. They both want to succeed and they both, the circumstances are similar – they both want to move forward.” Sakumzi Qumana is proving to be an unabashedly honest subject since sitting down with me at Wolves Cafe in Johannesburg. He and his bandmates Tebogo Mosane and Chris Lombard have just taken a minute out of their 9-to-5s to talk Johnny Cradle with me. I start to imagine that if Saki (as Sakumzi is affectionately known) was on that bus with Rosa Parks that day, as the labourer with his friend sitting in the second row, his analogy of his everyday experience would play true.
We both know that it affects each and every one of us, every single day like it’s affected them before. The reason why we are both walking here is because of this very thing.
“Two black guys,” he explains. “One saying, ‘Ah, these white people,’ and blah, blah, blah. The other is saying, ‘Yeah, these white people. Cool. But, you know, cool. Let’s talk while we walk. If you wanna talk about it. I don’t wanna talk about it – it’s cool – coz I know it’s there.” We meet on a day that is particularly interesting in South Africa history and race politics. During my drive to our interview, Oscar Pistorius is sentenced to six years in prison on the radio. My Facebook and Twitter timelines are littered with scathing criticisms of white privilege. Op-eds and blogs criticising the verdict flood the Internet. If Saki was walking with his fictional friend from the Rosa Parks bus, his perspective would surprise him. “We both know it exists. We both know that it affects each and every one of us, every single day like it’s affected them before. The reason why we are both walking here is because of this very thing.”
Similarly to my own, Saki’s social media timelines are chock-full of articles and op-eds about race and racism, and how these affect black people on a daily basis. “And I don’t read them. Not because I don’t want to engage but because I know what’s there, I know how it affects us and I agree but I cannot read these articles every single day about the ills of a current thing.” There’s a question to be asked here about conduciveness. To what end will incessantly reading articles about these ills lead to? By Saki’s own account, “just a miserable, militant person because you’re not feeding all your other sides”.
This country – and even the world at large – is looking very much like a shit show. Today, more than ever, we need a hero, we need a Rosa Parks. Someone to stand – or in her case, sit – in defiance in the face of unnecessary, unfounded and institutionalised oppression.
Immediately after my interview wraps, I meet with my sister for a quick lunch before shooting off to the airport to make it back to Cape Town. Throughout this entire episode I will talk about this Johnny Cradle that I had just met. What kind of music does he make? Where is he from? Is he some new indie artist? By now you will have already worked out that Johnny Cradle is not an anagram for Sakumzi Qumana nor is it an amalgam acronym of the band members names. Johnny Cradle is at once everyone and no one. “Johnny Cradle is Everyman,” Chris qualifies. I never got around to asking him but he may have meant ‘every man,’ thought he created a word and meant ‘everyman,’ or actually referenced the 15th century allegory Everyman. The beauty of written text is at this point, you have already realised which meaning I’ve put my money on.
Everyman’s misadventures on the road to salvation lead him to run-ins with characters like Fellowship, Goods, and Knowledge. By the end of it, Everyman finds himself as he did when we first meet him: alone. The lesson he takes away with him at death is that in the end, all you are left with is your good deeds. What the anonymous author of Everyman did not know in 1510 is that what Everyman actually needed was a hero; someone to champion his cause. “I love the fact that you use the one ‘championing’ because maybe Johnny Cradle one day isn’t the underdog but he’ll always be the champion of the underdog,” Chris continues. “If you think about it, you don’t have to be unsuccessful and downtrodden in order to feel one with the underdog or anything.”
You can be an underdog in whatever room you’re in, whether it’s Park Station or in the business lounge at the airport.
More than that, you don’t necessarily need to be unsuccessful to be the underdog. “You can be an underdog in whatever room you’re in,” Saki explains. “Whether it’s Park Station or in the business lounge at the airport; in that particular room you can even though you also swipe your card just like everyone else.” He remembers a trip he took to India as part of his illustration job. The airport, just like any other, was kitted out with a business lounge for the fancier tickets on the floor. What struck him the most was that above that level, there was yet another higher class business section. “I’m like, what the fuck? At the end of the day, to you, if you are in that room, it’s still just a room. It’s like the idea of, you go to Hyde Park right and you think, these things are clothes, right?” Sure. “But, obviously fabrics are different and they cost whatever they cost.” Naturally. “But there’s gotta be the one that costs [more] here just so the people that have the money to buy, just so they can pay for something that’s different to you. You know what I mean? It’s like, there’s Burberry tie that’s four-and-a-half. It’s a tie.”
“It’s like that whole thing: What is a duvet?” Chris interjects. “It’s a blanket. You don’t need this hand-quilted Egyptian cotton thing.” There’s an appointment-only Egyptian cotton boutique shop in Cape Town. I’ve been a green window shopper of the store since I moved to the Mother City. So what about my regular Boardmans cotton. Do I really need Egyptian cotton? “I mean, you do – it’s nice. But what I’m talking about is we are two Egyptian cotton duvets but then there’s this one that costs this much just so [people] can feel like they’re separated,” Saki settles it. This is who Johnny Cradle is.
From the highest CEO to the most humble janitor, everyone has an underdog running around inside of them longing to break through some mould or another. There’s something about the name Sakumzi. He doesn’t really want to talk about it anymore but Johnny Cradle has been through more band member changes than Destiny’s Child. At one point, it was a one man band (consisting of Saki himself) which subsequently disbanded. But if Johnny’s messianic resurrection has anything to do with anything, it’s Sakumzi’s unbeknownst (more to him than anyone) ability to relentless fight to build a parish for Johnny to preach his Cradle Gospel. It’s what attracted Chris and it’s how they found Tebogo.
“It comes from the people that understand so it’s important for us that we represent this Johnny Cradle thing in the best way we can,” Saki explains. “And all of it is deliberate. Coz we still ourselves – it’s no act. So there’s nothing to hide. If you see us, if you see me, if you see someone else out there, whatever, having fun, whatever, drinking a thing by the bottle – there’s no hiding that.” There’s probably no better way to explain it than how Chris set it out: “We’ve ironed out any opportunity for double-standards or hypocrisy in that respect.”
This guy Johnny Cradle has grown. If he was in Dragonball Z he would be Super Sayan 3 now, you know, and it’s crazy man.
The Cradle Gospel preaches the freedom to be who you are, where you are, whenever you are. Johnny doesn’t want you to feel ashamed of the underdog within you – he would rather you knew how to use its ambitious energy to your advantage. A mere week before joining the band, Tebogo was well on his way to becoming afro pop singer Khonaye’s drummer. “Ntsika of The Soil opened his own record label and signed this girl,” Tebogo remembers. “They hit me up, he’s like, yo, come play drums for this girl, there’s a gig coming with Mafikizolo, The Soil and this girl. And I’m like, why me?” The decision, motivated purely by friendship ties, would prove to unravel at the eleventh hour. “He chose me based on friendship and just knowing me but he’s never heard me play drums before and I’m not classically trained, I didn’t go to school or I don’t know most of these stuff.”
As pushes came to shoves, classic training and raw talent were forced to consider that something’s got to give. “Two days before the gig, they dumped me and that killed my whole—” he pauses recollecting the moment beat-for-beat. “Like, yoh, my courage.” A week later, an unsuspecting Chris sends an unsuspecting Tebogo a message on Facebook inviting him to an obligation-free jam session. Not an audition, just “let’s see”. “I’m not Chris Dave or the best drummer in the world and I’ve asked them. Chris said we can go get the best drummer in the world but you’ll find that he’s an asshole or you can’t deal with him.” It took Johnny going through member-after-member to refine his Gospel to the point where the conditions were conducive to discerning the underdog in Tebogo. “This guy Johnny Cradle has grown. If he was in Dragonball Z he would be Super Sayan 3 now, you know, and it’s crazy man.”
The most insane part of it all is he’s only ten years old but for the short decade that Johnny Cradle has spent roaming Earth, he’s gathered and refined centuries’ worth of wisdom. He’s understood and refined his own gospel. He comprehended and refined his approach to growth. These first ten years have not been for naught though. “It was still Johnny Cradle. Full. Complete,” Saki remembers. “But I knew that there was still something just in terms of the energy on stage and even rehearsal, just the energy around – not the music itself that’s sitting there coz you can put music together without having people.” Johnny still needed to grow and he found that energy in Tebogo. “I still felt like it needed that something that it now has and, by the way, it took one session of him playing for us to say, okay, then you’re part of the band – that’s that! It wasn’t gonna be let’s continue and – no. It was like, oh, that’s that; it feels right. Cool, let’s go.”
Energy. It’s what it’s all about for Johnny. It’s in the way he dresses. It’s in the way he performs. It’s the way he loves. It’s in the way he fucks. It’s in the way he feeds his inner underdog. Tebogo’s iPhone harbours a voice note recorded following a Johnny Cradle performance in Johannesburg. What’s the name of your group? Johnny Cradle. I’ve just listened to your performance over the past several minutes and I here now and say it was better than sex. Thank you. Forget all of the awards, chart positions and blog posts – in the end, what really matters is that you could inspire a feeling superior to sex inside of a man clearly your senior.
I don’t have time to even make that list of things to overcome – I’m just going to overcome.
So what then is the secret? Where has Johnny found the power in his Cradle Gospel? “The fuel is just breathing,” Saki explains. “It’s waking up, being alive – you know it’s what you do and that’s that. There isn’t an external thing that needs to come in to feed it. That’s just existence.” Chris builds further on his foundation: “Maybe this narrows it down: we not tryna please anybody else coz that’s depression; it’s just doing what other people want you to do.” And while there may be a list of challenges to overcome, “I don’t have time to even make that list of things to overcome – I’m just going to overcome,” Saki emphasises. The important thing is to remember to never stop feeding the underdog within you “We represent the idea of a wholesome person who has a good heart and is trying to move forward, whatever that means, and feeding, gotta feed yourself, whatever that means. And to a lot of people, it means women, it means money, it means whatever it means. But you have to do it. And I know, personally, the importance of what feeding yourself means.”
With Johnny existing in each of the band members and Everyman, I ask if that means Johnny could potentially live on after Saki, Chris and Tebogo have long gone. The answer is basically no because Johnny Cradle has finally found self-actualisation after ten years of reclaiming the power of the underdog and refining its mandate. Perhaps it isn’t even for Johnny to live on indefinitely. Christ left after only 33 years yet his gospel lives on through the ages. Once Johnny’s Cradle Gospel has been recorded and disseminated in the form of an upcoming album release, shortfilm and future projects, the need for his physical presence will no longer be necessary for the disciples he spawns will go own to change the world one underdog at a time.