ON HIS JOURNEY FROM PURPOSE, PASSION TO PROFIT
Paul Modjadji is a dancer, choreographer, writer, author, social developer and an active entrepreneur.
Besides being an overall achiever in all his endeavours Paul was not only awarded a South African Youth award in 2012 but he was also graced with a Global Young Leaders award.
Recently invited to attend the YALI seminar where the US president Barak Obama was addressing issues concerning the youth of South Africa, Paul knows what it’s like to be rolling with the heavy weights.
We are going to kick-start the interview by talking a little bit about Paul’s upbringing, what it is like growing up as Paul Modjadji.
Nombuso: Hi Paul, how are you doing…?
Paul: I am good how are you?
Nombuso: I am so star struck right now. Before we get down to all the wonderful things you are doing, can you tell us who is Paul, where was he born and what were your dreams and aspirations as a child?
Paul: Paul is a normal kid I suppose. Grew up like so many young kids that had so many dreams. I wanted to be something. The only difference is Paul never really wanted to be a doctor or a policeman. But I grew up in a small township in Hammanskraal. Very normal upbringing. I was very fortunate to have had both parents at home. Other than the socio-economic issues that surrounded my township, I think I had a really great and normal upbringing.
Nombuso: Paul we understand that you are not just a dancer; you are an entrepreneur that turned dance into a viable business. Let’s speak about your cabaret shows that have been touring the country at various sun international casinos such as the Morula Sun and Meropa Casino. Why a cabaret show?
Paul: I remember being a young kid and going to the casino in Hammanskraal called The Carousel. They often staged cabaret shows. As soon as I was old enough to gain entry to see these shows, I have dreamed of staging them together. I remember even during some of our holiday visits to Sun City I would see these huge extravaganza shows. As a young person I would dream of being part of that process. It really has been so humbling and such a great privilege to grow up at a time right now where a young black person like me can be part of that inner circle. I grew up at a time when it was literally big white names who created and produced these cabarets. So, it’s affirming. For me, the cabaret concept is a very international concept. You go to Las Vegas, they are huge there. You go to London; they are quite a huge sensation. So, it’s a really great platform and a great medium for me as a creator to tap into.
Nombuso: What is your cabaret show about? What is your story line and what makes it different?
Paul: I am certainly bringing in the South African touch to cabaret. When you are a black person that has grown up in any township in the country, you’ve got something that’s very rare. It cannot be duplicated. It cannot be expressed. You see a lot of it in my work. I try and not just duplicate what’s been done everywhere else in the world, but I try and fuse a South African flair and texture to my work. If you get to interface with my work, you’ll get a bit of that. I try and make sure that I maintain a global appeal, but still infusing a very South African touch to it. I think South Africa has a lot to offer.
Nombuso: Of course. In 2011 the European Star Dance Union (ESDU) World, renowned you as their Dance Champion … How do you think it was possible for a guy from a dull town like Hammanskraal to make it this big and this far; I say this big because every time I switch on the TV, page through the newspaper or change my radio dial, it’s you who is being interviewed dude, please tell us what’s your secret for success?
Paul: I wish there was, hey. Otherwise I would package it because I am such a great marketer and I am sure every young person in South Africa would get it. But there isn’t one unfortunately Nombuso. I think the secret starts with dreaming. When you look at my life, I can literally track it back because things connect in life. The core thing, right at the root of my career and my success is my dreams. I have always been a very ambitious young person. A big dreamer. I was the kid that used to get laughed at for my ambition and the things that I would often say that I saw in my future. I think it starts with that. It starts with having a dream. Being able to visualise it. Whether you see yourself as a Broadway star or you see yourself as a medical doctor one day, it should be something that you don’t just say. You literally have to mean it and be able to visualise it. Visualisation is one of the greatest gifts that I have always had. I have always been clear about the things that I always wanted to do. And of course, you got to back it up with hard work. You have to put in the hard work that goes into it. You have to go out there and research what it is you want to do. You must do classes if you have to do classes. You must align yourself with the people that are going to help you. You must read the right books. The right magazines that are going to infuse and add on the fire because passion and having a dream is just like anything else. If you don’t put in the fertilisers, if you don’t put in the right stuff, it is just going to remain just dull.
Nombuso: Nathi si ya zamazama and we are doing the best we can, to get to your level. What do you think young people are doing wrong when pursuing their dream, that’s causing them to fail?
Paul: I see a lot of trends that often times mislead a lot of young people, particularly in South Africa. I will tell you one thing; one of the things I am proud of about South African youth is that they are a very ambitious young bunch. A lot of them generally and genuinely want to do something with their lives. We are certainly growing up in a country where opportunities are not as vast as we would all like to have them. Not every single person is going to have a job. Not every single person is going to get a scholarship. One of the things that I often fight about with a lot of young people is the culture of accepting ‘NO!’ in our country. Young people expect the journey to be easy. By default they find themselves in doors that are closed and they often accept that ‘NO!’ with grace. One of the things I’d like to see change in our young people is the bravery, the camaraderie and confidence in going after dreams and ambitions. I think just knowing what you want to do is not enough. You have to definitely work towards it and fight because as I can attest to my own life. Certainly a lot of my mentors they’ve also had to fight and push through doors that were not just closed but locked.
Nombuso: Why is it that every competition you enter, you come first? No, no, no this is unfair for an average person like me! How did it feel being recognised at home by the NYDA as a South African Youth leader?
Paul: I feel privileged to have won that because I believe that so many of us have got talent but to have the opportunity to be spotted and have somebody affirm you is really such a blessing and I wish every young person in South Africa could have somebody spot their talent or affirm that talent. I know for me because with all the international accolades I have received, they have in essence affirmed my journey and given me the confidence that I needed. But winning the South African Youth Awards, for me topped it all because here is me as an 18 year old boy being affirmed by the global leadership youth council based in Washington D.C and they are saying we see a leader in you. We see potential. We think you can use your dance talent and craft to change the lives of other young people to lead and that changed something in my head. But to come back home after all these years of winning international awards and winning world championships, to come home and my own people say, ‘Well Done! We finally see you,’ there are no words to describe that feeling. When I won the world champs, I cried. I am such a crier. But winning the SA Youth Awards made me cry a different type of cry- content type of cry. Because finally at home, my mom could get to see me on TV and see what I do and to see that it’s not all just play-play or just dancing because it’s fun.
Nombuso: Do you think winners and leaders are born or made?
Paul: Good question. I think winners are born. I think we are all born winners but there’s definitely a lot of making that needs to happen. It’s like talking about the recipe. The recipe is there but somebody has to put the ingredients together. I think a lot of people just think that, you know, you are just born, as a result is it just going to be there. A lot of powerful people out there continue to do a lot of self-developmental type of work which goes to show that as a leader your job is never done. You are never just born and you are done, you are a full product. You have to continue making sure that you push yourself to the extreme level that enable you to grow. Honestly and truly speaking, none of us can ever grasp all the knowledge there is in life. So, every single day is like going back to school. So, even as a natural born leader, where you know you can speak or you can affect change, or make people feel better by dancing, whatever the case may be, you still need to be able to ingest a lot of making to make it even more powerful.
Nombuso: Now escalating to business, how did you make the transition from passion to profit?
Paul: A friend of mine recently said South Africans are consumers and we need to be producers but so many of us just want to buy and get. We need to produce and I think I have always been a producer. I am so embarrassed to tell this story but I feel like you are taking me there. I have always been that kid that when I was young I would have people gathering around my house listening to me play masekitlana (storytelling using stones as characters). That’s where I started telling stories. Adults would come listen to me, tell these stories that I would never know where they come from. As a result of being the person that wanted to produce and tell stories, business fell in line because it allows me to be able to not just be a talent like so many dancers or writers out there but it allows me to be in the business side of things and control the stories that I am telling. That’s how business fell in line. I realised in order to be empowered, in order to tell my stories in the way I want to tell them, business is the route to take.
Nombuso: When did you realise that business is the direction you should be taking with your passion for dance?
Paul: I realised quite frankly around 2006. I had just finished a contract on backstage, and I remember around that time I had a scriptwriting job writing for the SABC. I was doing a lot of gigs in the corporate sector dancing for South Africa’s top choreographers. I remember leaving after every show thinking I could have done it differently. If I was given that song, this is how I could have interpreted it. This is how I would have done the staging. I think that’s when it started for me. I often say that sometimes when you are on the right track, fate will bring about what’s meant for you. And I look at myself now as an entrepreneur and it feels like I was born to do this. It feels like I can tap into that realm and be able to really carry myself, not just as a creative but as a business creative person.
Nombuso: Being in the entertainment industry and trying to make business out of entertainment, would you say that dance as a business in South Africa is viable?
Paul: I think it is a question that I need to very careful in answering so that people can really understand what I am saying. I come from the mentality that anything is possible. But to sit here and say that dance is not a viable business in South Africa would be inaccurate because there are so many creatives in South Africa that are living proof of the fact that dancing can be viable. Unfortunately not many dancers in SA are able to make it viable. It’s the whole idea of saying; you set your own limit. If you want to make it viable and you are willing to put in the work, dancing would be the most viable business you could get into – anywhere in the world.
Nombuso: Tell us about the challenges you faced so far.
Paul: I could write a book about the challenges I faced so far. The bottom line is that there are challenges in any industry and dance on its own will have its own challenges. Unlike soccer stars, presenters and actors, I think particularly right now, a lot of dancers struggle with endorsements and sponsorships. Bonang has recently been endorsed by Revlon and that is amazing, Big Up to her. It’s unfortunate such opportunities are rare for dancers. I think those challenges are opportunities that we as dancers need to push through and explore further to make sure that we can tap into them.
Nombuso: In your opinion what can make or break a business, especially in the entertainment industry?
Paul: A lot of things, hey. Once again not going to look at it as an independent factor. A lot of people tend to think that because you are in the business of arts it means that you can be carefree all the time, be creative everywhere, be the guy that just think as they please. Unfortunately, like in any business, discipline in the arts is a key factor. I look at a lot of my friends and see how they can’t connect how it’s not working for them. I can assure that, if you start your business with your structures right and you do your marketing research and follow all proper procedures like any formal business would follow, you respect time and people and become brand conscious, you are made. As a young person within the arts creative spectrum, you need to make the effort to go out there to study and gain business skills. Do courses in project management. Do courses in marketing so that you can market yourself as a brand, as a talent. Do courses in business management so you can manage yourself as a business. So, it goes to say that you should not look at yourself independently and say that I am in the creative space therefore I have different challenges. It’s true; every industry has its challenges. Every pros and cons have its own environment but the basics of building a business are all the same. If you get the basics right, you could cut through anything.
Nombuso: You were appointed as the ESDU South African liaison by an Austrian based organisation, what are the deliverables of this huge task?
Paul: My role was to promote South African art to the world. Something that I am extremely passionate about. The European Star Dance Union, they recognised after my win that if there was one person in South African that is this talented, then there must be 10 000 more. Of course I supported that notion. My job was basically to create alliances to make sure that I tap into talent scouting for them to make sure that I promote ESDU so that SA dancers can know what opportunities are available out there for them.
Nombuso: Tell us about your dance training exchange programme that will see South African trainers teaching dance in China? How did the idea come about?
Paul: My trainer Dawn, who trained for the last competitions I won in Croatia and the US Talent Showcase, she was approached by the Chinese government to say that they are looking for someone who has got great Jazz experience given the fact that I had just been crowned the World Jazz champion, there was no one better. So, I was submitted and they approved my application. So, we are trying to open that door to make sure that South African teachers can be exported to China to teach various dance styles.
Nombuso: Your talent and entrepreneurial spirit is inspirational, your social work, uplifting indeed. But we understand that this kind of success does come with a heavy price tag. What is the price that you had to pay for your success?
Paul: I love this question. I think of all the questions you asked me so far, this is my favourite question. For the simple reason that people think that connections will get you somewhere and they will but connections will only get you up to, inside the door. Once you are inside, you have to prove yourself. Often people think that they can cut corners but you soon realise that cutting corners, the contacts and the networks can only get you in as far as just getting you inside. To maintain yourself and to come out on top and to excel even to create longevity for yourself requires a lot more. One of the things that I wish young people were taught from successful people is that everything comes at a price. And one of the prices that I have to pay is not having a social life for one, not having family time. I miss so many family funerals, weddings and stuff because this is my career building time. I am not going to always be young, full of life and full of joy, the energy that I have right now and the opportunities as well, so what I try and do is make up for all of that time and what I realised is that at the beginning it was tough, for my family and friends to understand the sacrifices I was making for my success but now they are okay. I realise that eventually when people see that you are committed and see the good work that you do and they see the results, they eventually rally around you. I find that there are times when my mom and my sister represent me at funerals because I have a shoot that day or I have got a performance that day, or I am even teaching. There are times when I do compromise on a family do because it was the only Saturday I had with my dare to dream youth and that’s important work to me. So, there will be the sacrifice. For me unfortunately, social life, family life cause I don’t get to spent time with my family as much as I would like to. Even when I am home at my mom’s house, half the time I am passed out because I am tired. I use the little time I have to refresh and reboot.
Nombuso: Philanthropy seems to be the core of your work Paul, where does all the passion that you have for young people come from and please tell us more about your Dare to Dream youth development initiative.
Paul: I often say you can’t give from an empty well. Passion for giving back for me is as a result of you discovering something inside of you which pushed you to kind of see that you have something to give. When I came back from Croatia after being crowned the ESDU world champ, I really had a lot of time to kind of reflect. Firstly I was more shocked that everyone else that I had won the world child title because I was never affirmed as a young person. I come from a very supportive family. My dad rallied around me and my mom has tried her best to really understand the creative arts because till this day this woman is still not getting it but she is beginning to adjust. I don’t blame them because a lot of our parents do not know how to give us the support we need for the industries we find ourselves in. All they have known is being a teacher and a nurse and being in formalised careers. As a result I have never been affirmed. I have never had anyone come to me and say you are going to bring it back home or somebody tell me you are going to be a world champ. You are a star. So, I came back home after the win, having a lot of reflective time wondering how did I even get here without self-belief? It made me realise how much self belief I had in me. So my philanthropy work was kick-started by the fact that I felt that I needed to get the message to the youth out there. That firstly I needed to affirm them because I felt that my message was to encourage the youth to believe in themselves and to see it possible for them cause no one really sat me down and said, ‘do you see it possible for yourself?’
The philosophy behind the dare to dream project is to use the theatre company and art workshops to infiltrate a simple message, that it is possible. That these kids can dare to dream and that they are stars. So that when it happens, they are not as shocked as I was.
Nombuso: You have been invited not once, but three times by US Talent America to come and showcase your talent, how do you feel about that and what do you think they see in you that keep them inviting you again and again?
Paul: Difficult question to answer but I am hoping that they are seeing talent and that’s why they keep inviting me. It feels bitter sweet because it is great that we are living in a time and in a world where a young person from Hammanskraal can be invited to be part of one of oldest talent showcases in the world. But it is also sad that it didn’t happen the first time but there are lessons to be learnt there as well.
Nombuso: We understand that you could not honour the last two invites by Talent America due to lack of funds. This year, it seems like history may repeat itself, what would you do when the date comes and there’s no money?
Paul: The first time, I couldn’t go; I took it like a big man. The second time of not being able to go, I got depressed. I don’t like the word depressed because I think it is being used nowadays very lightly. I can pretty much diagnose myself because I was in bed for two weeks. It was really traumatic, a very devastating career moment of my life. I was geared up, trained and ready to go. I think with that, came strength. Right now I am praying and hoping that when the moment arrives, I will be on that flight.
Nombuso: What message are you aiming to bring across to the youth of South Africa with all your media appearances? What is that one thing that you would like for them to know and remember?
Paul: That you don’t accept ‘NO!’ with grace. Simple as that.
Nombuso: Are there any forward-thinking organisations that are buying into your social development strategy and are helping out financially to advance the vision? If there are, this is your chance to mention them and thank them for believing in you.
Paul: I have a lot of individuals that are behind me. I am not speaking about the media as an entity but I am referring to real individuals that pick up the phone and call to ask what progress I am making with funding etc. Speaking of organisations that are worth noting, the first one would be Khulisa Social Solutions. This is the organisation that literally picked me up because that’s what they did. They picked up my story and immediately got in touch with me. We’ve been having a sustainable relationship for over a year where they have been mentoring me and they have been partnering with my community development work. When I come back from America we will be doing a 10 day tour of South Africa visiting all 9 provinces in 10 days. I will be meeting young people and sharing my story of going to America, what I bring back and the challenges I faced just being there and the lessons learned. Young people that are doing great work need companies such as Khulisa to help amplify their work and impact. You can’t affect change on your own. This country was not liberated by one person. It was one person that got a group of people behind him and got support and that’s how we were able to move forward. So Khulisa is that one company that I would definitely note.
Nombuso: Finally who else would you like to acknowledge for helping you through your journey?
Paul: One special man called Tebogo Tlhapi, I call him my brother. He showed me that even though you may not have the backing of the company you work for to do charity work, however you can still follow through on your charity work in your personal capacity. He organised a fundraising dinner in my honour to help raise funds for US Talent Showcase. The list is endless. The editor of this magazine is a sister to me. She gives me courage, motivation and inspiration. She is also one of those people that goes out of her way, knock on doors and say, you have to know this young man. Honestly and truly speaking, I could write a book on that.
Nombuso: In conclusion are there any lessons you would like to share with the youth that admires and aspires to be like you?
Paul: Two messages. One is an old message that I say a lot in all of my interviews, because I am saying it from an honest place, which is to start where you are with the little that you have. A lot of young people look at what they have instead of the vision they have. You should never look at what you have because if I looked at what I had, I wouldn’t have been able to achieve half the things I have achieved. So, young people need to start with the little that they have. If you want to study ballet, google it if you have to and teach yourself ballet. The second message is from a lesson that I am still learning which is to not accept ‘NO!’ with grace. Go out there and fight on. If somebody says no the first time, look elsewhere because they will be a ‘YES!’ hanging somewhere.
Nombuso: Wow, Paul thank you so much for taking the time out of busy schedule to put on such a beautiful performance for us. I feel like such a VVIP! Listening to you just gave me hope and the belief that greatness is possible for me too. I’m certain it gave the entire KICKSTART team a sense of motivation and upliftment. You have shown us that we don’t have to travel miles to find inspiration as it is just here, in our own backyards, we just need to know where to look.
We wish you all the best of luck with your future projects and do continue to be a blessing to the world, in fact to the universe.
Paul: Thank you so much for having me. That was a great interview.
Nombuso: Pleasure. That’s it from me folks. Cheers!