This interview appears in issue 20 of our monthly ezine available for purchase here.
Story by Sabelo Mkhabela
Photography by Mishaal Gangaram
Gigi Lamayne’s assertion that she’s the undisputed queen of African rap isn’t necessarily a reach; she has a dope track record, and with the release of her new album Set in Stone, she is moving to a new chapter. “I don’t have a plan; I’m riding with the universe. And if something connects and the story is great, I’m gonna jump on it,” she says in our latest cover story.
Gigi Lamayne strongly believes she’s undisputed. “Could be the best female rapper in Africa,” she says, “when it comes to lyricism and versatility; I’ve jumped on a song with AKA and King Monada, and I don’t think any girl can say they can do that, from Afrikaans to IsiZulu, so it’s set in stone that I could be the undisputed queen of African rap.”
However, on Set in Stone, her latest album, though still spitting at a high level, Gigi doesn’t seem consumed with proving her point. She doesn’t need to anymore. The catalogue speaks for itself – from early releases such as 2014’s Colour of Reignto her official debut albumi-Genesis (released in 2016), Mermaids and Stuff (released in 2021) and countless singles, guest appearances and freestyles.
Gigi is a skilled and decorated MC, entrepreneur and public figure with a rich story that started taking shape in the streets of Joburg approximately a decade ago. She mentions the likes of MarazA, Zingah and Emtee as peers she was hustling alongside in cyphers during her come-up days. “I knew Emtee when he was still part of 4Front,” she says. “I had older brothers who’d go to Slaghuis, and Friday I’m at Gandhi Square by the McDs and then I’m running off to Osmic and them at OST to do the cyphers as this little tomboy, and then you meet the Rashid Kays and they are like, ‘this girl can rap’.”
We are revisiting this story as she’s trying to explain her reservations about South Africa’s hip-hop scene. Last year, Gigi ruffled feathers when she stated she was “leaving SA hip-hop” during a KAYA FM interview. She would later clarify that she meant SA hip-hop rules weren’t going to inform her direction from then on and that she wants to open herself up to other genres as she already had, especially in her 2019 hit single ‘Fufa’, a collaboration with bolobedu house icon King Monada.
“‘Fufa’ changed my life,’ she says. “‘Fufa’ made more money for me than any hip-hop song.” But beyond the bag, Gigi feels it’s time she challenged herself, as hip-hop has become ‘easy’ for her. To drive the point home, she starts kicking a freestyle off the dome that makes mention of my name and my denim jacket. “But now you are sitting with Makhadzi and you’re thinking not only about how you gonna sound on the song, but how you guys are gonna balance each other out,” she says. “Hip-hop is safe for me, and that’s why I went and experimented with other genres. I will outrap any girl on a hip-hop song right now in this country. But I don’t know if I can go against Makhadzi when it comes to songwriting.”
‘Fufa’ came with a lesson for Gigi. “With SA hip-hop, once you find your localised sound, you need to go out, become a hero and then come back; they’ll like you. That’s just how we are as a nation.”
As a result, Gigi looks to continue strengthening her brand outside of South Africa. “I wanna learn; I wanna go to Ibiza; I wanna feel music holistically,” she says. “I love home – it never leaves me – but it makes me comfortable. So, I wanna take home to the rest of the world. Who knows, they might just love me?”
Her new album is a step in this climb. Produced entirely by Vugar M Beats, who Gigi met through ScoobyNero and with whom she developed a robust working relationship, Set in Stone maintains a hip-hop identity, but the producer made sure to give it a South African accent by deploying amapiano’s defining log drum on most of the album.
“The log drum, when it kicks in in the club,” Gigi says, “that’s what gets us on the song; it’s something that I connected with when I first heard amapiano. I wanted to infuse that. I think it’s a very special moment – very special sound – and I wanted people to imagine me after this album on an amapiano song, which I’m very keen to do; if I can contribute to any culture, it is what it is. I’m still hip-hop to the core, but if there’s a movement and there are young people at the forefront, why not? The log drum [on the album] is really just to pay homage, to say: ‘hhayi, siyanibona mapiano’.”
The song ‘Fabiani’ occupies the far right side of the album’s sonic spectrum, as it borrows from amapiano’s parent, kwaito. From the references she and her guests, Alfa Kat and Ney, make – which include Mzekezeke, TKZee and other kwaito legends – ‘Fabiani’ is a rap song with a kwaito bounce and bassline, embellished with the log drum.
“Since ‘Ice Cream’, I was always compared to the late Mshoza,” Gigi says. “PRO always used to say, ‘you’re giving me a Mshoza-who-went-to-private-school vibe’. So, that one is definitely dedicated to PRO. It’s just about new money; we like nice things. I don’t even spend money on labels, people buy them for me. That’s what the song is about; that’s definitely an R.I.P. PRO hook.’
From listening to Set in Stone and looking at her story, it’s clear there’s no divorcing Gigi from SA hip-hop. Her issue with the scene is how uneven the playing ground is. “I think now it’s changing,” she says. “Amapiano has changed the fact that you have to be someone affluent to make it in the industry. A lot of people are not privy to the fact that a lot of these kids are well connected. The hip-hop kids are elite. You find out the schools they went to – they didn’t do Gandhi Square, Slaghuis and all the different things like us. That’s why my respect for Kwesta is tenfold because I know that journey – that was a real journey.”
She continues: “We are all scared to say as the hip-hop community that these are rich kids. Very few of us actually come from the gutter. And that’s why, even though I’m not active in amapiano, I like it – it’s genuine. Yes, it’s hype and everything, but these kids are going out there and making history. Foca was out in O2 with Davido; Waffles is doing her thing. These are things you’ve seen happen in front of you. And hip-hop missed that because, at some point, I even questioned [if it was about] talent because it was more [about] network. And that’s the truth; let’s have a round table about it and ask each other what schools we went to, where we lived, how our careers started, who we knew…”
She reiterates proudly that her ascent was genuine. She took the longer route and built a rep in the streets before eventually breaking into the mainstream with her smash hit ‘Ice Cream’ in 2016. “I broke into the industry through battling; I entered Sprite Uncontainable; I did Jack Scouts – that’s how I was discovered by Khuli and PRO and everyone else. But I think the genre has been killed because there were power circles in it. Not every journey is the same, but hip-hop, man, the affluent age kind of killed us.”
As a result, Gigi is “not big on cliques” – an example of how she, in her own words, goes against the grain. “If I want to work with AKA, I will work with him. If I want to work with Cassper, I will work with him,” she says. An important standpoint considering that collaboration is a huge part of Gigi’s music.
She mentions the importance of learning from her collaborators. “I always look at musicians as souls,” she says. “From what they do on stage to how they present themselves and how they make other people feel. And I’m somebody who likes to reinvent themselves. So, seeing a Makhadzi come out with so much power… she’s this Venda queen… and we decide to get on a song together – it’s really because I saw something in her that I had never seen in myself, so I feel like I could learn from her.”
On Set in Stone, she made it a point to collaborate with artists she hadn’t worked with before. She is joined by Makhadzi and Busiswa on ‘Mashonisa’, a playful rant about ugesi (it could be about loadshedding; it could be about booze). The song borrows from bolobedu house – the house music genre from Limpopo that was pioneered by Bojo Mujo and is currently championed by the likes of King Monada, Master KG, and of course Makhadzi. “With Busiswa,” says Gigi, “I like how she’s always gone against the grain. She’s out there repping us hard; she’s booked overseas.”
Of Big Zulu, who, together with Anzo, joined her in prayer on ‘Empini’, she says: “He didn’t come out sagging his pants; he created bhinca culture within hip-hop, and I was looking to create stuff with trendsetters.”
‘Empini’ is a song that speaks to the spiritual journey Gigi has been on for the last few years. It included connecting with the ancestors and a reckoning with her lineage. “Spirituality is something that has existed in my family for a long time,” she says. “My mother is originally from Zim, KwaBulawayo. She’s Mzilikazi’s descendant. These are things I only started finding out now. But Big Zulu, Anzo and I have had these conversations before – they were more informed; they grew up within it. But I’m this girl who grew up in Joburg, so my knowledge is very limited. I get to speak to them and discuss things I’ve never heard of before, and then I come back from this spiritual journey, and now I’m telling them things. With Anzo, if I’m going through something, I can text him and be like, ‘I’m having a day like this’, and we will connect.”
Breaking down the meaning of ‘Empini’, she says, “We are in a spiritual war; there are so many adversities that people are going through, especially the young urban voice. We must never get consumed by the Western world and what is happening there, because African hip-hop is a real thing. But within African hip-hop, there’s still an African child, and that’s what ‘Empini’ represents.”
Big Zulu, Anzo, Busiswa and Makhadzi join the likes of Majorsteez, Aux Cable, MusiholiQ, Alfa Kat and Don Calya. The latter, Gigi says, is an artist she believes in and is taking under her wing. “I deliberately chose a female because I know how difficult it was and still is for me,” Gigi says. “She’s an amazing artist and she’s on the album with me. I’m hoping to do some really cool tours with her – just get her out there, working.”
She reveals that she had plans to have Cassper Nyovest – one of her biggest inspirations – on the album, but it didn’t work out. “I did send him something and he wasn’t feeling it, and I sent him another one; he was still not feeling it. But I think that’s just not where his sound is right now; I didn’t take offence.”
What she takes offence to, though, is how overlooked she feels. Gigi believes, based on her artistry and moves, her flowers are long overdue. “In hip-hop, it’s so easy to be overlooked because of the standards, but I’ve done a lot for hip-hop.” She doesn’t agree with the metrics she sees being used in determining who gets to smell the petals. “We’ve been so consumed by social media and numbers of followers that we’ve forgotten that there are people actively doing things for hip-hop,” she says. “But we are so much about the clout and hype, and we are missing very momentous things. HYPE has always managed to document history, but there are certain publications where it’s simply about the noise. But that isn’t history; it isn’t documenting hip-hop as a localised genre. Shout-outs to the South African Hip Hop Museum – they’re trying to fix that.”
Through all these strong opinions stemming from her disillusions with the game, Gigi Lamayne isn’t bitter – she just believes in expressing herself fully. She seems to be in a good space. She’s sitting for this interview a few weeks after being announced as one of the several Africans picked to represent Rihanna’s inclusive makeup brand, Fenty Beauty. “I feel like I manifested it,” she says, before explaining that her relationship with PUMA played a huge role in her being selected. “In November, I was at JFK, and I saw this big vending machine that had Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian-West products and, as someone who’s very pro-black women, I was like, ‘Why isn’t Fenty out here like this? Because I don’t see the shades of my skin colour and I would have really liked to get something.’ Then I started thinking, nonetheless, one day she will come to Africa. And, months later, I get this email saying: ‘We want you to represent Fenty Skin Care Beauty as we start to do the launch and rollout.’”
Of course, there are goodies, but there are also life-changing experiences. “We got to meet Hector Espinal who’s the head makeup artist for Fenty and Rihanna, which is absolutely crazy. We did a masterclass with him.” Her face gleams when she recounts the story. “Everyone who knows me, knows I like everything that Rihanna stands for; against the grain. I’m very about what she is… she can go to a UN gala dinner and still pull up and say something weird to the next person; she just feels so authentic to me,” she says.
Outside of being part of the campaign, as a consumer, Gigi joins everyone in celebration of the arrival of Fenty Beauty on the continent. “Firstly, I can now get a foundation in my tone – the right tone,” she says. “It has been a struggle. As women of colour, we change in winter and summer. It’s never really the same with us. Now, I get to have colours that pop on my face. For me, it’s definitely a political statement as well.”
The opportunity is also an encouragement in her journey. “For some people,” she says, “things happen quickly; for others, you have to keep working. I think, when you keep working without compensation, the universe sees you and it gives back, and I think that’s exactly what’s happening in my life right now. I’ve been through a lot of adversities; I’ve been slung and ridiculed, and I get back up. And I want my story to be like that.” In her journey, Gigi uses an open-ended approach, which has clearly worked well for her. “I want to retire knowing that I did it all. I don’t have a plan; I’m riding with the universe. And if something connects and the story is great, I’m gonna jump on it.”
This interview appears in issue 20 of our monthly ezine available for purchase here.