This interview appears in issue 28 of our monthly ezine available for purchase here.
HYPE team members ubereatzz and Lolwetu Pakati spent a few hours with AKA just two weeks before his untimely passing. The rapper, producer and entrepreneur got to reflect on his illustrious career, from his Entity days to his upcoming album Mass Country…
By ubereatzz and Lolwetu Pakati
We had no idea that our first time meeting AKA would also be our last. A fortnight later, he would be gunned down in Durban, leaving the country in a state of shock and terror. News of his passing would send ripples worldwide, getting reported on by the BBC, The New York Times, Al Jazeera, TheWashington Post, The Guardian and several other international publications.
Over the past two decades, AKA has built a legacy for himself that will live on forever. He is a household name in South Africa – a pioneer of English rap in the country’s mainstream music scene. This is how our interview played out…
Lolwetu and I arrive at AKA’s studio in Bryanston on a Thursday afternoon. Dripped out in all black, he is welcoming, offering us drinks, just to take the edge off. It’s when he drives us to Rockets that we gain new insights into him. The type of music he plays in his car is surprising; it’s Latin music by an artist called Roselia. “I don’t listen to hip-hop music because someone’s sound could unintentionally creep into my mind and I might accidentally sound like them,” he says. “I believe it might hinder my creativity and uniqueness. I don’t want to sound like anyone else; I want to sound like AKA. I mostly listen to other genres like Latin American music, a lot of dance music, kwaito… and country music, ’cause it’s a coloured people thing.” He later explains that is where he draws most of his samples and inspiration from.
At Rockets, we get a couple of shots and something to wash them down with and, of course, we can’t resist talking about all things hip-hop, especially the current state of SA hip-hop and its sound. “It’s hard to define (South) African hip-hop, ’cause how do you expect it to sound? Do you know what I’m saying? (South) African hip-hop is never going to sound like American hip-hop. Hip-hop has many rules and, as a culture, it is defined by those rules. I think it’s okay for hip-hop artists to branch out and experiment, but they need to be prepared to be judged by the rules of hip-hop,” says AKA.
He reveals himself to be a student of the genre he has dominated and remained relevant in. He gives me a lot of grief for not knowing the five elements of hip-hop, but the mentor in him comes to the fore as he takes the time to educate me. I’ll save you the Google search – it’s emceeing, deejaying, breakdancing, graffiti and beatboxing.
On our way back to the studio, we stop at a nearby garage and people are screaming his name. He is instantly recognised at every traffic light and he embraces his fans as though they are his friends or family – the sign of an artist who understands the concept of fans. It hasn’t always been like that, though, as he mentions he has had weird encounters with fans. “When I started blowing up, I didn’t have security at the time. I had a fan come knock on my hotel room door. It was a very weird experience.”
Before the fame: Learn, Build, Grow
When we sit down in the studio, he has a nice mix of Grey Goose and Appletiser in hand. He makes sure we are comfortable and starts reminiscing about the days before breaking into the mainstream in 2011 with his smash hit ‘Victory Lap’.
AKA started his career between the ages of 14 and 15 years old, when he formed a hip-hop group with his high school friends (Vice Versa and Greyhound), called Entity. The group disbanded after their 2005 album Royal School of Hip-Hop.
He had his first song ‘Do It’ published in HYPE Sessions Vol 25: Scripts ‘N Cutts, mixed by legendary DJ The Cutt, back when our magazine had hard copies and came with a CD. “I’d been working pretty much since 2009 as part of IV League doing production for Tuks, ProKid, JR… all of those guys. And that’s how I really started establishing a lot of contacts in the industry, learning from Pro and Jabba… R.I.P. to the boys,” he says sentimentally (and, in retrospect, perhaps unwittingly forebodingly).
Altar Ego: For the culture
He quickly regains his composure after going off on a tangent as he thinks of the pioneers he looked up to on his come-up – pioneers he would join only two weeks later…
He readjusts himself in his seat and starts talking about his breakout single ‘Victory Lap’ and debut album Altar Ego. “I brought English rap to the forefront, pretty much,” he says. Facts. “Stogie T had done it before and a lot of other guys had done it before, but I think I was at an intersection, when social media was just beginning; South African hip-hop was released; brands were looking for a new somebody, I think, to put their money behind. I think it definitely played a part in bringing that to today. When it’s all said and done, I can say that is something that I did for the culture.”
The success of this album marked a shift in SA hip-hop history. In 2012, AKA became the first English rapper to win Best Male and Best Street Urban Music Album at the SAMAs. “I’m up against Jimmy Dludlu and I’m winning awards, which was great. Breath of fresh air; come in and just start riding high. At that time, the music was really basic – Fruity Loops, I was chopping samples, doing a little bit of drums – that whole album was made with a mouse and a keyboard,” he says, giggling about the realisation that he was around 23 or 24 years old – the prime age for most breakout stars in hip-hop. “What did I know about life? I was a kid; just a kid…” he shrugs.
“The biggest influence on my music was starting a band.”
SA hip-hop embraced him on his come-up as OGs and more established artists such as Buffalo Soulja, Stogie T, Khuli Chana, Amu, Pro and HHP all appeared on Altar Ego, which was produced by The IV League. Cape Town comedian Loyiso Gola performed comical skits depicting a range of accents from Cape Coloured to Nigerian.
From taxi routes to sho’t left in a jumbo jet: Levels
While Altar Ego brought him national stardom, by the time AKA dropped his sophomore album, Levels, he was becoming a continental and international star. Before walking us through that part of his legacy, he takes a sip from his glass and he jokingly refers to that phase of his life as “a whole lotta nonsense, beef and other stuff like touring Africa, which just took it to another level”. We can’t hold back our laughter.
After a successful debut, the sophomore album is make-or-break for any artist. In 2014, AKA proved that he was more than just a phase, and started his metamorphosis into being a hit maker. “I really started touring Africa,” he says, “‘All Eyes On Me’ with Burna, ‘Jealousy’… what else, ‘Run Jozi’… Geez, hit records. I did my first trip to Nigeria, then I started touring Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania and Ghana. I think, with Levels, it was the first time I went to the States. I think it was New York. I took my first trip to LA around then.
“The world was really opening up and it was also when Afrobeats started coming in. So, we managed to really position ourselves with ‘All Eyes On Me’… BBC 1Xtra in the UK. I think I also went there for the first time; I went on tour in the UK for about a month. So, the world was really opening up to me, and that was when I started really messing around with music. I started growing as a producer then. Started making more musical music – keyboards, guitars and things like that – but not to the level that it is now. Levels took me to another place – another level.”
But with these new levels came new demons. In 2014, a beef started brewing between AKA and SA hip-hop’s breakout star of 2013, Cassper Nyovest. The beef lived beyond the 2010s and was never officially squashed. He tenses up when the beef is brought up during our conversation. “As far as my position is right now, what’s happened has happened; what’s done is done; there’s nothing that can be done about that,” AKA says. “Only thing that can be affected now is my future and, going forward, I’m just focused on my family and my money and just staying out of people’s business. So, I’d rather just keep my sh*t to myself, focus on my music and focus on my fans. I’m about to turn 35; I don’t think I have any business beefing with anybody. From my perspective, it’s dead to me; everything is dead to me. I don’t wish anybody any ill at all. I just want the best for me and my people.”
“Levels took me to another place – another level.”
The beef’s genesis remains a mystery. In a piece breaking down the beef on OkayAfrica, writer and former HYPE editor Sabelo Mkhabela wrote that “it all began with a tweet” in April of 2014, when Cassper Nyovest claimed that his song ‘Doc Shebeleza’ was the biggest song in South African hip-hop. Honestly, ‘Doc Shebeleza’ was buzzing and was doing serious numbers on DataFileHost. The tweet in question: “No.1 on iTunes, not Zippyshare… know the difference.” ‘Congratulate’ indeed was number one on South Africa’s iTunes charts.
“We got along,” AKA recalls, before explaining what started the beef. “I think we even got into the studio once or twice and it was cool, but I think it’s a case of two people… ‘there’s not enough room for both of us’ kind of mentality. You get two dominant male dogs together in a room, it’s not gonna work out well. So, I think it’s a little bit of that,” he says.
“I don’t wish anybody any ill at all. I just want the best for me and my people.”
Be Careful What You Wish For: “ANATII taught me to have a bit more fun with my records”
But the same scenario with multi-talented artist ANATII led to one of the best collab tapes in SA hip-hop history – Be Careful What You Wish For – which gave us timeless hits such as ‘10 Fingers’ and ‘Don’t Forget To Pray’.
He admits working with ANATII was challenging at first. “It was extremely difficult,” he says. “Me and ANATII, we both think we know everything, so it was difficult at the start, trying to get those two energies to come together. But ANATII is a really talented musician – a really deep, introspective guy – and I think he learnt a lot from Be Careful What You Wish For.
“In fact, Be Careful What You Wish For was the first time he actually started rapping in Xhosa, ’cause I kind of persuaded him to do it, me and Yanga. It’s the time I was also really working a lot with Yanga. His sound has pretty much changed since then. He used to do English; straight English stuff.”
“Me and ANATII, we both think we know everything, so it was difficult at the start…”
AKA further shares that ANATII changed how he looks at production. “So, I also learnt a lot from ANATII about different sounds. ’Cause when you’re stuck in your own way as a producer, you’re stuck to one thing, and ANATII gave me a different perspective. I think ANATII also taught me to have a bit more fun with my records. I wanted to always be very precise,” AKA says.
Touch My Blood
That explains the eclecticism of the body of work that followed – Touch My Blood, his third studio album – released in 2018. “That was my first independent album,” he says. Touch My Blood dropped after his separation from the reputable record label and management company Vth Season in 2017.
Touch My Blood bridged the gap between hip-hop and other genres AKA has an interest in – R&B, Afropop, Afrobeats and house. “I think the biggest influence on my music was starting a band,” he says. “It allowed me to go all over the world and play music all over the world, because real musicians play guitars, drums and things. I just think it gave my music a richer texture. So, when it came to Touch My Blood, that texture really started coming in, and that mode and that zone of really taking my time with production and making music, with the ideal of making music for the stage.”
This decision to play with a band enabled him to join the exclusive club of South African hip-hop artists – HHP, YoungstaCPT, Prophets of Da City and Khuli Chana, among a few others – who’ve played at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival.
Polarising: Bhovamania and You’re Welcome
He followed up his 2018 classic with his most divisive project, Bhovamania, in 2020. I make him aware it’s my least favourite project in his catalogue and he laughs. “A lot of people don’t like it, it’s very polarising, but I think that, with time, it’s going to be a cult classic,” he says. “It was a different time; it was the start of amapiano; it was the middle of the pandemic. That’s why it wasn’t an album, ’cause I wanted to experiment, and I wanted to find just something in the music space that I could hold onto. Not every album or project is what people are going to like, and that’s fine, because there are people who do like it and, as a musician, there’s always another chance.”
He comes across as someone who understands that a listener’s opinion about his music is hardly a personal attack, but just a matter of how the music made them feel. “So, when it comes to people liking or not liking stuff, I don’t take that personally, because for me, it represented therapy; it represented something that I needed to do at the time. There are a lot of great songs on that project, and I think, in time, people will really grow to love it,” he says.
Bhovamania, although a divisive EP, has hits like ‘Energy’ featuring Gemini Major and ‘Casino’ featuring Sho Majozi and FLVME. It also came with ‘Finessin’’, a song in which he featured his fiancée at the time, Anele “Nelli” Tembe, whom he also sang about on the song ‘Cross My Heart’. Nelli would pass away tragically the following year – she was reported to have jumped out of a hotel window in Cape Town.
“Me and Costa Titch started just hanging out and he brought me out of my shell, saying, ‘Come out, come make music again, come start performing again.”
Nelli’s death was and still is a very sensitive issue and it led the star to reconnect with himself, his family and his music while grieving. “So, when I had gone through all of the sh*t and I was ready to start making music again, Riky reached out to me: ‘There’s this kid, Costa Titch, who has a song called ‘Nkalakatha’. Do you want to do a remix of the song?’ And, I thought, hey, man, this is a really cool song; interesting guy. I jumped on the remix – that was crazy.”
The synergy he felt when he hopped on Costa’s song led to a whole project titled You’re Welcome with the Mpumalanga-born rapper and dancer. “He and I started just hanging out, and he brought me out of my shell, saying, ‘Come out, come make music again, come start performing again.’
“So, another album where I just wanted to explore a sound and just explore new vibes and new energy; young people. And he took me all over, to places I’d normally never go, like Braam and all these places… took me to go see the new wave, the kids, and introduced me to all these guys, which was cool for me to get out of my shell. And we just did a little tape – that was towards the end of the pandemic – and I look back to that with fond memories; it was a lot of fun. I had a lot of fun.”
Outside of music, he mentions that his girlfriend, rap superstar Nadia Nakai, contributed to his healing. With matching tattoos and cute studio time pics or clips, the pair have been in a whirlwind romance for a while now. AKA blushes like a schoolboy when he talks about her and their relationship. “I’m in a great relationship and Nadia’s an amazing woman, and she’s really helped. The person you see sitting in front of you today – a lot of that credit should go to her; she’s really been patient and she’s really, in many ways, just brought me back to life,” AKA says.
He seems to have a great deal of love and respect for her. I couldn’t help but notice a photo of Nadia on his home and lock screen wallpaper – something he doesn’t hide as he gushes over her. “After everything happened and I lost my fiancée Nelli in April 2021, I was going through a tough time, and Nadia was really there for me, and we hit it off. There are a lot of things I admire about her, like her work ethic. She’s coming back with a lot of music this year. I’m also just enjoying seeing her work and how she works; I’ve learnt a lot from her. About just being calm and respecting your brand, and knowing your limitations, and all types of things.”
Mass Country: “A massive amount of different elements”
AKA closed off 2022 on a high as ‘Lemons (Lemonade)’, his collaborative single with Nasty C, who he co-signed during his come-up, became a national hit. The song topped the charts and made Rolling Stone’s “The 40 Best Afropop Songs of 2022”. The video has amassed four million views in four months on YouTube.
‘Lemons (Lemonade)’ alongside two other singles, ‘Paradise’ and ‘Prada’, helped bring excitement to his upcoming album Mass Country, which he has been working on for the last two years. “I started working on Mass Country maybe the day after Anele’s funeral. As soon as I got back to Joburg, I said, listen, I need to get all of this out of me and put this into music. So, you’ll hear in Mass Country, there’s music that’s recorded close to that time, and then there’s music that’s recorded now. So, the music close to that time is very deep, dark, sad feelings, and then, as time goes on and as things get better, you hear it gets more joyous and more hopeful, and more forward and more fun – ‘Prada’ and ‘Lemons (Lemonade)’,” he says.
Breaking down the title, he makes us aware that the phrase “Mass Country” sounds similar to “maskandi”. The title speaks to the expansiveness of the record, he says. “There’s a massive amount of different elements,” AKA says. “And then I want it to sound like country music. I grew up listening to country music – coloured people like country. Especially if you’re from Cape Town, country music is a big thing. And, you know how maskandi is considered to be our South African version of country music?” We burst into laughter as that notion is something we have heard too often. We nod and he continues, “So, I wanted to put those worlds together: hip-hop, a bit of log drum, kwaito, rock ’n’ roll… I wanted to put as many genres as I could together. And I wanted it to be like mass country… this is super South African, so it’s like mass South African. It’s for the masses of the country, you get me? But, at the same time, it’s from the soil; it’s from the earth.”
The cover art is a portrait of AKA drawn and created by accomplished graphic designer Karabo Poppy. It captures the essence of the sound AKA is going for. “I saw the KFC collaboration and I thought, oh my God, this is amazing. A graphic designer is one thing, but an artist who can draw is a completely different thing. I spoke to her, we had a meeting, we sat, it took a while… it took about a month for us to make that cover – she sent me things, I sent it back, she sent it back.
“My experience collaborating with her was fantastic; she’s an awesome person. Really cool, really chilled and one of the boys. So, I wanted to make something like that and, obviously, with all my covers, I always put my face on it.”
Unaware that he does not have long to live, AKA sounds excited about the future, with plans to shoot visuals for ‘Prada’ and let fans decide which other songs to shoot visuals for after the album comes out. He tells us how proud he is of what he achieved in his six-year-long partnership with premium vodka brand Cruz Vodka, which came to an end in November 2022. “I changed the entire alcohol game. We sold nearly two million bottles of that stuff. So, let it be known that what we did there – it can never be taken away. It will always be the thing that blew the game wide open because then brands saw, ‘Oh, this is the recipe,’ and then they duplicated it,” he says. “So, going forward this year, I’m starting my own, just solely my own, products this year. I can’t tell you too much about it, but this year we’re going to be dropping one or two products.”
Musically? “This year, I don’t want to do gigs anymore. I wanna do arenas only, just arenas. If your city has an ICC, that’s where you’ll find me. Obviously, we’ll do gigs in the first half of the year, like birthdays and all that stuff. For the most part, I want to put on big productions this year,” he says.
Little did we all know none of this would have a chance to come to fruition. Rest in peace, Supa Mega.
Keep an eye on our website and socials for stories from previous issues of HYPE magazine, as we re-live our journey with AKA.
This interview appears in issue 28 of our monthly ezine available for purchase here.