A look back at our Dec 2015/Jan 2016 cover story as AKA and Cassper’s feud heats up
No matter in what field or facet of life, every generation produces a handful of prodigies. Mortals who, by celestial design, have physical and/or mental abilities that are capable of transcending them to a demigod state of being. Of these few prodigies, there are even fewer who discover those abilities and are able to harness them for their intended purpose during their lifetime. And of that miniscule margin, even after the realisation and success of their own majesty, if we are lucky, there will be two who can carry the responsibility of what it takes to be a demigod among men
Since the beginning of time, the rule of two has never been disputable: Nike and adidas. Federer and Nadal. Jay Z and Nas. Foreman and Ali. Goku and Vegeta. The distinction between the pair of rivals and every other brilliant human is never determined by skill, timing or opportunity. It’s never determined by talent. It’s determined by an intangible quality that shows itself the best in the most trying of circumstances: sheer will. This is the difference between being a moment in history and being the history. It’s this relentless drive that makes them a different breed of man.
Statistically it is very unlikely that two prodigies on the same path will start out even knowing of each other’s existence. So they rule over their respective domains until they hit the ceiling. And when the inner beast becomes starved, it forces them to leave the confines of their environment and seek greater challenges. When they first meet, they are usually not aware of each other. But from the moment they realise for the first time (through a series of battles that were less easily won than against previous opponents) that winning is not a birthright, they both know it is the beginning of a war where only one man can remain standing in the end. In 2015, the South African music audience finds itself front and centre of a viewing of the most epic hip-hop rivalry in arguably the most successful year in local music history.
Let’s keep it one hundred. Everything there is to be said about this supposed beef has already been said. This could have been an interview with both or either of these guys, in which an atmosphere where they are encouraged to say unsavoury things about each other is laid out, while we ride the media wave at these guys’ expense. It’s very doable too; this year, in these hip-hop streets, the mention of the names AKA and Cassper Nyovest in the same sentence has been a bigger attraction than the Rugby World Cup and the #FeesMustFall student protests combined. But how many times can one be entertained by the same thing? The questions have been asked; you’ve heard the interviews: “Yes, it’s real.” “No, I didn’t do it.” “Why can’t he leave me alone?” “I don’t have a problem with the dude.” “There’s only one Supermega.” “I still love you though.” The songs have been sung, the shots have been fired, the slaps have been swung, and the tweets have been sent. This is not that. The glamorisation of the non-musical aspect of this contention is over with.
A less prevalent and less popular perspective on this saga is how interesting it is that throughout the two and a half years it’s been going on, the media and public have been stuck on this preoccupation with drawing comparisons between the two stars when, in reality, they have more in common with each other than they have differences. The ways that this is glaringly obvious force one to believe that it has never been about what is right and what is wrong, or who is the better rapper or superior artist; the primary thing has always solely been about what is entertaining – true or not.
Meaning, the public and the media were just as instrumental, if not the most instrumental, in catalysing all the shenanigans, and like the public-conscious personalities that many musicians are, both Cassper and AKA were simply guarding their reputations instead of dealing with their matters at hand. It’s kind of like when you were much younger, and you were denied an ice cream by one of your parents, you went to your other parent or your grandparent and they gave in. Then you ate your ice cream in pure gratification while each of their concerns about how their child views their authority clouded them from realising their common interest: you. Yeah, you and I are that kid in this analogy and Cassper Nyovest and AKA are the parents. Weird thought at first, but ride with it for a while.
When Cassper raised the stage in what was an impressive visual spectacle at #FillUpTheDome, looked down on the thousands of people and repeatedly declared, “I’m about to be the best in the world,” it wasn’t just a magnificent moment because of great production. It was also a moment of self-realisation for the Maftown prince, because it was symbolic in action of how he’d always viewed himself in theory: sovereign, powerful and commanding. All of these are traits that are consistent with ambition, especially in hip-hop where masculinity and bravado have been a big part of the definition of what a rapper is supposed to represent. While AKA has played the unapologetic villain role consistently since the beginning of his career, Nyovest’s behaviour contains extremes of both humility and dominance – in his music and his actions. This is not to say he is fake or even insincere; if anything, it demonstrates the opposite.
“THE GLAMORISATION OF THE NON-MUSICAL ASPECT OF THIS CONTENTION IS OVER WITH”
Even the noblest man walks that line between ratchetness and righteousness; the way he is viewed by everyone depends on whether he chooses to share that battle with the public or just represent one of those sides. In Cassper’s case, the courage to embody the hypocrisy that every single human being represents by rapping a line about gaudy jewellery and following it up with vulnerabilities like family issues, is perhaps what unsettles some. AKA famously highlights Cassper’s knack for this in ‘Composure’: “I know you play like you’re humble, but we’re just one and the same.” Cassper himself has pointed out his diverging mannerisms on a couple of occasions including ‘428 to LA’ where he raps: “I f*ck ‘em and I never say hi though/ I tell them it’s because I’m shy though, but everybody knows that’s a lie though!” These recorded and spontaneous moments help to reveal the main similarity between Cassper and AKA: the desire of a prodigy often never stops at just being great, even by his own initial standards of success; he must be the best and the only.
It’s not a coincidence that they have both famously mentioned that they draw from Kanye West as their main artistic influence. If ‘Ye represents anything, it’s the belief of self, even to his own detriment at times. His disregard for structures of authority, rules, limitations and convention has been the theme of his career since he broke his jaw and overcame the odds by writing a song about it, which catapulted him to mainstream success.
Similarly, AKA has never been afraid to tackle issues headfirst. Whether it was rap beef (L-Tido, Blaklez, Anatii, and so forth), or the asinine action of dismissing corporations like SAB and Big Concerts (conventionally a huge part of an artist’s income), AKA said what he wanted to, when he wanted to say it. And like Yeezy and a few others in hip-hop (Hova, Yeezus, the 6 God, Trap Lord), AKA seeks to assert his presence with titles and actions that suggest the idea of one powerful, sovereign being: “Supermega,” “third-world boss,” “the baddest in the South.” They are meant to automatically make you uncomfortable and make you question your position in the hierarchy as a competitor in the field. This dynamic, coupled with Cassper’s affinity to garner support as the victim while AKA thrives on being the bad guy, has created a fatal attraction where Kiernan gets off by getting his fix of villainy, while Cassper is passive and gets his by showing up AKA as a man of poor character. Different strategies and personalities; same goals.
“IF WE ACCEPT THAT MUSIC SHOULD REFLECT WHAT IS GOING ON AROUND US AND THAT OUR EXPERIENCES ARE DIVERSE, IT ONLY MAKES SENSE THAT THERE ARE DIVERSE MUSICAL INTERPRETATIONS OF THE TIMES”
Both AKA and Cassper also have a common theme in their recent career history: African excellence. Coming off two decades when the mass population of rap listeners around the world only had New York and LA relevant things as a reference for rap content, in South Africa, both have been instrumental in instilling pride and putting the cool back into being Africans, as well as taking it abroad and emphasising it to the world. AKA is a South African mascot who all should be proud of. After handling global rap rites of passage like Tim Westwood, a BET performance and countless nods and accolades with finesse and confidence in Africa and overseas, he is the new definition of South African cool. Nyovest’s energy and momentous moves making the likes of Casey Veggies, The Game, Wiz Khalifa and legends like Talib Kweli and DJ Drama recognise his greatness is no small feat, considering there are rappers and artists in the same cities as some of these American rappers who can’t even get them to respond to a tweet. Much of this has been done while not compromising vernac and Cassper’s general Maftown idiosyncrasies like slang and style. Like the bone-chilling track ‘American’ on Refiloe advocated: no fake American accent, no Crip or Blood gang signs and no exaggerated references about 40/40 Clubs that don’t exist where we live.
AKA’s belief against being treated as second-rate artists in SA resulted in protests against opening for Justin Bieber, Schoolboy Q and Kendrick Lamar, among other international superstars, essentially sacrificing handsome cheques in order for corporate SA to change its views. Cassper responded to the perceived disrespect of African talent by first going off on Woolworths for booking Pharrell for their green campaign this year, and of course later putting his money where his mouth is by packing up the Ticketpro Dome with 20,000 people without the presence of an international musician. Different strategies and approaches; same cause.
One could look at both the stat sheets, compare them and conclude a winner based on whichever criterion one chooses; that would be the obvious thing to do. They are already rivals, we might as well pick a side. Which in the context of epic battles, usually means the demise of the ‘loser’. He becomes a footnote in history and his legacy is reduced to “that rapper who was killin’ it once upon a time.” Or, one could look at both stat sheets and choose to see them in a bigger picture light: valuable contributions to not just local rap and hip-hop culture, but South African and African music and arts.
This competitiveness is what makes them both so compelling; neither will give in. The sheer will to dominate over the other requires showmanship, mental and emotional strength, composure, strategy, skill, intuition, and a little bit of luck too. The musical squabbles bring out these qualities in a way that regular music put out with just the intention of performing well on commercial platforms never can. Nas was lukewarm for some time after ‘Illmatic’, but suddenly snapped into his best lyrical shape on ‘Ether’, for instance. It’s great for the culture because up until the mid to late 2000s when vulnerabilities in rap music started to become more accepted, it was almost impossible to separate the direct competitive element from the craft of spitting bars. And we have all been privy to these monumental musical moments from Cassper and AKA in the past two years. “As much as it may look like we have a problem with each other, I won’t sit here and tell you that this battle hasn’t made me a better artist,” Cassper admitted at the #FillUpTheDome press conference in early October. “And the same applies for him. When we weren’t battling, he released songs like ‘Sim Dope’. I heard ‘Composure’ and I couldn’t front like it wasn’t good. I mean, I’m still the best; I beat him. But what this has done for the culture, no two artists have ever done before. Right now we are the only things that matter.” It doesn’t make sense to only have one at a time. Back in the ‘90s it did, but that was only because the culture emerged from the streets.
And in the streets, everything was about establishing a food chain. The system bred competitors because the conditions required it; it was survival of the fittest. It was about owning the block, having territories and establishing command where there was a definitive don in every block whether it was about crime, selling rocks, playing ball or any other street dream.
Today, no one still rocks the oversized XXXL Pele Pele denim suit, because it’s played out and has little practical use in 2015, so why do we hold on to the archaic belief that only one artist at a time can share their work at the highest level imaginable? Why is there a cap on the amount of good music that can be produced and released at the same time? Yes, some of that lies with the artists involved; there is little one can do as a fan when two people who happen to influence culture through music and are the best at it just simply hate each other. But many times, such as in this case, the consumer’s and the culture’s conditioning force these guys into a do-or-die position because of ‘street cred’ or ‘respect’. Someone has to get murked and someone has to emerge the victor. All that it essentially does is halt the development of the entire industry by a couple of years.
Before 2015, the idea of 20,000 people showing up solely to a local act, especially a hip-hop one, was considered a fallacy in present day and a goal for the next five or so years. Now that it’s a reality, the industry and culture at large have been catapulted forward by a few years. The accomplishment has changed the face of hip-hop; an attribute that so many will benefit from in the right now and in the future. That’s why anything beyond musical competition makes no sense. In the event that Cassper, for instance, is annihilated by AKA while in the process of changing the game, everyone loses out on that opportunity. We only get half of the development that would come from AKA, making the journey to African global excellence much longer and more arduous.
And the loss only serves to add to the endless list of hip-hop stereotypes and detractions that the world, where the Sam Smiths and the Taylor Swifts co-exist at the highest level, have of us.
One may appeal more to the Northerner (JHB) whose spectrum of reality is really gold slugs, champagne popping, lavish whips and Margiela kicks mixed in with some social consciousness and a snide sense of humour; while the other might more accurately represent rural ambitions, moral struggle and general progression mixed in with pantsula sensibilities and the kind of rawness associated with true hustler’s ambition. One may have gone to a private school while one may have not even finished school. One may currently be the poster boy for “ain’t sh*t” dudes as far as romantic affairs are concerned and the other may be the glaring public personification of monogamous romance. One might have his sights on being the biggest while one might have his sites on being the best. The reality in all this is that both of them simultaneously represent exactly who the progressive urban listener in South Africa in 2015 is. Sometimes you’re a hybrid of both. And you may not actually have gold in your mouth or sport a long ponytail but the values they represent in being themselves are shared by so many and that’s why beyond having the meanest bars or the best dance moves, they speak to you every time the beat drops. And that’s why they have the power to divide the masses. But if we accept that music should reflect what is going on around us and that our experiences are diverse, it only makes sense that there are diverse musical interpretations of the times. No one is saying rappers need to hold hands and walk off into the sunset together. Competition is inseparable from these bars.
But depriving ourselves advancements helps no one. We are in the presence of an abundance of African greatness from two of the biggest figures to ever do it simultaneously; something that only happens once every couple of decades. And the fans and media need to recognise their part in this cycle. With that said, congratulations to Cassper Nyovest, 2015 HYPE Magazine Man of the Year, for pushing the envelope and setting the new standard for African artistry and business smarts. You are the stuff that dreams are made of. You are African excellence.