#HYPEMoments: AKA – On Another Level

A look back at our Feb/March 2014 cover story featuring AKA in celebration of 50 years of Hip-Hop.

You can paint a pretty picture or you can paint a timeless masterpiece. You can protest in silence from your couch, or you can sacrifice 27 years of your personal freedom for the cause you believe in. You can make one jump shot or you can win six championships and become the standard to which every athlete in the world aspires. You can be a rapper. Or you can strive to create art that transcends time, genre and demography and is impactful enough that it comes to define the identity of your generation. You can write a rhyme or you can rewrite history. The point? There are LEVELS to this sh*t.

You wouldn’t catch too much heat for thinking that AKA is an obnoxious, self-serving, egocentric a*shole whose life mission it is to cause controversy by way of his polarising opinions. And though it would be fair for my credibility to be called into question considering that he was nice enough to grace this cover, which will help move these copies and in turn help support my many, many unspeakable habits, the reality is that the former statement couldn’t be further away from the truth. But, a more important and truthful statement to note is that: if AKA was an a*shole, he would strive to be the greatest a*shole the world has ever seen. That is only to lend testament to the man’s sheer dedication to his craft , regardless of what it might be at any given time. At the moment, that task happens to be changing the continental musical landscape. And it’s fair to say that he isn’t doing too badly at it thus far. This particular morning AKA is seated on the stairs at Coast Studios in Newtown sodomising a cigarette while the camera crew sets up. Fresh off starring in a 24-hour advert shoot, followed by six consecutive nights of travel and performance, and being in between rehearsals for both the Channel O Awards and SA Idols closing ceremony, he is basking in what everyone and their mama had initially told him would be the cause of his downfall in the industry: having standards.

“My new thing for a while now has been ‘What would D’banj do?’ Every time I’m in any situation pertaining to my career, I ask myself that question. Because D’banj is the biggest urban superstar out of Africa. More than his music being of monumental stature, he has raised the standards of professionalism for African artists so high that it’s no longer justified to call him just an African superstar. He is a global superstar, up there with the best of them. He’s worked hard to reach those heights and his aura commands that people treat him accordingly.” He digresses to mention how the shampoo he used in the shower this morning thoroughly burned his eyes. At this point, one wonders if this is some kind of profound metaphor to prelude what he is about to say next, but as it turns out, it was just some really bad shampoo. He continues. “Think about it, why must our stage lights and sound be all big and shiny every time an international artist is performing here? It’s f*cked up but D’banj is probably the only guy from Africa who gets that treatment in Africa! A guy like him, just by being that great, has opened the way for me to be even greater. But in South Africa we have this thing… It’s like some kind of inferiority complex where as soon as you realise your worth, everyone starts to look at you like you think you’re too big for them or too cool for school. Part of the reason hip-hop’s corporate identity is such a joke is because we allow all these corporations to treat us this way in exchange for a quick buck, you know?


And that’s just not me. We need to take the power back from these guys. Artists need to realise that the companies who knock on our doors for endorsements and shows and adverts need us to reach the people, not the other way around.”

You can’t really blame the guy for feeling this way. Exercising one’s voice often comes with a duality for which one of the sides earns you the ‘bad guy’ label. On one hand, you are celebrated for conquering your inhibitions. And because the fear of ridicule cripples most folk from doing the same, we admire the fearlessness, living vicariously through every valiant action (provided that it serves our agenda, of course). On the other hand, this very same fearlessness means you are often the one to venture into unexplored territory. Territory that, once discovered, sometimes disturbs the complacency of archaic business and artistic practices; a space often owned and monopolised by safe minds who may or may not be for authenticity and innovation, and sometimes in this business actually stand to gain from the perpetuation of mediocre standards. And let’s face it, our species, not being an ambitious one, tends to be resistant to change because monotony is just less unsettling. It doesn’t help that for a ‘bad guy’ on a mission, what is seen as a lack of respect for ‘the process’ is received with contention. To the extent that their very existence begins to offend us, whether there is plausibility in questioning these processes or not. So, we villainise them. And they become a scapegoat for our own insecurities. “How dare he?” “Who does he think he is?” “Why can’t he just be like everyone else?” Well, one would imagine the answer to that would be: because revolution was never brought about by those who operated within the system.


“My ambitions are the furthest thing from self-serving. Gone are the days when it was enough to just show up and perform. It’s time we press the refresh button on that. Now it’s about pushing the boundaries and making people realise that we can be on the same level and even higher than all these international cats who we blindly look up to. But our standards are low because everyone is just stuck doing the same thing over and over again. There’s a lot of hip-hop talent around right now but there aren’t many cats who you can say take themselves seriously enough and are trying to do something different to elevate the culture. That is what LEVELS are. There’s Tumi… he’s very unique in the way that he’s doing his thing. LEVELS. There’s Khuli Chana, who’s doing that in his own way. LEVELS. And maybe one or two other people on the continent but it’s not enough. No one is thinking world domination. Everyone is trying to be Kanye West or Drake and ‘make it’ overseas instead of being the D’banj of Africa and making overseas come to us. I wanna be THAT guy. I wanna sell out stadiums and make consumers feel like they got their money’s worth when they leave the show. I wanna put on million-rand productions with dope lighting and dope sound and establish our own Coachella right here. I wanna create amazing content and revolutionise the game. I wanna be ICONIC like Fela Kuti or Hugh Masekela. But the space between the people who have the money and resources to make that happen and the people who have the knowledge to make it happen is so vast that we are left at the mercy of all these brands because they’re guaped up. So, guess what? If they’re not going to help us, do it right, we’re going to grind it out by ourselves, build something solid that the fans can believe in and take back the power from these dudes. It’s time for us to own our own sh*t now. Then they’ll finally see the value in us.”

We take a drive to his JHB apartment and take a seat near a window that overlooks the celestial inner-city skyline. The height above the ground is perhaps the perfect metaphor for the ideology behind what is to become AKA’s sophomore album, LEVELS. And also, a very appropriate precursor for the herb-infused ether that follows, which descends upon the room with the same aggression that the hit ‘Heaven’, of the same subject, dominated the charts in 2013. Once we’re settled, it doesn’t take much for him to delve into the concept of the album. “First of all, I came up with the name way before Meek Mill dropped that track. I initially wanted to call the album Nostalgia but Frank Ocean kind of ruined that for me. LEVELS stems from a conversation that I had with Khuli sometime last year. He told me ‘There are levels to everything. Everyone needs to distinguish themselves from the next person and decide where they want to be in life.’ That really stayed with me.”


“Levels are what I have been talking about all day; throughout the duration of the shoot. We’re both Kanye fans and we discussed the Zane Lowe interview a bit and I think that whole thing will also help demonstrate to people what LEVELS is about. It’s about where you wanna see yourself in life and just going for that ma’f*cker; being the best version of yourself that you can be. It’s gotten to a point where it’s not enough just to survive or even live comfortably. There are degrees of everything: how far your career is; how in love you are with somebody. Do you love them this much or not so much? How serious are you about your craft? Imagine if I didn’t rehearse and just gave you the same show I’ve been performing for ages. I might get away with it and people will still enjoy themselves but the level of what we produce wouldn’t be as great. So what I’m trying to say about LEVELS is, with music, with videos, with photography, with whatever you do in your craft, how can you rise up so that it forces other people to make themselves better? And as far as me personally, it’s just me saying, this time around I want to be the greatest AKA that I can be. I even thought that for the next album, and if I could with this album, I would ditch the name AKA, and just call myself Kiernan Forbes. I’d just use my real name, you know? Maybe I’ll do that third or fourth album though. But to paraphrase, I just wanna make things better. To be great. Raising the standard to an unimagined height. It’s a mentality to live by.” 


Though his obvious excitement about this project is uncontainable now, it wasn’t always the case. “It took me the longest time to get excited about the process of making music again. After I’d released a bunch of music, I got to the point where it was just about doing shows and handling commitments and the business side of things. Now I’ve done so much in terms of production and I’m very confident about where I’m at with my music. At one point, I remember listening to all the work we’d done for this album and wishing that I could pull a J Dilla and put out an album of just 13 instrumentals. That’s how proud I am of the production on this joint.”

He reveals that for a long time after he came down from the high of Altar Ego, there was a slight redirection of priorities in his life. And understandably so. The curse of the rookie is real. The position which any artist is in after dropping a successful first album is trickier than the most complicated move on the Kama Sutra. It’s the moves that are made in that fragile space between the first and second albums that determine whether you Hurricane Chris the game or you Drake it. And when you consider that in the South African context, the industry is so young that there isn’t really a precedent for success nor affixed model to follow, it makes things a whole lot more difficult for the artist in question. It’s up to them to discover the next frontier because whether they want the responsibility or not, in that specific period of time, you are the symbol of what hip-hop represents to the people. One can imagine that that pressure alone must be maddening. 


He jumps to agreement when I mention how friend and mentor, Khuli Chana, had once expressed this challenge leading up to his own second album, Lost in Time. “I identify 100% with what Khuli said. I’d say, for me, the hardest part about making this album was the writing. Which is the reverse of the first album where the writing was natural and organic and the production was more of a challenge. Just ‘cause I put all of myself into Altar Ego and now when people ask me about my second album, I think to myself ‘what am I supposed to say? What do people want to hear from me now?’ You know? And also, recently I’ve gotten very private with myself. Even going out is an exercise because people demand so much of you. I’ll never get my first life back… Not that I want my first life back or that I’m not grateful for my career. But you gotta understand that now people are watching twice as hard. They’re scrutinising the lines twice as much. They’re critiquing the beat and the concepts way more than they did before. And I can do one of two things: I can either cement my place in this game with this second album. Or I can be like ‘Yo, that first album was hot’ and leave it there and accept that things will never be the same. That’s the juncture that I’m at in my career right now.” 


LEVELS is not only an important album because second albums generally help to solidify an artist’s identity. With the core production team comprising of ‘Kontrol’ producer Sticky, keyboardist and band member Master A Flat, and AKA himself, LEVELS also serves as AKA’s first directed proper venture into experimental rap. Somewhat rooted in dance music, the album’s sonic texture is the result of fearless creativity and clinical understanding of the contemporary musical atmosphere. “The whole thing about this album for me was to take different genres and put them together. In the 21st century, no one is exclusively a hip-hop music lover or a house music lover because if you truly love music, those labels don’t mean a damn thing. As a hip-hop artist I love house music and the house cats love hip-hop music. And that’s really how the whole of South Africa and Africa is. I want to be the guy to create a new genre of music the same way Mafikizolo has. If you listen to Mafikizolo you can’t say that what they make is Afro pop or kwaito or house ‘cause it’s way bigger than that. It’s just continental music for everybody. I want Africans to say ‘I’m not really interested in what’s going on in the States’. I want to be another D’banj! I want people to love the music and for them to say ‘damn, no one else could’ve done that but AKA.’” 


When asked about whether he has any inhibitions about being crucified by our often very judgmental hip-hop community for possible claims of not ‘sticking to roots’, he alludes to the idea that, in the 21st century, one must be at peace with the fact that, like every other genre in the world, hip-hop audiences are stimulated by things other than intricate metaphors and scientific lyrics. But he also reassures us that his interests are still as much in hip-hop as ever before. “I want to be clear that the music is not crossover because it’s not house music, it’s rap music. It’s NOT house music. You see, I’ve stumbled on a formula. Take a nostalgic dance track (starts singing ‘Star Dust’). I’d listen to songs like that and want to sample them. Then in the process I’d find out that all of these iconic dance joints are sampled. These cats sampled other cats; maybe some old school soul singers from the ‘60s or the ‘70s. And I go and I sample the house version. So what am I really sampling? The soul music. And that’s where hip-hop started, that’s what it’s about. Kanye WestJ DillaDJ PremierQ-tip… it’s all soul music. Now with the South African dynamic it’s so exciting because it’s like killing three birds with one stone – soul, hip-hop and what we’ve done to create our own interpretation of dance, being house music. When I started working on it, I wanted to call the album Nostalgia but then Frank Ocean ruined that for me with his album. But I think that that would’ve been a more powerful statement for what I’m doing sonically on this album. Did you ever smell something; a perfume or shampoo or anything, and it reminds you of a certain time from the past? Or you see a movie or hear a song and it takes you back to an experience and you’re like ‘man when this song came out, I was in matric and I used to drive that beat-up white Corolla and it was December,’ you know? That’s where the sampling comes in. Taking people back to another time.”


His phone rings and he is being reminded about his rehearsal in 30 minutes for the SA Idols finale. After assuring the person on the other line that he will be there on time, he punctuates his feelings about his second offering with the kind of self-vote of confidence that wouldn’t surprise anyone coming from AKA. “Look, I know the work I put in. I’m telling you next year I swear it’s f*cking over for anyone who sees me as competition. They’re going to understand LEVELS. When this album comes out, I’m gonna run it for like four years. Just watch.” 


Revolution is gradual. AKA will likely not attain political freedom for an entire race of people, free slaves or have all the answers like Sway. But every single revolutionary accomplishment in history began with a ‘bad guy’ who was just ‘delusional’ enough to believe that there could be an alternative to the status quo. “I just wanna be better than I was yesterday and better than I was last year. At the end of every year you should be able to ask yourself ‘was this year better than last year?’ I don’t ever wanna go backwards. My famous quote that I live by is something Khuli told me a few years back: ‘Get over your successes as quick as you got over your failures.’ That’s basically it. I just wanna be better. I’m going to be better.” Time either makes fools out crazy men or makes legends of revolutionaries. A*shole? Nah. Revolutionary? We’ll see. But one thing is for sure: the level has been set. Music is contemporary. Art is forever.


This story appeared in HYPE magazine #59, written by Fred Kayembe, with visuals by Grant Difford.

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