The time was around a couple of minutes past 3 p.m. on a pretty mediocre Thursday when we got the call from reception that our appointment had arrived. Thoughts quickly gathered for a moment as we walked down the office stairs to confront our so called appointment. Here we go and here she comes. Rouge had just walked in right on time, dressed in one cool *ss biker jacket, the confidence to match and hair on fleek (of course).
The ‘Mbongo Zaka’ hit-maker had just taken a brief recess from her grinding schedule to have an in-depth conversation with HYPE in the rigid formal boardroom within our Publication Company’s office space. In just a few moments, Rouge would be transparently giving out the goods, the historical goods that have all brought her to this point in her life. Still, it’s her first time meeting some of us and probably our third time realizing what a fierce artist she has always been.
When we eventually start our chats, our conversation doesn’t miss an inch of realness. After a few introductions and HYPE break-downs were exchanged, talk quickly switches up to the origin story. Now talking about the come-up of any artist may seem like a cliché for some, but for HYPE, it has always been the most valuable part of information & understanding.
Last year, Rouge impressed SA hip hop so much that her adrenaline could not have been sidelined, especially when the year 2015 was heavily influenced by a “feminist” outcry throughout. Although that’s not the case. What could’ve possibly been her year of complete dominance, turned out to be her year of pure evolution?
Things are starting to come full circle for Rouge, who’s been honing her talents since the age of six. The Congo native & Pretoria bred artist has been fighting her way through a somewhat so crowded game. She couldn’t have imagined how difficult being heard would be, ironically, in a culture that primarily speaks-out for the voiceless.
You’ve been considered bubbling under for some time and recently started getting the mainstream shine from the moment our hip hop community began to lookout for leading “female” MCs. It had to take a feminist insight for people to realize how much of a skillful hip hop artist you are. It had to be a bitter sweet situation to finally be seen as a real threatening contender through being categorized as a “female” rapper first. Were you aware of the inequalities you would face when you started off? And how did you manage to look beyond that obstacle?
Very much, I don’t think that anybody who was trying to get into this game was aware of the stuff that they were going to go through, yet alone just it being a hard industry to get into but at the same time now being a female. For me I was like okay; if this is going to be hard then I will make sure that it is hard for a reason. Like there has to be a goal for this, you know? So that’s why I made it a point that I was going to battle this by bringing lyrical content. That was my thing, I was like if people are going to judge me, let them judge me for my bars. So I know how had I need to work in my writing, in my creativity and storytelling. It needs to come off to the point where there is no gender in my music, that has been my focus and I’m finally happy that it’s back to being what I’m known for. Obviously it’s been a harder journey for me because that’s the route I wanted to take and especially for the mainstream vibe. It wasn’t that easy to get into it because I was coming with this hard “not that type of commercial” vibe. But I’m willing to take that battle, I’m thinking longevity here.
Word. You ideally started off as a singer right?
Exactly I was a singer, so that’s why I was like if I’m going to do this I want to last and I want to be remembered for something. I have to become just as hard as the boys and that means hard work.
Have you ever felt sort of underestimated by the SA hip hop culture as a whole? This whole expectation that females have to work twice as hard to be taken serious in a very male dominated community is primarily seen as a must. First of all it’s quite challenging enough to go up the ranks as an MC, now you have those extra social push-backs ironically from a culture that fights for expressive liberation. Have you felt overlooked and underestimated?
I’m not going to lie and say that I don’t feel it, I feel it every day. I feel underestimated every single day. Especially for example, when people were calling me a bubbling under, it would still hurt me because it was like why am I still that you know? How long can you be a bubbling under for before you get that crack? And when it’s finally happened, there’s still that thing of “I still need to work” super Hard, in order to just keep this and make it even better than it is now. I also think that maybe it’s the drive, maybe this is what I need in order to keep writing because when I get comfortable that’s when writer’s block happens. You don’t have a story to tell, you don’t have any struggles and you don’t have anything to talk about because I have anything I want, but at the same time I’m not going to talk about money, cars and all that stuff. That is not entertaining, everyone talks about that. You need to bring something creative that people can relate to. So when things like that happen to me, when the struggles happen I have something to say. My worst times are when I’m most creative and that is the weirdest thing, so I guess it’s a blessing in disguise that things happen to me because I’m able to write my best.
Every artist starts off with specific demand-able dreams, but as time moves on those dreams seem pretty unreachable. So basically when reality strikes it’s pretty demotivating we assume, regardless of how optimistic you are.
And sometimes it’s not even about talent, you could be the most talented person but sometimes other people’s journeys are just easier. Maybe it’s not even easier, I don’t know what struggles everyone else has been through to get to where they are but my journey was my understanding that I was wrong by thinking that I was talented enough to just be accepted. That wasn’t the case, I had to work 10 times harder and literally had to consider myself a business at one point before the music. And I think that’s where we lacked and I think that especially as the females in the game we need to really keep that in mind because that’s going to give us such an amazing boost in the industry.
But have you ever had a real low moment in your career. A moment where you just felt stuck?
I remember the moment I felt that. It’s funny the way God works because for me it seems like every time I’m at my lowest the next day something happens. Where I can remember that feeling the most is when I think I was going through a proper depression and this is when nothing was going on. It was funny because I was telling my sister that I actually thought that I should maybe consider doing something else, because maybe I wasn’t bringing what South Africa needs, maybe my struggle is harder because of the fact that I’m Foreign and don’t necessarily tell the same stories as South Africans, maybe because I’m a female or I’m just not commercial enough. Next day I get a call from AKA’s people, literally it was the next day I was asked to come do the ‘Baddest’ remix and this was literally the moment when this person saw me perform once, months before.
“I have to become just as hard as the boys and that means hard work.” – Rouge
You’ve remained consistent with your artistry and music. What clicked for you to keep on pushing?
I think it was just the moment that happened and when AKA told me that I gave the hardest verse for him, the person who was the most unknown in the whole damn song [laughs]. For me I felt like all these girls had a name, a label and they had people pushing them. All I had was my paper and my pen, I had just left my PR company, I had no label and I had no management. All I had literally as a guide was my sister. She knows nothing about this industry, but said she would try and that has literally been my foundation. I’m watching people believe in me, so I’m going to deliver. This is not a coincidence how everything keeps happening the moment I feel like I want to throw in the towel.
Your energy just seems to be so raw and it’s evident when one lends an ear to your music. Lyrically you go in, artistically you so solidified with who you are and what you can do. Most of the time an artist goes throw certain stages of discovery pace by pace and it’s almost rare to find one that remains consistent with their approach and delivery from go. What is your overall mindset or idea when it comes to how you want to be perceived by the hip hop community?
You know I’m not going to lie to you, I still think I’m figuring that out as I grow and it’s so weird that when I write I always think that this is a crap, this verse is bad or what am I even talking about. Honestly if anybody knows me, they know that I don’t rush with my verses. That’s not me.
It seems so effortless though…
No chance. I hate going to studio and writing in studio. I never write in studio, I literally write when I’m at home. I write when I’m by myself, where there’s no pressure and I can take a month if I want to. I remember ‘Bua’ took me a proper month and it wasn’t even because it was OK, it was hard and it was like I had something to say and wanted to say it right. I had draft after draft until the point where there was nothing else I could think of.
Is there a certain formula that you use to feed into your creative process?
I do, the way I work is that I first have to have a topic and it can be me looking through the dictionary, it could be me doing whatever. There needs to be a word that calls out to me, whatever it is check, what do I want to talk about? Do I want it to be a love story? Is it about myself? Is it about my struggles? You know? Just to make sure that I don’t constantly talk about the same thing in all my songs.
The level of quality and development in the game, especially for SA, continues to build up & up to a point where just when we think we’ve done it all, another breakthrough takes place. Would you say you feel some kind of pressure to over-deliver because of how fast-paced everything is right now?
I mean I do, but I think that it’s a good thing and it keeps us on our toes, because when you get comfortable you start making lazy music and people are literally supporting you, the people buying your music and actually believe what you’re saying. Now if you’re just doing this for the money, that’s when the authenticity of what you’re trying to say is lost till people stop believing what you’re saying and you just become a fly-by-night. Then somebody else who is hungrier and actually has something to say comes and just takes over. That’s why it’s important for me, I don’t want to get comfortable. Nobody can do Rouge better than Rouge, it’s impossible.
“maybe my struggle is harder because of the fact that I’m Foreign and don’t necessarily tell the same stories as South Africans” – Rouge
Are you competitive by nature?
I am, I really am. That’s why I would not try copy anyone else’s status because I will lose. That’s the way this industry works, you can’t beat somebody at their own game. I’m just going with the flow of how I come up with my music, that’s why I can’t label what I’m trying to do yet. I still think I’m a baby to this game and once I have my first album I’ll be able to tell people this is who Rouge is.
Every artist has certain goals they want to achieve and a certain peak they want to reach. We consider you to being at the frontline of SA hip hop and we really want to know what impact does Rouge want to have in the game?
That’s such a good question, because honestly I don’t even think that’s something I’ve thought about. I just love music, that’s honestly where it comes down to. I want to be remembered for the amazing music I make, for the music that has touched people somehow and someway. I’m trying to make Congo proud. I’m trying to make South Africa proud, I was born and raised here. Not the most amazing glamorous life but not the most average & poorest person who was just in a sea of people who just decided to step out and stand-out. The fact is I love music and it’s as simple as that. I love hip hop, I fell in love with hip hop and that’s all I want to do for the rest of my life.