In an interview with Okayafrica, South African rap star AKA talks reaching for new levels in 2016.
Photo: Aaron Leaf
AKA is reaching for new levels in 2016. Levels, of course, refers to the South African rapper’s gold-certified sophomore album.
In the year-and-a-half since its release, AKA, 27, blew up in his home country and has become well known across the continent, especially in Nigeria, where he’s collaborated with a who’s-who of West African pop royalty from Burna Boy and Sarkodie to Wizkid and Ice Prince.
Just this month, AKA was selected as one of BBC 1Xtra’s “Hot For 2016” artists, a prestigious list that’s predicted the rise of megastars like Chance The Rapper, Sam Smith, Stormzy, The Weeknd and Disclosure.
In October, AKA stopped by our Brooklyn offices while in the U.S. to claim his AFRIMMAs (Afrikan Muzik Magazine Awards) for Best Male Southern Africa and Best Collaboration. We were originally only planning to quiz him about his phone. That all changed when the musician turned the table on us: “had we ever been to South Africa,” he wanted to know.
Our conversation turned into a tell-all about everything from the Johannesburg rap star’s friendship with Trevor Noah to his Naija love and his #FelaGoals on his next album.
Note: The following interview has been edited and condensed.
AKA: Have any of you guys been to South Africa?
I think it's very different to what people in the States think it is obviously. I mean the cost of living, for instance—you can get so much further with 100 bucks in South Africa than you can with 100 bucks here. That's pretty cool.
You think that our perception of South Africa is really different than how it actually is?
I definitely think there are different perceptions now. Hosting the World Cup changed everything. Obviously Trevor Noah is doing his thing and that's like a mainstream voice in mainstream America. I mean before Trevor Noah and before the World Cup maybe the only thing America really knew about South Africa was Nelson Mandela and the Lion King. That's different now, so yeah, that's good to see.
We hear you might go hang out with Trevor Noah at The Daily Show after you’re done chatting with us. How do you guys know each other?
Well, Trevor Noah is a well-known South African personality back home. We, the DJs and the artists and a lot of people in entertainment, we’ve known Trevor for a long time. It was pretty cool to see how big he is here in the States and around the world. He’s in the subways, on cabs and stuff like that. It was really cool to see his success. He’s a very likable guy.
To you guys he’s like brand new. I'm sure you guys will have to make your mind up about him, because obviously it’s a big task to fill Jon Stewart’s shoes. It's a bit weird watching The Daily Show with him as a host though, as a South African, because you feel like you’re watching local TV. You're like, "What?"
Trevor Noah and AKA at The Daily Show. Courtesy of AKA.
Do you feel like you and Trevor Noah are playing a similar role as far as changing Western perceptions about South Africa?
One hundred percent. I definitely feel that what he’s doing in his field—I mean he’s basically at the end now. He’s across the finish line. For me, I feel like I’m busy doing the same thing. Rapping in English also gives me that advantage. People don't switch off immediately, like “oh, I don't understand this”. You know?
It allows me to still tell the story from my country’s perspective. I don't feel like I'm telling my country's story. I don't feel like one of those rappers. I just feel like this is what I do and this is the perspective that I am coming from. I definitely feel like we are in different ways doing the same thing. Yes, I do, but not just for the States, for the whole world.
Right. For you it's like you’re not constantly retelling the “story of South Africa,” but just like naturally doing what you do and being who you are.
Yeah. I mean for instance, if I’m rapping in a song and I say something about Snapchat, it might make some American say, "Oh, they have Snapchat in South Africa?" You know what I mean? It's hard to quantify it, but just me existing and talking about things, you might find out some things you didn't know or confirm some things. You never know.
Of course there’s many different perspectives within South Africa, but have you noticed how South Africans are looking at America, has that changed at all?
I don't think so. I don't think South Africa or the world has really changed its view on the States. America’s place in the world is always going to be at the front of the line, because America is where we get our movies from, where we get most of our fashion from, our hip-hop. America is the birthplace of the culture. Everyone will always take their cues from the States, but recently the world is also looking elsewhere, and one of those places is Africa. It's interesting to see that happen.
What brings you here to the States this time?
I was nominated for some awards. They’re called the AFRIMMAs, African Muzik Magazine Awards. I don't know why they are hosted in Dallas, but they’re in Dallas. We were nominated and we decided to take a trip there. I was also nominated for the BETs earlier this year, so I was in Los Angeles which is really cool.
What's really happening with me is I'm getting a lot of international awards and recognition and nominations because African music is bigger than it's ever been. We've got a lot of artists penetrating the States and Europe and so forth.
For us it's a big deal to go to Dallas or to go to New York or wherever else because for me personally my own surrounding South Africa is getting a bit small for me. I'm too much of a big fish and the tank is getting smaller every day. I want to go back to being a small fish. That's why I'm here. We managed to win those awards actually.
Where would you ideally want to be a small fish?
I definitely have a big affinity towards Europe. I think Europe is cool because you find that a lot of the U.S. acts, a lot of the U.S. artists before they become big in the States some of them take the route to be big in Europe. For instance let's take A$AP Rocky. He became big via fashion and blogs and stuff in Europe. Obviously he was doing his thing here, but when he really blew up in Europe that's when the people in the States really started taking notice of him.
For me I just think that over there—not to say that people are not open-minded here—but over there people are always looking for something new and a bit weird and a bit left field. For me, definitely Europe, and I think the States after that.
What about you is weird and left field?
I think in terms of a global perspective me being from a country like South Africa is really weird enough: my perspective, my way of thinking, what I've experienced growing up. The way that I think is already a bit left field from what you would get from an American artist or what you would from a British artist. I think that my biggest strength is not being from here. It's being from a different setting.
I think if you look at the world right now, I think especially in the States, people are looking for a bit of a different story. I think even here in the States you guys want something different now. How many times can you hear, “sold drugs and went to jail, now I've got a Rolex.” I think that story has been told.
What's your story?
My story is just the story of growing up in a country that has a lot of contrast. Obviously South Africa and its past has its own issues of race and issues of politics. I try and touch on politics here and there in my music, but at the same time I also want to make people happier. I want to make people dance and smile and so forth. My story is really pretty basic.
I grew up in a normal family, not like a rich family or a super poor family, really middle class upbringing. My story is basically my music. I'm an artist-artist. I'm very much about the craft. I'm very much about my live performances. I also believe that if you don't have a great live show or a festival standard show then you can't have a long career. People who can't perform, they can't really have a career, and that's what I'm about.
How did you hone your live show?
Well, firstly I started off as anybody starts off, just a DJ and a mic. Actually before that, no DJ. Just a backing track. That's how everybody really starts. Then I obviously got my DJ and we worked together for about two years. Basically touring South Africa, we got like the major cities; Joburg, Durban, Cape Town. Then obviously all the cities in between.
Then I think three years ago I decided, man I need a band. And that's really where things really changed for me, because it enabled me to play festivals. It enabled me to change the dynamic of my show. When I perform now, you know when you’re playing with a DJ or you're playing with a song. If the song is three minutes the song is three minutes. With a band you can change a three-minute song into a six-minute song. It gives you flexibility.
Now we rehearse as much as possible about every week. Try and keep the show fresh. We've been to so many places. We've been to all over the continent; South Africa, Botswana, Swaziland, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, the UK, the States, the DRC.
Photo: Aaron Leaf
What's your reception been like on the rest of the continent?
It’s been amazing, you see because in Africa we've got media channels now. For instance now we've got MTV Base. That has changed the whole dynamic of music in Africa because now we know what's going on in Nigeria and Nigeria knows what's going on in South Africa and South Africa knows what is going on in Kenya and so forth. That's why you are seeing so many collaborations between all the artists.
We've also got Trace TV, which is big in Europe, and the internet and social media. Because of all those things, people are much more familiar with everybody's work. It's becoming more like America where you might be in different states and states might be a bit more autonomous and stuff. You know it's all part of one picture. That's basically what's happening in Africa now. It's all becoming one picture.
Wherever I go it's really great. Even in Francophone countries or Lusophone countries. People understand the language of music because in Africa people want to dance mostly and that's what we do.
Speaking of collaborations, do you have any you can tease?
Not here in the States, but definitely back in, well, in terms of the African continent. We do a lot of collaborations with Nigerian artists because the cool thing about the Nigerian market and Nigerians is that they are everywhere. You can find a Nigerian in New York or Paris or London or Tokyo or wherever. My strategy is basically to do as much music with Nigerian artists and go to Nigeria and tour Nigeria as often as possible as a springboard to do stuff overseas.
The problem with South Africans is there’s not as many South Africans by population. We've only got what, 42 million people in our country, and Nigeria is like 40 million people in one city, which is pretty crazy (editor’s note: most estimates put Lagos at around 20 million but growing rapidly).
As one of the top artists coming out of South Africa, do you see your influence on artists who are now emerging?
Yes, I see my influence in South Africa, but also on the continent. The continent is a huge place, you know. I mean just to put it into perspective, Nigeria and South Africa are like a six-hour flight away from each other. Maybe the perception was that Africa is this small close-together place and it's really not. It's a huge continent.
I also see my influence at home in my own country, but I’m starting to see my influence in other countries like Nigeria or Kenya or Tanzania, because for them they had gone through a similar situation where they had their own local languages. For them to say, "Well, actually I don't feel so bad about rapping in English and singing in English and telling my own story in English, because well, if AKA can do and find success, not just in the continent but overseas, then maybe I can do that as well."
That's a good feeling because I never set out to be like a role model or a pioneer or any of these things. I just did my thing and now to see it happen is really cool.
What can you tell us about your next album? Where are you looking to record it?
I plan to do as much of the album outside South Africa as humanly possible because I've done my two albums at home now, and now I just want to have a bit more of a pan-African sound and influence on my album.
I haven't really made up my mind about what I want the next one to sound like. I know it's going to be a bit harder, a bit more edgy, a bit weirder. A bit more like African, in terms of maybe, a bit more afrobeat. I need to find a way to fuse afrobeat and hip-hop music. It sounds like a train wreck when I say that. But I also said that to myself in the last album. I went and I mixed dance and house music with hip-hop music. There is a formula that I figured out; all your favorite house songs have samples in them, right? I love samples. All those samples are soul samples. Even soul from the '60s , '70s, '80s.
If I go ahead and sample the record they sampled in a hip-hop style, I end up sampling the sample. I end up sampling like, let's take like Armand Van Helden for instance. You know the joint, "You don't even know me, you say that I'm ..." It's a big dance song, but that sample is a soul sample. That's how I managed to figure it out. Oh, “if I sample that then I can bring house music and hip-hop music together.”
Now I need to find out a way to bring afrobeat music. Tempo-wise it's going to be a nightmare, but I don't know how I'm going to do it. I'm going to do it.
Horns on everything.
Yeah horns, exactly Fela and stuff like that.
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