How Cassper Nyovest Became The Biggest South African Hip-Hop Artist
The story of how Cassper Nyovest became the biggest rapper—if not musician—in all of South Africa and the continent.
Love him or hate him, Cassper Nyovest has achieved feats your favorite rapper can only dream of. His latest album Thuto sold gold on its day of release (a first for a South African hip-hop artist) and his previous two albums both sold platinum.
Two years ago, he filled up the performance venue The Dome, which has a capacity of 20,000. No other South African artist has managed to do that—even some international acts like Trey Songz and Chris Brown—failed. He was also the first South African rapper to appear on Sway In The Morning.
Nyovest has had one of the fastest rises in the history of South African hip-hop. Just five years ago, he was nothing but a protégé of then-biggest rapper in the country HHP, appearing on songs of his like “Wa Mo Tseba Mtho" and “Padapa." This was the up-and-coming rapper's biggest boost. Hip-hop artists from Mafikeng (HHP, Khuli Chana, JR, Mo Molemi), where Nyovest is from, have a history of pooling their resources, resulting in a synergy that has seen motswako become the biggest South African rap subgenre.
Nyovest released a few solo songs circa 2013, which revealed a promising rapper, but not one who would become the biggest in the country. A song like the mellow “BMK" (2013) was laced with fitting lovey-dovey rhymes – the delivery was tight and the hook was catchy. It was a solid song, but didn't have that much of an x-factor to stand out from similar songs at the time.
But 2013 became a promising year for Nyovest after he released “Gusheshe," his collaborative single with OkMalumKoolKat. The song's kwaito influence, catchiness and uniqueness set the rapper apart—it came with a dance (the taxi driver), which is originally a BoyznBucks creation. It was after that song that the whole country and some parts of the continent started paying close attention.
In early 2014, Cassper Nyovest released “Doc Shebeleza," after frequently performing the song live in shows in 2013. This would become his way of introducing new songs. He would chant the hook to his next single between songs on his sets, creating anticipation for the full song.
While most hip-hop artists—the likes of Kwesta and MarazA come to mind—wait for years for their breakout single, Nyovest's “Doc Shebeleza" came just after a few years of him bubbling under.
“Doc Shebeleza" was a lot of things. It was both original and generic. The production was trap, while Nyovest delivered his verses like a new age pantsula—repeating lines while structuring his bars like an emcee. Secondly, the song was named after old school kwaito artist Doc Shebeleza, which saw the kwaito legend become acquainted with the rapper. The song was so popular, the alcohol brand Savanna appropriated some lines from the hook—they turned “Doc, Doc Shebeleza" into “Dark, dark Shebeleza" to fit their campaign. The single was that big a deal.
“Doc Shebeleza" was part of a wave—the resurgence of naming hip-hop songs after prominent people. It came after A$AP Ferg's “Shabba Ranks." That Cassper had stolen the concept became a discussion for heads on social media, which is a strategy Nyovest and his team deploy (more on that later).
“Doc Shebeleza" was big—it currently has 2 million views on YouTube. But the power of the song is seen at live shows. The rapper doesn't even have to rap—the crowd raps along to both verses and the chorus word for word. He infects the whole arena with an existential angst that turns grown men and women into euphoric teenagers.
As he rapped on “Cold Hearted," a song off of his debut album Tsholofelo, “I needed a song that would fuck the whole game up/ Now I got it, and I'm having a trouble staying grounded…," Nyovest knew he had arrived with “Doc Shebeleza."
The single was released as a free download, and it was a success. To date, it has been downloaded more than 622, 800 times, and that's a huge number. Releasing music for free was one way Nyovest managed to get his name out. “We came up with this model or structure to be fully independent. Our music is free, and anybody can download it. You'll never know where it will end up," he said about his come-up in a conversation with the online series 2 Broke Twimbos in 2015.
The rapper has never been happy with the amount of airplay his songs receive. Which is what makes his success progressive. He represents a new generation of artists in the country who have managed to build strong fanbases using mostly the internet. “Everybody else is doing so well with just radio, and I'm doing this without radio," he told the African Hip Hop Blog last year.
Cassper Nyovest performs at the Cape Town Lights Festival. Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela.
During the height of the song's hype, Nyovest tweeted that the song was the biggest in the county. And, he was right. But the rapper AKA didn't agree with a lot of us—he claimed his song “Congratulate" was bigger as it was number 1 on iTunes as opposed to Cassper's which was doing great as a free download. The feud sparked the two rapper's beef which is ongoing to this day.
It's undeniable that the beef boosted the two rappers' careers a great deal. According to online monitoring company BrandsEye, the beef provided R23 million ($1.8 million) worth of free publicity on Twitter and Facebook. You can read the full report here.
The beef helped catapult Nyovest into the mainstream—he was beefing with one of the biggest artists in the country, and him being the underdog played to his advantage.
At the height of the beef, Nyovest was playing humble, which a lot of South Africans favored. AKA, on the other side, was constantly being criticized for his arrogance. As much as Cassper had hits, a lot of fans gravitated towards him for his persona—his story was that of a young kid from Mafikeng, with big dreams, who started from nothing and was making something of himself, which is an inspiring story indeed, and one that many young South Africans relate to. Some tweeps have even gone on to say, a large number of Nyovest fans were just AKA haters.
Which is partly why his #FillUpTheDome campaign was a success. Ordinary South Africans and brands gathered to make his dream a success. It was inspiring to see a young South African think out of the box—this was the manifestation of the adage “dream big." The way the rapper made the announcement of his dream of filling up The Dome on Facebook was emotive. He made sure people understood it was bigger than him. “I want to inspire kids and dreamers and show them you can do anything you can imagine through prayer, faith and hard work," he wrote on Facebook.
“At the Dome," he told Forbes Africa last year, “I lost R3 million ($220,000) but the concept was not to make money but to shift culture. The value was not in money but an investment."
The rapper's sophomore album Refiloe was released on the same day as the concert. Every fan who attended got a copy—which was an automatic gold. Clever. The album would go on to sell platinum. He released Tsholofelo through his own label Family Tree, which today is home to bubbling artists like Tshego, Nadia Nakai, and formerly Gemini Major. Nyovest was adding another important skillset in his portfolio, one that many artists overlook, and that's the business side of music.
After The Dome, there was no stopping Nyovest. Your opinions didn't matter. You thought his album was a scattered mess or it was rushed, it didn't matter. He had done something no other artist from South Africa or the continent had done. He even received a letter from the president for his achievement.
For a long time after that, the rapper didn't have a song as big as “Doc Shebeleza," but he was still part of the elite of South African music. He would coast off that The Dome momentum. Until in 2016, when he attempted to fill up Orlando Stadium, which has a capacity of 40,000. Even though, he fell short by 4,000 (36,000 people attended), the show was a success—the production was out of this world. Combined with his other business moves, including endorsement deals, he topped the MTV Base Hottest MC's List for two years in a row, in 2015 and 2016.
By 2015, the rapper was a fully-fledged superstar with major endorsement deals and the money to back up his stature.
Nyovest was doing what not many before him had done. On top of collaborations with legendary South African artists like Mahotela Queens, Doc Shebeleza, he collaborated with the likes of Talib Kweli, The Game, and DJ Drama. On his latest album Thuto, he collaborated with Goapele and Black Thought from The Roots.
Love his music or not, Cassper Nyovest has managed to keep his name on South African music fans' lips. Be it through his hits, his beef with AKA or cringeworthy statements like saying black people in South Africa don't take offense to the n-word, or using 10 Rand notes on the video for “Tito Mboweni."
On the latter, the rapper's manager T-Lee Moiloa, said such antics are a way to get people talking. “You may see a song [on which] we put 10 Rand notes on the video, and people will [ask], 'Why don't you put 200 Rand notes'? But he (Cassper) told me, 'This is going to be the talking point,'" said Moiloa speaking at the Hip Hop Summit at the hip-hop festival Back To The City in April. “A lot of the things we do are very deliberate. Some of them, deliberate to shake up the tree, to speak about certain things. We hardly ever do things to piss people off. It's always to create talkability (sic), and we've managed to do that for the past four years."
When Nyovest releases songs, he indeed has us talking. For instance, “Slyza Tsotsi," a song in which he was featured on by Major League, wasn't received well on its release. But it went on to be one of the biggest songs of the year, with fans making videos of themselves doing the Slyza Tsotsi dance.
“Tito Mboweni," the first single off Thuto was also not well-received upon release. For one, it sounds like Future's “Stick Talk" and Nasty C's “NDA." But it has gone on to be one of the biggest songs this year, forcing critics to swallow their words that the song wasn't going to work. When the rapper performed the song at Back To The City, it had almost the same effect as “Doc Shebeleza."
For a long time, he had the accolades, but his music—especially his albums—were suspect. Both Tsholofelo and Refiloe lacked focus. Nyovest was trying to please everyone; he had house, pop, EDM, trap and kwaito songs all in one album, making for a painful listening experience.
However, he seems to have taken the criticism, as his latest album Thuto is focused, and sees him sharp as ever lyrically. The first half of Thuto sees the man in introspective mode over textured production (reference: the production J.U.S.T.I.C.E League gives Rick Ross), while the second half is celebratory with trap bangers like “Tito Mboweni," “Ngiyekeleni," “Top Shayela," among others.
With Thuto, Nyovest silenced most of his critics. The album is of the same stature as the man himself. Before the release of Thuto, the criticism was that he was a great businessman, but not as great as an artist. But as we speak, Cassper Nyovest is easily the biggest rapper—if not musician—in the country right now.
He achieved that by following trends and innovating at the same time. He used his beef with AKA to his advantage, worked hard, played with our emotions, and also listened to criticism (even though he probably won't admit it).
Download Cassper Nyovest's new album Thuto here.