Nasty C. Photo: Liezl Zwarts.

Nasty C, South African Hip-Hop's Boy Wonder, On His New Album 'Strings and Bling'

We interview Nasty C about his widely-anticipated sophomore album and his growing stardom.

Nasty C, 21, is the boy wonder of South African hip-hop and one of the finest musical talent on the entire continent. His new album Strings & Bling, released on July 6, has been widely-anticipated, especially after the critical triumph of his debut Bad Hair (2016) which introduced a superbly skillful MC, wavy trapper and astute rap-singer of unbounded creative scope.

Before the success of Bad Hair, Nasty C made his name with a trio of releases: One Kid, A Thousand Coffins (2013), C.L.A.M.E (2014) and Price City (2015). In June, while in London to perform at the annual One Africa Fest, the Durban native sat down with OkayAfrica contributor, Sabo Kpade, to discuss his sophomore album, growing stardom, his development as an MC and his early releases and why he refuses to rap in Zulu.

What are your expectations for all Strings and Blings?

I don't have any.

You can't not have any.

No, seriously, I don't have expectations. I have hopes. I don't want to predict how it makes people feel or what people get from it or what it does. I just want people to accept it for what it is and if they like it, they like it. If they don't like it, they don't like it.

Why did you want ASAP Ferg on "King"?

ASAP Ferg is always one the guys that i thought was definitely responsible for the new wave taking over. The bangers that he puts out and also it just changes people's slang, that type of stuff. Also, he's part of the group that does that collectively, not in just like music fashion.

You revel in a clever use of words and language, sometimes changing annunciation to rhyme words that don't otherwise correspond—as you did on "King" rhyming "timeline" with "Ghana," and "winner darling" with "Devil's car."

Yeah, I learn that from Eminem. He inspired it, definitely. Because I feel like most of my idols are not just my idols because they were successful in music. They're my idols because they teach people how to do stuff. They go against what people do and they show people that you could also do it this way. Young Thug, that man, he understands that an artist doesn't paint one picture the same way every time. Every canvas deserves it's own special kind of way of working with and Young Thug does that.

I don't hear West Coast rap in you. It's mainly Southern trap. Is this something you're conscious of or is this simply a function of the age/era you grew up in?

I guess one, it's age because the first song that made me pay attention to the music, was a trap song. It was T.I.'s kind of trap. So it'll definitely come across in my music, right?

But there's also a lot of New York or East Coast traditionalist rhyme patterns and delivery as with "Another One Down" off Strings and Bling and, more obviously, "Vent" off Bad Hair.

Some songs you can't deny, though. It doesn't matter what genre it is or what style of hip hop it is. Some songs are just like undeniable, so when I hear them, even without me noticing it, they evoke something in me. Some songs, you might not even remember the lyrics, but you definitely remember how it went and what it did to you, what it felt to you.

Ludacris was a fearsome lyricist and pop juggernaut in the mid around the same time as T.I. in the early to mid-2000s. His lyrics were also fantastically nasty. I wonder if your knack for nasty lyrics—like "if I throw a couple of gees up / she'll prolly let my shadow fuck" ("Coolest Kid In Africa")—was influenced by him.

Yeah, at some point, but he wasn't really somebody that I looked at beyond music, you know what I mean? He's dope, undeniably. I'm not taking anything away from Luda, but he's not one of those people that inspired me. That's just me being creative.

Your version of Runtown's "Mad Over You" is incredible for improving on an already perfect pop song. It is maturely ruminative and philosophical about emotional turmoil. Does it have a specific emotional origin or is it a generalised response to the song?

Right now, I'm in this space where I'm reading a lot of books and just growing myself mentally and as a person. There's some things I definitely feel I have a responsibility to do. I know that there's some people looking at me and get inspired by everything I do, so I might as well, even if it's just subconsciously, without them even noticing it, trigger their minds to unlock new levels, so that they can also think.

So you willfully embrace the responsibility and burden of being a role model?

You have to. People fan out when they see us and they go crazy, and they put us so high above themselves. It's like sometimes I look at it and I get worried because of guilt. You probably have the same amount, or even more, potential that I had at your age, or even at any point in my life. But you just don't see that because you idolize everyone else besides yourself.

The rap verse on "Mad Over You" is, to me, one of your structurally and emotionally complete verses. Do you rank it highly?

It's definitely one of them. The other one is a verse I did on "Another One Done" (off Strings & Bling). I feel like that's one of my favorite and one of my best verses. Actually that whole song.

Structurally or emotionally?

Both. The way I put it together, the way it speaks to me every time I listen to it. I feel the same emotions that I was feeling when I was recording, every time I hear it. Sometimes even more. Like when I'm a little tipsy, or when I'm just like in my feelings and into it, I listen to it, I was just like, "Yeah."

You bring new shades to what we know as common phrases—"I was digging my grave and found gold" ("Jungle"), "Ain't nothing cooler than the wrong moves, when you do 'em to the right song" ("Particula")—are these conscious things you do or has it naturally evolved from your writing?

It is. It is [conscious]. It's like when I said, "I made it and made it possible," I'm just talking about going against what people thought was normal, what people thought was the only way of making it or the only way of getting your deserved credits or whatever. Right? And I made it possible to do it, the only way. At least where I'm from. Because where I'm from, not that many people think positively or think that much of themselves or feel like they could even make it out of where they are. So this is like a constant reminder that it's possible and that I kind of encouraged it every single time and that they can do it.

Last year, you were nominated for the BET "Best International Act Award" which, to some, is a big deal but you've also said, in an old interview, that you don't care for awards.

That's a bad way to put it.

It is not the reason why you make music?

They can critique my music, yeah. They don't know where it comes from, so I shouldn't look for validation from them, to say, "Okay, your song is good enough to be the best." I wasn't thinking about those people when I was in studio. I wasn't thinking about competing, I was doing it for myself. I don't care if you think that person is better. But I respect award shows for what they are. At least they make it known to the public that artists deserve a nod for what they do.

What, then, are the markers of your success?

When I see somebody doing good and they quote me and they quote my lyrics, or they mention me somehow in their success story, that's the biggest reward you could ever get. That is the biggest reward I could ever get. Anything else comes and goes, that stays forever.

Tell me about the three features on Strings & Bling.

ASAP Ferg is the only really long feature on my album, because I love that song so much. But the two other vocalists, one of them is my artist, the other one is a girl from Durban called Kaien Cruz, who I think has so much potential, so I had to put her on the album. And then the one I signed is Rowlene. I funded her and helped her in every way I could, before I even had a label, it was just genuine support.

Are you actively working on both your label and your own music?

My relationship with her [Rowlene] is still the same. She'll come to me if she needs advice about something or if she wants guidance in the studio, she'll just come to my place. It's still the same, we're still like super chill. And then, everyone else is just like respectfully tied to certain duties.

Your first mixtape One Kid, 1000 Coffins in 2013 is scarily fluent and super-impressive for a 15/16 year old. Was it the one thing you were good at, at that age?

I definitely knew that this is something that I wanted to do for the rest of my life and that I was on the track because I was getting the amount of compliments that I was getting. But it's not like I wasn't sure it was going to do any good. Even at that time, I didn't even have access to the internet and all that type of stuff. I had somebody else do that for me. My plan was just to send a few to my friends. So I wasn't sure that I was super dope or whatever.

Tell me about how you recorded it.

I did everything myself. From the beat to recording, to shooting the videos on my phone and editing them, just sending them around till somebody uploads the videos. At some point, I even used the Nokia earphones.

Not even the Apple ones?

No, bro. I didn't even know iPhone was a thing. It was rough but it was so much fun, man. I miss those days. I miss having to scramble and fighting and getting what you want and what you've been saving for so you could record something.

You showed astonishing precocity for an early teenager. You really were not aware of how good you were?

I wasn't praising myself. No. I was trying. I was just doing my best, the best I could.

Yet you sounded so confident and cocky.

I just had so much fun with it that, whether people liked it or not or this and that, wasn't really a concern. Because the people I was making it for would've listened to it anyway, because they were my friends. So I didn't even know if I was dope, or the dopest out. I was saying all that stuff because I was just in my head and just having fun with it so much.

Nasty C. Credit: Liezl Zwarts

Do you ever listen to your other early releases C.L.A.M.E (2014) and Price City (2015) ?

Sometimes. You know, it'll be some nights or some days where me and my photographer (Teddy Max), the first person that's ever followed Nasty C. We'd just be in the house, just chilling and he'll remind me of like "Yo, you remember when I came to your house this other day, you were recording this song?" Then we'll go back and we'll try to find it and then we play. Those are the only times I really, really, really listen to it.

Will it ever be reissued?

One day, if I do a movie or write a book. I will definitely write a book.

Any reasons why you're now reading a lot?

I actually started taking reading seriously and enjoying it about three years ago and I wasn't even that deep. I couldn't even finish a book, like I'd just read halfway. I think it was because I was reading novels.

About a year ago, two years ago, I discovered a book that wasn't a novel, it was a textbook. It was like a guide to success or something like that. So that's when I started reading and applying the stuff that I was reading to my life. So reading was like a part of my weekly schedule or whenever I got the time. Then, a year ago, I got introduced to "Think and Grow Rich" by Napoleon Hill. And that's when I really started reading a book religiously, like every time I get tired on a flight.

In school, what type of student were you?

I was only reading in school, because I had to. I was a decent student. I wasn't good. Like I wasn't one of those students that always stuck out at school. I didn't even like school, not even at that age.

You've been accused of refusing to rap in Zulu and embracing your heritage. There's a self recorded Youtube video of but there's only one Zulu on the album, in the song "Blisters".

I probably could do [rapping in Zulu] justice, but I feel like, if I do that, it'll distract people so much from what I'm saying and what I'm trying to send across. They'd just be focused on, "Oh, he's rapping this ... It's really great."

I don't want you to miss what i'm saying here. I don't want it to distract you. Like if I put on the accent when I say something, it's because the accent's got something to do with what I just said. And also, it'll be very limiting (rapping in Zulu). That's all I speak like when I'm with my friends. But when it's time for me to send a message across, I need it to go further and beyond just me and my crew or me and my country, my country.

'Strings and Bling' is available now.

Collage by Ta'Ron Joyner

I Would Rather Breathe Than Think Outside the Box

South African artists were already working for little to no pay, but the pandemic has unleashed a flood of exploitative work requests right when we need money the most.

This essay is part of OkayAfrica's SA Reframed series, featuring personal writing from some of South Africa's best young writers edited by Verashni Pillay.

On the radio the other day, I heard a small business owner of a costume design company being interviewed and asked how they have managed to:

a. Reinvent themselves during this period, and

b. Think outside the box while doing so.

Their conversation made me think about how I have not managed to wrap my head around any sort of future, or reinvention outside any kind of box—beyond the one that wraps itself around my immediate reality. When the lockdown was announced, three friends and I withdrew to a remote area where internet access was dubious and, most times, simply not available. I would need to walk a bit of a distance to locate a spot under a tree or up a mountain to be connected for thirty minutes, or so.

Then I would do a basic comb through my emails and respond to work or requests that were already underway pre-lockdown. I only responded to new requests that either afforded me the opportunity to earn an income or those that allowed me to be productive on my own terms.

I was tired, lowkey grateful for the global pause, and no longer interested in the overly productive, overloaded nature of my previous normal. Something about the forced halt made me realise that I was on the edge of everything—myself included. I turned down anything that required me to join the endless online festivals, zoom panel discussions, Instagram takeovers and live readings. I refused all opportunities that needed me to grapple with any sort of forced normalcy. The ones that offered data or airtime or solidarity as compensation or assumed that I had gone pro bono. I needed a moment. I needed the space and time to re-bargain with the point of it all.

The pause was both useful and scary. It brought to the surface fears and revelations about the shortfalls of our industry and how creatives are positioned within the productivity machinery and economy of South Africa, or rather all the ways we fall outside of it.

As Minister of employment and labour Thulas Nxesi mentioned in a briefing two months ago, "On the issue of freelance workers—unfortunately with the current legislation they fall outside. Maybe what we are going to do is that after this we will have to re-look at it in terms of our legislative amendments and start a debate about that." Why are there laws that have gone unchallenged? Who should be challenging them? Why are artists hearing, out loud for the first time, of convenient loopholes that render us outside of an economy that taxes us like everyone else, and consumes us and our work. Yet, in times of crisis, this same economy engages with our art and our productivity and our products, but still deems us on the margin, outside, and non-essential. If we are not assisted financially, how can we be productive, how can we acquire the resources to produce? How can we apply our minds to anything else outside of survival and scrambling to stay afloat.

Pandemics do not mean that artists have gone pro bono

When you approach an artist with the assumption that they have gone pro bono during this time, when you draft an email to request a collaboration, a commission, a participation, a productivity of any kind, please bear in mind that artists are up against an unconcerned and corrupt government that has failed to provide aid and assistance to their sector during this time.

Theatre critic Sara Holdren says "Art is hard and most of it fails—either in small ways or catastrophic ones." In South Africa, the process of making art is hard, sure, but more than that, the conditions and the context in which we make work fails us in catastrophic ways that will require more than a debate and amended legislation. It will need, for starters, a minister who cares about the arts and understands its soul and mechanisms. This pause has brought about more questions and concerns for me than inspiration to reinvent or think outside the box. I have questions about the box itself and why I feel asphyxiated and trapped by its design.

I would rather breathe than think outside of the box

This pandemic has made me question what my career, livelihood and stability have been built on; what has been propping them up all this time, and what has been allowing me to appear valued and valuable in this economy? What does and will the spectrum of value look like in a normal that has been disrupted and now sits in a near distant future that may or may not be near?

Then I find myself vacillating between hope and concern. My hope is that when the pandemic is no longer with us, artists can have a come-to-jesus conversation about what has contributed and exacerbated this attitude and disrespect toward our practice and industry, I hope we can challenge the legislations that we have been dared to challenge, I hope we can be productive in ways that serve us and make sense for our well-being, that we will be paid our worth and that our society will realize that without the artist producing, there will be no art, or music, or films, or books and things that have kept people entertained and creatively nourished during this time.

My concern is that the "free"content artists are currently creating and the free access to art or performances, will not make this realisation possible, and that this kind of access, that was already undervalued and exploited, will be irreversible. The exploitation dialogue is tiring. Being treated as non-essential is tiring and terrifying too, and while most of the world can slowly start going back to work, most artists will probably have to hang tight until 2021, maybe even 2022.

While artists deal with a hoax of an arts and culture department that is dead to us and a minister who tweets more than he does his job, in an ideal world, I wish that artists could afford to indulge uncertainty, and fear, and pause, in ways that allow them to heed the call made by Nicholas Berger in his piece The Forgotten Art of Assembly [Or, Why Theatre Makers Should Stop Making] "We must lean into this pain. We must feel the grief. We must mourn. Mourn the loss of work, the loss of jobs, the loss of money, the loss of life. Mourn the temporary loss of an art form that demands assembly. Lean into the grief. Lean in. Lean in. Lean in. We must remind ourselves that mourning is a human act, not a digital one."

Koleka Putuma is an award-winning poet, playwright and theatre director. Her bestselling debut collection of poems Collective Amnesia is in its 10th print run and her play No Easter Sunday for Queers Sunday for Queers won several awards.

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