Reverb360 & Otarel Make Music That Attempts To Leave No One Behind

Otarel performs at Back To The City in 2019. The rapper teamed up with producer Reverb360 for what is one of the most compelling independent South African hip-hop releases of 2021 so far.

Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela.

Reverb360 & Otarel Make Music That Attempts To Leave No One Behind

On their new project 'R&O', South African producer-rapper duo Reverb360 and Otarel's diverse backgrounds help them in prioritising inclusivity.

R&O, the collaborative project between artist-cum-producer Reverb360 and lyricist Otarel is one of 2021's most compelling independent South African hip-hop releases.

One of the project's biggest drawcards is the duo's genuine attempt at being representative of not only themselves, but their diverse backgrounds too. On songs like "Ngwenyama", which boasts an isiZulu chorus and is an ode about upholding one's values and principles, while seeking to lead a virtuous life, Otarel raps in English:

"There are more things than whether you swell your ego, to be with one who sees you, in alignment with your people, fulfilling something peaceful, choosing one who feels unequal, reaching further than imagined with the ammo for a reload, more over than making money..."

Otarel considers Nqamakwe in the Eastern Cape home, though she was born in Sterkspruit and raised in Durban. For Reverb360, home is in GaManamela in Polokwane. His childhood was spent between Mpumalanga and Polokwane — he then moved to Pretoria after high school to further his studies. Both artists have built solid reputations in the country's alternative hip-hop scene. Most recently, Otarel appeared on Stogie T's Freestyle Friday on Channel O, while Reverb360 was featured on PDot O's "Like White Doves", off his latest album Cold Waters: Low Tides and Lost Tapes.

When listening to R&O, one gets a sense of musicians who are well-practised in other creative realms other than the traditional rapping and singing. On a song like "Nguwe", built around a vocal beat-box, there's a poetic tonal resonance with Otarel's composition as she starts off by saying:

"Seeping through the melanin, the unmistakable scent of wholesome satisfaction, a thankful gaze acknowledges the works of the heavens and the humble word of gratitude is given to abaPhantsi..."

Some of the standout songs that make up the project take forms that are as diverse in sound, as they are in themes. "Teleportation" is a politically charged song that deals with the upliftment and unity of the people. "Turnt A.F", on the other hand, is a bouncy club cut with heavy 808s and a slew of infectious synths, illustrating a more lighthearted side to the duo. "Don't Sleep On Me" and "All Night" are both centred on romance and intimacy, with the latter being an overt relaying of intimate relations between two lovers. Both Reverb360 and Otarel croon on the song, with the former seductively singing:

"When the lights dim low and it's just me and you in the house, sexy music in the background, you know what I'm about girl, we're about to make each other moan…"

"Senza Konke" allows Otarel the chance to get into a storytelling groove. But first, she prefaces her rapped verse with Zulu chants which further drive forward the amalgamation of tradition throughout the project. Reverb360 does similar chants in Sesotho to preface his part. "We About That" is a chance for Otarel to show off her rapping chops as she gets into different pockets while varying her flow. Reverb360 also takes a stab at the beat with a rapid-fire flow.

In the interview below, the duo discuss their new EP, the importance of indigenous languages in their music, being independent artists and more.

Note: This interview has been slightly edited for clarity, flow and length.

When did the two of you decide on this joint project?

We met in February 2019. We were at a studio session working on a project where we were both featured by someone else. We discovered that we had undeniable musical chemistry, and immediately started talking about working together whenever the opportunity presented itself. We linked up in March of the same year, and soon started working on R&O.

How would you guys describe each other's roles in the collaboration?

Reverb360: I composed the project with some input from Otarel here and there. For the most part, I created the beats, did most of the recording as well as the rest of the technical work. Otarel worked more on the lyrical aspects. I have more experience in diverse songwriting, so I focused more on the hooks, whereas she focused on the core content of the music.

Otarel: Reverb360 is the project's creative director and designed the sound. I focused more on the writing and aesthetic of the tracks. We penned the hooks together, and generally spent a lot of time freestyling most of the music while making the beats.

When did each of you get into music and what are your inspirations?

Reverb360: I grew up with a love for music. Michael Jackson was my favourite musician. In primary school, I joined the choir and thereafter, my principal Mr Maloka urged me to pursue a career in music. That man is a genius, he introduced music in our school as a form of discipline, and we got along because he realised that I was genuinely in love with music. As I got older, I started making my own music.

Otarel: I fell in love with music unwittingly. My first artistic love was drawing, and when I started attending a relatively Model-C school, I became fascinated with the English language, which led me to poetry. In my latter primary school years, a friend that I played basketball with became fascinated with beatboxing. I became intrigued, too, and it wasn't long before we were exchanging music. By 2004, I was a hip-hop head, attending cyphers and sessions. That's when the fire for music was ignited.

Was there a deeper reason for choosing to be multilingual in your music?

Reverb360: Language is an important aspect of communication. We wanted to incorporate as much diversity into our music because expression is, inevitably, communication. We also wanted to position ourselves as people who don't distance themselves from where they come from and who they truly are. We felt that incorporating the diversity we both represent would help us express who we are without restricting us to an English-speaking audience.

Otarel: Most times we find ourselves unable to relate to our people because of language. We don't just want to make good music. We want it to be the kind that, also, rekindles and encourages a certain pride in being who you are.

Based on the project's different sounds and moods, there seems to be a concerted effort to appeal to different demographics and audiences. "Teleportation" is politically charged, while "Turnt A.F" is a club banger. Talk us through your strategy?

Otarel: "Leave no one behind" is the motto of any solid revolution. Part of what hip-hop taught me was that there is always an opportunity to educate. Parallel to R&O, I was working for a human rights non-profit organisation. Before that, I was heavily involved in youth development and social activism messaging through my music. When I met Reverb360, we had countless conversations about our childhood experiences, being Black, being Black and female, and being Black and male. These gave me an in-depth understanding of what it means to be actively involved as an artist. We set ourselves the challenge of creating a song that would echo the voices of the marginalised and oppressed. Our combined desire to unite against societal threats and embrace each other's diversity was so great that the project became a voice instead of, just, a body of music. And no voice is loud enough if it doesn't speak for all.

Reverb360: We face so many different struggles that it's impossible to confront them all in one project. However, we can peel the onion one layer at a time. In the process of all of that, we shouldn't forget to celebrate the wins that enable us to overcome these obstacles. During my time in Pretoria, I worked with a lot of young people who broke through and became figures in the current simulation of the game. Even though bangers are my forte, when I met Otarel, I became exposed to a diverse demographic of individuals, and movements that are much more conscious. Meeting people of various backgrounds and hearing how they managed to break free from a societal structure that seeks to contain who they are really spoke to me. This ended up inspiring the music. Identity is very important. One of hip-hop's elements is knowledge of self, and it is practised by a vast demographic of individuals who deserve to know that they are respected and their representation is acknowledged, accepted and not endangered.

What do you hope to achieve on this musical journey?

Nothing is set in stone! So, our most urgent goal is to resuscitate the values and principles of Ubuntu within the industry itself and establish a collective that focuses on empowering and inspiring creatives and observers, alike. If we could blueprint a formula that doesn't require total submission of who you are in order for you to live a sustainable life doing what you were called to do, that would be great.

What legacy do you want to leave behind?

Otarel: Honestly, at this point, I just want to get my paper up so I can live well with my family and also pursue my career. The world is our oyster.

Reverb360: One that embraces technology as a solution to some of the deep-seated issues that we are experiencing. We are definitely an educational experience!

Are you guys fully independent or are you signed in some capacity? And how has the journey been?

We are fully independent and looking to get into publishing agreements. We'd love to make money without losing our creative prowess, authenticity and sustainability.

The R&O project by Otarel and Reverb360 is available on Bandcamp.