AKA plays by da rules
No more beef. Now rap is also known as wit, acumen and a touch of arrogance
When rappers dropped “beef” as a business currency, the battle moved on to wits, business acumen, fashion sense and well thought-out marketing strategies.
Think back to the 1990s and early 2000s to the great hip-hop feuds of Tupac vs Notorious B.I.G.; Nas vs Jay-Z; Ice Cube vs Common; and Dr Dre vs Eazy E.
On these shores, the industry gasped at the latest snide remarks and poison thrown at the enemy in the cases of Brenda Fassie vs Senyaka; Mdu Masilela vs TKZee; B.O.P. vs Arthur Mafokate; Skwatta Kamp vs Jay Stash; Proverb vs Prokid; and then L-Tido vs AKA.
There was always tension and “beef” found a place in our lexicon as more than just a form of red meat, but, as Wikipedia puts it: “Controversy in which multiple rappers defame and confront each other in a number of ways.”
The times have moved on and these days the tough gangsta rappers have left the spoils for those softies of R&B such as Chris Brown vs Frank Ocean, most recently. There’s even
girl-on-girl action thrown in for good measure: Lil Kim vs Nicki Minaj; Nicki Minaj vs Mariah Carey; Etta James vs Beyoncé; and Beyoncé vs Aretha Franklin.
Enter the modern-day rap star. He is smooth, suave and well groomed. Tailored suits, designer shades in place, he could have been plucked from a catwalk in Milan. Rap has really cleaned up.
Also cleaned up is AKA, born Kiernan Forbes, South Africa’s reigning prince of rap. He came onto the scene after beefing with L-Tido over a song and he went on Facebook to diss it, but now he speaks a different language. In fact, he is the model citizen for modern rap.
Under the trees of Moyo at Zoo Lake, Joburg’s premium eating spot for tourists in a faux African village setting, the 25-year-old prince awaits.
And I am careful here because these kinds of titles often land one in a pool of controversy. But when you consider that AKA is the reigning winner of Best Male Artist at the SA Music Awards (Sama), he swept the boards at the Hip-Hop Awards, raking in four trophies, he is currently dominating the charts with his hit single Jealousy and is fresh from opening Kanye West’s concert in Joburg last weekend, I’m willing to take my chances.
He could pass for a basketball player, if only he weighed a bit more. He is tall and wears a crown of healthy black hair. As always, his eyes remain a mystery behind the Ray Bans.
The husky voice and low energy levels point to traces of a rough night or someone in need of a break. But he gets on with the interview.
His story is peculiar. His album has been out now for less than 18 months, yet he is already touted as a prince of hip-hop.
“It’s been great – many successes since the album came out. The awards have been very very nice. I’ve always wanted to win a Sama and I ended up performing with Jack Parow on the Sama stage.
“Altar Ego was a landmark album for hip-hop. If you look at the Samas, it pulled hip-hop into the mainstream. I won the best hip-hop album and best male artist and I was nominated against people like Jimmy Dludlu and other highly esteemed artists. With a lot of hard work, we managed to walk away with it.
“I want to carry on the momentum from 2011 to 2012 and now into 2013. It seems there’s no stopping us,” he reflects.
“I’m growing as an artist and a producer, which I didn’t have time for in the past. The video of Jealousy is one of the best. It raises the bar for videos in the country and I’m proud of that.”
Does he feel people are jealous of his meteoric rise to the top in such a short space of time?
“Yes, some people are.” Then he quickly shifts the focus to the song. “Well, firstly, the song is fresh. The idea of making a song about jealousy didn’t come from me. It stemmed from what the sample sounded like.
“If you listen to the lyrics, it doesn’t talk too much about jealousy, people and haters, because I really don’t like that rhetoric. It’s a great song, it’s energetic. I have a great time when I perform it and people seem to love the song.”
AKA knows, along with the industry, that in hip-hop your reputation and street cred is all you have. And beef – especially fabricated and orchestrated – will get you nowhere. Fans can see through the charade, so he keeps his eyes on the prize, which is making good music.
And the song is indeed a great precursor to what should be another good album. But he is pacing himself. “I’m gonna take my time and get it right, like
I did the first time. My next album has to be more dynamic in terms of the music in it.
“I also want to see myself have a bigger impact on the continent, and possibly have more overseas performances.”
And how he spends his time in the studio points to a consummate professional driven by passion for what he does.
“Putting together an album is a lot of stress. It’s very draining. You put your life into an album. It becomes your baby – everything you eat, sleep, breathe. Coming off the back of a successful album like Altar Ego, there’s a little more pressure I put on myself. My aim is to take risks and make great songs and great albums.”
AKA has also caught the eyes of casting agents. While his music show on the embattled TopTV fizzled out just weeks after it started, he is to feature as a reality star. This weekend he will debut on Tropika Island of Treasure, a local celebrity reality show loosely based on the popular Survivor format. This year it was shot in Jamaica.
“It was quite a lot of fun. I just went to have fun. A million rand (the show’s prize money) is not a huge fortune really.
“I’m not big on reality shows but I had good times with a great group of people,” he says.
And what attracted the TV producers to him? “I like to have fun. I like to laugh. I like to make jokes. I like to make other people laugh and I get along with everybody.
“I also stand up for what I believe in. I guess those personality traits work for me.”
On his character, AKA reveals he is more than just a rhyme-spitting smartass rapper, but is always up for a good challenge.
“I thrive under pressure for another single, people wanting to see what I’m gonna come up with next. It’s an opportunity to challenge myself and to grow as a person,” he says. “It may get a bit tiring and the schedule may be too much, but it could be worse. I could be at a desk doing a nine-to-five.”
For someone whose business thrives on attention and who trades on his talents in the public space, it’s surprising AKA doesn’t subscribe to the idea of celebrity. Instead he gets philosophical. “I don’t have a brand of celebrity. I don’t believe in celebrities. The easiest thing for me to do is to be myself.”
While beef may be irrelevant to today’s rappers, ego, arrogance and self-importance have proved to be essential ingredients. AKA is known to have a reputation for being highly strung. Feigning modesty, he says he is not arrogant. In fact, he displays some displeasure at the notion.
“I don’t pay any mind to anybody who says I’m stuck up.
I don’t even talk about it. It doesn’t excite my thinking and doesn’t factor into who I am,” he says. “My attitude has always been it doesn’t really matter what people say. It doesn’t affect the truth. The truth is what I’m living in, that’s that. The only person I have to please when it comes to stuff like that is myself.”
Our conversation takes a serious turn as we talk about lessons from the music industry.
“I’ve learnt to choose my words better, to ignore negativity, to speak up when you really believe in something in terms of creating music or videos or content – because at the end of the day you’re the one who has to perform and represent what people see and you need to follow through with your vision,” he says. “I’ve also learnt to be a private person and keep a small circle of friends.”
Rise to fame
January 28 1988 – AKA is born in Cape Town and moves to Joburg a few years later.
2002 – AKA joins friends to form hip-hop group Entity and releases their first single Touch & Go.
2005 – Entity nominated for a Kora All Africa Music Award.
2006 – Entity splits and AKA finds an office job.
2007 – hooks up with music collective IV League.
Alongside it he helps to produce some of SA’s biggest stars such as Pro (Dankie San), Tuks (The Monopoly), Khuli Chana (MotswakOriginator), Teargas (Wafa Wafa), Psyfo (The Afterparty), JR (Y.B.R.F) and Proverb (Super Official).
2009 – Wins Best Newcomer at the Hype Awards as a solo act.
2010 – Features on MTV Base Brand New Artist show, a stamp of approval that launches him on a bigger platform. He adopts the nickname SA’s Prince of Hip-Hop and opens for Rick Ross in Cape Town.
2011 – Releases his first single Victory Lap that goes on to top the charts MetroFM for five weeks. Releases his debut album Alter Ego. And picks up gongs at the Channel O Awards and the Metro FM Music Awards and the Hip Hop Awards. He places fourth on GQ South Africa’s Top 10 Best Dressed Men.
2012 – Wins major categories at the SA Music Awards and the South African Hip-Hop Awards. Releases Jealousy off his upcoming untitled second album, the video features top South African celebrities such as Bonang Matheba, Benny McCarthy and DJ Cleo
2013 – Opens for Ne-Yo and Kanye West at their respective concerts in Joburg. Nominated for Best Single and Best Video at the 2013 MetroFM Music Awards (first round).
» Tropika Island of Treasure starts on Saturday on SABC1 at 6.30pm