Words by Mercia Tucker

Photography by Philly Mohlala

Art Direction by Mzo Gcwabe

Creative Direction by Nick Kaoma

Make-up by Mbali Nyiikiza

Jacket provided by Spree

In 1994, at the height of his legal troubles, Tupac Shakur sat down with BET’s Ed Gordon for an interview on the plight of black lives and, as he started to gain notoriety for his militant ways, his perception in the public eye. He said “That change right before you go from being eighteen and unresponsible to when you go to be like 21, 22 and the whole world is on your shoulders. I believe strongly that my audience empathise with me because I show that side, I show that emotion. Raw, uncut, good, and bad.”

Reflective of his growth as a person and an artist, A-Reece fittingly introduced his new project – Long Lost Letters, with Ecco and Wordz – to us with this quote as the intro on the track Dark Daze. With the interview recorded three years before A-Reece was born, I ask him about Tupac’s relevance to him.

“You know he made a lot of mistakes, and he admitted to them and he bettered himself as a person. He wasn’t perfect and he was so expressive that you could feel it; I could feel from this country right here. Just watching Pac on a documentary, I was like ‘man, such a young kid with so much knowledge, that’s what I wanna be.’ So growing up listening to Pac, looking at Pac, I just wanted to be one wise young cat. Seeing life for what it really is, understanding that your energy is very important too. Also being truthful, living a truthful life, the importance of living a truthful life. He was truthful to his word, to his skin colour, he was truthful with his lyrics, he was truthful with everything he said. It got him a long way in life. He was 25 [when he died] and he did so much.”

It’s hard not to see the appeal Tupac’s words would have to him. Having just turned 21, the young rapper has experienced growth on many fronts. His 21st birthday has been impactful for him because “When you listen to records like Family, my relationship with me and my dad has its hurdles. So when you’re a young kid and then boom 21, you’re all the way in Johannesburg, you live alone, you’re with your homies, chasing your dream. Moms is always calling saying ‘I miss you I haven’t seen you in a while.’ Certain stuff like that, you realise that damn you’re becoming a man of your own and you’re gonna have to make huge decisions that are gonna change even your family’s lives. When I get that cheque, I’ll finally be like ‘Mom you can quit your job for real.’ When I say that to my dad, that’s a man saying that. Becoming 21, that’s growth.”

Reflected in the process of making Long Lost Letters, he feels like he’s taking his audience on the journey with him as he becomes more personal and emotive with the lyrics in his newer releases.

“When I was making Paradise I was very closed up. For me to do the song Family I was encouraged to but after that, when I dropped Loyal, when I left the label, when I dropped Loyal and I poured my heart out about everything, I was like ‘You know what, no filters, no nothing, in the rawest form’ and the people resonated with it, the people related. I figured ‘damn, if they could appreciate my music because it’s real, realer than real? Most definitely I’m gonna open up because I know there’s someone who’s going through the same thing I’m going through. As a person, not even as an artist, as a person.”

The track Loyal’s lyrics paint a vivid picture. “Contemplating on all my life choices/ Think I got a gift of listening to all the right voices/ Either the rich man nurtures your talent or he exploits it/ Unfortunate sometimes the latter cannot be avoided”.

The past two years have been some of the most tumultuous for the rapper professionally. In February 2017, he tweeted “To whom this may concern the most : The fans. I would like to say that I’m no longer a part of #AmbitiouzEnt as of now moving forward.” The surprise announcement of his departure from the record label coincided with that of Fifi Cooper and B3nchMarQ’s announcements that they had departed the label as well.

With a follow up tweet “This game’s shady man this might be my last time too” intimating that foul play necessitated the move, I ask him if he was aware of all the details in the documentation put in front of him when he signed with Ambitiouz. He says “Here’s the thing. I didn’t sign no papers when I got there, it was a verbal agreement. And then I was supposed to sign the contract but they kept delaying it like ‘We’re still putting together the contract’ blah blah blah. And then when it got to him bringing the contract to me, we went through it together and I could see that ‘what? Aw, nah!’ so I took it to a lawyer and yep, my gut was right.”

Wanting to know at what point the contract was presented to him, he responds to me saying “It was a crazy ride. Yeah, the album was done. In the process of making the album, word around town, word through the grapevine, you’re paranoid, you’re like ‘what?’ but you’re like damn let’s see what’s gonna happen. Next thing you know boom the contract finally pulls up.”

After confirming that the album was made and released without any contract signed, he says “It was some real shit that was popping off in the background. Picture an artist in a label, shady label, finding out that the label’s shady, in this label you’re with your older brother… It’s just lit, it’s litty! There’s no contract, you aint getting paid enough, you don’t even know what your booking fee is, you don’t even know who chops up the money, you don’t even know if you’re under SAMRO. It’s litty!”

How was he getting paid? I ask. “Just know I was in a situation where I was hopeless because I just wanted to get signed, I wanted to blow up. Every artist wants that. So with whatever I got I worked with it, until a point where you do your research and you get enlightened that ‘OK, this is my worth.’ Simple as that.” He adds “You need to understand that I didn’t approach the label with a business mind, I approached the label with hopes to sign and to get my music to where I wanted.”

Being that his brother had already signed to the label, he had an emotional connection to the label and played a huge part in his signing. I ask if he went into it with more heart than anything. He says “With my gut. Like I always do, with my gut. I went there saying ‘you know what? This is gonna change my life’ and it did. It did, it gave me all the exposure I needed. It taught me a lot of shit too.” He adds, later “At the end of the day, either you learn or you don’t. I’ve learned my lesson and I’m grown.”

Asking about regrets, he says “I don’t even have no regrets, honestly speaking. None. I don’t have no regrets, actually. What could I be regretting? Look at my life right now. Everything happens for a reason.”

After leaving the label, Fifi Cooper was prevented from performing any song recorded in her time with the label in an interdict granted by the South Gauteng High Court after Ambitiouz approached the courts subsequent to her departure. After the EFF’s legal team began representing her, she took to her Instagram on Sunday thanking them for the assistance as an out of court settlement had been reached and she was freed from the court order.

I ask A-Reece if any threats were made against him. He said “Obviously. The hottest nigga just left. I’m gonna put it like that. The hottest nigga just left. You looking at the hottest nigga leaving you because of your evil, greedy ways and now the universe is against you so everything is coming back tenfold and the people are seeing you for who you are. The cracks get exposed now. That’s why I’m saying you gotta live a truthful life. I don’t regret it because I did something about it.”

Speaking on the decision to leave at the same time with Fifi Cooper and B3nchmarQ, he says “We definitely had a conversation about it, just like how we had a conversation with Emtee, Sjava, you know. I could even name a couple more but this is very obvious. Like it was said on Twitter, everyone wanted to leave, it’s just people doing what they gotta do to survive.”

He’s completely independent now. “It’s a learning curve because you’re alone now, you gotta do it yourself, you gotta do the research, you gotta talk to people, you gotta seek advice, you gotta make sure it’s the right advice at the same time. In the midst of all that, you get to understand people more, you get to get a proper perspective. People don’t see the same thing I see and my perspective. They see a whole different perspective. And you learn from that and you grow.”

Asking about the pressure he’s under to make it, especially without the structure of a label behind him, he says “One step at a time and you’re gonna get there. I’m doing this music thing and it’s lucrative for me. With this money I can do a lot of things with it so I’m just doing that. Now I’m proud to say I can put up my own money to satisfy myself with regards to my creativity and the music. I can now direct my own videos, is what I’m tryna tell you, and it makes me happy that I can now put up my own money for that. Building an empire and you need to start from the ground up.”

What I felt was one of the shortcomings on his debut, Paradise, was that he borrowed a lot in terms of musical style from Emtee and that I didn’t feel the authenticity of A-Reece as an artist as much as I should have. Asking if he’s growing more into his own sound as an artist, he says “I feel like that was a stepping stone. I’m actually appreciative of that experience because I feel like it’s a stepping stone. I was finding myself, I’m still finding myself so I feel like it was good for me to go through that because now I can do that, I can do this, fuse it all together and come up with my own style, my own finesse. I mean, at the end of the day every artist has someone they’re very influenced by and you can hear it in their music. Once you take that and you upgrade it and you make it something better, you’re most ultimately gonna find yourself.”

On moving forward as an independent artist, he says “You know there’s a coupla aspects that we still gotta get right, me and the team. Everyone goes through that but I can confidently say that everything is well planned out in tying up the knots. But the thing is we’re in no rush for anything. I feel like this is, right now, a moment for us to just grow and to just let the people understand where we’re headed with this. Don’t mislead the people, just connect the dots for them. Because there is a story out there, they just gotta listen.”