Words by Kendra Hunsley
Photography by Austin Malema
Styling by DEAD.
Make-up by Mpho Moeng
Nadia Nakai has risen to become an undeniable force within the South African hip hop industry. A quintessential Alpha Female, she has amassed hit records, forged a powerful identity for herself and is set to solidify her place in the game with her forthcoming album. I sat down with Bragga to discuss her upbringing, her discernible growth as an artist and her ultimate vision she has for herself.
Of South African and Zimbabwean descent, she speaks fondly of her family and the important role they’ve played in her life. “My dad is South African and my mom is originally from Zim. They separated when I was very young so I grew up with my mom. That’s why I have the name Nakai. Nakai is actually not my birth name; it’s the name that my gran gave me. It’s not on my ID or anything like that. That’s why I call myself Nadia Nakai because I wanted that to live longer. So yeah, I grew up in a Shona household, very Zimbabwean household. Obviously we would travel a lot back to Zim. I remember having to drive to Zim in my mom’s car, spending Christmas there. I don’t go back to Zim as much as we used to when I was younger. I was raised by a single mom then about 6 years ago my mom met someone else and she had a little boy, so I have a little brother now which is cool. He’s the best brother I could’ve ever asked for, he’s so affectionate. He calls and he’s like ‘Nadia I know you busy but please can you call me back okay bye.’ He’s so cute, he’s the best.”
Nadia’s love for music was birthed by her mother. She reflects fondly on first being exposed to the likes of Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill whilst growing up. “I still remember the type of music my mom used to listen to. She used to listen to Erykah Badu’s ‘Baduizm’; I got introduced to that specific album by her; Lauryn Hill, Seal’s ‘Kiss of a Rose’ kinda vibes’; UB40’s ‘Guns in the Ghetto’; that’s the kind of music I listened to growing up, which was dope. I didn’t listen to very traditional music; it was very urban type of music back then.”
Barring the eclectic music her mom listened to, Nadia recalls the artists who had considerable influence on her artistry while attending high school in Kenya. “When I was in Kenya, it was very much their traditional music and dancehall music that I was influenced by. I listened to people like Prezzo, I listened to people like Nazizi. We had a Culture Day at my school and she came through and she was like ‘You talk really fast, have you thought of maybe rapping?’ and I was like ‘okay, let me see.’ Then my mom got a MAC desktop and I just started playing with beats and making like really weird beats and I started recording myself and burning them on discs and giving it to people at school. My upbringing was very African involved that’s why I always want to continue with that African steeze.”
Albeit being in the hip hop game for a couple of years now, the growth that she has experienced since signing to Family Tree is incomparable and most evident in her music offerings, performances and overall brand image. “I’ve grown a lot in the past 2 years. I feel like I’ve been an artist since I was 18 but the growth that I’ve had now, in the past 2 years, surpasses any kind of growth I could’ve had. I realized what makes people grow is the people that hang around you, you don’t grow by yourself. That whole ‘it takes a village…’ it’s the truth. That concept only made sense to me now, ever since I signed to Family Tree. I’m more aware of hip hop outside of South Africa, I’m more aware of the fashion culture. I feel like I can look at the hip hop industry and not be in it, look at it from an outside point of view and have a perspective. Before, I was so caught up in it that I actually didn’t realize there’s so much more than what I’m thinking is there.”
Having been fixated on social media engagement and the amount of likes on a post, Nadia soon realized that it isn’t an accurate measure of success and contributes very little to the progression of one’s career. “I’m working so hard to get attention, I’m working so hard for an L-Tido to post my post on Instagram or somebody to tweet my single and I feel like once they’ve done that, I’ve made it. Or from a social media point, when my followers go up it means that my career is progressing to a certain stage and it’s not like that. It’s nothing like that. Going to London opened my eyes so much. There’s a chick that I met named Stefflon Don, who is freaking killing it, she’s a rapper. She stays in London but she is of Jamaican heritage. She gets a lot of attention from Drake, DJ Khaled and that experience just made me realize I have more followers than her on Instagram but she’s fucking killing it. When I walked into the studio, they were mixing a song with her and Neyo, like Neyo is featuring her. That’s when I realized social media ain’t shit. It doesn’t mean anything and I think a lot of people put a lot of pressure on themselves, like I need to reach a million followers, what does that even mean?”
Most of her artistic offerings were cultivated in the studio but she soon became cognizant of the effects it had on her growth and creativity. “I’d only write when I’m in the studio because I like to vibe with people around me. But then I realized that because of the time in the studio, it made me a little bit lazy in a sense that I didn’t marinate on songs, I just recorded them to finish because I had a studio session and someone else had a studio session. So now I’ve started to write at home, I’ve started to get beats and take my time with songs and realize how I want to play with things, listen to other songs that are out there and get inspiration on what I want to talk about and how I want to talk about them instead of allowing myself to have restricted time that made me a little bit lazy in my writing. That is what I’m trying to build on now. I want to take the time and focus on what I want to say and how I want to say it”
Having the pleasure of witnessing her grace the stage with her enthralling presence and electrifying performances, I was keen on finding out what happens just before she gets on stage. “I like for the people to see me a few seconds before I get on stage, I want them to start screaming and be like ‘Nadia!’ and get excited. I like that because it gets me psyched to get on stage, I get very excited. Before, I used to be very nervous because I used to perform but people didn’t know my songs. But now that people know your songs, that confidence comes up and you just wanna rock. You want to get on stage and you just wanna rock with those people because they know you now, and that’s amazing. I don’t drink or smoke before because I want to be completely level-headed. I feel like if I drink or smoke I might do dumb shit and not be very focused. But it’s not like I have rituals or anything like that, I just jump on and have fun.”
Reluctant to reveal too much about her forthcoming album, Bragga chooses to remain modest. “I just realized that I don’t want to toot my own horn before it’s done. I want you to experience it when it’s out, I don’t want you to experience it prematurely. I’m tired of having to praise myself and have people talk shit about it. I’m just like ‘Okay, you take the product and I’m just going to live my life. I’m not going to try impress you with what I’m trying to do. If you don’t like it – fuck off, if you do – fantastic. I will be releasing a single closer to when I feel like I’m done with the album because it needs to be the single that leads to the album. I haven’t released a song this year which is actually very strange. I’ve had so much attention and longevity this year but I actually haven’t released this year, which is really dope. That means that people are anxious for me and my brand and my music, which is nice. The merchandise is also something that I’m excited about but the album is my focus. I was supposed to drop an EP, which I still can if I want to, but I don’t want to do that. I want people to feel like I made an effort. I want them to listen to my music and be like ‘Wow, this is the new Nadia, and I like her.’”
The inclination to insert the word ‘female’ before rapper is a clear manifestation of the patriarchal ideologies that are so deeply embedded in our societies. Pitting female artists against each other, creating gratuitous competition and our desperate urge for comparison feeds the beast. “It’s frustrating; it used to frustrate me a lot. Even speaking to you now I just realized, actually I’m fucking grown. I used to be so childish before. That stuff used to annoy me and then I realized that you don’t have to be the one to tell people that you’re better than someone. You don’t have to be the one to tell people that I’ve been doing this for years to differentiate yourself from someone. Yes, people put you in the same box because they don’t want to take the time to see your journey – which is fine, but there are people that do want to take the time to see your journey and realize that you’ve actually done this and that and the others haven’t. I’ve grown so much as a performer as well. I know how much I’ve grown there, I know how different I am as a performer to others, but I’m not going to toot my own horn about it. I’m going to allow you to see it when you book me and when you come to my shows. I don’t get annoyed by that anymore.”
The lack of collaboration amongst South African artists as well as across the South African creative landscape is quite telling. “I think it’s because people are looking at SA and SA is small. The pie is very small. Let’s just say you want to have a female represent your brand, how many people are there to choose from? Nadia, Nomuzi, Boity, Minnie, Bonang, Pearl Thusi, Nomzamo – done. So now how are you going to stand out, out of all these 7 people? We all kind of look the same. So how do you do it? And if you’re going to work together, you’re not going to get the same amount of that pie as you want. But now if you’re working on a bigger scale, if you’re thinking about the whole of Africa and there are so many brands that can be for each of you, It’s okay to work together because it’s like I’m not taking anything away from you and you’re not taking anything away from me. In SA it’s very tricky because they feel like if we work together, the brands that are interested in me might go for you or the brands that are interested in you, might go for me and people don’t want to share that – which is life.”
Nadia is successfully paving her own lane within the hip hop sphere. Her ultimate vision for herself is “being exactly like what Wizkid is doing right now. Where he is being authentic to his African self and African sound and African being; but he’s an international artist. He just dropped his mixtape and it features Trey Songz, Chris Brown, Ty Dolla Sign and Bucie. The funny thing is when I was listening to it, Chris Brown and Trey Songz sound like him, you know when there’s a lot of people that say ‘Ah you guys, when you work with these American artists you sound like them.’ They want to sound like him and I think that’s freaking amazing and that’s dope. That’s what I want to be and meeting Steff helped a lot. When you meet her, you don’t realize that she’s a big ting. She’s a big deal and she doesn’t carry herself like that whereas in SA there are some artists that want to make you feel that they’re a big thing when they’re actually not. You don’t get a like from DJ Khaled, do you? No! You don’t get Champagne Papi following you, do you? No! I realized that life is actually not about stunting on your peers. You shouldn’t be stunting on people that are doing the same thing and that are in the same industry because you supposed to be working together and building together. I feel like I represent South African women. South African women look like me, they sound like me, they like the same things that I like and most of these guys are talking about girls that are like me. My thing is that I kind of no longer just look at South Africa like that. Yes, I want to conquer South Africa but I want to be that artist that’s completely well rounded in Africa.”