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AKA Interview

AKA: The Babyface, The Heel, The Underdog

AKA is in fine form. He’s released a new single and the joie de vivre that’s accompanied that release is palpable. His arrival at Sony is announced by the sound of the office coming alive as he walks through it. The air is punctuated with laughs and higher-than-usual pitched voices, replacing the stark silence that befell it prior. He feels fantastic about the release, he tells me. “It’s more than just the quality of the record or how nice the record is, it’s also the anticipation. And when you put the anticipation together with that, I think you get magic.”

“I took a while to just find myself personally and rediscover myself musically, and here we are. The thing that gives me sleepless nights is that [Lemons (Lemonade)] is just the tip of the iceberg.”

It’s been about a year and a half since I’ve spoken to AKA. His last interview with The Plug happened two months before his fiancée at the time, Nelli Tembi, succumbed to suicide in April 2021. Having taken some time away from the public eye to mourn his beloved and find himself again, he has a new lease on life.

“All the stuff that happened with my fiancée, and just that whole tragedy, it required me to take a different view on life and to take a very different perspective. And that perspective is kinda like ‘Jesus Christ I’m just happy to be alive.’ Real talk, no cheesy Walt Disney bullshit, I’m just happy to be here, I’m just happy to be alive. F*ck if my record— yes it matters what my records do and all of that stuff, but on the whole, when you come that close to all that deep, dark death stuff, then everything is really put in perspective.”

We talk a bit about grief, we relay personal experiences with it and remark on how it changes you as a person. “The thing with suicide is the pain that it leaves behind. The questions that you have that will never have answers, it’s horrifically painful.” I ask him about what it was like going through that whole process. “Unworldly. Just something so foreign that I’ve never— Because I had never really lost anyone close to me before, and just the way it happened, me being there at the time, all the questions that people were saying, all the inferences people were making… I really had to close myself up to the world and just go into a shell and figure myself inside that shell so that when I came out of it I kind of had myself centred. I’m not gonna say that I’m over it, or I don’t have nightmares still, I don’t still have flashbacks, all that stuff. I do. And that’s something I’ll have for the rest of my life. I went to therapy, I got on meds, I got off meds. So for me it was just a horrific experience. But I also think of her family. We haven’t spoken, but what they must be going through. It really is a chapter of my life that will forever be there but for me the most important thing is that I went through that experience and I came out the other side with a lesson, otherwise it’s all for nothing.”

“I don’t want to be that happy-clappy Christian but I am a Christian and my faith was strengthened because I did feel like, well, only faith in God or faith in something higher than me is going to get me through this. Not faith in myself, because I can’t do it.” 

Asked about how much his relationship with Nadia Nakai helped him through that process, he says, “I wanna speak about God again. I really feel like God put me in that space and she was there and kind of comforted me. We had started building a friendship before, and then as time went on,” he leaves the rest to my imagination. “So for me I feel like God put her in my life at the right time because I don’t think, without her I don’t think I would’ve made it.”

And it’s going good? “Fantastic. She’s a calming influence on me, keeps me a bit level. She’s not, by any means— I mean, girls are complicated so that’s always going to be there. But it’s a challenge that every day I wake up and I just want to make her happy and in turn she makes me happy and she makes me feel like I can take over the world.”

Taking over the world is happening one single at a time. With the release of “Lemons (Lemonade)” he’s doing a lengthy rollout for the first time in a long time, replete with a press run. “I also feel like I’m ready to talk to the press for the first time. At the time, I wasn’t ready to share or to talk yet. And now I feel like I’m ready to talk, I’m ready to share the story. And everybody loves a good comeback story, but everybody loves a good underdog story as well. For the first time, I’m really the underdog.”

I mention that with the dominance of amapiano in SA’s market, hip hop – for the first time in a long time – is having to fight back as an underdog. “Amapiano and kwaito, all the style, the lifestyle, it’s all hip hop anyway.” I disagree with him, telling him that when people come up or make it in life, they want dope shit and go out and get it once they have the means, that it shouldn’t be ascribed to hip hop particularly but just the nature of success in general. “No. Hip hop is the aesthetic. If you look at Maphorisa, for instance, he is the embodiment and he’s living a hip hop lifestyle. Hip hop is not just music, and this is true. Hip hop is not just music; hip hop is a way of thinking, a way of talking, a way of carrying yourself, business acumen, it’s a complete lifestyle. Hip hop is like 50 years old, it’s a 50 year old culture.”

By his reasoning, hip hop never really left. “Hip hop can never leave. It can never leave because it’s embedded in the culture of music, it’s embedded in the culture of fashion, it’s embedded in the culture of everything, of movies, film. It’s bigger than us.”

Fighting back means himself and K.O leading that charge. K.O’s “SETE” has done phenomenally by topping the charts for five weeks, going double platinum, and having the video sitting on eight million views. In just two weeks of the release of “Lemons (Lemonade)” the single has gone gold.  “Well who else was gonna do it?” he jokes. “No, I wanna send a big shout out to the Blxckies— Well, Blxckie is the only one that can come top of mind right now but there’s a whole lot of other guys. But the younger guys who really took it on themselves to say— because for the most part I see, well there are a younger amapiano crowd, but for the most part they never really wavered too much. I mean, Blxckie can switch between genres, he’s a unicorn. But for the most part, the culture was being carried by the younger guys while we were getting our shit together.”

Speaking of hip hop topping charts again, I ask him about the lyric “People say ‘Hip Hop died’, that’s nonsense. Thank God they showed their true colours, switched up piano like vultures.” While Reason/Sizwe Alakine took exception to the lyric as a personal slight, to the majority of the community it seemed as if it was directed towards one person; Cassper Nyovest. “It’s not directed towards one person. It’s directed generally as a— it’s just a passing comment about the people who kind of thought that hip hop was gone and people who had no intention, really, a few months ago of returning. But now it’s fashionable again, isn’t it? Let that shoe fit whoever it needs to fit.”

I tell him that if he starts taking jabs at Cassper again, it will likely be reciprocated and the beef that has been a constant shadow in their careers will be resurrected. “I have absolutely no intention of sharing my spotlight or sharing my time with anybody this time around,” he says. “I’m a big WWE guy, I’m a big wrestling guy, as people know. And in wrestling you have two things, there’s the babyfaces and the heels. A babyface is like the John Cena, the guy that you see on the Mr. Price t-shirts, the kids love him, it’s all good. A heel is like a bad guy, like Vince McMahon, he’s the evil guy. So you need the bad guy and the good guy. At the start of my career I was a babyface, a good guy, everybody supported. For the majority after that I was the bad guy, the heel, and I relished it, I enjoyed it. Now I’m back as a babyface. Everybody’s behind me, and now I don’t intend on beefing or clashing with anybody because I really understand how much energy that takes out, and now I have proper perspective about what’s really worth my time and what really isn’t.” 

I mention that by giving beef energy, he gives it traction. For a younger Nyovest that traction gave him a lot of visibility as the upstart going against the more established Forbes at the time. “So now this time around, he’s gonna have to do it by himself, whoever he is that you’re talking about. He or she is gonna have to do it by themselves. Nobody is going to tag me in, I’m not helping anybody as a stepping stone off my hard work this time.”

His comeback story is replete with what he calls the ‘super team.’ Zadok, Christer (SA), FDeezus, Oriah Beats, Teddy and Baby Son all add to the production story, the host of younger musicians and producers adding to the sound that he executive produces. “Zadok is the MD of my band. So the reason why my music works so well on stage as well, but also in studio, is because the people that are playing the music in studio and making the music with me, are the same people people that are performing it with me on stage. Zadok, he’s multitalented, he plays like three instruments, he’s now helped assemble a team with me.” After listing all the members of the production team, he says, “So we’ve got all these elements together that we’ve kind of putting together and under my direction. Because that is really what a producer is. I feel like a proper producer in that I’m able to put all these things together and make them work.”

Moving on to the sound that his new album will embody, it will lean towards his style of slowing down a house/funk beat and sampling it in a new melodic interpretation. “That’s my trademark,” he says. “As a coloured person, house and dance music is in me. But then also in me is my father’s music, country music. Jackson Brown and Bread and all these types of things. So I’m trying to fuse all my dad’s influences and my influences with house and dance music and a bit of afro-pop maybe, and I’m tryna put that all together. And it just kind of makes this great cake that is Mass Country, which is the name of the project.”

The press release that I received for the single released mentioned that the album will be a mixture of maskandi and country music, which raised eyebrows. He retorts, “Oh yeah, it’s true. Let me tell you how it’s gonna work. It’s gonna be the guitar lines of that genre with the drums of hip hop, with the drums of dance music, and the writing of pop music. You squish them all together and that’s what you get.” He continues, “If you think of ‘Lemons (Lemonade)’ that is funk, that is dance, that is amapiano, and it’s hip hop. It’s four genres.”

“I don’t even know what genre I’m making anymore, I don’t even have a name for it. But it is hip hop music. It is the newest form of my career and my sonics. I’m just so proud of it, I’m so excited. ‘Lemons (Lemonade)’ I’ve been making that song for a year now, that song is nearly a year old. That’s the type of effort I’m putting in. I know guys who make songs on a Friday and release them the next Friday. I’m not saying it doesn’t work for them, it just doesn’t work for me.”

I mention Nasty C’s verse and how outstanding it is. He doesn’t mind being outshone on his own track by another talented artist. “I don’t mind. I can’t produce the track, write all the verses, do the hook as well. I’m happy with what I did because I know the part that I played. For him to come through and shine like that is only a blessing for me, it’s only him giving me more juice. So I’m not complaining.”

At the beginning of the interview I told him that there’s a lot more maturity to him as a person and a noticeable shift in his demeanour recently. “As time goes on, your priorities change. Your life’s priorities change – and I’m not even talking about career priorities – I’m talking about life priorities. For me, my daughter- I’m not gonna say when my daughter was born I immediately changed, because I didn’t. It’s a process, and I’m in the process of that change. And that for me is an important thing, for me to grow with time.”

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