Words by Mercia Tucker
Africandrone, a non-profit entity, funded a photography project in 2017 aimed at showing the separation between the working class and the bourgeoisie’s Unequal Scenes. Headed up by Johnny Miller, the project portrayed that “communities of extreme wealth and privilege will exist just meters from squalid conditions and shack dwellings.” An award-winning exhibition, this juxtaposition from the skies above shocked many at the dramatic scenes of disenfranchisement, but came as no surprise to residents of the city.
The segregation between Lavender Hill and Steenberg, or Hangberg and Hout Bay, is the product of spacial planning as a legacy of Apartheid that has wreaked havoc on the quality of life of the coloured community in Cape Town. Another was the racial identity of coloured people and their expression as a group of people reduced to a caricatured stereotype. In a country where social discourse is more often than not on typically black and white terms, the coloured identity is one that has often been relegated to the fringes of individualised expression.
The hip hop scene has been no different, and even though a few of the bigger artists in the country belong to that often marginalised racial group, none with such a wide and captive audience in SA have dedicated themselves to the expression of the coloured identity in the way that Youngsta has. Since my last chat with the Wittebome native, he’s made a discernible shift from representing Cape Town as a whole in his art to being a voice, specifically, for the coloured community in Cape Town.
“It’s been a long time coming. It’s been in the works, it’s been in the pipeline, that I’ve always wanted to represent and be an ambassador for the coloured community, and specifically in Cape Town” he says. “We speak different, we have different ways of traveling, we have different ways of eating, we have different settlements – the Cape Flats – your predominantly coloured areas where there is literally not a single white or black person there, it’s just coloured people. And I saw these places didn’t really have a voice, these places had no representation. Besides the local club rappers, they didn’t really have a flag-bearer. And when I saw this I was like ‘what’s gonna happen to these people’s stories?’”
When asked what being a coloured rapper means to him personally, he ventures “Being a coloured rapper means I can’t talk about the kasi. Not really, because I didn’t grow up there. I can’t glorify that or claim that or try to represent that. I can represent the ‘ghetto’ mentality, I can represent the mentality that exists in the kasi, but specifically the townships? The black settlements? I can’t fully represent it because I’ve only been there a few times, I’ve only passed by or went to visit. Whereas, the coloured character, the identity of the coloured person, I know it because I am one.”
He adds “So for me being a coloured person that’s a rapper, it’s representing a race of people that previously – and still now to a certain extent – never had a voice in South Africa, not really. And I have to speak out, no matter how vulgar, no matter how aggressive it may sound (‘cause I know at times it does) but this is how we feel. That is why I have the support of my community because I’m saying what they’ve always wanted to, they just never had a way to convey it.”
This past year has seen him travel Europe, Australia, Kenya and Cameroon. With an audience so diverse, lyrics like “My brasse still lamming by the corner shop” and performance so deeply rooted in coloured slang and Cape vernacular, I ask what the reception to his music is like outside of SA.
“I believe that music can be used as a tool. I don’t think it’s just something that we dance to rhythmically, I think it’s something that can also educate. If you look at artists that taught us a lot, like the Bob Marleys and Marvin Gayes, who always mentioned the socio economic issues that were taking place in the era that they were living in, I believe that that’s my duty as well when I go abroad or travel. When I come on the stage you can’t just expect to be entertained and just understand everything. I have to explain it to you, I have to give you the back-story, I have to give you the translation of what these words mean. And that’s why I say this music is to be used as a tool, ‘cause that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been educating audiences.”
He has a slight disdain for Die Antwoord, who, with a history of appropriation of Cape Flats coloured identity, become the disingenuous face of South African hip hop in overseas markets for a time. “I go overseas and people’s only knowledge of South African hip hop is not AKA, it’s not Cassper, it’s Die Antwoord. That’s all they know about South African hip hop. And if I think about it, that is a coloured thing. Ninja is not coloured but what he represents, what he sells to the world is the coloured identity; the prison tattoos, the gold teeth, the Cape slang. It’s us!”
“I realised that when I started travelling. I was like ‘oh shit, they actually don’t understanding anything I’m saying but yet they are intrigued by it because they don’t understand it.’ And it’s the same thing that Die Antwoord struck gold with. I don’t agree with everything they do because coloured people are suffering here on behalf of what they’ve built but what I do see is that they’ve made a success and nobody understands what they’re saying across the world. Nobody really knows what the fuck they’re talking about. But I do, I understand every line of it. I’m thinking to myself that we haven’t even profited off our own culture yet, we haven’t.”
With recent features in international publications, he feels like the Cape sound and culture is gaining momentum. “I definitely feel like the tide is going in in a direction that we can all use, we can all use this door. I’m only one artist so you’re only getting one half of the story. You’re getting my version of reality but there obviously are many shapes, forms and sizes that it comes in. So I do believe that it’s necessary for more of us to use this avenue. We need Dope Saint Jude, we need Patty Monroe, we need Driemanskap, we need Jitsvinger, we need HemelBesem and Uno and all these different voices from Cape Town for the variety and the selection.”
He re-iterates, however, that the work needed to make a name for yourself in the Mother City doesn’t have quite the same rhythm to it as his Joburg counterparts’ moves in the industry. “You have to be consistent and you need to push through continuously, it’s never gonna stop. And Cape Town needs to realise that. Cape Town needs to realise that you can’t wait for the one song to blow up. You can’t. You’re in Kaapstad bru, you’re in Cape Town, you’re not in Joburg where you can just push the one song to every radio network and every TV network and every magazine publication and boom, there you are. That can happen for you in different parts of South Africa because it’s more accessible, it works on your doorstep. Whereas here, it’s not like that. Here you need to push it into the people’s face, do open mics, do park jams, do cyphers, do battles, shoot your video in the community, involve the people. There’s other ways to hustle in Cape Town, it’s not impossible, it’s just hard. But don’t be afraid of that, it’s gonna build your character.”
After spending some time up in Johannesburg to break into the scene here and make a name for himself, I ask if his decision to move back to Cape Town was to solidify his support base. “This is the best way I can answer this question: Joburg wants me, Cape Town needs me.”
As a legacy of Apartheid, he feels like the Cape Coloured community’s ills are relegated to a footnote in the greater South African discussions of socio-economic inequalities. “Till this day people still don’t know where areas like Grassy Park are, or Ottery, or Lotus River, or Mitchell’s Plein, or Retreat. And these are all original Apartheid Cape Flat Group Areas Act settlements. And the people there are suffering, they’re still suffering. It’s not something that happened in Apartheid or before 1994. They’re still living in hell, I’ve seen it with my own eyes in 2018.”
“If you look at the situation in Cape Town they’re going on about this water crisis thing. ‘Cape Drought’, ‘Day Zero’, it’s a hashtag. They want people in obviously disadvantaged areas to buy water. Bear in mind these people didn’t even have water to begin with. I remember 10 years ago my grandfather was complaining about the tap water where he’s staying. He’s still staying in the same area he was moved to when Apartheid happened, it’s called Ocean View, and he’s still living there in the Cape Flats. And he complained 10 years ago about how the water was tasting and my mother bought him a water purifier – two, actually – the first one broke and she bought him another one. So this whole water thing is a problem that has been occurring here in South Africa in Cape Town for some time now. But yet it’s up to us now as the citizens of this place, of this city, to come up with some solution, to come up with some way to coexist. And once again we are being side-lined, we are being forgotten, we are being neglected, we are being rejected almost. Because in town, in the CBD area where the tourists are living, do you think they’re telling them to shower less or to put a bucket in the shower or to save water and use a basin? No they’re not. But yet, in the disenfranchised communities where there’s already little water, they want us to be rationed. Who’s gonna speak about this? Especially in hip hop music, I mean since this is hip hop after all, it’s youth culture, we always voice the issues and thoughts of the present generation, who’s gonna speak on these coloured people’s behalf if I don’t?”
The odd form of appreciation from his community aside – “I saw a guy last week, he sent me a pic, he tattooed Y?GEN on the back of his neck, I’m talking his whole neck! I’m not talking about on the spinal cord, I’m talking about the entire back section of his neck: Y?GEN. He tattooed that shit. And you can see he was using a back yard somewhere, it’s not some fancy tattoo parlour, his friend probably did it for him. But I was looking at it like ‘Fuck it! That big? I don’t even have Y?Gen tattooed on myself. That’s my shit, it’s mine! I don’t even have it tattooed on me! Don’t I believe in it that much? How far is this thing gonna go here?” – he appreciates the love his city shows him and reciprocates it as best he can.
He also knows that there’s a long line of Cape Town artists that came before him to pave the way. “Obviously I have to pay my respects and homage to Prophets of Da City, Brasse Vannie Kaap, Black Noise, Godessa, you know what I mean? These are the ones that laid this shit solidly down for me to understand. They didn’t build it high enough I believe because of the barriers that stood in their way. So for me to be doing this now and basically live what these guys had always dreamt of… Ready D had dreamt of a day like this for years, Emile [Jansen, of Black Noise] had dreamed of a day like this for years where a bra from Cape Town actually had the support of Cape Town and he didn’t need anything else.”
“I could survive in Cape Town in without going anywhere else but I always have to expand, I have to grow. But I realised I could survive here without leaving. I could do shows here every week, do videos here every week… But I have to take Cape Town out of Cape Town so Cape Town can realise how valuable it is. Because once they see other people across the world or the continent, or the country cheering, they’re like ‘Oh shit, we are that dope! ‘Cause look, there he is, doing it!’ I have to make them believe so that they can believe in themselves, not in me, in themselves. They can also achieve this shit.”
His win at the 2017 SA Hip Hop Awards for Lyricist of the Year saw him take to the streets of his hood and celebrate his win with the people there. “If the people love you then who gives a fuck? Who cares if you don’t win the thing? And that’s a real statement. I believe in that shit. But it’s always nice to be acknowledged by the industry. Because once the industry acknowledges you, the people acknowledge you even more. It’s like J.Cole, on one of his old songs he says ‘What’s the point of knowing you’re dope if you’re the only one who knows it?’ So it’s nice to always be recognised by the South African market, it lets you know you’re on the right track. I’m not there yet where I wanna be but I’m definitely en route.”
As an artist, Riyadh Roberts knows that he’s still young and talented, but he wants the mark he leaves on the SA hip hop industry to be one of excellence. With 29 mixtapes, countless features, six EPs, and two collaborative albums under his belt; of his legacy, work ethic, and perfection of his craft, he says “I know I can’t be perfect but dammit I’m gonna be the closest one.”