AKA spins and dances animatedly in his chair as his upcoming album, Mass Country, blares loudly from the studio speakers. We’re in the Johannesburg offices of Sony Music Entertainment Africa, and the excitement and belief the 34-year-old rap star has in these songs is palpable. Many of them are only half-finished.
He turns from the studio monitor to sing one of his favourite cuts, clapping and waving his hands furiously in the air. Throughout our interview-turned-listening-session, AKA has a broad smile planted on his face – like a kid in a candy store. “This one has got that ‘Fela In Versace’ vibe,” he says, referencing his mammoth 2018 single featuring Nigerian Afrobeats star Kiddominant, still the biggest single of his career.
The music is full, layered and pleasantly melodious. Like the AKA of old. There’s dance samples aplenty, maskandi and country influences here and there; and most importantly, a big vibe.
Comeback after a long spell
I can hardly blame him for being this excited. Not only is the album sounding great, his comeback single, ‘Lemons (Lemonade)’, released two weeks back, has been an instant hit. This, after a long spell of inconsistent musical output and considerable personal and professional tumult. Currently, ‘Lemons’ is jostling with K.O’s record-breaking single ‘Sete’ at the top of most of the big local charts.
Following a lengthy stretch in which he was the dominant figure in South African hip hop, and local music in general, AKA has been a shell of himself since his excellent third studio album, 2018’s Touch My Blood. In the interim, he’s released the polarising ‘F.R.E.E’ with DJ Tira and the late Riky Rick, two lukewarm and somewhat sloppy projects, and a few forgettable singles.
He’s also endured the heartbreaking loss of his fiancée, Anele Tembe, and experienced some speed bumps in his business ventures with Cruz Vodka, The Braai Show and Reebok. Despite this, AKA is back firing on all cylinders, and in reference to ‘Lemons’, says: “Now I’m stronger”
So what is it that kept AKA going through the dark days? “I think just the love of music is the most important thing,” he says. “I genuinely love what I do. I love sounds, I love creating new sounds and I know it’s a corny thing to say, but if I didn’t love music the way I love music then I wouldn’t really be here. Music is in me, I consume it like 18 hours of the day, just listening to all sorts of shit. In terms of getting through dark times, it’s God, family and music.”
On ‘Lemons’, AKA says: “Dark day, friends were few, it’s alright/turned that pain to fuel and survived.” He contextualises this rhyme by explaining how people turned their backs on him during the toughest period of his life. “When all the stuff was going down, I just found that a lot of people didn’t want to associate with me, a lot of people had written me off and now, all sorts of people that I haven’t spoken to in like two years are just calling, trying to link up and stuff; and [during the] dark days, friends were few, it’s all right. Turn[…] that pain to fuel.”
Much of the messaging behind the song and lyrics suggest it was conceived and orchestrated as a triumphant comeback song. When I ask if this was intentional and if he hoped that this song would mark his return to the top of his game, he says: “Nope.” AKA then talks me through his process. “I don’t work on songs, saying this is my whatever song. I work on music, saying this is a feeling that I have and I need to get this feeling into a sonic form; so I do that and once I get it into a sonic form, I can mould it and shape it like clay,” he says.
You lose the authenticity and people can pick up if the message is coming from your heart or it’s manufactured
“But I’ve never gone into [a] studio and said ‘we need to make a hit’ and made a hit. I just take what’s in my heart or if I listen to an album and I go ‘what emotion are we missing?’. Maybe then I go into my heart or my mind and I think about things and say ‘oh we need, we need something to talk about that’. I don’t say ‘oh we need a dance song like this song so let’s make this song’ cause then there’s no feeling in it. You lose the authenticity and people can pick up if the message is coming from your heart or it’s manufactured.”
Album’s lead single
AKA says he realised ‘Lemons’ was going to be the album lead single about eight months ago. During the near year-long process of polishing it and making sure it came together cohesively, AKA decided that the song was the perfect platform for him to finally feature Nasty C, the talented globetrotting rapper who many view as his natural protégé.
“I first sent him the song a few months ago, he didn’t bite. He thought we needed to find something different. I looked and looked and looked and then one night I was like ‘Bro trust me, you have to do this one. You just have to.’ Because sonically it’s nothing that he’s ever done before; so in order to put you in a place where you’ve never gone before you need to give me something that you’ve never given anybody before, and I definitely think he did that. In many ways, I think maybe we might’ve opened a can of worms for Nasty C cause I think a lot of people will ask ‘can you give us more of that?’.”
Labelled by many as the verse of the year, Nasty C delivers a laid-back and memorable cameo appearance that’s full of quotables. AKA credits the role of a producer like himself with creating moments – by giving direction and pointing an artist in the right direction. “I didn’t really have to direct him that much because he didn’t write it when I was there, but I think I did direct him in terms of ‘yo man, this is the sound and this is what I want it to be, listen to my verse and listen to my hook’ and then he just took it from there. It’s just a classic song and a classic Nasty C verse,” AKA says.
When I interviewed Nasty C in 2015 as he was bursting onto the scene, he spoke of how he admired AKA, and how AKA had tried to sign him, but that never quite materialised. Though he remembers this interaction differently to how Nasty does, AKA looks back philosophically at their first meeting and how things eventually unfolded. “In 2012 or 2013, I met Nasty C in Durban, I think he was about 14 years old, and he performed with me on stage. There’s actually a picture that I posted. I couldn’t sign Nasty C at the time because I didn’t have the facilities to do that, I wasn’t an artist who was signing people.”
AKA adds that he has no regrets, and he looks forward to seeing Nasty C’s career evolve over the coming years. “I don’t look back like ‘Oh man, I should’ve signed him’. No, everything worked out just like it should’ve worked out for him; so shout-out to Nasty C, I definitely think you can say, when you look at the story of SA hip hop, he really took the torch and ran with it. He’s that next legend in the making.”