AKA talks Touch My Blood, family and heartbreak

2018-06-17 00:00

Johannesburg - If rapper AKA hadn’t already established himself as a bona fide superstar by the time he released his collaborative album Be Careful What You Wish For in July with Anatii, then the build-up to the release of his latest album, Touch My Blood, certainly set that in stone. That also goes for those who don’t like him, who are in the minority, he says.

But while he’s worked hard for his success, there’s a little secret to how he hopes to sustain it: kindness. Tasked with constantly having to outdo himself in an overly saturated music genre, this lifelong showman now wants a deeper groove in his music and personal life.

“The pain that I’ve experienced now represents victory – me overcoming and thinking I wouldn’t be able to make this album, that I wouldn’t make it or that I’d never be the same again. Turns out it was something that groomed me. I’m closer to my mother, my child’s mother and child than I’ve ever been,” he says.

“I say that as a reflection of me going through a hard time and coming out on the other side.”

We meet at Sandton media company Beam Group, founded by Prince Nyembe and AKA. AKA is dressed to the nines in dark denims, white Reebok sneakers, a T-shirt and a leather jacket that looks like it weighs a ton. He walks in, hugs me and apologises for being late – then goes off to greet everyone in the office.

A few minutes later, he realises why he is here and runs over to apologise again. He wants to know where we’re going to listen to Touch My Blood – what kind of sound system it was going to be played through. They point to a speaker. “We can’t listen to my music like that, it has to be loud,” he tells his publicist.

AKA asks if I’m keen to take a drive and get some food. “It’s the least I can do for keeping you waiting.”

At this point, few people have heard Touch My Blood – if not just his team. AKA says that he hasn’t listened to it in a while because he wants to fully experience it with his fans.

From my experience of having previously watched him work in a studio – AKA is both a perfectionist and a consummate pleaser of his fans. Whether he’d like to admit to it or not. He shares that he’s excited the album is finally going to be released in a week and he really wants people to love it.

He’s spent weeks obsessing over every last detail that he says is a reflection of his life in the past two years – the good, the bad and the ugly.

“Calling the album Touch My Blood is to say relate to me … this is my struggle, my pain, my joy, my music. This album is a collection of feelings, emotions and sounds. The albums that I’ve made before were centred on sounds – there’s a sound that I think I had to make. This time, I went with different feelings ... it’s more varied than any of my other albums.”

As great as your last album

Some might argue that his debut album, Alter Ego, which won multiple awards, is his greatest work, but, arguably, it’s his platinum-selling 2014 album Levels that cemented AKA’s superstar status. But if you thought the album’s runaway success would be a confidence-booster, AKA maintains the opposite: he is his own greatest competition. Some would say enemy, too. In the end, you are only as great as your last album.

There is, of course, the added weight of expectation with this particular work because it arrives in the wake of what’s publicly perceived to be a chaotic time in the rapper’s personal life. Ironically, the person with whom I’m driving around Bryanston looks lighter and happier than I’ve seen him. I mention the difference I’ve observed and ask him whether he feels like a cloud has lifted after recent changes in his life.

He answers “Yes” and laughs.

“I’m lighter and I’m clearer. I’m the type of person who gives everything; I’m a big softy, I’m a big lover – a big boyfriend type. I give everything, and once you give everything and you have nothing left to give, then the only way to go from there is up. I also felt like, relationships aside, I used to be a sh**ty person. Why? Because I hadn’t found who I was yet and that’s no fault of mine,” he says about what he calls his first heartbreak at the age of 30.

I ask when he recorded the happy songs on the album.

“I recorded the happy bit before the sad bit. Then it became sad and then happy again. None of that is confined to a period – as with all life journeys,” he says.

Most recently, there have been news stories about the end of his and TV personality Bonang Matheba’s very public relationship.

I ask him about the Twitter outburst he had when he accused Matheba of cheating, as well as a video of his rapping in a parking area with his fans, making reference to Matheba with lines like: “Even made the f**king news on that Mozambique trip and waited two years just to see you with your weave off.”

Later, referring to the massive reaction his social-media activity got, he says: “I knew you guys [the public] would take it. I’ve figured this thing out – I knew people would run with it. If you listen to what I’m saying in the video, I’m doing lyrics to music – I’m not talking, I’m actually performing.

“I’m writing a song about a woman. How many artists have done that? It’s just because people assume that it’s about this or about that, so they draw their own conclusions and I can’t control that. Am I the first person to write a song about a woman? The only difference is that, when you worship celebrities and someone speaks on it, the truth can be uncomfortable because you as a fan don’t know better. I know, because I was with that person. You guys just know her off Twitter or TV. I know from life experience, so who can actually judge? Who can actually talk?

“I believe that if you live your life worrying about what people are going to say or think about you, you’ll never end up doing anything. To be a real artist, you need to touch all the different depths of feelings inside you – vulnerability, happiness, joy, pain – all of those things are what makes a real artist. How can you be an artist and be guarded?”

Inevitably, all of this has, to a certain extent, coloured his latest music.

“The past two years – now with my break-up, the birth of my daughter, my relationship with my daughter’s mother, my mother, my family, my business – I just decided this music is therapy for me. Let me make this music as a way for me to deal with my life, whatever it entails and all the stresses that come with it. And, in the process, it healed me.”

He says he won’t regret putting his life into his music.

“Isn’t that my job and what my calling is? The majority of the feedback is overwhelmingly positive, but I find the backlash strange. If the person I was talking about isn’t known, you guys wouldn’t care, but because you guys think you know what I’m talking about, now it matters.”

Old school in a new world

While toying with whether it’s too early for sushi (it’s almost 11am), we end up at Tasha’s in Morningside to have more time to listen to the album. Without fail, everyone stops what they’re doing and stares. No one utters a word to him or the person with him. This continues from the parking lot to our table.

It’s true that the spirit of this album is quite clearly influenced by pop music, which comes through strongly – it could very well live in that genre.

AKA is, it has to be said, not your average rapper. In a manner not dissimilar to his idols, he had to work hard on other people’s music to get his start. Since then, he’s been pretty much unstoppable, with every album that he’s released generating mega hits. If AKA is obsessive about songcraft, it’s probably because that’s how he first broke into the business.

But what’s unique about him compared with other modern-day rap phenomenons is both his musicianship and his old school perfectionist streak. Some artists are purely entertainers, but AKA is a real musician. He cares about how the bass and the high hat sound. This doesn’t make songwriting any easier for him – but he says he has improved this skill.

This organic-rather-than-electronic approach of sparking reactions from people is most evident on one of the album’s most talked about songs, Beyoncé, which is an ode to his former love.

“Sweet Fire and Caiphus Song are love songs about that person – but only the bad stuff sticks,” he says about the amount of attention Beyoncé received.

But he insists that he’s not complaining because he understands what gets reactions from people, marking him as an old-world entertainer operating against a tide of a low attention span that’s way too reactionary to anything and everything celebrities say.

“My music is topical, people want to know what’s going on in my life and my music is a reflection of my life. I put Beyoncé out first to get that narrative out of the way so that I can get to what I actually want to talk about. My fans deserve that – nevermind everyone else. I primarily make music for my fans and for myself. I don’t care about anybody else after that. I just want to make sure that my fans know where I am.”

With his finesse for sampling classics, it would be hard to argue that they’re not working out for AKA in the modern world. He queues up Fela in Versace as we drive back to his office and says that, while recording the 16-track Touch My Blood, with input from people including Tweezy, Makwa6eats, Buks, Anatii, Tazzy, Kiddominant and Master A Flat, he’d come up with the beat then the hook, and then he’d leave it for a few months.

“Once a beat and hook is done, the song is done because rapping is the easy part, anyone can rap.”

As we come to the end of our interview, he starts quizzing me about what I think of his album – not that he needs my approval.

“I think this is going to be the album of the year,” he says, and I look over at him with a polite smile. “In my humble opinion,” he adds.

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