Kwesta knows how to make pop music. Really good pop music. Think of two of his biggest hits, the incredibly cute Flava (made famous by the Redds campaign where party people climb out of a bar fridge) and the insanely catchy Boom Shaka Laka. Already one of them is prob- ably bouncing around your head.
His debut album, Special Rekwest, released by Buttabing, gave South African hip hop a cherry lollipop with bubbling sherbet inside. This was unique from a label that is better known for its testosterone releases – think Skwatta Kamp. Rau! Rau!
Three years later and Kwesta has branched out on his own and released DaKAR. On first listen the album is surprisingly dark. Yet he has still retained that clever pop sound.
“I am bringing myself out,” smiles the slightly built young man. “I am a dark person.”
He prefaces the direction and sound of the album by saying: “This is very different music with personal stories and non-industry beats.
“I am not trying to make a radio-friendly album.”
A second listen proves Kwesta wrong. He has made a radio-friendly album, well, radio-friendly, provided the music compilers in this country are actually able to understand music beyond what’s being spewed out of the US. DaKAR differs from a lot of music out there and it is certainly not trying to be American.
Take the second track, All About. It has this pretty but melancholic piano loop along the lines of Coldplay. The chorus is way catchy, uplifting, but the harmonies are eerily out of kilter. Yet it works really well.
There is a busy electronic track thick with experimental sounds and in another surprise turn, Kwesta rocks an old-school kwaito-ish track with Zakwe and Kid X called Thul’ Ujayive.
The pop punk trio, CrashCarBurn, turn into metal heads when they feature on a track called Johnnie which also includes traditional Zulu singing. Again, it works really well.
“I was going to call that track Keep Walking,” explains Kwesta. “But it was too obvious because I say it in the chorus. So I called it Johnnie as in Johnnie Walker, keep on walking.”
There are some great inspi- rational, authentic rap songs as well as the unconventional and this album has a strong chance of winning Best Rap at the various award ceremonies next year.
What is striking about this album is how personal the lyrics are. This guy has courageously shared his life’s ups and downs with the listener.
There is a beautiful track called Radio that he dedicates to his partner and mother of his daughter. The lyrics are a poem in which he juxtaposes the lines: I watched you do this, but you saw me do that.
“I wrote it so that my daughter will know about her mother and my relationship. I had to leave the day after her birth and want to show that I love her mother and her. Out of all the things I have done, no greater thing has happened to me since that day she was born.”
On another track the lyrics are an obvious and painful narrative about his early life. Absentee fathers are a feature of South African society. It is therefore remarkable that Kwesta is so devoted to being a proper father to his child. Is he also motivated by the cliché of what happened when he was young?
Kwesta is emphatic in his response: “My love for my daughter is a profound and genuine love. My parents divorced when I was eight and I was introduced to a fatherless upbringing. As a kid I realised I might not want him around because he was abusive towards my mother so he did teach me how not to treat women.
“In terms of my lyrics, if I don’t make my lyrics personal then who am I making them for? I am the only person I am trying to get to know because I have been with myself the longest.
“At the same time I wanted people to really identify with me. I wanted to share so much of myself. This was scary, but it is also like being scared of people. That is how I approached it.
“The first album was what was expected of me. It was cute. It was a compilation of songs, but I am still proud of it. As I grow I want a deeper reaction. I want people to listen and think, ‘oh, I never knew you thought like that’.”
The opening track deals with his rise to fame via his debut album and his relationship with Buttabing which, at that stage, was owned by Slikour and Shugasmakx.
After the hype and success of his debut album, Kwesta began to feel frustrated as both label owners released their own albums. He felt sidelined. His frustration led to rebellion and he recorded and released eight songs in eight weeks which were freely available on the internet. Out of this Boom Shaka Laka was born.
After a while he “respectfully left because I couldn’t change the situation at Buttabing”.
Another eight free tracks followed which eventually led to DaKAR – which is an acronym for Da King of African Rap. The album has all the hallmarks of good pop music, but they are infused with experimental sounds and fusions. The lyrics move from being inspirational to painfully honest.
DaKAR will have the same long-lasting effect on South African hip hop that Amu’s debut album, The Life, The Rap and The Drama, had exactly 10 years ago.