What you need to know:
- Ntokozo Mdluli aka KO is a South African rapper signed to Cashtime Life, a company he co-founded. Previously a member of the famous South African rap group, Teargas, he went solo last year.
- His album, Skhanda Republic, won the Record of the Year, at the 21st South Africa Music Awards while his wildly successful single, Caracara, recently hit 2 million views on Youtube.
I’m anxious about our scheduled interview. Entertainment publicist Anyiko Owoko who is managing the rapper’s publicity matters, informs me that KO is asleep in the car.
The previous night he had performed in Nairobi Rapsody at the Ebony Lounge, and soon will be needed at the discussion, as a panel member with Octopizzo.
The topic is how hip-hop is defining the African narrative. Another phone call by Anyiko to her assistant, Iona McCreath, and we start hurrying towards the parking area.
I am handed over to McCreath as Anyiko goes back to check on preparations at the talk site. She leads me to a silver-coloured Voxy, with heavily tinted wndows.
“You have 10 minutes.” McCreath warns me.
The back door is opened and I get in. Snap! I’ve stepped on KO’s fresh-red sneakers.
“I’m so sorry.” I apologise. Still groggy, he chuckles a bit, looking at his shoes and says, “It’s okay, sir. Don’t worry.”
I sigh with relief. As I sit across from him, the two back seats facing each other, I notice the chaos in the vehicle; looks like a mobile work station. I ask him how his day has been.
“Today bro? Very slowish compared to yesterday, but it was still great. A couple of interviews here and there, so I went around. Well, I haven’t been out of the city per se, but I was just experiencing culture. I went to the studio with, um…” He looks at Iona, sitting in the shotgun-seat looking over my shoulder from behind me, to help him out.
“Blinky Bill and Muthoni Drummer Queen,” she says.
“Yeah, We kicked a dope session with those guys; definitely going to make something,” he says.
So, are there any other artistes he would like to work with?
“One name that obviously stands out is Sauti Sol; amazing stuff. I don’t know them yet, but we can have my team reach out to them. When they were down in South Africa for the MAMAs, my management got to interact with some of the guys. We can probably do something in the future,” he says.
I inquire whether he had any pre-conceptions about Kenya.
“My misconception was that I would see Maasais all over the place. I’m not saying some ignorant stuff like it’s underdeveloped or it’s rural. Not like that, but I just thought I was going to spot a lot of those guys,” he muses.
Then he adds disappointedly, “Not even a single one, bro.”
“Have you seen guys herding cows around?” I ask.
“Nuh, bro.” he leans back in his seat, and places his right hand on his forehead. “They don’t walk cows out in the city, right?”
His bafflement is amusing, as he looks to Iona again for clarification.
In unison, Iona and I respond, “They do.”
I explain to him that whenever the weather gets really dry, they move their cattle to the city to feed cows off fields and even lawn grass. Also that they don’t all wear the full regalia.
“Amazing!” he says. Back to the interview.
So what inspired him to become a rapper?
“As a kid, the first time I stumbled upon rap music was through my big brother. He used to play a lot of old school hip-hop records, and it just fascinated me. I was used to stuff that was circulating at the time, actual vocalists like Jodeci. My parents would play Luther Vandross, and things like that. So when I heard someone talking over beats in rhythmic fashion, I wondered, ‘Why is this guy not singing but talking, but at the same time it just made so much musical sense’ So that whole fascination made me study what the hip hop culture was about, and the next thing I knew, I was caught up in it,” he explains.
“Getting into the music industry was tough. My main aim was to become a musician, but there was no way I was going to tell my parents I wanted to pursue music and not do school. I had to make sure I got my degree first — in Public Relations at Vaal University of Technology (VUT), Johannesburg – and then shortly after that, music kicked off.”
Connecting with the sneaker incident, I ask him how he could be so chilled when other rappers throw shade at him.
He breathes in heavily, then responds; “I think you just hit the mark, bro. I’m a very chilled human being; I like interacting with people and creating relationships. If the energy’s good, I can engage further; we can hustle together. As far as tension is concerned and feuding with other people, if it’s unprovoked (from) my end, I tend to just shut people out.
But I’m very civil and respectful, regardless of whether you have done something wrong to me at a personal level. We can compete artiste to artiste; I’m trying to be better than other African rappers.
But in terms of ‘You suck!’ or whatever, I don’t have that energy. Respect people like that and we keep building. On another level, beef comes with hip-hop culture because there’s a lot of egos, adrenaline, testosterone, so a situation like that is bound to happen.”
KO has been in the game for a long time, so I ask if he would have wished to have had these hits from the start.
“You need to be in this for the long haul. There are a lot of guys who just want to come in and get everything now – awards, accolades, sales, money, and fame.
If you get it early, bro, trust me you’re not going to have anything else inspiring you to do other things to sustain yourself, or your presence in the game. I’d rather be a B-list artiste for 10 years, than be an A-list artiste for one or two years. I’m not a hype artiste. I want to be able to help other people launch their careers off mine.”
Studying guys like P Diddy among other amazing hip hop entrepreneurs to ensure his longevity in the game, he walks me through his plan to ensure this stature. Iona warns that my time’s up.
“Pantsula, a slang word for “gangster” or “ghetto”, is a culture in South Africa that we mashed up with hip-hop and came up with a style called Skhanda rap. Cashtime Life is the label company responsible for my album, which is pretty much an art piece of the different shades of that sound. Guys on the label like Maggz, Ma-E, Nomuzi (MTV VJ), Kid X are also some greatly talented artistes who have created a name for themselves on the continent.
We’re just here to make sure they have it easier than other people, in terms of reaching their destiny.”
GUIDANCE AND MENTORING
“I’m a human being at heart. They’re so many things that I was deprived of, growing up in a township. Back in the day, there was no one to guide me on just how to use my talent, how to manage situations and even manage finances,” he says.
“When I was still with Teargas, I also found myself in a position where I saw my funds getting depleted because I was caught up in the lifestyle.
I needed to smarten up and get myself in a better position, which is why I started taking my craft more seriously and rejuvenated myself. So we, young artistes, need that type of guidance and mentoring. I don’t want to see other people going through that.
“Back home I go to high schools and give motivational talks, interact with the kids and impart some knowledge. Some people find themselves; if you know the right people and depending on your talent, before you even finish school, you get a contract. Next thing you know you’re handling a lot of money at a young age, and get caught up really quick because they have no actual education behind financial management.
As soon as the career starts struggling, the guy is dead broke.”
In an industry where flossing (or lying) about what you have is the norm, KO has a different source of motivation.
“I’m not going to sit back and count how much money I have, how many awards or number one records I’ve collected. When I die, I want people looking down at my grave thinking, ‘If it wasn’t for this guy, I wouldn’t be who I am today’. I’m very passionate about changing people’s lives. If I can give someone a job, help them earn a living, help them change their situation, give someone a lifeline, those are the things that I want. When you are just doing great things and your heart is in the right place, then God takes care of everything by default.
“I come from a very religious/ spiritual family. My dad is a part-time pastor, so I grew up in the church environment. So I learnt in my past, school and work environment, so many things started actually happening for me when I restored my relationship with God; praying hard and going to church. I ended up, like any other kid, rebelling against parents as I was growing up and didn’t go to church until five years ago. So the reason that things are going the way they are going for me right now, I believe it’s because of that decision that I made. And it’s beautiful,” he says.
South African star KO with Kenyan rapper Octopizzo during his recent Kenyan tour.