It’s a Friday afternoon in Lagos, with the roads in Victoria Island marked by frustrating traffic. I had scheduled a last-minute interview with Africa’s hottest rapper, Cassper Nyovest, at Eko Hotel and Suites, where he was lodged in preparation for the 2018 Soundcity MVP Awards Festival.
All around the hotel, there numerous people at work, installing banners and platforms for the award show which would become the first major highlight of Nigeria’s music industry in 2018. Cassper’s manager, T-Lee, met me at the reception, a tired look in his eyes, as we exchanged handshakes. “Welcome my man,” he says, offering me the standard South African greeting amongst young men. We go up via the elevator into his room where I met Cassper’s personal photographer, Jabu.
“He’s on his way,” he just needs to get set, Jabu offers.
5 minutes later, Nyovest walked in, a standard picture of how he appears in his music videos, with shorts, shades and a black T-shirt that had a sepia image of fellow rapper, Rikky Rick, performing at a concert. On it was written his name “Nyovest,” in red and white. After handshakes, the first thing Cassper does is let out a full yawn. The yawn of a tired man. He had flown into Lagos the night before, and the fatigue was taking its toll.
“I’m sorry man,” he apologised. “It has been very hectic. Too hectic.” He apologized again mid-yawn while shielding his mouth.
Being The Best In Africa
The last time I interviewed Cassper Nyovest, was in 2016. Then, he was a chirpy character, with an abundance of energy at the Pulse studio. Right now, he was the opposite of the guy from that interview. He was tired, had to take a toilet break due to “the Jollof rice coming out fast,” and he watched social media videos on his phone to keep himself awake. But I didn’t mind, when you are the hottest rapper in Africa, the demands placed on you are sometimes too stressful for your body, and when it demands a break you have to give it. Cassper could not afford the luxury of rest right now. Breaks are too costly in the high-octane world of African music.
In the past one year, Cassper had not taken a break. In May 2017, the rapper dropped “Thuto,” his third studio album which was a follow-up to 2015’s “Refiloe.” The album went gold on the first day, physical copies sold-out from all the stores. In a few months, it hit platinum status. “It kinda showed people a different side of me, a side that I have always had, but people didn’t know I could write and rap like that,” Cassper says. “It was very personal, mellow, and very musical, with less club joints…it’s 7 months later and people are still finding new favourite songs from it.” Cassper spoke about the album with pride and believes that the project is a classic. He says “Thuto” would “be there forever.”
Cassper is Africa’s most prominent rapper. At 27 years old, he’s had three successful studio albums, while working his way from the streets of Mafikeng, in the North West province of South Africa, to the heights of continental success and stardom.
A High School dropout, he owns mansions, drives two Bentleys, and cuts an aspirational figure with his lifestyle. Young people across the continent have adopted him as a role model, scrutinising his every move, tweet, and song for connectivity and inspiration.
Cassper does feel the pressure to live up to their ideals, ensuring he maintains a positive influence on their lives. “I just try and do what’s right in my heart and keep it going. These kids believe in you, and they expect you to be perfect and not make mistakes,” he says. “The day that you make a mistake, then it’s like the whole time you are faking your character, and now you just told us who you are. The pressure is hectic, you have to think about not doing something wrong.”
This has also affected his music and inspired his lyrics. “Now I have to think about how it affects people and how wrong or right what I am saying is, and if I could stand behind it. At first, I could say anybody’s name and say anything I wanted. Now I have to think and make it sound smart and witty. It has to be tasteful, it can’t be as blunt as I used to say it.” Although he further admits that he tries not to think too much because it “messes up the flow of the music.”
He yawns again, uses the word ‘hectic’ to apologise, and continues about how his enviable position has altered his experience as a human being. “I don’t experience things the same as my friends. I am always the one who thinks “hey man, is this really right?” He has had to do things that go against his mood, in order to please people. He rues the fact that he can’t publicly reveal his relationship status, or refuse to take photos with fans when he is not in the right frame of mind. “People start talking about that more than the music. You can’t even express how happy you are because people would say you are ‘stunting’. You can’t wake up and say ‘I am 27, I drive two Bentleys, my crib is big.’ You can’t say that because you will become arrogant. You have to tone it down to avoid all that stuff.”
Selling 10 Million Album Units and Beef
In December 2017, Nyovest received certifications from the Recording Industry of South Africa (RISA) for selling over 10 million album equivalents. This figure includes streams, digital and physical downloads, caller ringback tunes and everything else he had sold since he first dropped a record. To celebrate the milestone, he called his photographer Jabu, who took a semi-nude photo of himself and his plaque, standing by his personal swimming pool. The photo went viral. “I have heard this so many times from so many of my favourite artists. 10 million is a big number. I like taking legendary memorable pictures, so when people think about it, you always remember that photo,” he clarifies.
The photo was polarizing, with a section of fans questioning the authenticity of the plaque. His colleague DJ Maphorisa led the charge, calling him a ‘liar’ on Twitter. “People don’t even ask questions, they just accuse you of things and discredit greatness,” Nyovest says, his face all fired up with emotion. For the first time since we began the conversation, there was no hint of fatigue. “I think our biggest mistake is entertaining those little pockets of people who are always discrediting things. They always try to do it in the light of ‘being real’. If you don’t understand something, you pick up the phone and you call someone. And if you have a personal vendetta, you begin to do it in public.”
Cassper says his biggest learning from the episode was about the need for people to take responsibility for the things they say. He longs for some form of consequences for people who publicly hurt others with false accusations. “That means I can wake up and say X is a fraud, and because it’s the Internet, that thing stays there forever, and nothing happens to me for discrediting someone without proof. It taught me that I need to protect myself.”
This opposition isn’t new. Cassper Nyovest occupies an interesting spot in the hierarchy of Hip-hop in Africa. Beef comes at him from every angle, and he has had famous ones. Apart from his issues with DJ Maphorisa, he’s also clashed publicly with fellow rapper and rival, AKA. “I’m in a beef every week,” He laughs. “I don’t need to do anything. I just need to be in my body.” But while in the past this affected his music and his basic desire to be loved, he has grown through it and gained the understanding that it isn’t personal. “People don’t hate me bruh, they hate the position I am in,” he explains. “It’s just like being president. You are the most important citizen in the country, there’s no way you can be liked by everybody.
“Mandela was an amazing human being, and those who love him remember him for that,” he says. “But I hear people talking smack about him. If Mandela has haters, then who are you? I didn’t save a whole nation from Apartheid. I’m not as great as Mandela or Jesus Christ. I’m just Cassper Nyovest, and I can’t be liked by everyone.”
I ask him if this contributes to his music, and he says no. “I think pressure makes diamonds, but not beef. I don’t enjoy that space. I’m not one who creates those vibes so that I can produce better music. But I do realise that when it gets that way, I do have to up my game so that I can come out on top. It’s hectic.
“I don’t need the beef. I just need to carry on doing me, building the legacy, adding to the story and carry on winning, and getting more plaques, breaking boundaries and moving the needle.”
Filling Up Stadiums
Nyovest has made history thrice in Africa with his concerts. In 2015, the rapper filled up the 20,000 capacity TicketPro Dome in Johannesburg, without the aid of any international artist in the lineup. In 2016, he doubled those numbers when he moved the stage to the 40,000 Orlando Stadium. While the Orlando Stadium concert wasn’t completely sold out, it was a historic move. No African artist had ever attempted it. In 2017, he brought together 68,000 people to the largest stadium in Africa, the FNB Stadium, for a concert.
Cassper says it is an amazing feeling challenging the status quo because his name has been forever etched in history. “Even if I quit today, which I won’t, I feel like I have done enough for my name to live forever in this world,” he says. “I’m sure it’s going to inspire some people. So a hundred years from now, when another kid comes and says I want to do FNB stadium, my name will be there. Even if someone else does it after that kid, they will say the first South African to do it was Cassper Nyovest.”
He shares his personal experience of organising such landmark events, and what it took out of him to ensure a successful concert at FNB Stadium. “It’s not a joke to prepare to be physically able to perform for 4 hours. You have to look the part, for me to remember every single step, every single song, every outfit change and move. It’s not a joke.
“And then there’s the part of selling the actual tickets. I had to make sure people understand why they need to be there. It’s just any other Saturday. How do you get 68,000 people to decide that they could go to the stadium for you? When they could see you the next week at half the price.
“When we did the Dome, we were told that it was impossible. When we did Orlando stadium, people were like ‘why are you doing it again? When we did FNB stadium, people said it was possible, ‘but we want to see you do it again’.
“Just the fact that people went from saying it’s impossible, to saying it was possible when we were doing four times the initial number, that means we changed the game. We didn’t have to fill it up. We didn’t have to sell 68,000 tickets. People were saying I was a clown initially, but now we have people who now have confidence. We changed the game.”
Nigeria vs South African Hip-hop
A running conversation in African music is about the state of Hip-hop on the continent, and which country currently leads the movement. Nigerian rappers were once at the fore the race, dominating the game from the hub in Lagos. But in recent years, the power appears to have shifted to South Africa, where the rap music produced, has an Afropolitan feel.
In recent years, Cassper has been a member of the vanguard. He’s pushing the culture and reaping the benefits. He understands the intricacies of the movement and explains why there are different concerns about the different rap movements on the continent.
“We have to understand that it is not our culture. Hip-hop is not an African thing,” Nyovest explains. “It is American, and right now the sound in Africa is very African and Afrobeats. That’s what people are listening to right now. So when you come to rap on a Trap beat or a Hip-hop beat, you are already removing yourself from so many ears.
“But at the same time, we dress the same as the Afrobeat guys and they listen to Hip-hop. So I believe we will get to a point where we will find our own sound or our own way of doing it. And have our people appreciate it.”
In 2017, the Nigerian Hip-hop community in Nigeria was triggered by M.I Abaga, (a rapper who Cassper had earlier admitted is the “greatest African rapper”). Abaga dropped a single titled ‘You rappers should fix up your life,’ admitting that South African rappers are dominating the scene. The admission, the first of its kind by a respected leader, triggered a conversation about the rivalry between South African and Nigerian rap. Nyovest thinks M.I stated a fact.
“Yes, South African Hip-hop is in the forefront of African Hip-hop in general. It might not be as popular as it is in South Africa in Nigeria. But I know for a fact that the rappers from Nigeria are kinda unknown in SA,” he says. “If we talk about crossing over, I know that a lot of people in Nigeria know about my music. I know that in Kenya and Ghana it’s the same thing.
“I’m not just talking about me, I’m talking about the movement. Sarkodie is big in Ghana, but are there other rappers who are as big as Sarkodie from Ghana? The South African Hip-hop movement is big across, also in London, New York…we are out there performing in different countries.”
Cassper admits that this topic is controversial. Sensing the magnitude of the conversation, he stutters as he tries to find the right words to convey his points across. “Me saying that might offend people here. They might feel that I’m taking shots at Nigerian music. But that’s not the deal. If we are to discuss in terms of numbers and appeal across the world, it’s just the way it is.”
On M.I Abaga’s call to Nigerian rappers to infuse more rap into their music, Cassper disagrees in part but also agrees to certain aspects of the song.
“If I decide to rap on a beat like Davido’s ‘Fall’, which is more like Afro-pop, is it not Hip-hop? I don’t know, I’m not the one who came up with a set of rules. For me, it’s still Hip-hop because it is a rapper. I can decide to rap on anything. I just use it as a beat and rap on it. It doesn’t have to be a certain kind of beat.
“At the end of the day, it’s each to his own. If M.I feels like that’s his opinion, that’s his opinion. For me, anyone can rap in any language that is dope. If you say it’s Hip-hop, then it is Hip-hop.”
I ask him about the popular trend in Nigeria where rappers tweak their artistry to become singers. Cassper says “It’s none of my business.” Although, he also shares an important point: “I don’t think rappers must not sing. If you want to sing, you could sing. But if you are a rapper, we still need to hear you rap. You can’t sing all the time. We have to hear you rap because you need to rap for us to call you a rapper. If you sing all the time that means you are a singer now.”
On Future Plans, Successes, and Retirement
Cassper Nyovest and D’banj
Cassper acknowledges his success in the music industry. He says, at the moment, he has moved past the stage of struggling and now envisions a future of happiness and financial prosperity. “For me, it’s just to make as much music as I can make, travel to many countries, perform as much as I can,” he says. “…And make as much money as I can. One of my dreams is to become a billionaire and show people that it is possible. I’ve done a lot of amazing things, and for now, it’s all about fun. I am not doing this to survive anymore. For now, it’s just fun.”
The day after we sat down together, Cassper would later go on to give a performance and win the Best Hip-Hop award at the Soundcity MVP. The day after that, he was at Davido’s house, recording a collaboration which he termed a “classic” on Twitter. He also posed for a photo with a a bottle of Ciroc on Instagram and hung out with more Nigerian musicians. Life is truly ‘hectic’ for Nyovest, the best type of ‘hectic’.