Johannesburg - I head over to the David Gresham Studios in Woodmead, Sandton, to meet with a young woman who cooked up an album that would easily make me rethink a tour if I were in the rap game. Not only will fans enjoy listening to her debut album, she has also added a short film to go along with it.
I first saw Rouge on SABC 1’s Mzansi Insider. She stepped on stage all in black with a red hairdo and shades. She proceeded to administer a venomous dose of bars with what seemed like minimal effort.
That was about two years ago and now Rouge is about to apply some major pressure on the game with her debut full-length offering, The New Era Sessions. I was invited to post with home girl and get a chance to bump the album. In the invitation, a statement by Rouge was made along the lines of: “This tape will revitalise the game.” Bold statement from a robust individual who has the darts to back that up.
She strolls into the studio in a dress and black high tops, hair flaming pink, with much of that same energy that emanated from the screen when I first saw her. A cool, self-assured demeanour, and yet, she remains quite approachable. We begin with the album, 15 tracks that have been narratively arranged to offer a portal into a therapy session between Rouge and a robotic-like therapist.
The idea is that the album lets you know who Rouge is in a nutshell.
She bumps her head along to the beats with a grin on her face, almost knowing that I will enjoy what she has put together, but also not coming off as pretentious or trying to catch stunts.
Rouge started rapping at the age of 19.
“Rappers usually start at 12 or 13. I remember Nasty C telling me he started at nine, so it was pretty late,” she tells me.
She wanted to go into musical theatre after studying drama at the University of Pretoria. “Theatre is my first love, that’s what I wanted to do. But thanks to a friend pointing out that I have a voice that would sound nice on raps ... he forced me to try it one day and after that, I didn’t want to do anything else.”
It’s just as well, because we do have a shortage of rappers with style – and I don’t mean in terms of threads, I mean in terms of the way the artist approaches their art in what is now a saturated industry.
From AKA to Lauryn Hill
What drove Rouge to the culture? Who inspires her? “Locally, AKA. I have been watching him since his Entity days and seeing that growth, especially in South Africa, is mind-blowing.
Internationally ... Lauryn Hill.” Hill’s holistic approach to music is something Rouge admires and it comes across in her sound. I know a lot of MCs take it upon themselves to add harmonies and try a little singing. Lauryn Hill did this but with a voice that actually sounds like it’s meant to carry the weight of doing vocals.
Rouge is the only rapper in this country that I have heard who could mess around and drop an entire tape where she just sings and doesn’t rap a word. And it would be good. Everybody else needs to back away from the Auto-Tune and sharpen those darts.
She adds she is more Biggie than Pac. Her favourite artist is Logic, weirdly enough. “He’s one of those artists I can relate to in terms of his storytelling.” Ask any good artist where they get inspiration from and they will probably say what Rouge does: “My everyday experiences.” Some would leave it at that, but she goes on, “I didn’t just want to draw on the happy stuff, there needed to be some sadness on there, it needed to feel like a therapy session. These sessions are about the everyday, the light and dark sides of it.”
Balancing the light and dark
There are party tracks, heartbreak tracks, motivational tracks and hustler tracks on the album.
“Being more vulnerable was a risk, perhaps people wouldn’t like that, but it was a risk I had to take ... Of course, I want the plaques and the glory ... If you look at an organisation like David Gresham, the things they do are timeless and that is exactly what I want.” She wants to create a lane for herself in which she can’t be mimicked. One that goes beyond the plastic bubblegum currently dominating the soundscape.
“A sense of consciousness in my work is important. You have to leave people with something to talk about, whether they like it or not. If that isn’t there, you won’t be remembered... I’m not saying one shouldn’t have fun or a good time, but you need those other tracks.”
Rouge has had issues with people accepting her as a South African; she was born and raised here, but has Congolese heritage. It’s something she’s proud of. “At first I thought it would be a struggle as I may not have the same back story as my audience or even speak the same languages. But I’m more than just a Congolese girl, or even a South African. I’m African.” This is why she has added touches of French and Lingala on this album. “I have been blessed with the chance to represent two African countries in this one body.”
She’s still just starting out, but has already worked with a lot of the people she wanted to work with locally. “I have actually just finished recording a song with Shekinah” – a track we should be treated to soon. Once she has worked with Logic, she would have done most of what she wants to in the game.
A meticulous method
On The New Era Sessions, Rouge has three collaborations, which is another move stemming from a healthy knowledge of the culture. A debut should never be riddled with features. Big Star appears on her record and it seems the two share a strong friendship and camaraderie in art.
“They were all wonderful to work with. Before the music, they were all my friends. The relationship I have with Big Star is special. We started out in this game together, we literally helped each other on to our feet. He got on to Vuzu’s The Hustle because he was seen doing a set at one of my gigs. It’s a family thing, he’s like my brother.”
Her boyfriend also appears on her debut, doing a little subtle ad-libbing in the background on the tongue-in-cheek banger, Dololo.
Who does she consider to be competition? “There’s this lady from London, her name is Lady Leshurr, she is fire. I would just want to see if I can keep up with her. We’re kinda on the same vibe in terms of the character and speed rapping.”
And locally? “Would it sound horrible if I said I am the only competition I see locally?”
That is, in fact, the perfect answer to this question – I mean if you’re a rapper and you don’t think you’re the best, what are you doing rapping?
“I have that much belief in myself; I believe I am repping Africa. What is the point of everything I’m doing if I feel someone else is doing it better? It doesn’t make sense.”
The production on the album sounds as though it was crafted to last. “I worked with a number of producers, people I have been working with for a while. I wasn’t just looking for big names or to fill up the track list with as many producers as I could. I had Wichi 1080, Ron Epidemic, Tweezy and Mae N Maejor from Zambia.”
She envisions a concept, finds what she wants to say and then sends the idea to the producer. She even went as far as flying Mae N Maejor in from Zambia just so that they could talk it out in person. This is how she prefers to work with her beat makers, as opposed to bits of track being sent to and fro.
And a movie
“I call it a piece of art and what a process it was ... I worked with the likes of Atandwa Kani and his wife Fikile, Denise Zimba, and this new kid who is an incredible actor, Cassius Davids, people will know that name. I just wanted people to take a journey with my music in another field of art.”
The accompanying film’s story is told using the album as a guide, “a musical movie”.
“It wasn’t just like I woke up and felt like acting. Atandwa Kani, shout-outs to him, he literally had me in a room and prepared me for the emotional roller coaster. I always struggled with getting to that place, even at varsity. He had me there in 10 minutes. It was really tough, I have a newfound respect for acting, even though I studied it, actually doing it was hard.”
She plans to add more mediums to her repertoire, such as musicals, theatre and perhaps fashion. “My team is amazing, and they let me go wild and branch out. I would love to work with many different kinds of artists ... We tryna win Oscars out here, guys, Naledis, I wanna be that girl,” she quips.
Watch the trailer here:
Tape of the year?
Towards the end of our chat, Rouge explains her attempt at revitalising the game: “I did so in terms of my concept and my content. The way most projects get rolled out these days is based on making things the way you think people want you to make music. We’ve lost the element of surprise or the need to think a bit about the work. I want to change that narrative. We need to go back to giving people classic albums. That is what makes you last long. Singles die, they don’t last long as there is always new music coming out. People need to be given something to digest, complete projects. This is what I wanted to do.”
And she has. She has covered most of the bases, injected enough individualism, fierceness, wit and charisma to make this a contender for tape of the year.