Johannesburg- Tresor Riziki is an extremely private artist. So private that he isn’t at all keen that I come to his Emmarentia home to interview him.
“Everybody has their own scandals. But the difference is mine will never see the light of media,” he tells me as he sips on a gin and tonic and I on a Pimms cocktail while we chat at Tashas in Rosebank.
I know only one narrative about this man – a rags-to-riches story in which he went from being an impoverished twentysomething from the Democratic Republic of Congo working as a car guard in Durban to becoming a platinum-selling Afro-pop sensation who keeps rising – so I’m keen to find out what else there is to know about Tresor.
“You know you can be more famous than you are, if you make more headlines?” I suggest playfully.
“I know, I know that. It’s easy to do – I can just leak some scandal or take a famous woman to an awards show and kiss her live on TV and do all the dramatic things that people do. But my intention is for my music to be much more powerful than any of that.”
He prefers to have friends over at his house than going out – it’s less trouble. He doesn’t drink heavily or do drugs. In fact, he doesn’t ever perform in clubs – it’s just not his scene. Hard as I pry, Tresor is all about the music. Later he gets a little irritated with me when I ask him about his love life.
A few weeks after the interview, I ask his manager and friend Raphael Benza if Tresor is usually this reserved in interviews.
“He’s a private character,” Benza tells me over the phone. “Being the type of artist he is – a singer-songwriter – he holds to himself. As creatives, singer-songwriters create their own space and they don’t want to be exposed or judged.”
A global African star
Private or not, Tresor just keeps getting more famous, and recently signed one of the most lucrative record deals for a South African-based artist – a seven-figure multiyear contract with globally represented label Universal Music. It’s a three-album deal in which he says he still has “complete and utter creative control” of his music and image.
Even with shades on he’s approached twice during our interview by fans. I ask him if it happens a lot.
“On my way here, my Uber driver’s phone rang and his ring tone was one of my songs. So I asked him if he knew the guy who sings it, then told him it was me. He freaked out,” he laughs.
The video for his latest hit single, Remedy, is a colourful, happy ode to 80s electronica, while the infectious Mount Everest and Never Let Me Go both became the number one-selling dance songs on Italy iTunes during their release periods. With collaborations with AKA, The Kiffness, Hugh Masekela, Beatenberg and Mobi Dixon, his music has a universal appeal that ensures he always gets heavy airplay.
“I want to be on the same level as Bra Hugh Masekela and Fela Kuti were. The vision is to become the next global African star,” he says.
Afro-pop and Afrophobia
But not everyone has embraced his accessible brand of Afro-pop. Some see it as vapid and mainstream – radio-friendly fodder that doesn’t challenge the listener.
And then there’s the fact that pop from other African countries has never truly taken off in South Africa.
There’s still a sort of resistance – at best because of ignorance, at worst as a result of xenophobia – when it comes to our taste in music. We’ll jam to the singles of globally acclaimed artists such as D’banj, P-Square or Davido with ease, but the bulk of Nigerian stars haven’t achieved their deserved status here. South African acts such as Mafikizolo are household names in Kenya, but Kenyan stars like Sauti Sol are relatively unknown here.
Tresor doesn’t agree. He tells me that South Africa has “adopted me as their own son”.
“There’s not one South African artist who gets as much radio airplay as I do,” he says. “I’ve been embraced by this incredible country and its people.”
It’s the fact that Tresor maintains an Afrocentric flavour in his music that has got him signed to an international label. After all, rappers modelled on a US style are a dime a dozen.
Learning to dream
Tresor comes from the town of Goma, and is one of eight siblings from a middle class family. While his parents weren’t wealthy, they owned land. His siblings are highly educated, and one of his sisters is a doctor.
“My parents really worked hard and I went to a good school. I don’t remember ever going to bed without a meal – I had a standard, good middle class upbringing.”
That’s until a volcanic eruption in 2001 that destroyed Goma. Two years later, both Tresor’s parents died – an event that he still won’t talk about. He left his hometown without telling anyone and ended up in Durban after months travelling down Africa, depleting all the money he had.
Ryan Hill, managing director of Universal Media Publishing and Tresor’s friend, tells me that they took him on as a development act after he sent in some demos. “It’s very rare for me to listen to unsolicited demos. But I immediately knew there was something unusual about his music. I said I would meet him and he organised a lift to come to Cape Town.”
The rest is history, as they say.
I ask Tresor if the Congolese celebrate him like we do.
“It was far-fetched for them to ever imagine a child from their hometown doing what I do. But I think from my MTV and Trace TV award nominations people started learning about me and have a sense of pride about it. They knew my music before they knew I was from Congo.”
After much wheedling, he agrees to my sending his sister in the Congo, Deborah Riziki, some questions.
She tells me that many Congolese know Tresor. “The majority of youth know about his music and success. Especially in our hometown, Goma. He has really inspired many. He is more like a modern-day youth hero ... They are all impatiently waiting for a big homecoming show!”
And on her brother’s success in South Africa?
“I am very proud of him and the whole family is truly excited,” she says. “He left without saying goodbye a few years ago and for him go to a foreign country and live his dreams to the fullest has been the most fulfilling journey to watch. He has taught us to dream more and push ourselves beyond limits.”
She tells me that her mom always knew Tresor was going to do great things. “He was very shy, reserved and really deep into music from a very young age. He got into trouble with our parents many times for spending too much time practising ... He was often very ill and survived death many times and our late mother always said the boy had a great purpose to fulfil.”
- Tresor’s new album, The Beautiful Madness, is out now. Get it for R89.99 from the iTunes Store