As the world marvels at Yugen Blakrok’s appearance on the Black Panther soundtrack, Helen Herimbi sits down with the Mzansi MC
The last quarter of 2017 was a reaping season for Yugen Blakrok. Now the Eastern Cape-born, Johannesburg-based rapper who is signed to prolific independent hip hop label, Iapetus Records, finally gets the shine she deserves.
In the last three months of that year, she embarked on yet another European tour – where her 2013 debut album, Return of the Astro-Goth sells better and is shown more love than in SA – which saw her stay in Berlin for a while, then hit places like Zurich, Basel, parts of Austria and more.
It was while preparing to leave Berlin that she got a message that would catapult her into the kind of attention that has Billboard magazine calling her talent “undeniable” and more.
I meet Yugen Blakrok at an eatery, and we settle into the nook of a restaurant that has Ponte prominently winking at her past the floor to ceiling windows.
She tells me: “It was a random Sunday night and we were moving out of this Berlin apartment, and it was just stressful trying to put our stuff and merchandise in certain places. Then I get contacted by someone from TDE (Top Dawg Entertainment, the American label that signed Kendrick Lamar, SZA and more) like: ‘Hey, there’s this project we’d like to involve you in.’ So I said: ‘Cool, let me know more about it. I don’t have a lot of time right now but send me your idea.’ And then I see who it is…”
Yugen Blakrok is grinning from ear to ear.
“I was like: ‘Oh damn!’”
Damn is right. That top secret project became the Black Panther soundtrack, which is curated and produced by Kendrick Lamar. It was released a week before the highly anticipated Black Panther film hits South African cinemas tomorrow.
When Yugen Blakrok was tapped to appear on a choppy, militant beat that is now known as Opps – which features Lamar as well as Vince Staples alongside Yugen Blakrok – our MC had no idea what it was for. She didn’t even know fellow South Africans, Babes Wodumo, Sjava and Saudi would be on the soundtrack.
“The deadline was soon and I was stressed because,” she pauses to shake her head. “You heard that beat, girl! You’ve never heard me on anything like that before. I was panicking. I was just writing and didn’t know what I was writing for. There was nothing but the beat. The beat is high-energy and my style – if you were to generalise it – is very rebel-against-the-system. So I felt like I could be myself on the beat.”
With no instructions on what to write about, Yugen Blakrok still spat lines like: “Blades on the tongue, Kathleen Cleaver.” Her signature commanding deep voice marries natural and imagined worlds, as she raps about imploring sideline watchers to use their superpowers – like punching like a cyborg and roaring like a lioness, and crushing the systems that belittle all of us. If that does not sound like Wakanda to you, then you probably haven’t seen even one Black Panther trailer.
She found out that she was included in the sounds that accompany Ryan Coogler’s film while she was in the bath and playing on her phone.
“I couldn’t believe it was for the Black Panther soundtrack,” she says. “I knew I couldn’t tell anybody and I just decided to take a nap,” she laughs.
Yugen Blakrok, who is a multiple South African Hip Hop Awards nominee has since had some time to get used to the idea that she’s on a song with the Grammy-winning Kendrick Lamar and bodied him on it. She’s also just learnt how to mute her notifications on Twitter.
Yugen Blakrok may finally be getting her flowers from her countrymen, but she is used to blooming where she is planted. After being the only hip hop act at a reggae festival while on her European tour last year, some pretty amazing things happened to her.
“The guy who invited us to the reggae festival happens to be taking a course, in Basel, on South African music and history, and I was one of the subjects they were studying. They had my album there and when they heard I was around, they asked me to come to the class and give a talk. They have all sorts of archives of South African music – from newspapers that were printed in apartheid times to like, Mdu and TKZee CDs,” she says as she beams with pride.
In that last quarter of 2017, she also got to open for hip hop icon, MC Lyte.
“Oooooooh girl,” Yugen Blakrok stops eating her chocolate cake to literally gasp. “I got this Facebook message, and they said she was on tour in Europe and they were looking for a dope artist to open for her – preferably female because it was a Queens of Hip Hop kind of party and they asked around, and my name kept coming up. It was great! It was the biggest moment of my life, and I don’t mean my performance, I mean just looking at Lyte,” she giggles.
They also travelled to Switzerland to open for MC Lyte again – on Yugen Blakrok’s birthday.
While there, a DMC Champ DJ and a friend of Yugen Blakrok’s told her he was opening for Pete Rock and CL Smooth and it also happened to be CL Smooth’s birthday so that night became one Yugen Blakrok says she’ll never forget.
She says: “Folks were singing happy birthday to me in German, they were buying me cakes and I’ve always wanted to be on stage on my birthday because I’m very cheesy and sentimental so it was all really, really nice.”
With 2018 having just begun, it’s clear that this year will be better than nice for SA’s own Yugen Blakrok.