AKA is silently sitting on the edge of a white couch. He is unfazed by the din of his band and other hangers-on. Next to AKA, Anatii takes Boomerang after Boomerang of himself on his cellphone in his shiny Michael Jackson-inspired outfit. But AKA doesn’t notice.
He stares past the catering table of fruit, chicken and mountains of bottles of vodka and champagne. For the first time since we arrived at his dressing room at the Mzansi Viewers’ Choice Awards at the Sandton ICC, the rapper, businessman and self-proclaimed pop artist is quiet.
I ask him what he’s thinking about. He looks up at me and nonchalantly says: “All the things that could go wrong.” Why? I quiz him.
A crescent of a smile creeps up on his face and he says: “So I can figure out how to stop them.”
REWIND
On a chilly Saturday night, I am invited to follow AKA as he performs at three back-to-back gigs and hosts the Mayweather vs McGregor fight. For Gauteng gigs, there are usually nine personnel and friends who travel with the artist whose parents named him Kiernan Forbes.
That’s what AKA’s road manager, Tshiamo Letshwene tells me. I lose count of the heads but by the third gig of the night only the ones who can handle such a rigorous schedule are left. I expect to jump in his Viano but, the driver tells me, the V-Class is a newer, better ride.
We wait at his home for a little while before he gets into the car so I ask AKA if he was sleeping. “No,” he shakes his head, “I was packing for all these shows. It’s like packing for a trip.”
At the ICC, his team keeps him in the middle as we walk through corridors to the dressing room. They take such long, swift strides that I realise just how short I am. They slow down but don’t stop when we pass a door. The name on the wall next to the door reads Bonang Matheba.
He gently opens the door and all I hear is a woman’s voice endearingly saying: “Heyyyyyy”.
In a few moments, we are on the move again. They are briskly walking. I am slightly running. Then we’re in the dressing room and he’s trying to figure out how to stop all the things that could go wrong. And he does. Sort of.
The audience goes insane when he mounts the stage. He hits all his marks. Even his jacket rips off at the right moment, in the right way. But then Anatii joins him to perform their single, Don’t Forget To Pray. Anatii is inaudible throughout his entire verse.
“What happened,” AKA exclaims to a TV crew that has no answers for him backstage. He takes his shoes off and his friend, Don Design, puts another pair of Reebok sneakers on the floor so he can change. But he’s so heated he ignores them.
“Somebody must know what happened.” His voice is ireful. He’s walking really, really fast in those socks and, this time, I’m literally running behind him.
PAUSE
Back in the V-Class, we’re making our way to the Toyota Live DrumBeat concert where AKA is the headliner and I ask if he’s ready to comment on mic-gate. “Shit happens,” he shrugs.
AKA and Anatii’s joint album, Be Careful What You Wish For (aka BCWYWF, released this July), came after a brief spat between the two, concerning how much Anatii charges for a beat.
“We crossed paths in Los Angeles by chance in the lobby of a hotel,” AKA tells me as we drive towards the East Rand.
“I just didn’t have that angst or desire to maintain this feud. So we had a conversation and said when we get back to South Africa, let’s make some music. We got back and started making some tunes. Then three or four tunes in, we said ‘Hey, let’s just go all the way and make an album.’”
BCWYWF is one of a few ways AKA has decided to do things differently this year. Another way was becoming his own boss. Although a little reluctant to use the term CEO, that’s what he is for his company, the BEAM GROUP.
“When I see the word CEO, I think of a big-ass boardroom and shareholders’ meetings,” he tells me. “We’re a different kind of company. We are young people who weren’t taught how to start or run a company and we’re kind of just making it up as we go along, so I’m not too into titles. But I guess CEO best describes or defines what my position is.”
I ask him what his most painful cheque to write as a CEO has been. “Probably when I had to part with money that was rightfully mine in order to have the freedom to run my business the way I’m running it today,” he says as he takes another swig of champagne straight out of the bottle.
I tell him that’s too cryptic an answer. “Well, that’s the point,” he laughs. “Ok, let me try think of another way to say it.”
After a pause, he says: “In order for BEAM GROUP to exist or for AKA to be as successful and as in control of his destiny as he is today, that would not have been possible if I did not put my feelings aside as to whether this money I was about to sign away or give away was mine or not.”
“It was mine. I had worked for it and was entitled to it. But I knew I had to take that loss in order to have this win. Still cryptic?”
He doesn’t wait for me to answer. “I had to make certain concessions, certain sacrifices.”
So at what point did he decide he was starting his own business? “I just got really tired of my old label and management.”
With Vth Season, AKA released his debut, Altar Ego (2011) and his genre-blending second album, Levels (2014). Last year, he took to Twitter – an app he has a tumultous relationship with – to say he wanted out of his deal.
On the ride to gig number two, AKA continues: “That’s around the time I started questioning: ‘How can you be a boss if somebody is paying you on a certain day every month, regardless of how big your cheque is?’”
“It’s like if you work for a bank. It doesn’t matter if you make R500 000 or R600 000 or whatever, if you have to clock in and wait, and someone can withhold that money from you, then you’re not free. And I just couldn’t do that any more. I needed to be in control of my money and that’s where the seed to create BEAM GROUP started.”
Most recently, he announced that he’d signed a seven-figure deal to be the Africa ambassador for Reebok Classics. He says leading the announcement with the numbers was intentional.
“Yes, AKA being the face of Reebok Classics is great but what else makes it special? This is where we can borrow from our American brothers and sisters and add a little fan fare. It’s also the truth.”
“It’s a sportswear brand and when you think that as well as seven-figure deal, where does your brain automatically go? Athlete. You’re probably thinking the next word will be Neymar or Ronaldinho. It has that ring to it. If you say seven-figure deal and Iwisa, it doesn’t conjure up the same feeling. I’m an athlete of a different kind.”
So, like an art-lete, I offer. “Exactly,” he exclaims. “I’m an artlete. I run the game. I run the city. That’s what I do.”
PLAY
At Carnival City, it’s colder than a White Walker’s armpit. I have a winglet between my index finger and thumb and a few bones in the other hand but, by now, I have learnt how to keep up with these boys. It’s cold, but on stage AKA is lit.
He performs Real Ones – where he is featured by his bromance partner, Da L.E.S – and as the band seamlessly strips the beat down, AKA points a finger at the audience and back at his chest.
“This is one of the last real things,” he speaks over the band’s lush, live playing. “This vibe you give me. It makes me feel alive.” The performance goes so well that, afterwards, AKA allows two boys to approach him. They tell him how much they admire him and are beside themselves because of his and Anatii’s song, Angelz.
En route to the third gig, Twins On Decks’ birthday party, we talk about how he imposed a picture-ban on people who claimed to be fans but couldn’t name one of his songs or didn’t even have his album. But those boys got so close to him they could’ve asked for a picture, I tease.
“The people who saw me perform here will go home and remember that they were cold and that I gave them a lot of energy,” AKA says earnestly. “I gave them my all and I gave them respect. They’ll buy a CD, maybe a T-shirt. Get the joint on iTunes,” he laughs.
“But I let a lot of people through, man. Those kids could’ve asked me for a photo and I would’ve taken it. It’s about timing. Also, if you’re a very young kid or a very old person, I can’t turn that down. If you’re between the ages of 18 and 30 then you’re in the danger zone.”
AKA jokes a lot. He is very animated and randomly sings more old r&b songs than possibly anyone I’ve been around for about seven hours straight. But that doesn’t mean everything runs smoothly for him. Fast-forward to gig number three.
FAST-FORWARD
We are back in Joburg and AKA is on his third outfit change. This birthday party is congested and a DJ plays French Montana like it’s 2011. There’s a smoke machine, people smoking and retro lights flicking different colours.
On the side of the stage and under a flight of stairs, where he is getting ready, I spot that intense look on AKA’s face. The same one I saw in the dressing room earlier. An empty bottle of liquor falls through the steps above us and rolls off a hanger-on.
AKA gets onto the stage and there’s a slight lethargy to the set he performs. Here, he has a few technical glitches and shoots Masta A-Flat a piercing look. He interacts with the crowd. He dons their caps, takes videos with their phones mid-song and even goes into the crowd to dance i-step to Caiphus Song with them.
At some point, he pulls a signature move – where he flings water at the crowd, baptising them in his hits. They scream with delight at this. A little while later, a few drops of water make their way past us under the stairs and in his direction on stage. I expect AKA to lash out.
He doesn’t.
Instead, he uses a moment in between songs to explain that when he pours water on people, it’s to get them hyped up. “This is a fucking rap show. You understand? Run that shit!”
On cue, Masta A-Flat starts Baddest. The crowd is back to dancing.
After this show, I excuse myself from being a fly-on-the-wall of this whirlwind night. I am surprised at how AKA handled all three immensely different vibes at his performances. But not too much because I remember something he told me on our ride to the awards.
“The performance is part of my craft,” he said. “It’s like making music – it’s what I was born to do. It’s what I love to do. Do I love to ask people to vote for me? No. Do I like campaigning and making flyers? No, I don’t enjoy that sh*t. But do I enjoy performing and writing and making music? Shit, I could do that every day.”