On the week of her 25th birthday, Rouge and I sit across from each other in a surprisingly crowded mall in the Northern suburbs of Johannesburg. It’s a warm evening and we’re toasting her stellar debut album, The New Era Sessions – with ice cream.
I am the one who enjoys the birthday cake ice cream, though. She digs into a salted caramel scoop. We lift our cups and say “cheers”.
“I was so busy planning the launch of this album that I completely forgot that I had a birthday coming up,” Rouge tells me as she shakes her head.
The rapper-singer-songwriter whose real name is Barbara Wedi has been busy. At 19, at the suggestion of a friend who thought her voice was suited for rap music, Rouge started writing rhymes. At 22, she made a decision to take this profession seriously so she doubled down on writing and practising.
Rouge was featured on several songs and frequently became the highlight of them. She didn’t disappoint on her solo singles, Mbongo-Zaka (featuring Moozlie) and Sheba Ngwano, either. “After Mbongo-Zaka, I still had to figure out who Rouge is,” she says. “Yes, I had a hit single but that didn’t define me.”
What would define her was the quality of her debut album. Over 15 tracks, Rouge takes us through four themes: the old school, trap, love and empowerment. And she does it all through a simulated therapy session where her shrink is a robot. “It is literally a therapy session,” Rouge tells me excitedly.
“And I decided to have it with this robotic woman because I feel like there is an app for everything now.”
“I felt the reliance on technology was somewhat overwhelming. Looking for recognition and answers – emotional answers – from technology. So, on the album, I’m talking to a robot about my emotions, which is, of course, funny because technology does not have emotions.”
The beats become the proverbial therapist’s couch and Rouge lays her soul bare about her reality and her dreams. But she doesn’t speak much about being hijacked and left battered and bruised after a gig at Cantare last year. So I ask her if she sought counselling for that.
“It was offered to me but I didn’t go,” she says. “I’m a praying person, so God was my therapist. With making the album a therapy session with this robot, I just wanted to show people that sometimes we look for answers in the wrong places. And sometimes the answers lie within ourselves.”
Some of the questions raised include whether lyricism and trap music can actually go together. Rouge proves that effortlessly with smart, witty wordplay delivered in current, sometimes mumble-rap flows over trap beats. She’s young but she’s certainly not dumb.
“I felt like: ‘why should I box myself?’” she says. “Once I decided to take the route of playing with both trap and lyricism, that’s when I was able to have fun with my music. There wasn’t pressure to dumb it down or just be about bars. Sometimes it’s the simple things that work.”
She is thought-provoking in songs like the Ron Epidemic-produced No Pressure. Here, she raps: “Saying I aint black/Because I don’t speak vernac/So I found a phrase up in your vernac/To tell you off like: voe-voevoetsek.”
This nuanced look at race and belonging is funny but it’s also going to fly over some people’s heads. She explains why she felt the need to address this.
“There are always those people – especially in the beginning stages of me being in the industry – who tell you the only way you can blow in the industry is to speak a South African vernacular language,” she elaborates.
“You have to incorporate it everywhere to connect with the people. In the beginning there was that pressure to add a one-liner here or there and then I got to the point where I was like: ‘actually no, that doesn’t make sense to me at all! Because Nigerian artists are blowing up and we don’t understand half the things they are saying. The musicality is just that brilliant. Music is about how it makes you feel.”
“You think I am not black enough because I don’t speak certain vernac? Then I’m going to find a word in your vernacular to say screw you! I am a first generation South African! I am a Congolese girl who is still one of the frontrunners among girls who do speak your language but you’re not connecting to them! So how does that make sense?”
What stands out about The New Era Sessions is that the old school section is not some contrived ode to the past. She actually takes it back to what some believe to be the golden era of hip hop, with boom bap-laced beats and, like on Underrated, solid, double-time raps.
The love section, which sees her traverse from break-ups to making it clear she’ll take your man if you test her, to No Strings, is the only section that lacks the gravitas exhibited in other sections.
But even with that said, The New Era Sessions is still light years ahead of many rap albums that came out this year. Her next single is likely to be the ultra-catchy Dololo featuring Big Star.
“I thought Dololo was a good song but I didn’t think it was a hit,” she confesses. “But everyone kept saying ‘this is the one.’ The song is talking about people who are flossing when they have nothing. I’m trying to be a boss here. All they have is the flashy car but when we go to your house, there’s nothing in it.”
“That’s a Midrand house,” I joke, referencing the memes about how camp chairs and bar fridges are the Midrand young man’s starter pack.
“Funnily enough, when we were talking about shooting the video, my team was like: ‘then you’ve got to shoot it in Midrand because that’s the Midrand lifestyle.”
Jokes aside, Rouge is the real deal. I am reminded of how strict her mom appeared to be at a TV shoot I saw them at a couple of years ago and ask Rouge what her mom thinks of the album.
“Proud is not even the word. If there is a word better than proud, then that’s what she is,” Rouge beams. “Because of Mabele (where she sings in Lingala), there’s an ownership of who I am and of my culture, that they’ve seen me take on.”
“The role my parents play, not just on the album but in my career – it’s massive! You must remember: my parents came from Congo – a warstricken country – so we could have a better life and here I am, doing music. So I have no choice but to be successful.”