MUFASA [noun]: king!
Of Swahili origin, the word feels like thunder. It implies exemplary leadership, and assumed global prominence via the 1994 Disney classic, The Lion King. These days, it’s also an alter-ego that South African hip-hop titan, Cassper Nyovest, functions under.
When, in 2004, he sought his parent’s blessings to drop out of school to pursue music fulltime, it was a heavy blow to them. His father, Latsebela Phoolo, for one, was a renowned teacher in the town –and it was not a good look. The house was not exactly thrilled. But 16-year-old Nyovest (whom they named Refiloe Maele Poolo) was resolute in his ambition: “…I’d rather chase my dream, which I believe is going to work out, than keeping it safe and regret it my whole life,” he had told them.
Today, at 27, the rapper is in every way, Mufasa – emperor of African hip-hop, a multi-platinum selling act who has shared stages with the very greats, and is famous for regularly drawing multitudes to his concerts, including a record-shattering 68, 000 fans at the First National Bank (FNB) Stadium, Johannesburg last December.
STARR FM, Meridian House – Accra.
A young photographer rushes into the studios first, holding a black camera with both hands. Nimbly, he pans the shooting device around the room. Starr Drive host Giovanni Caleb, is blending pop tunes behind a console, and co-host Berla Mundi’s eyes are glued to the screen of her MacBook.
The camera’s lens returns to the glass door through which it’s handler has just walked.
Enter Cassper, leader of the force!
He is followed by an entourage of four, and holds an iPhone to his face. Handshakes and felicitations bounce around in the room. Before he sits down in the sofa by the wall, Cassper takes several selfies and, alongside a picture of the Starr FM logo on the purple wall, he tweets: “Ghana tune in!!! We here!!! STARR FM!!! 103.5!!!
Accra is clearly home to the Mafikeng native just as much. Notice the calm liberty in his gait, and the overall peace in his demeanor. He sports a full beard, and sparkly jewelry hang from his neck, out his ears and left nostril, and on both wrists. But for the black sunglasses behind which his eyes are hidden this afternoon, his colour of choice is pink. His t-shirt is bereft of sleeves, and his majestic biceps are on full display. His shorts end at the knees, and his feet are covered in trendy white trainers. He’s just climbed up the Meridian House for a radio interview, but he could well be going to the gym.
When Ed Sheran’s “Shape of You” comes on, he nods and sings along ardently. He’s deeply impressed by the mix, and his face contorts into one of intense passion when he yells to Giovanni over the loud music: “Is that you doing the mix?”. Giovanni smiles and nods in the affirmative. “That’s sick bro!” says Cassper (who also constantly uses urban jargons “lit” and “dope”), shaking his head in awe.
Due to time constrains, my conversation with the rapper, which happens over a fleeting ten minutes, but which he describes as “dope” nonetheless, takes place right in the Starr FM studios, during a lengthy musical break, contrary to a nearby restaurant we had earlier scheduled it.
The rapper’s motives for visiting these parts are simple: “to check out the scene, spread the name, record some music…”. But, in 2018, what is the evidence that one’s trip to Shatta Wale’s Ghana has truly been worthwhile? He must perform the “One Corner Dance”, submit positive judgment on Jollof from this town, and experience Shatta heat simply for calling someone else his favorite dancehall singer. Before he flies out to Uganda on Thursday for the Full Moon Party, Cassper undergoes all these rites. Therefore, he was here some!
The alias Mufasa, more than aptly defines the rapper’s stature in African hip-hop, especially over the past few years. For one thing, it is testament of how steadily and imposingly he has proven himself in the ranks of African hip-hop. If anyone still harbors misgivings on why his name is so frequent in discourse about the continent’s biggest rap exports, here are one or two facts: all three albums he’s published have gone platinum; he’s been honored nearly 40 times by a plethora of high-profile schemes (Channel O Music Video Awards, MTV Africa Music Awards, South Africa Music Awards, SA Hip-hop Awards, All Africa Music Awards – AFRIMA, Urban Music People Awards, etc); topped many “Best MC’ lists, collaborated with culture elders as The Game, Talib Kweli, MI Abaga, Kwesta, HHP, DJ Drama, Black Thought among others; and filled up arenas where pop giants as Justin Timberlake, Rihanna, Chris Brown, and Trey Songz have all fallen short.
“I felt like I was in the position to…kind of…lead in African hip-hop,” says Cassper about his decision to adopt Mufasa as alias, and there’s no debate there. Easily the fastest –rising act South Africa has ever witnessed, Cassper’s feats have yet to be matched.
Like the character in the Disney film, the rap Mufasa holds his household very dear. Two of his albums: Tsolofelo (2014), and Thuto (2017) were named after his sisters, and his family has constantly been the subject of his songs. When anyone has made unsavory comments about his kinfolk, they have had to face legal action for instance, because he’s always held that his family functions as his backbone, and will be respected. The man even christened his record label Family Tree.
“Family means everything to me. I’m family-oriented. Also, my blessings, I believe, come from the prayers my family send up [to heaven]. My family has made a lot of sacrifices for me to get to where I am… and t’s just my support structure. I live with my sisters. My mum is also practically at my house all the time, so I come from a very loving family”.
He divulges, with genteel pride, that his grandmother, at a point, had not less than 26 people living under her roof – something that has influenced his culture of having a large family around. Indeed, he also admits that, for his FNB gig, he was willing to part with everything (including his cars, and resort to taxi service, Uber) to make the concert happen, but could not bring himself to letting his house go – not just because it was a beautiful place, but more importantly, because of who inhabits it – his family.
It is Possible!
Hip-hop portrays a precise story: the journey from penury to opulence. It is perhaps, why the philosophy of trophies is so dominant in the culture. Whether they are plaques, or jewelry, or cars, or record sales, they represent a redemption. For the teenager who nurses faith in a better tomorrow, the aggressive profligacy displayed in the lyrics and music videos resonate with him in a peculiar way. “It is possible! My life will not always be like this”, he would assure himself with a sigh and a smile. Young Cassper experienced these exact thoughts: “I grew up loving cars and stuff…”
It’s Bigger Than Hip-hop!
By all means, supercars are a significant accomplishment. But having finally achieved all these, he would realize that higher desires existed in this life, such as the need to shift culture: I got to a point [where] I still enjoy having sports cars and whatever, but they don’t mean as much to me anymore”.
Rather, he deems them as investments. It is why he didn’t hesitate in putting his cars up for sale for the FNB show:
“At that moment, my dream meant more than having a car…you know what I’m saying? Having a car doesn’t mean anything when the stadium is empty, or you don’t have [the] exact stage that you wanted to have, and you don’t give people the experience that you wanted to give them…so, I would [rather] do without everything I didn’t need to make sure that this dream comes true”.
Again, the FNB gesture was to prove how seriously he takes his craft, and the influence that it has accorded him, “… to show people that I’m all in – and I needed them to be all in as well. I’m not half-stepping”.
Also known as Soccer City or The Calabash, the FNB is the largest stadium in Africa. Casper’s bid to fill it was the boldest attempt by any SA musician. Just 7000 shy of the 75, 000 target, the numbers were still an iconic milestone, swiftly catapulting the show unto global headlines. But what did it mean to Mr. Nyovest himself?
“It was important for me as an African in general. When you break it down to me firstly being a South African, then me being a South African Hip-hop artist, and then being an independent South African hip-hop artist, then it becomes too personal. But for me, it was really more about just being an African and making headlines all around the world about what happened in Africa last night”.
“…it felt good for me to make news as an African for the good reasons –cuz we’re always in the news for …you know what I’m saying…corruption, poverty, and all that stuff that’s going in our continent, so it was just dope to be in the news for some dope stuff.”
At this point in his career, filling up stadiums has become normal. This year, he intends to take the series to the 85 000 capacity Moses Mabhida stadium, Durban. Fearless ambition has ensured that the man is ahead of the pack by quite a stretch.
Cassper is not only music overlord of the “rainbow nation”. His inroads elsewhere are also noteworthy. For example, he has performed in more African countries than any other rapper, and this year will see him consolidate his impact on the continent. Indeed, his trip to Ghana is in this direction.
Rap virtually requires an arrogance from its practitioners. It’s about mounting your flag and defending it with every drop of your blood. And yet, at its very core is respect for the efforts of other worthy soldiers in the game. This is a key element to his solid footing as a leading name in rap circles. He does not hide his admiration for fellow African acts who are excelling too, because he subscribes to the notion that everyone is king in their land. “The best thing to do is collaborate […] it’s all about growing together as Africans, and building each other…”, he suggests –so that, a time will come when he will be able to sell out venues in Ghana, and colleague Sarkodie for instance, can do same in South Africa. It’s bigger than hip-hop.
Often, the man a person becomes is homage to the man who raised him. Specifically, in this regard, Cassper’s dad is Superman.
“My father is a great man cuz he made a lot of great people. He was a teacher. So, my father was never like a successful businessman, but he taught successful businessmen. There are so many people that came from him…from his teachings. I’m one of them…my popularity mostly comes from my humility, and that’s what I learned from my dad, so I’m a product of my father”, Cassper relates about his dad.
The way he closes this glowing homage, one gets the impression that Latsebela Phoolo is not merely a name, but a title too: “his name is Latsebela Phoolo!”.
Cassper’s mum, Mme Muzuki Phoolo, calls him “messiah” now. And why not? His career thus far is proof of what a powerful visionary he was, even at 16. The decision to allow young Refiloe to chase his dreams has paid off richly.
“It’s overwhelming for my mum to put me on such a high pedestal and to motivate me in such a way, especially with Bible scriptures …because she’s such a great person, and such a wise person. So, anything that my mum could say that shows that she’s proud of me really makes me proud …it makes me feel good about myself and the steps that I’ve taken. Because, also, I come from a point where my parents were not really happy about me dropping out of school, so the fact that they’re happy about how my life turned out is really dope”.
With our dialogue over, Cassper walks up to one of the swivel chairs, across the massive table from Giovanni. He wears one of the large headphones, and before he sits to engage Accra, he does a minute of the famous Shaku Shaku dance, a recent pop invention by Nigeria’s Olamide. Guy’s got moves, too.
All hail the Mufasa.