In 2013 Deko Barbara-Jessica Weidi, who is of Congolese descent, was an upstart R&B singer who’d recently started rapping because of the push her producer friends gave her. She was signed to a management company, had a publicist and, judging from the performance she gave at one press conference of the magnanimous fuck-up that was Tribe One Dinokeng Festival, was about to go bos on the world.
Then it came crashing down.
“Every single deal possible was gone. Funny enough it was great for me because that’s when I decided to go back to school,” she says.
Rouge had taken a gap year after Matric to seek out a career in music. She kept “trying to figure out the rap thing” while pursuing a degree at the University of Pretoria. She met some of her future collaborators along the way.
The biggest problem, notes Rouge in hindsight, was an over-reliance on people; the idea that someone other than herself was going to root more for her success. She dismisses this line of thinking, says it’s rubbish.
We’re at a restaurant in Rosebank. Buildings are going up on one side, their shadows casting over the rubble of older(er) structures on the other. We kept missing one another for over an hour, and decided upon our current location as a last-minute compromise.
Rouge continues: “Two, three days after I lost my deal, I wrote ‘Mbongo Zaka’. I knew I had something.”
The emcee and vocalist had appeared on AKA’s “Baddest” (girls remix) at roughly the same time. That placement put her under producer Tweezy’s radar, then a hit-making maverick whose profile had been boosted by his production credits on AKA’s last solo endeavour, Levels.
“At the same time I was like ‘I don’t want to work with a guy,'” she says of the decision to feature Moozlie, who at that point had a single with rapper Kid X doing rounds on mainstream radio. “Everyone just caught on. That’s the moment it made sense to me that ‘okay, you need to be independent for a while.'”
On September 8, a Friday, Rouge made South African rap history when her debut album New Era Sessions debuted at number 2 on the local iTunes charts. She held a launch party that night, and invited the friends she’s connected with along the way for the jol.
The rap outfit Betr Gang were there, backing one of their own Solo. The indomitable duo of rapper Priddy Ugly and producer Wichi 1080 were in the audience too. Wichi, alongside producers such as Ron Epidemic and Mae N Maejor (“The first time I heard his beats I knew, I was like ‘this guy, me and him are gonna work with each other for a very, very long time,” she says of him) contributed music to the album. Shekinah, whose recently-released debut album ticks all the boxes of a dope, concerted effort, was also there, as were other women: the self-styled ‘Young Mabrrr’, Moozlie; Ms Cosmo DJ, on whose current single Rouge features; and Shomadjozi, the poet-turned-coolkid/influencer who also features on the Ms. Cosmo cut. The four of them bumrushed the stage to perform “Ay Baby“, turning the venue from a bare establishment to a centre for the rogue, the rugged and free.
The highlight of the night was a teary-eyed performance of “Celebrity”, which she dedicated to her parents who’d shown up for the launch.
It took 2 years following that botched festival’s press launch for me to see Rouge in action again. It was at the MTV Base cipher, end-2016. She was grouped with rappers YoungstaCPT, Maraza and Priddy Ugly. It had been raining heavily on the day, to the point where filming had to be paused temporarily due to the location — a disused warehouse with corrugated iron roofing — not being sound-proof.
Intermittent glances in her direction showed a nervous Rouge, but that could’ve be due to the anxiety wrought by having to wander about aimlessly for indefinite periods of time, waiting.
This theory turned to undisputed fact when filming resumed. Her microphone technique and the regality with which she carried herself throughout her 16 bars of glory transported me back to that time in 2014. I had missed the most of her Back To The City performance, so shall discount that one time.
There are questions one need not ask, if one has been paying attention over extensive periods of time.
In the Pretoria-based emcee’s, it’s her views on feminism: Whether she is or isn’t a feminist; whether she does/does not agree with the tenets of third wave feminism.
It’s there in the music she makes, and in how she’s endeavoured to partake in woman- centred and run initiatives, inadvertently setting sail a movement to challenge the patriarchs who still control what gets the pass in not only rap, but the music industry as a whole.
“Naledi” from her debut is a case in point. It’s about a girl who gets judged by all around her on the basis of her looks: Kong-/Taboo-type, Indian or Brazilian hair closer to the floor than it is to the top of her head, always seen among high-rollers for whom forking out zaka’s not an issue. Rouge said she had a friend fitting that profile, and that no one knew the internal conflicts the friend had to endure daily.
“Wish I was pretty like Naledi/ but them boys just wanna fuck and never marry,” goes the bridge.
It’s a song about empathizing with someone’ situation — in Naledi’s case, ‘a girl from the ghetto, who grew up in Soweto’ — which is something a society vested in advancing patriarchal norms consistently fails at, dismally, opting to cast aspersions the victim and not the situation at hand.
About six breaking news items occur in succession on the day I’m supposed to submit this story, the top-most being the president’s cabinet re-shuffle, following the one in March. I text Rouge, ask for her sentiments regarding the country’s current direction. It’s also to quell the growing, unmitigated sentiment that South African hip hop is breeding ground for the death of social consciousness.
“I am worried,” she responds. “We are almost in a space where we prefer to sleep with the devil we know than the one we don’t know purely out of fear of things getting worse than they are now, that is not growth.”
And was she out marching with the marchers when fees and other things were falling?
“I most definitely did partake. I went to marches as well as making my voice heard on the platforms I deemed possible. It such an important fight especially as black people. It’s not just about us but the future generation,” she says.
Rouge already has her next album figured out. She has a mixtape awaiting December to be unleashed. The forecast of her future includes, but isn’t limited to, headlining tours in stadium-sized venues, with everything handled by her team. Judging from the breadth of inspiration she draws from, and how she manages to draw from disparate influences and direct them into a mold of her own shaping, suggests that hers aren’t delusions of grandeur, but solid dreams awaiting their moment to be made manifest.
Rouge is ready.
- A version of this story appeared in the Sunday Times Lifestyle supplement’s Nov. 5 edition