AKA was an African rap great but his legacy will always be grossly tainted
The memorials are pouring out but they're excluding a certain toxic side
The memorials are pouring out but they're excluding a certain toxic side
In our latest op-ed, Deputy editor Dennis Ade-Peter breaks down the conflicting feelings surrounding the death of South African rapper AKA who recently passed away. While AKA is revered and respected for his magnanimous contributions to the industry, this moment is shaded by grief from the allegations of his checkered and violent past. Trigger warning.
On Friday, February 10th, news of the passing of South African rap artist and entertainment entrepreneur, Kiernan Forbes (AKA) broke across multiple news outlets and on social media. According to reports, AKA and close friend Tebello “Tibz” Motsoane were shot dead on Florida road, one of Durban’s entertainment hubs, on their way out of a restaurant. A disturbing CCTV video footage showing this has since leaked online.
Immediately AKA’s passing made it to social media, the disbelief was evident. Amidst the shock, tributes started rolling in, mostly centred on reverence for his artistry and cultural impact—and rightly so. AKA is undeniably one of the most successful rap artists of his generation, a superstar that enjoyed parochial domination for much of his career and reached continental ubiquity through headline hit songs and collaborative efforts with artists from across Africa.
In West Africa, AKA gained popularity with bonafide hit songs that enjoyed heavy airplay and more than a handful of guest appearances on songs with Nigerian and Ghanaian artists. Even with the level of rap music from South Africa in the 2010s, it’s impossible not to know AKA. I don’t think my knowledge of AKA and his music was surface level. Before the Burna Boy-assisted “All Eyes on Me” brought him closer to Nigerians as the mid-2010s rolled along, AKA was easily one of my favourite rappers from the rainbow nation, and I was keen on most of the work he shared during his lifetime.
My first encounter with AKA was borne out of curiosity. In 2012, M.I Abaga released the second instalment in his ‘Illegal Music’ mixtape series and, in addition to being a bar-fest that excited a rap-giddy teenager, it was packed with guests that showed out. One of them was the late South African rap icon HHP on “Superhuman,” whose introspective verse remains as bracing as ever. By this time, my knowledge of South African rap music was sparse at best, mostly limited to the CD of Skwatta Kamp’s ‘Mkhukhu Funkshen’ I stumbled upon in an older cousin’s room. That HHP verse nudged me on one random afternoon: I opened the browser on my Nokia 5250 and googled South African rappers.
I can’t remember what song by which artist I downloaded first, but I can recall downloading the two AKA songs I found on a blog where I regularly downloaded music then. (Illegal? Yes. But it was the blog era, so keep the judgements if you have any.) “Victory Lap” and “Bang” were the two songs, and even though I could count the number of South African rap artists I was familiar with on one hand, I quickly convinced myself that AKA was the best South African rap artist in existence. Both songs are braggadocios, with the rapper embodying impeccable cool and contagious confidence over chunky, bass-heavy beats.
“Victory Lap” especially did it for me: I thought the way he rapped “Michael Jackson couldn’t be as dangerous, shit happens/Armed with the paint brush, hope you get the picture” was one of the smoothest things I’d ever heard from an African rap artist. It wasn’t until the following year–in 2013 that I would listen to ‘Altar Ego’, the debut album that housed the song. I had cajoled my parents into buying me a Samsung phone that had space for a memory card, and that meant I went crazy with downloading songs and entire projects. I downloaded each song on ‘Altar Ego’ from whatever blog had them and I listened intently, repeatedly; by the time AKA gained popularity with my friends via “All Eyes on Me,” I gladly called them latecomers.
Between 2014 and 2020, AKA released four projects and I listened to each of them intently. Even though I can’t say I was fond of each new project, my admiration for AKA as a rap artist remained. As I got into other rap stars such as Kwesta and Stogie T and Nasty C and K.O and FLVME and many, many more South African rappers, I wasn’t exactly describing AKA as the best South African rap artist in existence, but his brilliance was never lost on me.
One of my favourite times as an AKA supporter came in 2015 when he sent out warning shots to several rivals and infamously capped long-time arch-rival, Cassper Nyovest, with the classic diss track, “Composure.” Amongst the Nigerian hip-hop heads niche corner in Twitter that year, everyone had to pick a side in a beef that was an entire region away. I almost sat on the fence because I loved Cassper’s smash hit, “Doc Shebeleza,” but I went with the guy that served as a major entry point into SA rap and I felt vindicated by my choice when the general consensus emerged. AKA delivered a Takeover-style hit, there was no Ether-level response.
In hindsight, the execution and acceptance of “Composure” wasn’t happening in a vacuum. AKA was a rapper at the peak of his powers. The year before, he had dropped ‘Levels’, the sophomore album that quickly eclipsed the critical and commercial bar set by his classic debut LP. In 2017, he teamed up with Anatii for ‘Be Careful What You Wish For’, arguably the high watermark for his powers as a lyricist. By 2018, when he dropped the autotune-filled ‘Touch My Blood’, there were some mutters about his stylistic choices but it remains a statement piece from an artist unwilling to play within set boundaries.
Musically, AKA had an affinity for maximalist choices, and it was always fitting for an artist who was comfortable being larger than life. The man-made rap star music with the curatorial ear of a pop savant, and the beats always had to thump and glisten to aggrandise every rap or sung line about his greatness, the focus of the bulk of his work. Along with exploring romantic connections from his own POV—sometimes to unnecessarily petty lengths—there wasn’t that much thematic variety in AKA’s work, but he found ways to be intriguing through project-defining wrinkles in sound.
‘Levels’ was a blaring electro-rap affair from a rap superstar assuming the mantle of authority, ‘Be Careful What You Wish For’ honed in on groovy Trap, ‘Touch My Blood’ pulled in a variety of ‘80s sounds like Boogie and South African Pop, while the late 2020 EP ‘Bhovamania’ is suffused with varying styles of SA dance music. For me, the latter mostly fell flat. It was the first time AKA sounded predictable and barely kept me intrigued; “Casino” with Sho Madjozi and FLVME and “Finessin’” were the only songs that I liked.
At the 10th edition of the South African Hip Hop Awards held in December 2021, AKA was one of the sixteen nominees in the Artist of the Decade category. While his résumé made him a shoo-in for that category, I was deeply uncomfortable with the possibility of the rapper picking up such a grand honour. By that time, AKA had fallen way out of favour with me and it wasn’t just because I didn’t like his 2020 release.
– TRIGGER WARNING –
On April 11, 2021, AKA’s then fiancée Anele “Nelli” Tembe passed away under controversial circumstances. According to reports, Nelli died of an apparent suicide, jumping from the tenth floor of the Cape Town hotel where she and the rapper had lodged while on vacation. About a month after, a clip of AKA breaking down a door to get to Nelli in their Johannesburg home went viral. At the time, there were allegations of emotional abuse and physical assault playing an integral role in the saddening passing Nelli, and AKA was being touted as the villain.
The clip was chilling. Since I watched the video, seeing AKA looking rabid with bloodshot eyes and in attack mode against the women he was planning to spend the rest of his life with, I wasn’t able to just view the man as a rapper I really enjoyed their bars. It’s probably why I was conflicted by the news of his passing last Friday and the overwhelming show of love that I found on my timeline. Now, I’m not saying I was gleeful about AKA’s death, neither am I remotely thrilled by its violent nature, but the abuse allegations and the evidence supporting it made me disinterested in tweeting anything reverential to his legacy as a rap artist.
At the time, within a week of the clip nodding to his allegedly abusive behaviour towards Nelli, AKA granted an interview with Thembekile Mrototo in a bid to set the record straight and possibly exonerate himself from any wrongdoing. For me, none of those aims were achieved from watching that interview. If anything, details like his convenient absence when Nelli hurled herself to the ground, going to his friend in the next room instead being by her side right, clearly using her mental issues as an out, and just the generally toxic energy exuded during the hour-plus interview sealed my personal cancellation of AKA.
Aa a journalist and writer, I’m an advocate for cancel culture in music. Maybe not a staunch one in the absolute sense, but I firmly believe in artists being shut out for doing some terrible shit. In cancelling an artist, though, I understanding the innate complexity that’s tied to debates about separating artists from their art, and just even many African societies’ willingness to gloss over the gross failings of artists—mostly male ones. I believe artists are intrinsically tied to their work because, as with any form of art, there’s a piece of the creator’s soul in every line rapped and every note sung. Basically, if you’ve done some terrible stuff that cannot and should not be justified, the music can and should be kept at bay.
“We live in a very forgiving country,” South African media personality MacG said on his podcast back in 2021 when the viral clip made its way to the internet, using the remark as the basis for his argument that AKA could come clean if he had played any part in Nelli’s death and wouldn’t be cancelled. It’s an indictment on the values of a society that will let such a heinous act slide, and it’s even more worrying considering the crisis of gender-based violence in South Africa.
Till his passing, AKA never owned any responsibility for Nelli’s passing, stating his innocence and eventually moving on. For me, that clip is the first thing my mind associates with AKA and I immediately committed to never playing his music again after I saw the video. The internet is naturally unforgiving but when it comes to our real-time society, we can never agree on who should be cancelled. For me, I believe most of cancel culture is a personal thing, and in AKA’s situation, it was a personal decision that I’ve since held on to despite the rap artist trying to make amends before his life was cut short unexpectedly–I’m not a fan of redemption tours.
Last year, AKA teamed up with Nasty C for “Lemons (Lemonade)” and it was certified gold by the Recording Industry of South Africa (RiSA) within a month of its release. “WE BACK IN BUSINESS BABYYY!!!!!!” he tweeted at the time. Like MacG had stated, all had been forgiven and AKA was back to his rap superstar ways. I’ll admit that I did click on the YouTube link earlier this year after being badgered by the algorithm for months, and it took less than a minute for me to be overwhelmed with guilt for listening to the music of an alleged abuser.
That’s where I am right now: I’m not happy that AKA has passed away but I will be overwhelmed by guilt if I join in the ongoing hagiography that’s been happening in the last couple of days. Even with the impending, posthumous arrival of ‘Mass Country’, the album he’d been teasing for months, I don’t know that I will be listening intently. I get it, he was undeniably a great rap artist with even more to offer, one that set his own trends and consistently moved with a remarkable sense of self-conviction. At the same time, there’s no erasing that he did horrible things that he gladly evaded accountability for. I get it, it’s not dignified to speak ill of the dead. At the same time, I firmly believe that death shouldn’t erase a person’s sins and instantly cast them as saints.
Press Statement: Mass Country #LongLiveSupaMega pic.twitter.com/K9etWUSmIx
— AKA (@akaworldwide) February 16, 2023
It’s fine if you choose to believe AKA wasn’t an abuser while he was alive. In addition to that clip, there’s also a pattern of morally questionable decisions, such as cheating on his pregnant girlfriend, allegedly cheating with the partner of a collaborator and friend, and allegedly intimidating another woman he had affairs with. While we mourn his passing, these are serious allegations and events that many people should not be wilfully ignorant of, or chose to forgive and forget. For me, I don’t know that I will ever forget the toxic side of AKA, it’s too visceral for me to ignore. Normally that would make him an artist who was a deeply flawed person, but that’s a kind description. Kiernan Forbes was a great rap artist but his legacy will remain grossly tainted by his toxicity.