'Black Panther' opens doors for Jozi rapper Yugen Blakrok

Yugen Blakrok was used to being told 'no' when trying to promote her music - until a big recent breakthrough, writes Tseliso Monaheng

25 March 2018 - 00:00 By Tseliso Monaheng
Yugen Blakrok.
Yugen Blakrok.
Image: Tseliso Monaheng

Yugen Blakrok spends stretches of time between projects. Her debut offering, Return of the Astro-Goth, on which she'd worked since 2009, was released in 2013. When I visit her at the Johannesburg headquarters of Iapetus Records, it's been three years since we spoke at length about her career, and six since her debut.

She's finishing recording her sophomore album and is excited about the range of acts involved this time around. "This is the stuff I've always wanted to do," she says.

The stakes are fever pitch. She's no longer the underground Jozi rap artist who "moved around a lot" before crafting a space in the home of hustlers and thieves; she's a capable emcee whose decade-plus drive and determination have produced formidable results, one of the latest being her inclusion on the chart-topping Black Panther soundtrack.

It all started with an e-mail. Sender: TDE, Anthony Tiffith and Grammy-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar's record label. Blakrok was between Berlin tour dates. "I got the request to do a verse on a track. I didn't hear what it was for [or] who'd be on it."

She recorded and sent the verse, and forgot about it. Sort of. "It's TDE - you don't really forget," she says.

"Later, we get the call: 'Hey, this track, we wanna use it for the Black Panther soundtrack, are you down with it?'" She was. And it was kind of hard to believe that someone of TDE's standing would reach out, "but not really." She adds: "You put your work out there for it to be found."

Twitter had a meltdown when Lamar tweeted the tracklist. The black division in Mzansi recognised familiar names of Busiswa, Sjava and Babes Wodumo. Few noted Yugen Blakrok's appearance.

When the soundtrack was released, the internet gushed at the spitter out-rhyming Vince Staples on Opps. Billboard magazine called her "an embodiment of dark strength and complexity", and Pitchfork thought she "[stole] the show".

It's safe to say she's known now. Or at least much more than she was before. This makes one examine the entire music industry's ignorance of anyone left-of-centre, away from antics employed to garner the attention of gatekeepers who get surprised when told that they are clogging the pipeline for other talent to emerge.

"It's hard not to see it that way. I mean, you've got the internet. Things come with ease; things that are advertised, things that are in your face, are not necessarily things that you want. And if you're not looking, you're not gonna find," she says.

She later says: "I'm not an advertising, promotional machine. I'm an independent artist pushing a certain lifestyle that is not ... already being pushed on TV."

With this, she echoes the voices of so many in the underground whose efforts at engaging a broader demographic have been shunned and ridiculed, and this to the detriment of a sustainable, equitable music industry.

Blakrok says that they've submitted videos - like the striking, layered clip for her track House of Ravens - over the years. "[We had] a solid 'NO, this is not what we're looking for.'"

She thinks these decisions have little to nothing to do with quality, but that the content "simply does not fit with what they're trying to push".

WATCH | The music video for Yugen Blakrok's track House of Ravens

I first encountered Blakrok - the Yugen came afterwards - well over a decade ago, when she was on a mixtape curated by a campus radio show called The Hip Hopcalypse. This was after she'd had a stint as a student in Cape Town, and before she moved to Jozi.

"From there it kind of caught on. Hype magazine was doing reviews; we were excited. Our hip hop at the time had just reached Grahamstown, and then there'd be other towns in the Eastern Cape that would know about it," says Queenstown-born Yugen.

After moving to Joburg, she spent time in limbo. But then Shorty Skillz (of The Muthaload fame, the first compilation of South African hip hop), introduced her to the likes of Hymphatic Thabs, her producer Kanif, and the late Robo the Technician; well-known figures without whose inclusion the history of South African hip hop, when written, shall have gaping holes.

She brings up the broadcasters' subject again: "Not to say that [my music] is not for getting down, or it's not for having a good time - it is. There's more than one way to have a good time; there's more than one way to turn up. There are many people that are in tune with this kind of vibration, with this kind of thing. And they want to see it on mainstream media. What are the forces that are stopping it?"

Blakrok says the media attention she's garnered off of the Black Panther experience alone has made her appreciate not being known. "I've never had a problem with being an unknown artist. I was focused on being an artist, so I would like to continue to do that and not get caught up in being a socialite or any of that."

Has she seen Black Panther? As it turns out, the plan was to let the hype die down. "At some point there was a 'Grrr, do we get caught up in it?' And then we were like no, we really wanna check it out on a quiet night," she says. "We're sticking to the plan, [which is] to make the silent moves in the night."

Wait until she hears whose refrain it is they use to guide the action during that chase scene.