The world is watching Nasty C and he knows it
It’s 23:30. Nasty C’s flight is almost an hour late. He arrives after dark to avoid the hassle of daytime travel, especially following the hype around his debut album, Bad Hair. He’s a champion avoiding a hero’s welcome.
He touches down with his entourage, predictably wearing all black and teal rimmed glasses. Even at this ungodly hour, in the two-minute walk from the terminal to the luxury car waiting for him, he is stopped by fans asking for pictures. He barely has a moment to notice his Juice Back remix video playing on MTV on the screens all over the airport.
“Right now I am already in studio making more music. I am humbled by the response to the work and I see it all,” he says as we screech away from the airport.
“People already know the lyrics. I can post something online and use a lyric as the caption and people will comment with my entire verse. That’s real special. That’s real love when people care enough to pay that much attention.”
At the end of September, after a setback which meant he could not clear the sample from Luther Vandross’ Dance with My Father for A Star is Born (one of the standout cuts on Bad Hair), Nasty did the unthinkable and released the entire album as a free download.
“It felt so wrong to push the project back ’cause if we had, it would have seemed like a stunt. The way people perceive what we’re doing, we just had to show them how serious we are about giving them music by any means necessary,” he says.
The project has taken off like wildfire, igniting thousands of downloads and hitting number one on iTunes and Audiomack within minutes.
On this release, Nasty C offers some insight into the anxieties of millennials who came of age in the animal farm that is Jacob Zuma’s South Africa. From sexual frustration to family trauma and generational guilt, it’s all there, cloaked in the loud thud of beats tailor-made for the club.
There is an anxious grandeur to Bad Hair. Each kick and snare is a disguised attempt at keeping the abyss at bay.
“I expected my fans to relate. That was my only expectation. The way that people are doing it is a little scary.
“I had a homie tell me that his pops had passed away and he sent me a screenshot and he said he’d been playing A Star is Born for four hours. That’s crazy. There is a lot of pain in the world and I cannot make honest music and not reflect that.”
What makes the structure of Nasty C’s lyrics interesting is that unlike his OG’s (predecessors), they are not reflective. He writes almost exclusively in present-active tense. This gives Bad Hair a lucid, in the moment quality that is absent in the music of his peers.
The number of features he has done over the past year also speaks to his voracious need to express himself. But even as he raps circles around his contemporaries, Nasty C displays an uncanny awareness of the limits of the music and a healthy mistrust of the medium of hip-hop.
On this project, he repeatedly draws attention to the often neglected subject of black male friendship. It’s not lost on him how young men ritually bond not only through physical confrontation but through other forms of violence, most of which are directed towards women.
In a world where access and excess can make young men aspire towards being as cold and hard as metal, Nasty C is offering words that propose that men stand to lose nothing by softening.
The history of the Ngcobo surname can be traced back to northern KwaZulu-Natal. Legend has it that uShaka banished all the Ngcobos after suspicions that they were trying to poison him. They were forced to cross the Thukela River to the lower east coast where, almost 200 years later, a boy by the name of Nsikayezwe (root of the nation) Ngcobo would be born and grow up to become Nasty C.
The weight of that history is not lost on the 19-year-old and on some of the songs on Bad Hair he references the need to restore dignity to the Ngcobo name. But right now he is focused on making his immediate family proud.
“My pops didn’t want this for me,” he confesses. “He wanted me to do medicine or law. But now that things are working out and they can see this thing is coming from my heart – not because I want attention or money they are very supportive so I have to give back to them the gift they have given to me.”
The expectations are unbearably high for an artist who, in his teens, has made more hits than most rappers twice his age.
The charge sheet against Nasty C is well-documented. He raps exclusively in English and his sound is very American. He does not make a habit of sampling local songs or employ live instrumentation as part of his performance arsenal.
The pressure being put on Nasty C is not new. South African hip-hop is not an environment built for artistic growth. More often than not the audience is not willing to go where the artist wants to go.
It took Kwesta almost seven years to work his way back to the top after he left Battabing and changed his sound. Many are still not over Tumi’s breakup with The Volume.
At the height of their fame, when Skwatta Kamp experimented with dub sounds and pop rhythms, the backlash was so bad they never released an album again. Cassper and AKA had singles where they sing more than rap and both have tanked.
The pushback against Nasty C and the insistence on him having a defined sound this early in his career is likely to do more damage than good, especially if he is forced by the proclivities of the audience to operate in the confines of that sound for years to come.
Nasty C’s development is in the fast lane. The way he has switched gears from trap beats in his Price City mixtape to the horn and string-laced Bad Hair is a sign of good things to come.
Things are getting awkward, after a benign interview where Nasty C has to answer questions he has already answered before, the host of the show asks to do a video with Nasty and his new Rolex. He is reluctant but this is the price of doing business. He smiles and poses for the video, showing off a watch that about a year ago he could only have dreamed of owning.
“It’s my time,” he says. “It’s my time,” before drifting off.
Nasty C matters because his work deals with the emotional impasse that South African hip-hop has found itself stuck in for the better part of the last decade. His work is mapping a new path in the way it pushes against the tight-lipped storytelling that has come to categorise the genre.
A tightly-woven narrative arc, along with the clarity of his storytelling, adds a flair to the ordinary. Hip-hop is often too closely associated with libation but through putting the most vulnerable and shameful parts of himself and his life up for public display, Nasty C has been able to access what filmmaker Werner Herzog refers to as an ecstatic truth.
Earlier this year Nasty C tweeted that Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label had requested a meeting. He would then go on to decline the meeting and instead sign a deal with Mabala Noise for an undisclosed fee.
Viewed in isolation, Nasty C’s decision not to consider a deal from Roc Nation might, at best, seem rash and, at worst, nonsensical. But when viewed through the lens of history his decision makes sense. Nasty C is part of a lineage of artists across time and place who have insisted on asserting their autonomy in public.
He is Muhammad Ali hurling his gold medal into the Ohio River; he is Miriam Makeba shouting at the United Nations; he is Dave Chappelle walking away from $50-million. Nasty C is an artist rejecting that American notions of success are the only way for us to measure ourselves.
He is growing up in public, posting insta-videos of himself lip-syncing to Young Thug much like his peers, many of whom are also his fans. The next step he takes is going to be crucial. He is no longer that kid listening to Lil Wayne on repeat in his bedroom. The world is watching.
Veteran rapper Slikour once said he is worried about Nasty C. We all are. The rate at which things are happening is alarming. But we needn’t worry. The kid is alright. He is attempting normal.