“I don’t only have South African stories to tell,” says hip-hop artist Rouge, who was born and raised in Pretoria by Congolese parents. “I have Congolese stories to tell, and I have African stories that I need to be telling.”
Deko Barbara-Jessica Wedi, better known as Rouge, has a wide range of artistic skills to draw on. Rouge is primarily an actress who has always been in love with arts, and she describes herself as an all-rounder artistically. Despite crafting hits such as Mbongo Zaka, Rouge says she never really wanted to rap, but rather saw herself performing in musical theatre, because that’s what she studied.
“I wanted to be in the Lion King and stuff like that. But it was really through a friend of mine … I sang a song for him and he was like, ‘Yo, have you ever thought of rapping?’” she says. “First I was offended because I wasn’t sure what was he trying to say. But then after a while of him trying to convince me, eventually, I tried the rapping thing. I couldn’t see myself doing anything else after that.”
Rouge made a name for herself when she released Mi Corazon (which means My Love in Spanish). It features rapper BigStar Johnson, the winner of the first season of The Hustle on Vuzu. In the song, Rouge goes bar for bar with the Jozi native and the lyrics express how she feels about the music industry. Her third single was Output, a love song with sweet and soft melodies, in which she proves that she’s more of an artist than a rapper. She sings on the chorus and delivers bars in both verses inspired by a love tale. This was then followed by Bua, meaning “speak”, which features the No Sleep hitmaker Reason. In the song, Rouge raps her heart out, in English and French, a linguistic advantage borne of her Congolese descent.
The spitter got her big break when she was featured on the remix of AKA’s 2015 hit single Baddest. In 2015 AKA released his second studio album, Levels, and he was no doubt one of South Africa’s highest selling artists at the time. The original version of Baddest, featuring Khuli Chana, Burna Boy and Yanga, ended up being one of the most successful songs of 2015, with more radio play. When the remix ― which also featured Moozlie, Fifi Cooper and Gigi Lamayne ― was released, all the female rappers were already established, apart from Rouge.
“When he [AKA] put me on the Baddest remix, understand, I was a nobody,” she says. “Like, I was literally a nobody. This guy saw me perform once at some gig and I wasn’t doing well. It was a mess and things were going wrong. But he saw my potential,” Rouge says. “He literally could have chosen anybody he wanted. All the girls that were on the Baddest remix at that point were way [better known] than me. They all had names and they were all on TV. I hadn’t even been on TV yet,”
In this episode of Finding Your Niche, a series in which artists speak about the evolution of their artistic practice and voice, Rouge speaks about what she calls Pretoria’s “authenticity”. She describes Pretoria rappers as artists who are “not about the spectacle … We’re really delivering in terms of lyricism and we’re really delivering in representing Pretoria. It’s undeniable that you are going to be able to know where we all are coming from. 012 is being represented by the best people possible,” she says.