/ 17 February 2023

‘I want my flowers while I’m still alive’ – AKA, Kiernan Forbes

Aka Cover
Touch My Blood cover, is the third and final studio album by South African rapper AKA before his death, released on 15 June 2018 through Beam Group in partnership with NYCE Entertainment.

“Anything that I’m succeeding at right now or flourishing at is just kind of a bonus. To tell you the truth, I don’t wanna sound dramatic, I’m just happy to be alive, man” – AKA

I admired Kiernan Forbes for many reasons — his artistry, his flamboyance, his honesty. But his mastery of trolling and banter was unmatched. “Oh hi, Nicolas Pepe”, he said, deadpan, when I walked up to him by the bar at Workshop 55 back in 2020. 

A few of my friends, who were chatting with him, cracked up. Pepe, who plays for Arsenal, the team I support, is a club-record £72 million flop with a patchy beard and a perpetually perplexed facial expression — not exactly someone you want to likened to. But his comedic timing, and contextual awareness, was perfect. I didn’t know what else to do but smile. Kiernan’s banter always left me speechless. 

Kiernan, an immensely talented rapper known as AKA, was a huge Manchester United fan. He even had the club’s logo tattooed on his arm. Thanks to United’s success and Arsenal’s demise, we were often the brunt of his jokes on social media. 

Those bastards always seemed to get the better of us. But as fortune would have it, the next time I saw him, a full two years later in the studio at Sony Music’s Rosebank offices last September, the tables had turned. Arsenal were on top of the log, and United were in disarray. 

Knowing Kiernan, I still expected him to find a way to troll us. He didn’t. Instead, he gave props and spoke on how he was impressed by the team’s rapid development. 

Strange. No matter what, Kiernan was never one to let an adversary enjoy his moment in the sun. But as we spoke, I got to understand that he was evolving, in many ways. 

It had been a week after his comeback single Lemons (Lemonade) had dropped to instant fanfare. It was the first time in years that a release of his hit the sweet spot. 

We spoke about a lot that day, including how he made it out of the dark space he’d been in during the past two years and how he found his feet again. 

In 2021, while he was grieving the highly publicised death of his fiancée, Anele Tembe, Kiernan was so grief-stricken that he couldn’t muster the energy to leave his home. 

During this period, Costa Titch, the fast-rising Riky Rick protégé he’d grown close to the past year, constantly encouraged him to get back into the studio. Eventually, he did, and the pair recorded and released a joint EP a few months later. 

“Shout out to Costa Titch,” Kiernan said. “He was so instrumental in getting me to this point of just being able to get out in public again, start making music again. ‘Come to the studio’, ‘Let’s go to the studio’, ‘Get out of the house.’ Without that, there would be no this.” 

Energised by this new lease on life, Kiernan seemed more lively and wholeheartedly content than I’d ever seen him. At the end of our interview, as he played me some of the unreleased songs from his upcoming album, Mass Country, which was meant to drop next Friday, he spun and danced animatedly in his chair, his eyes squeezed shut. 

It was a sort of pure, unabashed, almost childlike joy.

Whenever I wrote about Kiernan, I tried to close the gap between the humanity in the person I saw, and the artist people imagined through his often contentious public persona and social media antics. 

Sometimes they were the same: he could be brash, self-centred and moody. But a lot of the time, he was thoughtful and accommodating. 

In 2015, while I was an intern at Live Magazine, Tebello “Tibz” Motsoane (who was also tragically murdered along with Kiernan last week Friday) had a desk in a corner in the 

same open-plan Braamfontein office where we worked. 

Tibz was one of Kiernan’s closest friends and a longtime business partner. Because I wanted to write about music and I knew how well connected Tibz was, I’d introduced myself and made a point of making small talk whenever I could. 

Then, one day a few months into my internship, Tibz came over and asked if I wanted to review Da LES’s upcoming album, North God, and do a ticket give-away for the album launch party for our readers. I didn’t hesitate. 

AKA’s (Kiernan Forbes)

The entire week leading up to the album’s official release, I played it non-stop. One particular song, Real Stuf f, featuring Kiernan and Maggz, was a favourite. By the time I headed to The Venue, Melrose Arch, for the launch party, I knew the lyrics word for word. 

That night, my one goal was to somehow meet and interview Kiernan. And so, as I’ve done countless times since, I used my street smarts and found a way to sneak into the VIP section where he and the likes of Da LES and Riky Rick were chilling. 

He was standing alongside a small group when I walked up, tapped him on the shoulder and asked if I could interview him. Politely, he turned and asked me to give him a moment. 

So I stood back and waited, certain he wouldn’t get back to me. But he did. And while my questions probably sucked, I recall him being warm and forthcoming in his answers. 

I’d go on to interview him several more times over the years, visit his home and exchange some priceless banter on occasion. Each interaction over the years felt surreal because I am such a big fan. 

Kiernan had a profound influence on South African pop and musical culture over a career that spanned nearly 20 years. He first came onto the scene as part of the rap trio Entity (which included Nhlanhla Makenna and Mail & Guardian columnist Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh) with the hit single Touch N Go in 2005. The group dropped an album that same year before disbanding shortly after. 

Following a stint as part of the production collective, The IV League, Kiernan announced his arrival as a star in his own right with his anthemic single I Want It All alongside established rap stars Khuli Chana and Prokid. 

Over the next decade, Kiernan would put together a body of work that is unmatched in the history of SA hip-hop. A particular high point came in 2014 when he released his magnum opus album, Levels. 

Supported by platinum-selling singles like Run Jozi, Sim Dope, Congratulate and All Eyes on Me (featuring international superstar Burna Boy), this period saw Kiernan become arguably the most in-demand artist in the country. 

He started to perform outside the country and he earned nominations at international award shows like the MTV European Music Awards and the BET International Awards. 

Seemingly bored by rap, Kiernan’s sound evolved over the years and involved singing and rapping with the aid of the popular audio effect auto-tune. 

This evolution gave rise to incredible records like Jika, The World Is Yours and Sweet Fire, and was evident all through his grandiose 2017 collaborative album with Anatii, Be Careful What You Wish For.

In a full-circle moment, a few weeks ago Kiernan released his latest single, Prada, alongside Khuli Chana, one of his idols and mentors who paved the way for him early in his career. 

In the days after its release, many called Khuli’s verse the best of his illustrious career. The same was said about Nasty C’s effortlessly braggadacious verse on Lemons. An astute producer, Kiernan knew how to bring out the best from collaborators. 

Robin Kohl, the multi award-winning engineer and producer who’s shaped the sound of hip-hop over the past two decades through his work with the likes of HHP, Prokid, Skwatta Camp, Teargas and Kwesta, recalls spending hours and hours in studio with Kiernan, mixing and mastering his music in various forms. 

Kohl engineered all of Kiernan’s solo music after 2014’s Congratulate through his company, Jazzworx

“I’ve run a production company and studio business for almost 25 years now and have had the great privilege and blessing of being able to work with some of the greatest minds in that time frame. 

“Kiernan was very careful and conscientious to guide the process as best as he could and then I’d obviously fill in the creative and technical balancing act. He was very particular, sometimes borderline neurotic in how he approached his music. I think that’s a great sign for any professional wanting to get into an industry.” 

Over the years, Kohl worked closely with Kiernan in growing his sound and pushing the envelope. 

“He wanted to be the Supa Mega, he wanted to be the best he could be. In many ways, I would agree that he was probably the most important hip-hop artist we’ve had in the past 20 years… He never denied nor ran away from his South Africanness. That was an integral part of me wanting to work with him. 

“He was extremely consistent in that. Our flag is tattooed on that man’s soul,” Kohl said. 

Kiernan’s influence and impact on the industry has been highlighted by the tributes from his peers, many of whom have dubbed him the GOAT (greatest of all time). 

L-Tido, an early rival turned friend, summed it up well on Instagram: “To be real, the whole game owes you a thank you. You played a major role in building the foundation for SA hip-hop. Musically you were in a league of your own, your catalogue remains unmatched.” 

The scale of Kiernan’s influence has also been punctuated by the outpouring of love from international platforms paying homage. 

“Kiernan Forbes, was one of the most formidable songwriters in South African hip-hop,” wrote the New York Times. 

Hip-hop legend Talib Kweli wrote on Instagram: “This man is a legend in South African hip-hop. He was always gracious with me. I just 

performed with him at the Back To The City Festival in Johannesburg and his energy is amazing… It saddens me to see our young kings losing their lives this way.” 

Rolling Stone, which listed Kiernan’s single Lemons (Lemonade) on its top Afropop songs last year, added, “AKA is one of the most acclaimed artists in South Africa’s thriving hip-hop scene. He is well known for hit singles like Fela in Versace, All Eyes on Me and Prada.” 

During a night vigil held in honour of Kiernan and Tibz on Sunday evening, long-time friend Benny Maverick (Phelani Kwenyama), who is also the owner of the restaurant Kiernan dined at on that fateful evening, reflected on how happy Kiernan was. 

“That was the happiest I’ve ever seen Kiernan in the whole time that I’ve known him. The way he embraced me when he came through, how he called me earlier in the day and said, ‘Benny I know you’ve got a new spot, let’s go check it out, I wanna go and cut my hair at your place.’ He was there to support us, he was there to support Durban.” 

Kiernan was in the throes of his redemption story. He was back at the top of his game and he seemed to be more at peace than ever before. 

Supa Mega had found love again in rapper Nadia Nakai and the couple have matching tattoos to symbolise their love for each other. 

“Any success right now or anything that I’m going through, I’ve already gone through the worst,” he told Slikour during an interview in early January. “So anything that I’m succeeding at right now or flourishing at is just kind of a bonus. To tell you the truth, I don’t wanna sound dramatic, I’m just happy to be alive, man.” 

Kiernan lives on through his music. We got to see him come back from the darkness and find his light again. We got to celebrate his return to the top. He wouldn’t have had it any other way. 

On Energy, the standout single on his project Bhovamania, he rapped, “My superpower is speed of light, I want my flowers while I’m alive.” 

Thankfully, he got them.