/ 24 February 2022

The infectious charm of Riky Rick

Rapper Riky Rick In Kingston Frost Park.
Riky Rick in Kingston Frost Park in Brixton, Johannesburg. (Gustav Butlex)

I didn’t know quite what to expect when I arrived at Riky Rick’s home at Waterfall Estate in Midrand, Gauteng, on a warm summer’s morning in January 2019. I’d met him up close only once before, some three years prior, at a music video shoot for Ragga Ragga, his smash hit collaboration with Gemini Major, Nadia Nakai, Cassper Nyovest and Major League DJz.  That day, it was clear from the moment that I sat with him for a pre-planned interview outside the studio they were shooting at that he was in no mood for his media obligations. He gave me short, snappy answers for 10 minutes. Sensing that things weren’t going anywhere, I ended the interview abruptly. Even though he politely dapped us as we headed out, I left perplexed. After all, this was Riky Rick – an artist so universally known for his innate affability that to not be in his good books was surely a mark on me as a journalist. Seeing as it was my first year as a full-time journo, I felt I must’ve dropped the ball. 

So, by the time I got a chance for a do over, I was better prepared and determined to make an impression on him. It was just a few weeks before the inaugural Cotton Fest event in 2019 and Reabetswe Mooketsi, his publicist, had asked me to interview him to share some insight on what this new concept was all about. But in my mind, I also wanted to use this interview as an opportunity to tell him that I managed a new artist named Manu WorldStar, who had a huge single titled Nalingi rotating on radio and TV at the time, and ask him if he’d add Manu to the lineup. One of my closest friends, Wandile Madondo, had approached him at Sandton City a few weeks prior as he was shopping with his son and had already lobbied him to do so. So my role was to just bring it home. 

Riky’s wife, Bianca Naidoo, welcomed me in and showed me to the lounge where Riky would join me shortly. In a pair of shorts, a T-shirt and socks, he joined me on the couch and greeted me warmly. A good start. 

 We sat there for damn near three hours as Riky regaled me with tales of his come up, his influences as a live performer and advice on how to navigate the industry. One particular piece of advice that stuck with me was how he didn’t prioritise paid bookings when he achieved early success. Just being on stage regularly and letting people hear the music was enough, he said. He told me how, when he got an early look in his career with the huge success of his 2014 hit single Nafukwa, he still took free shows because he wanted to spread the music as much as he could and be as accessible as possible. He wanted to prove himself. 

Then, as he played Nalingi on his laptop, he told me he had been gushing over it to Sbuda Roc (Moozlie’s manager) when it came on at an event in Cape Town. He said we should do what he did and also just get on the road and show up at venues across the country and ask promoters to perform. He was clear that to get to the top it was important to remain grounded and maintain the same hustle. It felt like I was catching up with an old friend. I was floored, but not entirely surprised. I had heard about how wide his view of the industry was and how he constantly embraced new faces. But even with this understanding, I found his openness and humanity moving. He didn’t need to give me an ear and share his experiences with me, and yet he did. Even though the lineup had already been finalised and due to be announced the following day, he promised to add Manu and the rest of the crew I was managing at the time (Luna Florentino, Dee Xclsv and Tony X) to the lineup and gave me some merch to take home for them. 

“Boys, you won’t believe what just happened,” I said to them on our WhatsApp group as I left, barely able to believe it myself. “I was just at Riky’s crib and he’s going to add us to his line-up.” 

The emojis poured in. I’d brought it home for the guys. But how had this incredible slice of good fortune fallen upon us so suddenly? 

In truth, this isn’t a particularly unique story for many of those who’ve interacted with Riky Rick, who died this week at 34. All you have to do is scroll through the Instagram profiles of various industry figures and you will find heartfelt messages and references to the humility of this great man. He was kind and generous and welcoming. 

The day after a spectacular night at Cotton Fest, Riky called Madondo and spoke at length about how he appreciated us pulling up and encouraged us to keep pushing and to be fearless. 

He assured him that we were on the right path. 

A few months later, at the same venue in Newtown, I was backstage at Joburg Freshers when Riky came off stage after a rocky performance in which he’d slipped and fallen. When I saw him I tried to greet him. It had been the first time I’d seen him since I was at his home earlier in the year. He saw me and nodded politely. I wondered if he’d really recognised me or if he’d mistaken me for the hordes of fans that often clamour for his attention? I didn’t take it personally this time.

A few weeks later, Manu and I were at The Dome for rehearsals ahead of Manu’s performance at Post Malone’s show later that day. I saw Riky a few metres away preparing to hit the stage but decided not to greet, fearing that he may have forgotten me. Then I heard that lively voice of his calling from behind: “Shingy-Wingy”. I turned and shook his hand. “Which nickname is this one now?” I responded. “Man, where was it that I saw you the other day?” he asked. “It was that show in Newtown right? I was having a bad day, that show was a mess.” It was such a soft touch. It felt like he was subtly apologising for not being as friendly as he’d normally be. But he needn’t apologise. Stars as big as him are rarely, if ever, that affable. But that was Boss Zonke for you.

His debut album, Family Values, released in April 2015, rode the momentum of Nafukwa and was certified platinum by the Recording Industry of South Africa (RiSA). He released several other hit singles over the duration of his career, including most notably Buy It Out, Stay Shining, Ungazincishi and Sidlukotini. The latter saw him win Best Hit Single at the 2016 Metro FM Music Awards, an award ceremony that infamously saw him take to the stage and criticise the awards for being rigged before encouraging upcoming musicians to forget the radio and make their songs “pop on the internet”. Nowadays, that’s exactly what’s happening. Riky told us. 

Riky Rick performs on the main stage at Oppikoppi Festival in Northam, Limpopo, on August 6, 2016. (Photo:  Tyrone Bradley / Red Bull Content Pool)

He left independent record label Mabala Noise shortly after the awards. Although many thought his career was doomed after this move, Riky kept the wheels rolling. Just a year later he released a new EP, Stay Shining, through a licensing deal between his new label Cotton Club Records and Sony Music Entertainment Africa. Over the coming years, he’d maintain relevance through the odd single release and a host of impressive guest verses, most notably on AKA’s F.R.E.E, Mr JazziQ and Busta 929’s Vsop, Costa Titch’s Nkalakhatha, Big Zulu’s Mail Eningi, Frank Casino’s Whole Thing and, just two weeks ago, Venom and Shishiliza’s chart-topping new single Sondela. If anything, his success has elevated these past few years as he’s scored endorsements and brand partnerships with MTN, Remy Martin, Puma and just last week, African Bank. 

 Through all of this, depression was always lingering. He spoke about it in his music and in the odd interview. In 2020, in an interview with rapper Yanga on his Lab Live YouTube series, Riky opened up about his suicidal past. “I always said my first album would be my last album because I didn’t expect to make it past 25,” he said. “For me I wanted to go out like Tupac. I wanted to die like Kurt Cobain. Suicidal thoughts is not anything new to me. It might seem like now it’s time for every rapper and every artist to talk about anxiety and being suicidal. I can give testament to people that I know what suicidal thoughts are … I’ve been to the dark place.”

That same year, on the Mas Musiq-assisted single HOME, which has been widely circulated in the hours since his death, Riky seemed to speak about these suicidal thoughts. “I know I’m living on borrowed time, but I’m tired and I wanna put the ball down. Mama told me, ‘Look where we are now. If you leave it Riky we all down. If you leave it Riky we all suffer’. That kinda pressure is a motherf*cker. Why did it have to be me?” 

In this hard moment, the temptation is to feel a deep sorrow. There’s a collective sense of profound loss in the air. But the way Riky carried himself demands for us to reflect on how we treat those around us. Riky made you feel like you mattered, because for some reason we all seemed to matter to him. Perhaps he cared for us a bit too much and left little time to care for himself. His passion for people was infectious. Many of the people who are posting heartfelt messages about him only knew him from afar, and yet they too were touched deeply by his loss. This is our loss.