‘I don’t wear gold chains. I don’t like gold,’ he says, totally unsolicited. ‘This is not me, but that is what the people want. I just got to make sure that when it comes to the lyrics and what I’m saying, I convey a message I want people to hear.’
There’s a gold Jesus Piece hanging around BigStar Johnson’s neck. It’s big and badass, and I can’t help but be deeply intrigued by it.
He has the air of a made man donning his finest.
Just a few months ago, BigStar was trying to figure his career out and stitch together something meaningful for himself. Now, after winning Vuzu AMP’s The Hustle and the R250 000 that came with it, he has the air of a made man donning his finest garb.
Notorious B.I.G’s timeless hit, Juicy, has an epic line that sums up his trajectory: ‘Now I’m in the limelight cos I rhyme tight / time to get paid, blow up like the World Trade.’
As we settle at our table at a popular restaurant in Rosebank, Johannesburg, BigStar orders a glass of water. ‘I had a big breakfast man,’ he explains. ‘I had my momma make me some breakfast. Bacon, eggs, tomato, cheese, the whole shebang.’ I observe right away that he has a lisp – it’s distinct but in no way impedes his articulation, instead adding a layer of personality to this already fascinating character.
When I ask him what inspired this nickname, he responds: ‘Nothing!’
Given he was born Tumelo Rakumako, it feels like the nickname BigStar Johnson should carry some nostalgic story. But when I ask him what inspired this nickname, he responds: ‘Nothing!’ And he stares blankly at me. ‘I wish I could tell you something cool like “I was walking and a Johnson truck passed by”, but I have nothing cool, man.’
BigStar had a very musical background. ‘I started on drums at like ten, so music has been in my life. I’ve just always been the guy in the background.’
Beyond drums, he also plays the piano and bass guitar and is a capable beatmaker. I ask him how this versatility impacts on his musical process.
‘There’s moments where I’m just inspired. I hear a beat in my head.’
‘Sometimes, when there’s no immediate inspiration, you sort of know how to do everything,’ he explains. ‘So you just sort of put stuff together and it’s a mess. But there’s moments where I’m just inspired. I hear a beat in my head. I hear a melody in my head and it’s easy to create it because I know how to do it.’
BigStar is a natural storyteller. He zips through mundane details and skillfully decorates the more evocative bits with depth and colour.
‘Ever since I won The Hustle I’ve been trying to go back to my old routine: produce this and that, touch here, touch there. But it’s not working for me. It’s influencing my raps because I think my mind is too dispersed. What I do now is try to work with super-producers.’
He’s learnt a lot about the business side of the game.
Since he signed a deal with independent label, Vth Season, he’s learnt a lot about the business side of the game and has also shed the naivety he came into the game carrying. ‘It’s hard in this country. You’ve got to hit the clubs. You’ve got to hit the number one spot for you to eat. I definitely want to be known as a number-one spot guy.’
When we met last November, he was uncertain whether he would release a mixtape or an album. Now he’s decided to drop an album, and he has a clear vision for it. ‘My strategy is, put bars on a turn-up beat. Give content. Say something. I never want to write anything that doesn’t say anything.’
In between sips of ice water and suckling on a slice of lemon, BigStar takes care to interact with our over enthusiastic waiter. In doing so, he displays a kind of poise that one wouldn’t usually associate with a rap star. This natural charm is adored by his growing fan base, many of whom view him as a refreshing alternative to the ego-pumped emcees currently flooding the game.
‘I think my performance is gonna be the best one of the night.’
His first major gig was in November 2015 at Maftown Heights – one of the biggest hip-hop festivals on the continent. A week before that, I recall him beaming with excitement. ‘You’ve got to be there,’ he urged me. ‘I think my performance is gonna be the best one of the night.’
A week later, in front of an expectant crowd, BigStar delivers on his promise. His performance is full of energy and the production is insane. When I bump into him backstage, a huge grin is planted across his face. ‘Did you see the performance?’ he asks. ‘It was dope, right?’ I nod and congratulate him. As I watch him mingle with DJ Fanatic, Scoop and a few other artists, I’m struck by how at ease he seems in the limelight – as if he’s been practicing for this moment his entire life.
Fast-forward a couple of months and BigStar’s career is shifting gears again. His latest single, My Year, is climbing quickly up music charts across the country and looks set to be his biggest single yet.
I ask him what he envisions for his career. ‘I see myself comfortable. Comfortable in terms of my name within the industry. In a few years I really want my name to be cemented as one of the most valuable players. If guys from the States come and they’re like ‘who’s your best?’ I really wanna be put up there as one of them.’
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Follow BigStar Johnson on Instagram @bigstar_live
Photography by Caleb Kalz