A lull for the West African music genre Afrobeats was expected in the first month of 2023. This much can be predicted for the first quarter of ... 2023, a necessary spell of relative silence and rest from the dashing throttle of the last few months of 2022.
Focalistic leans forward into the glow of a ring light, his expression blank as he waits for my video to show on his screen. He’s decked out in a diamond-encrusted cuban link chain, a Gucci Supreme canvas bucket hat, and a crisp beige Maison de Matthieu T-shirt.
It’s been a couple of hours since Focalistic dropped his latest single, Gupta, and the 24-year-old rapper is seated in the same studio at his home in Pretoria, Gauteng where he has spent most nights over the last year, churning out hits at a frenetic pace.
When I finally pop up on his screen he smiles and greets me warmly.
Focalistic has been teasing Gupta for several weeks and, ahead of today’s release, anticipation among fans had been feverish. “That was organic,” he says. “When I’m performing I’ll play, like, two songs that people don’t know, and they chose Gupta themselves. So it’s not like I was teasing the song, I was just playing it so people can hear the new vibes and vibe out.”
Focalistic’s rise over the last few years has been meteoric. His style has changed significantly since he emerged as an excitable and ambitious boom bap rapper a few years ago. Aside from the release of the hip-hop single Never Know, featuring SA’s heavyweight rapper Cassper Nyovest in early 2020, he’s shifted from hip-hop and embraced the emergence of Amapiano — a South African flavour of jazz inflected house music with Kwaito basslines — with a slew of hits alongside fellow Amapiano stars DJ Maphorisa, Kabza De Small, and regular collaborations with just about everyone else leading the genres charge to the mainstream.
That’s what it’s about, you always have to stay ahead of the curve, you can’t get too big headed in the moment because that’s not what it’s about, that’s not what you started this for.
“Coming from Pitori (Pretoria), you always wanna tell your story and try to figure out how exactly you wanna tell it. I think my music is different sonically than it was a few years ago, but when you listen to the subject matter it’s never changed. It’s just still inspirational, I’m still on my hood n***a sh*t. I think sonically I just found a better canvas to transfer the message. And that wasn’t intentional, I always say you don’t chase good things, they kinda chase you. It just happened that I’m having fun with the music right now.”
Davido X Focalistic = global hit
It’s been roughly three months since Amapiano enjoyed one of its biggest moments when Focalistic enlisted Davido for the remix to his biggest hit to date: 2020’s platinum-selling Ke Star. Ke Star Remix has since become one of the most popular songs across the continent and beyond. The spotlight only brightened when, in early March, hip-hop mogul P. Diddy posted an Instagram video dancing to the song on the beach.
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Collaborations have helped the genre reach new heights. Gupta, which sees Focalistic teaming up with Mr JazziQ, Lady Du and production duo Mello and Sleazy, follows on the tried and tested formula that’s brought him this far: it’s simple, melodic and bass-heavy, with plenty of catchy and repetitive moments that will fit in perfectly on DJ sets. The name itself references the infamous Indian family, the Guptas, who’ve generated a fortune in South Africa and beyond through their various business dealings. The song speaks to how Focalistic is trying to make large dollops of cash with his crew — like the Guptas.
“Me and Jazzi actually have a project on the way, we’re just trying to figure out the perfect time to drop. We wanted some features on as well, we’re just crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s with the project. It was ready to drop on the 30th of April, we just decided to push it back and give people the single so that when we drop it’s a movie,” he says.
“My thing this year is I enjoy collaborations, I wanna explore that more and see what comes up. I have a joint EP with Davido as well that we’re working on,” says Focalistic. “I wanna see with my boys Mello and Sleazy, who produced Gupta, if we can drop a project as well. So, for me, collaboration over competition right now.”
This openness to collaboration, which has been a theme since Amapiano took off in 2019, has been a contributing factor to Focalistic’s incredible productivity. I ask him how, despite the sheer quantity of releases he’s been involved in, he has managed to keep everything at such a high level.
“For me, it’s right here where I’m sitting. I stay in studio, I enjoy making music and I’m a true artist. As much as I’m a businessman too, for me it’s about the art and protecting the art. For me I have a vision of Setswana rappers winning Grammys and it being like 20 of us taking over the world. It feels like it’s on my shoulders right now. It feels like you just wanna make everyone proud and have a solid foundation for all the kids to come next. In 10 years time, 18 Area (his record label) has to have headquarters in L.A with four or five other artists doing their thing.”
I ask him if his vision was always to do things independently and run his own label. “18 Area has always been the goal,” he says, lifting his arm to show me his 18 Area tattoo. “It’s a whole tattoo. But I’m also just blessed at the same time because people related to the music. You can plan everything well, you can have a well-thought out plan, PR and whatever but at the end of the day if people don’t like it they don’t like it. I’ve been so blessed that people like my style and they like my music and continue to support me. I’m always grateful to God and Squad Sa Maradona, that’s the fanbase and the people that put me where I am.”
Squad Sa Maradona, Focalistic’s name for his fanbase, which borrows from his Pitori Maradona moniker, is growing beyond SA and across the continent swiftly, as is evidenced by his regular travels over the past year for performances in Namibia, Tanzania and Nigeria. “I think my first time out of the country and the SADC region [was when] I went to Zambia,” he says.
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“That experience is what made me wanna travel more because being outside the country makes you realise you are not the be all and end all of everything. As much as there’s different things, you start seeing that we are all looking for the same thing. And I think that eye opener is very important to many artists and that’s why I enjoy traveling. It’s shocking when you hop on stage in Nigeria and people are singing word for word, but if you speak to them, they won’t understand anything that you’re saying. But they’re rapping those Pitori lyrics there. So for me, that was an eye opener, and it kind of gives you peace, and makes you understand that you can take this to the world, transfer the story to the world.”
Despite the success he’s been enjoying, Focalistic’s made a point of shunning many of the trappings of success. He came up embracing a hustler’s spirit, and his goal is to keep at it until he reaches the very top.
“At the end of the day, all these things are just blessings,” he says on how he’s managed to maintain that energy. “You only got them because you were hustling, so once you stop that hustling all of it disappears. So for me it’s just about keeping the finger on the pulse and making sure that the next move is already there. We just dropped Gupta but we have 20 other singles and exciting news to give to the fans. That’s what it’s about, you always have to stay ahead of the curve, you can’t get too big headed in the moment because that’s not what it’s about, that’s not what you started this for. When you started it was about getting the best song when you went into studio. If we can keep that same spirit, even in 20 years we’ll still have this conversation and if God blesses us we’ll be having one in LA, in Paris. So for me you always have to stay grounded, focus on the vision and keep it as pure as possible.”
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