Artist Stories, Stories

Dope Saint Jude is a Modern-day Joan of Arc

Dope Saint Jude Reimagine The Seppis Ilretallack Original Image by The Seppis and Ilretallack

One of my all-time favourite quotes is from Thandiswa Mazwai: “Freedom is a restless place.”

Whether you’re 40 or 22, restlessness has been the running theme of this country’s young people since since – but the world and this country, as we all know, isn’t simply black and white. And it certainly isn’t just black and white and coloured and Asian either. There are subtleties, there are nuisances and there are those who don’t puzzle-piece-slot into the limited – and limiting – range of Home Affairs checkboxes.

From the moment I meet her at Cape Audio College studio she has been recording and mixing in, she treats me as though she knows me. Her loose-flowing dreads, septum piercing, gap between her middle incisors, and bright neon green windbreaker are to me the perfect costume for an artist as niche as Dope Saint Jude. Every single piece is a curated decision by the self-confessed control freak artist. “I’ve been lucky enough to get an ‘in’ into all of these different worlds: the queer world, the fashion world,” she tells me. “Now I’m in Cosmo and in Marie Claire. Like what the fuck? And then [also] in the academic world?”

She recalls a conversation with actress and author, Buhle Ngaba, where the issue of owning the power of these spaces as a black body came about; “We were talking about, at this moment, how it’s time for us to manipulate the situation, take advantage of the situation. As much as we’re being publicised because it’s cool and trendy, we can also be radical about how we occupy these spaces.” For a young, black woman like herself, Dope Saint Jude is speaking about what most long to have in their lives.

The dimly lit ambience in the studio must be standard but I can’t help but believe it to be part of the performance. She is ring master and chief on this stage. The interview has begun long before I reach for my recording paraphernalia. “Do you want to ask questions or do you just want to have a conversation?” she asks. Over the vast studio space cordoned off into sections, leading up to a couch where I will spend a quarter of my time with her, she is in charge. As though she read my mind taking mental notes and observing her for my own records, she analyses me. Only, she doesn’t shy away from vocalising it, “You’re really looking sleek today. Even down to the pen,” she laughs. “Now, listen, I’m the interviewer here; I’m asking the questions,” I tease her and try to reign her in.

Hers isn’t a pushy or overbearing power; it is present, it is tangible and it is actually meant to empower those present in it. The young journalist that I am, I cast my questions aside and silently answer her question, “Let’s have a conversation.”

She is here to do the final mixing on her debut full body of work, Reimagine (now released), which is set to drop in three days. Even though the album isn’t ready 72 hours before its release – she bares a confidence that says, ‘I’ve been to the future. It’s ready. And it’s radical.’ Okay, so it’s not completely unheard of to be so tight on the deadline – one of her inspirations, Kanye West, was reportedly still working on The Life of Pablo up to a week before it’s release (and reworking some of it in the weeks thereafter). But unlike Yeezy, her entire record was worked on by almost entirely women – four to be exact (with only a guitar solo by a man, UCT’s Prof. Adam Haupt). She self-produced the entire EP, with the only help coming from sound engineer, Kay Faith, who helped out with 808s on ‘Light of the Moon’, a song that samples Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”. She penned all the lyrics on the album except for Andy Mkosi’s Xhosa verse on ‘Brilliant. Arresting. Extravagant.’ and a church friend, Janeli, lends her backing vocals to form the record’s enchanting harmonies.

Perhaps what I have come to respect as her power is really her ever-burning energy. In the four hours that I managed to stay with Saint Jude and Kay Faith, every last minute – bar the hour she spent exclusively talking me – is spent on the music. Even in the hour of the interview itself, she jumps up to cut off Chance the Rapper spitting ‘No Problem’ in the background because it’s distracting her. So as soon as we wrap, she jumps up again to join Kay on the mixing decks. They begin with ‘Spose 2b’ and Dope is counting every last beat, synth, string and hi hat. “It’s quite rough around the edges for now but you get the vibe,” Kay admits. After a few back-and-forth notes on what she’s looking for, Kay finally nails it and the deal is sealed with a high-five. “It’s like baking a cake,” Dope qualifies. “It’s the difference between throwing the ingredients into a bucket and baking.”

Existing in multiple roles of an album’s production is one thing – albeit not an easy thing – but Saint Jude is also her own publicist, booking agent and manager. Her music itself is caught in a web of multi-identity. While she is, by her own account, ‘an artist who uses hip hop as her medium’, Cape Town’s rap and hip hop community has been slow in receiving (if not inhospitable to) her work. “I feel, just at this moment, there isn’t really a market for me here in South Africa.”

“So maybe because of South Africa’s history, my music particularly appeals to people who are oppressed and the majority of oppressed people don’t have access to that kind of language yet. And the people who are educated here are white people who maybe aren’t that interested in my music unless it’s, like, ’cause they’re tryna be woke.”

Performing in this country is a negotiation of space for Dope Saint Jude. “I have to perform around the woke people,” she emphasises. “The people who are woke on Twitter; who engage with social issues on a different level.”
But even within these woke spaces, there may be further negotiation necessary. “So maybe because of South Africa’s history, my music particularly appeals to people who are oppressed and the majority of oppressed people don’t have access to that kind of language yet. And the people who are educated here are white people who maybe aren’t that interested in my music unless it’s, like, ’cause they’re tryna be woke.”

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“That’s the difference. Whenever I perform, black people will be like, ‘Awe, it was lekker,’ but white people will always be like, ‘Thank you. Well done,’ and I’m always like—” she breaks into laughter. “That’s always the difference between a white audience member and black audience member.” But maybe it’s not for white people? “It is for everyone, but I am for what I represent. Me as a person, without even trying, I’m for young black girls. I wanna be that person you can look at and be like ‘this person is pushing the boundaries of human potential; so can I.’”

Her being second generation ‘mixed race’ has meant that she’s had to deal with a life of outright rejection from her own extended family while simultaneously enjoying some Western privileges, as she discusses in ‘Brilliant. Arresting. Extravagant.’ Her grandmother, who is a central theme in the song ‘Spose 2b’, was a Sotho woman. In the fifties, she bore her first and only mixed-race child who would go on to give birth to Saint Jude. Her father is Cape Malay. By virtue of her cousins being black, she has always felt that she couldn’t identify as ‘black’ herself. “That’s why I use the word ‘brown’ in ‘Brown Baas’; because I felt like I have too much privilege with this lighter skin to call myself black ’cause my experience isn’t the same as my cousins.”

While you would have thought that her mixed race identity would have meant a free pass into all the cultures and subcultures she inherently represents, the reality is it hasn’t all been rainbows and unicorns. “My dad’s side of the family hates us because we’re black so they always call us k****r and stuff like that,” she reveals. “You know, coloured people have that, like, there’s a lot of racism in the coloured community and disdain for blackness because [during Apartheid and in the years since] coloured people were put in the middle and they told that they were better than black, not good enough to be white.”

So what does one identify with when caught in the middle of a multiplicity of cultures? “It changes all the time depending on what the question is, but in the broad sense and in the Biko sense I’d say ‘black.’” By her own account on ‘Spose 2b’ she stills believes that “God made us all.” If it were up to Dope Saint Jude, we would all just “be lekker and listen to music, smoke up some gina and maybe we dot,” cry about the things that make us angry and talk about ways to make us happy as is her manifesto in ‘Light of the Moon’.

‘Gina’ and ‘dot’ are examples of Gayle, which, if you didn’t already know, is a dialect formed in the drag scene in the 50s and which is re-emerging today. It’s used extensively in her 2015 Angel-Ho-featuring single, ‘Keep in Touch’. ‘Gina’ is Gayle for weed and ‘dot’ is for liquor.

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The need for her own language or that of a community that she relates to, is more than just a fad-like hipster trend. An active member of the church her entire life, she was excommunicated at the age of 19 for divulging her queerness. Admitting that it really hurt her and her dad, “I have learned to find my own way around it and my own language. It’s similar with the music: that process of ‘there’s nothing for me so I have to create my own.’ So I create my own language and my own dialogue to express myself.” Few know this but she still goes to and even performs in church. “I definitely consider myself a Christian,” she reveals. “But I’ve had to find my own way ’cause I feel like an outsider in the church but I also wanna be a part of it. That’s how I feel in the world. Like I’m an outsider in a way but I also want to be a part of it and now it’s like trying not to feel all the anger and trying to be a bridge.”

“That’s why I have Mary tattooed on me. ‘Cause I always felt maybe I don’t feel comfortable speaking to a male god”

Hers is a spirit that always looks for the greener side of the grass, the compass to the light at the end of the abrasive tunnel. She bears an arm half-full of Catholic-themed tattoos. She was named after Saint Catherine and Saint Jude. She also strategically selected her own patron saint. “My patron saint I chose when I was sixteen; Saint Joan of Arc, the crossdressing saint. Ha!” she laughs. “See, the Catholic religion was always pushing me out ’cause I was like I don’t fit any of those things. So I always found ways around them. That’s why I have Mary tattooed on me. ‘Cause I always felt maybe I don’t feel comfortable speaking to a male god, so I was comfortable speaking to Mary. Shit like that.”

It’s just as well. As a young woman, she is leading the way for an alternative sound and message in a male-dominated genre, much like her chosen patron saint, Joan of Arc, who led an army of men.

Being happy and the need not to fight for it is an important theme of this record and Dope Saint Jude’s own ideals. “I just don’t think that it’s constructive for me to be angry all the time,” she stresses. “I can’t be angry as a black person, angry as a queer person – it’s not constructive for me.” Though she acknowledges and endorses her right to her anger, she would rather channel it into something that can bring people together. “’Cause the thing is, I don’t ever wanna hate on straight people, I don’t ever wanna hate on white people. I don’t ever wanna live in a world like that. I don’t. So it’s important for me to empower myself and my people but it’s not about tryna put down another group.”

“Can all my ambitions be reduced to one label / I’m raging with fire / Lord, I’m willing and able,” she begins the outro to her six-part EP. What shall she do then with a multitude of labels? How will she satisfy them all? The better question to ask is why should there be a need to satisfy them all?

“Don’t come talk kak here, and then they archive it and they like, ‘Ja, looks likes everyone was throwing dollar bills and hoes in 2016’”

In an age where everyone thinks they either have the answers or think that people like Dope Saint Jude do, she has chosen to “stay off the Internet” and to focus on “inner processing and a lot of believing in myself, working through my shit”. This distillation process has resulted in a refined approach to her art that hopes to change the dominant narrative in her chosen mode of expression. “Make music that’s honest. Don’t come talk kak here, and then they archive it and they like, ‘Ja, looks likes everyone was throwing dollar bills and hoes in 2016’”

So if, in some hypothetical universe where there is a single label for her and her music, it would be honesty. The irony is, honesty has a snide tendency of inducing tension before spawning unity. But if Dope Saint Jude’s Joan of Arc badassery is anything to go by, she is ready for the challenge.

Dope Saint Jude US Tour Dates:
(corrected)

30/06 – Hussy Planet – White Horse Bar, Oakland, CA
01/07 – Club Fist x Hussy Planet – Cheetahs, Los Angeles, CA
02/07 – Hussy Planet – The Lash, Los Angeles, CA
03/07 – Swagger Like Us x Hussy Planet – El Rio, San Francisco, CA (Day)
03/07 – Hussy Planet – Good Mother Gallery, Oakland, CA (Night)

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