Originally published: Laugh it off Annual 2003, page 79


We were keyed, we were keen. In the photographers’ pit, security and stage staff kept warning, “Stand back from the pyro.” We were cued for fireworks and flames, the main man was going to holier, holler and we were gonna follow, follow. So what went wrong?

It wasn’t just that there was no stage-show to speak of (no dancers, no backing singers, one DJ at the back, two bouncers either side), that the sound was exceptionally poor and the lyrics often indistinct, that there was no effort in the staging (one red-light sign saying “Ja RULE”, one burst of flames and one shower of sparks) or that Rule’s performance was lackluster and without passion. It wasn’t even that he missed a golden opportunity to collaborate with any one of the host of local entertainers (remember P Diddy with Mandoza and Lebo?). it was something far worse, and far more disturbing.

Ja Rule was scheduled to come on at 9.30, preceded by an intro from his unnamed warm-up rappers (perhaps they were part of the recently re-formed Cash Money Click, Rule’s old crew). Clad in what are territory colours over there, but little more than generic baseball and basketball gear here, the trio worked the crowd well. We were about forty minutes late, when one of the crew stood centre stage to announce, “We need a lady to make this next song work.” Earlier, he’d got the crowd on his side, saying he understood what South Africa had gone through. He endeared himself even more with the follow-on, “And because this is South Africa, we’re going to choose a white lady and a black lady!”
The crowd roars its approval, the young women get helped on stage, and all is well and good. They dance and gyrate, the rappers dance with them, and we’re an audience seeing some of our own making live history and living the rap videos we see on television every day.

Moments later, however, the trio call about twenty handpicked girls from the audience, the oldest unlikely to be topping anything over eighteen, to welcome on stage the next phase of the warm-up. Teen testosterone runs high in the crowd, eager oestrogen strains on the stage and, once again, we all feel the thrill of living the bling bling, even just for a few moments. Then it happens. The singer starts singing “Booty, booty, B-O-O-T-Y” and little else. Thank you, Ja Rule, you just turned my fellow fans, our people, the school kids on holiday who hustled money from their parents to see your show, into a strung-out stage-line of whatever “booty” your crew could line up.

I look around and there were those in the crowd echoing the sentiment, getting a little uncomfortable. On stage, some of the girls look distinctly ill at ease. Would you say yes if one of the Rule posse said, “Yo baby, wanna come on stage with Ja Rule?” Yes, you might. But what would you say if they said, “Yo booty, wanna come on stage with the four guys who’re performing before Ja Rule, and dance in a line while they sing ‘Booty, booty, B-O-O-T-Y’?”

The worst is that in the local lead-up it was all positivity and reveling without blemish-from the Metro, Good Hope and 5FM DJs co-hosting the bill (the first time the three main urban SABC radio stations have joined forces) to a multi-faceted bill including hip-hop’s DJ Ready D, Kwaito’s Mzekezeke, house-angled R&B’s ReddAngel, soul-tinged R&B’s Loyiso and contemporary Afro-pop’s Afro-Z. There were even members of pop-rock TV-band Semisane in the VIP room!

Bear in mind, too, that the Ja Rule posse had not endeared themselves to South Africans at their preceding appearances: at the Joburg press conference Ja and his bodyguards looked ready to silence, physically, the ranting Mzekezeke (who, while admittedly engaging in limelight-hogging, was merely taking a dig at local rappers who employ American accents). Meanwhile, in Durban, one of the visiting rapper’s crew ripped an LP from the hapless hands of post-concert DJ Staxx, threatening to beat him up if he played it again. Real name Sakhile Xulu, the mixmaster learned hard and quick that you don’t follow a Ja Rule concert with a track by 50 Cent.

But isn’t that precisely the point? Our audiences don’t care about the tiresomely manufactured “beefs” between one mega-machine US rapper and another; most of them probably have an East Coast album right next to their favorite West Coast CD. Even Ja Rule seemed to guess this, gaining his greatest applause when he started a song with shout-outs “to those we’ve lost”, rattling off a list that started with Notorious B.I.G. and ended with Tupac Shakur.
It occurred to me then, as the expedient big-screen image of 2Pac with his famous quote about feeling like a black Jesus faded, that we can’t even blame Ja Rule. He’s made no bones about what he is. He re-popularised the term “thug”.

When black America reclaimed the racist word “nigger” as a label of resistance and camaraderie, it was the action an oppressed community staking its rightful claim. So too when the gay community reappropriated “queer”, making proud a word that was once an insult. Arthur knew this when he released the song “kaffir” in Kwaito’s early days; just as Lekgoa, Kwaito’s first white singer, does now, making proud his umlungu status. Long after this Russell Simmons turned his hand to lobbying for legislation that would helph his community rather than front about a ‘bling bling posse’ and busting caps and everyone else being ho’s and bitches. So why does Mr Jeffrey Atkins, aka Ja Rule, want to reclaim “thug” and tell you he wants to give you (or Bobby Brown) his lovin’ over it? A thug is a common criminal, someone who resorts to violence at the slightest chance, a crass person with few redeeming qualities.

Maybe like someone who threatens to throw a DJ from a two-storey scaffolding DJ box; or someone who doesn’t bother to bring dancers or a stage right. Maybe someone who visits South Africa and says he’s never heard of Nelson Mandela. Maybe someone who has to get only two channels of sound right in a live mix-his vocals and the backing tracks-but is content to let that aspect of his presentation slide. Maybe someone who hands out backstage passes to sycophantic locals who fall over themselves trying to invite girls back there. Maybe someone who says to his warm-up posse, “Welcome to Africa, my brothers from Queens, now go out there and get some body.”

On the way to the concert we passed graffiti’d posters targeted at that other Yankee violator: “Bush go home”. I second that, and “take Ja Rule with you”.

Brief background of author: Evan Milton is the managing and music Editor for Tiscali, writes the Cape Argus “Bandstand” column and presents two hours of SA music every Thursday on Fine Music Radio. He still believes rock ‘n’ roll can change the world.

This article has been reproduced with permission.