Tomorrow Yugen Blakrok and her friends are going to see Black Panther, which premieres in South Africa that day, and the underground rapper can’t contain her excitement. During an exhilarating car chase scene they’ll hear a snippet of Opps – an adrenaline-powered track which sees Blakrok rap alongside Kendrick Lamar and Vince Staples.
Over a Skype call from her home in Johannesburg, Yugen Blakrok tells me that the collaboration started with an email from Top Dawg Entertainment – the label home to artists like Kendrick Lamar, SZA and ScHoolboy Q. They asked her to lay down a verse on an instrumental, to which she obliged without asking too many questions. “At the time I had no idea Marvel and TDE were even thinking up a project,” she laughs. Once it had transpired the track was for one of the most highly-anticipated, culturally significant blockbusters of this era, Blakrok discovered along with the rest of the world that she was one of the five South African artists on the Kendrick-curated soundtrack that also boasts US heavyweights like Future, The Weeknd and Travis Scott.
Despite no prior knowledge of the context, Yugen Blakrok’s Opps verse is perfect for the project, with surreal battle posturing (“Roar like a lioness/ punch like a cyborg”) comic book imagery – a reference to The Riddler bleeped out, possibly to avoid licensing issues with Marvel’s rival DC – and a namecheck of Kathleen Cleever, a professor and prominent member of the Black Panther party. You can imagine TDE’s excitement when they came across Yugen Blakrok’s 2013 album Return of the Astro-Goth for which she took inspiration from ancient world cultures, spirituality, space travel and astronomy; orating profound lyrics over vibrant beats to channel Afro-futuristic vibes.
In terms of hip-hop influences, Blakrok credits the robust poetry of 90s American artists like Organized Confusion, Def Squad and Wu-Tang’s RZA and GZA. “As much as they were talking about different things, the spirit was the same,” she argues. “You always got the sense that all these cats – as different as they are, as competitive as the field is – had some kind of unified vision that they could all represent in their own different spheres.”
While Yugen Blakrok is loyal to the spirit of the old school, Blakrok insists that South Africa’s small-but-dedicated alternative hip-hop scene is forward-thinking. “We like to break boundaries and experiment,” she says. “As much as there is that [90s] influence, cats aren’t stuck there. We can evolve it to the next level to make it relevant in 2018. It’s an energy that you can’t really destroy.”
Yugen Blakrok is overjoyed to have been involved with the Black Panther soundtrack – a project which has promoted sonically-adventurous music to the masses – and she’s looking forward to presenting the long-awaited follow-up to Return of the Astro-Goth to a bigger audience. But she won’t be shedding the ethos of her alternative scene any time soon. “We come through with stuff that challenges the status quo,” she says. “I enjoy that rebellious spirit of the underground in South Africa, much more than I enjoy the mainstream or whatever’s being played on TV.”
Sounds Like: Hard-hitting alternative rap with a psychedelic flair
Soundtrack For: Searching for a higher self
Fun Fact: Yugen Blakrok rapped onstage with Public Enemy in Johannesburg while Flava Flav played drum