Photographed by Ofentse Rangaka

A new generation of rappers from Mzantsi are making their names known across the globe. Hustle winner, Big Star Johnson recently toured the city of Cannes on the French Riviera, making his mark known and flying the local flag high. We caught up with the emcee to see how it impacted his career and state of mind. “It was my first time out of Africa,” says Big Star. “Going there opened my mind and showed me that, even when I approach my music, it’s bigger than where I am from.”

Big Star performed in front of France’s elite hip hop community, gaining the respect of the French crowd as a genuine musician. “The performance was so hot. After that, we were touching hands with legends. If I told you Scooter Braun knows my name, would you believe me? Like, Scooter knows Big Star!”

French hip hop has a unique history as a genre and culture, courtesy of the likes of IAM and Booba, to name a few. “The scene is huge that side,” says Bigstar. “Those people love good music, whether it is hip hop or whatever, they just vibe. Overseas, people appreciate a whole lot more. People didn’t even know my songs but they were intrigued to learn. They wanted to sing along, so they were listening. You would say something on stage, and they would come to me afterwards and ask questions. I really think here in South Africa we still learning to listen. People need to stop dancing so much and really listen, especially if it’s hip hop”.

With a new album on the way, the rapper looks to use his time overseas as a source of inspiration. “I remember something that Black Coffee said when we were there. The reason why SA hip hop isn’t exported is because rappers aren’t telling the South African story. You listen to Gqom or House music; you can feel the African culture within the music. I feel like I really want to open people’s minds to celebrating who we are more and what we have. It’s difficult with hip hop because it doesn’t “belong” to us. It is a western concept. So trying to tell a South African story through that is going to be tricky. But once I catch the balance, it’s going to be epic.”

Hip hop in South Africa has seen a tremendous development in recent years and Johnson’s contributions have been well received. After collaborating with artists such as Reason, Rouge, and fellow Hustle finalist Shane Eagle, Big Star has his sets on validating his own story as being truly South African. “I think the SA hip hop story is the young man’s story, the young black man in South Africa’s story. I think the struggles of back then are not the struggles of today, but you can’t say we don’t have struggles today. We definitely have struggles today.”

“I feel like there is a modern tale that isn’t being told,” muses Big Star. “If you look at J-Cole, he’s talking about how drugs are killing the United States. We have that here as well, but you don’t hear any rapper talking about it. Instead, they’re telling you take drugs and ‘turn-up’. The modern black dude is also important, see. The world still sees us as Ladysmith Black Mambazo. They haven’t heard the African story of today. We just have to tell more honest stories in our music. That’s the narrative.”

Despite his success, Big Star is not shy to speak about his challenges in the game, not just as a rapper, but as a musician. “People’s minds aren’t open to diversity,” he says. “It’s a challenge, but not a problem. Getting my team to believe that we must drop more is also a challenge. I’m just about dropping more content.”

“I’m happy with the album, and I’m so excited to drop it.” Big Star’s highly anticipated debut is scheduled for the end of August. Big Star says we’re in for something special: “It doesn’t sound like anything that has dropped before in South African history.”