Within a few moments of meeting Niko B, it’s apparent he doesn’t bear many similarities to Niko Bellic, the GTA IV character from whom the rapper derived his chosen moniker. Compared to Bellic’s traumatic, dark past and much-present life of horror and crime, Niko’s aura is warm, gentle, and welcoming. He introduces himself by his real name, Tom, which you may recognise from his “Hi, I’m Tom. It’s nice to meet ya” bar on his breakout release, 2020’s ‘Mary Berry’, which is not just a convenient line to rhyme with Seat Ibiza.
He’s just landed in Johannesburg to take part in Nando’s Mix It Up project, a campaign which encourages cultural exchange between the UK and South Africa, bringing artists together for mutual inspiration in Nando’s breath-taking home country. Niko B — along with K-Trap, Kojey Radical and Lost Girl — has been selected to be part of the second edition, where the UK artists travel more than 5,000 miles south to create collaborative amapiano records with local South African artists – LuuDaDeejay, Dinho, Mathandos and MFR Souls on production, and vocals from Makhanj.
On the ride from Marriott Hotel in Melrose Arch—a suburb north of Johannesburg—to the Nando’s Head Office, the Milton Keynes-born rapper and his manager Georgie are chatty, as if they hadn’t just landed from an 11-hour long haul from London, which Niko says he mostly slept through. The conversations in the minibus range from the different flavour profiles and variations between Nando’s SA and Nando’s UK to the weather of the two countries. Niko enthusiastically chimes in when it gets to talking about music festivals, reminiscing about his favourite nu-metal band. He then spoke about him finally dropping some projects, his plans for those, the perks of being a fully independent artist, and his desire to venture into on-screen work. “We got a few ideas for his own show; it’s just about meeting the right partner,” Georgie says. “I want to do a sketch show; that’s the next thing [for me]. No one has done one in a while,” Niko adds. If the resonant persona and humorous storytelling in his music are anything to go by, the show should be a hit.
Just as we arrive at the Nando’s HQ—which they proudly refer to as the Central Kitchen—in Lorentzville, we’re treated to a Nando’s meal containing a variety of flavour options from their menu. After dining, a tour of the vicinity reveals a Nando’s resturant, its head offices and a fully-equiped gym. Niko is visibly interested and remains engaged throughout. He’s sporting washed green corduroy baggy shorts, black Adidas socks, and a scarce pair of Nike x Corteiz Air Max 95 SP “Rules the World” sneakers (later on, we come across some sneakerheads who lose their minds at the sight of them), coupled with a yellow knitted sling bag and a distinguishably black hoodie with colourful face silhouettes of Ol’ Dirty Bastard on the front. “I love all his merch,” Niko discloses. Like the fallen Wu-Tang Clan member, Niko is charismatic and sometimes playful. Still, he is an undeniably skilled MC—he recently rapped circles in a Victory Lap cypher with appearances from Central Cee and Dave.
“Look at that! That’s the eighth wonder of the world,” Niko gushes, geeking at the sight of a massive traffic cone that appears taller than him. He shows off an image of the regular-sized traffic cones in the UK in bewilderment after convincing the rest of the crew to head back a few steps so he could take a picture next to it because it’s all he “could think about.” As we proceed further into the neighbouring Victoria Yards, a creative hub across the road from Nando’s Central Kitchen, Niko sets foot in the different art and fashion stores. After a short discussion about sports, he tells us that the SA-hosted 2010 FIFA World Cup was his favourite and “the best one ever.” Although he was only nine-years-old then, he still remembers watching all the matches, the tournament’s first goal, the vuvuzelas, and seeing the movie Africa United.
Niko admits that even though he has heard of amapiano, he is not too familiar with the genre and claims it’s not “pushed too much” in the part of the UK he is from, but states that he is eager to change that. There’s parallels between his career and the movement’s rise. His own breakthrough during the pandemic coincided with the gradual spread of amapiano into Europe. And they both have received the highly coveted Drake co-sign, placing them on the ever-active radar of the globe-trotting music megastar.
After converging back at the hotel the next day, we drive about 90 kilometres to the country’s capital, Pretoria. It’s a sunny Wednesday morning just after 11:AM, about 24 hours since the UK artist’s arrived in the country. “OMG, I love it. It’s so sick. I don’t even know what I was expecting but it’s so beautiful here,” Niko shares after I ask how his experience of South Africa has been so far. As we step out of the minibuses, we’re greeted by the beautiful scenery of the Mothong African Heritage Trust & Village. Dr. Ntate Mabena, a traditional healer and steward of the place, takes the group to the top of the Magaliesberg mountain, which sits above Section H of Mamelodi township and overlooks the city and other surroundings, and educates us about Mamelodi’s history.
“We have arrived at the shoulders of the mountain, where we can see Mamelodi at large. When Mamelodi cries and when Mamelodi laughs,” exclaims Mabena . “Welcome to Mamelodi, the best place ever! The history of Mamelodi starts here, [I’m] very proud to welcome you all. I know you come from very far so It’s an honour, feel very free.” As we come down the hill, I catch up with Niko and he tells me this part of the experience has been his favourite thus far. “That guy [referring to Ntate Mabena] was such a legend,” he remarks.
Amapiano pioneers MFR Souls also join us, and we head to the iconic Jack Buda, a venue and a hotspot for amapiano and its protagonists, particularly during its formative years in the early to mid-2010s, for a discussion about amapiano. Founder and owner, Thabo Moatshe (aka Jack Buda) greets and welcomes us as we enter. Before the conversation could commence, moderator and music journalist Sethumo-Thebe Mohlomi gives a brief history of dance music in South Africa, from the 90s kwaito era to date. Dinho, the revered Mamelodi native and the local producer who Niko has been paired with, sits to the left of Maero and Force Reloaded as part of the panelists. Together, they share knowledge and their insights about amapiano, touching on its triumphant journey from bedroom studios in townships to the present day, where it has attracted people from the UK to its shores.
The artists are scheduled to record their respective songs on the third day, with the music set to feature on the ‘Mix It Up Vol. 2’ EP released through Bridges For Music, a non-profit organisation which works to uplift talented young people from under-served communities to fulfil their creative potential. Upon arrival at the infamous Constitutional Hill, which was initially used as a fort before being made into the prison that, at some point, held Nelson Mandela. It has since been converted into an all-around facility that houses a studio, restaurant, school, Constitutional Court of South Africa, and a museum/human rights site, attracting tourists daily due to its rich heritage. Niko requests a tour and Lance McCormack, music industry veteran and CEO of Flame Studios, gladly accepts to conduct. As we go through the different sections of the area, I quiz Niko about his decision to tour the surroundings before hitting the studio. “So I can properly know the space I’m in. You know what I mean? Like the history of it,” he says. “I’ve never been in such an amazing, historic space. When I’m recording, I’m gonna be like, ‘Yo, I’m in a place where there used to be guns, gold and prisoners around, and I’m just here recording.’ It’s just crazy,” he continues as we pass a group of schoolchildren singing and chanting a nursery rhyme. When I ask him if he’s ready for the studio, Niko replies, “I am indeed. Let’s go make some magic.”
Niko and Dinho—who also came with his protege Vine Musiq—are allocated a set-up inside the Flame Studio’s wing of the precinct. From the first beat Dinho plays, Niko immediately starts nodding and recording melodies on his phone. Dinho then previews more instrumentals for the ‘Who’s That What’s That’ hitmaker. “These are all sick. You are a magician,” Niko B exclaims. But it was the first one that caught his attention, noting that the chord progression reminds him of Kaytranada. “It’s very you,” Georgie adds. Seeing that Niko is gravitating toward the beat currently playing, Dinho confirms, “We should work on this one ne (right)?”
Niko instantly comes up with the concept of the song and some openers for his verse. He then asks if Makhanj is “gonna sing on it?”, suggesting she jumps on the hook. Niko then shares ideas he has and begins writing his verses. Despite being the first to finish penning his song, he’s the last artist to record while the wider group take turns with the facilities. He remains calm, patient and his regular goofy self, finding other things to occupy his time in between, before he starts lacing his vocals around 4:PM. Though the instrumental was different from anything he has done in the past, he still brought his authentic, resonant style of storytelling to the party, casually and effortlessly rapping lines like, “I don’t care if your dad is famous, still get a noise complaint from the neighbours,” while sitting down on a chair.
“There’s so much history behind it. It’s not just like any other musical genre,” Niko reflects on amapiano. After finishing his track within the intended two-day sessions, the rapper can confidently say he has successfully recorded a ‘piano track in the genre’s birthplace and collaborated with one of its protagonists.
While we’re having our last chat together, I peep at his cellphone wallpaper and see the words “enjoy yourself.” ‘Is that your motto?’ I curiously ask. He replies, “I just need to remind myself when working. When I make music or anything, I try to make it so perfect that [I end up] not even enjoying myself. I like to enjoy myself, like don’t do it perfectly but just do it.” This fun-filled, positive attitude and mindset translates into the music and is evident in his personality.
‘Mix It Up Vol. 2’ is available to pre-save/pre-order here
Madzadza Miya is a freelance writer, follow him on Twitter
Written by: Tim Hopkins