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No change but what we make

Dope Saint Jude in conversation

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Martin Guttridge-Hewitt chats to Dope St Jude, part of our True Music Collective

From the moment we meet, Catherine Saint Jude Pretorius defines openness. Speaking from her current base in London just as summer teeters on the brink of autumn, the Cape Town-born artist is many things to many people. Not least herself. But regardless of where the story starts, her narrative always comes down to celebrating difference and fuelling change.

Today she’s arguably one of the most unique rappers in the UK capital. Her studio output is best described as heady: up-front street beats that make bodies move, all stomping drums, playful effects, and ear worm loops. Meanwhile, the rhymes tread a fine line between social consciousness, LGBTQ rights, and razor sharp wit, usually in one flawless bar. Universally accessible yet unarguably niche, to appreciate where these ideas come from you first need to understand her background.

“At first I was a drag king, that was my performance debut in Cape Town. I started South Africa’s first documented drag king troupe, and did that for about a year,” Jude says, explaining her hometown has a long history of drag queens dating back to the 1960s, but until recently things were less accepting for those born female taking to stages with male personas. “While I was doing that I was writing my own lyrics and performing over the top of Lil’ Wayne beats — my character was loosely based on Lil’ Wayne.

“Then I started writing my own music, taught myself production, and created Dope Saint Jude,” she continues of the moniker’s origins, before moving to the realities of being a queer woman in a historically cis-male-dominated music scene. “It was challenging. I think there is an interest in queer hip hop in South Africa, but without the infrastructure to support people financially. There’s a definite interest in art, in voices. Whether you can make it is another story. I moved to the UK two years ago and that decision was based on feeling it was much easier here. Compared to the UK, South Africa’s arts industries are in their infancy.”

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Our first encounter with Dope Saint Jude’s uncompromising attitude was 2016’s Reimagine, the track’s soulful instrumental creating a deceptively laidback mood contrasting rhymes about disillusionment with the status quo: ‘People are different and people are strange; But the ones who are different keep sparking a change’, she spits with typically effortless flow. Indicative of her early approach to sending clear messages, in 2021 that determination remains but the route is different. Not mellowed, but certainly matured. Hence last year’s Go High Go Low, its lines about solitude and difficulties finding workable solutions.

“It was more about making queer hip hop, that was my intent in the beginning. Now it’s more about self expression, making art that obviously still has a strong thread of queer representation and the representation of women, my identity shown through art. I would say it’s more about making things that feel good,” Jude says of recent work. “It was very angry and rebellious. I still have that fire, but I think there’s a reason when you see social movements arrive they are always run by young people.

“As you get more bogged down you realise you maybe need to alter that approach. You can still hold those values. But, being angry and choosing to opt out, although I respect that decision, you can also try and position yourself in another way,” she continues, reflection evident in her voice. “So for me it became about using myself as a prism, as an example of self-determination. As oppose to just being angry at the system all the time now the responsibility is on me. I believe we can determine our futures despite our circumstances. Everyone comes from different circumstances, and it can be really hard — a mountain of a task to summit and transcend. But I try to use myself as an example of that… How can I get myself out of the situation instead? This has come out of experience, and also being exhausted at being angry all the time.”

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Our conversation coincides not just with the changing of seasons, but a feeling that society itself is shifting, taking culture along for the ride with it. The pandemic laid bare many inequalities, but from Black Lives Matter to shameful economic imbalances between rich and poor, they were staring everyone in the face long before that Great Pause. And if one thing is for certain, as we emerge from the waking nightmare there’s no going back, with the expectation of genuine progress even louder than Jude’s anthem, Grrrl Like, itself a comment on how broad female identity has become. And recent research by Ballantine’s True Music shows just how prevalent prejudice is in the scene. Simply put, the majority of those polled, across four continents, had either experienced or witnessed discrimination at an event. The result being a series of pledges from the platform, including safe dance floor policies at all brand shows, and fair payment guarantees.

Paying people fairly based on factors outside race, nationality, or location needs to be a priority,” Jude replies when asked what steps the music industry should take to address prevailing and endemic equality issues. “I’ve seen people pay artists differently. If you’re from South Africa, because people are often paid in rands, they might see their fee drop. Then UK artists get paid more, even though there might be a similar sized following for both. And this goes for everyone, photographers, whoever… Also, giving Black artists more freedom to be creative in the same way as white artists. Often Black artists are put into an urban category, or hip hop. There’s not the same room to experiment, or the same platforms. I want see them able to be their authentic selves.

“There’s a difference between fault and responsibility,” she continues when we raise the question of where the blame really lies. “The fault is a systemic problem, and one that has so many different levels to it. But the responsibility falls on people who have some capital and influence. It’s a trickle down effect — we have to be realistic about how society works. When people with capital start making change and setting an example it trickles down, whether you like it or not. It’s also on artists too, everyone needs to pull together to change the structure.”

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In her own words, “there’s a lot of work to do”. Nevertheless, Jude is keen to point out how much ground has already been made. The critical and commercial success of her own discography is one example in contemporary hip hop. But she’s quick to namecheck a host of women currently leading from the front in streaming and sales figures, including Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion. We ask about other artists who inspire hope that visibility is improving for musicians who have traditionally been marginalised.

“A big shift happened with the emergence of Lil’ Nas X as top-selling artist on Spotify. That’s a Black, gay man. That’s insane, it says a lot about where we are now,” Jude responds, albeit acknowledging difficulties achieving that recognition. “Even though he’s met with a lot of hate and there’s a lot of controversy around him, I think it’s a very tangible marker of things changing. I would like to see how that trickles down to other, smaller artists. How they are perceived, how they are booked, how venues start treating queer artists. Not having them as novelty acts, just having them on the lineup as themselves. Not a token act.

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“It’s about asking what the point in visibility is in the first place. For me it’s about humanising people, humanising their stories. When we have the voices of women being lifted up, these voices of women who don’t give a fuck, it humanises that voice. Especially when it comes to Black women who historically have not been visible. The end goal of visibility is making people more empathetic and passionate towards those who don’t look like them,” she says as our time together comes to an end, fittingly closing on a note we can all learn from. “It’s about constantly acknowledging privilege, and finding your place in the system. Either way the system is fucked overall, so it’s about everyone — brands, artists, journalists — trying to find the best way to position themselves to serve the community, but also having your own back.”

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