In his musical career, South Africa’s king of hip hop, Cassper Nyovest, has always beaten his own path. He released his first two albums on his own label, Family Tree. They were massive hits, both reaching Platinum status by selling more than 50 000 units each.
The second of these, entitled Reflioe (his real name), went gold in a single day when he filled the Dome, a 20 000-seat venue north of Johannesburg, by including a copy of the album with every ticket bought. The launch event was part-sponsored by AG Mobile, the local smartphone brand that is also the fastest-growing in South Africa.
That sponsorship started a relationship that will culminate, in the next fortnight, with the release of the first smartphone designed by a South African artist.
“They were keen to empower us as a team,” he said before the unveiling of the phone last week. “We started a conversation around developing a phone I would help design. After a few meetings, we came up with concept of the AG #Hashtag. The reason was that I am addicted to is social media.”
Like AG in the mobile market, Cassper has one of the fastest growing followings in local social media. He has passed the half-million mark on Twitter, is followed by 766 000 people on Instagram, and is close to 2-million Facebook Likes.
His public life is lived through these outlets, which provide him both with a powerful marketing tool and a platform from which to counter media mischief.
“I’ve always been a boy who messed with tech, with cellphones and video games. But I have always been addicted to social media, starting when it was just Mxit, then Facebook, then Twitter. I’ve always been that guy on social media and that’s how we built our brand. Before my music started playing on radio, I already had a big following on social media and it’s really empowered me.”
At times, it’s also attracted the wrong kind of attention when he has treated the reply window like a weapon. But he insists he has toned down.
“I’m just a very honest person and I’m opinionated but I’ve learned to grow more responsible. I came from the streets where I don’t have a boss and can say anything I want. But once I started dealing with other brands, I understood brand association. I’m more calm now and don’t share my opinion as much in public.”
The temptation is always there for artists to leverage social media as a sales platform. Cassper does it only indirectly.
“I’m not like a guerilla marketer in terms of selling music. I don’t ask people to buy my music. I just try to put out good music and convince people to listen. I don’t like to fill up my timeline with price tags.”
The #Hashtag was designed to match the artist’s persona.
“I wanted the phone to stand out when it lies next to other phones on a table. I wanted it to be the phone you see from far. At first everyone was against it being red, but I convinced them. MTN doesn’t usually range red phones. The reason for being red was that it was inspired by one of my favourite shoes, the Nike Yeezy Red October sneakers.”
The shoes also happen to be a collaboration between a hip hop artist and a major brand, in this case Kanye West and Nike.
Cassper made three other demands: “It has to be fast because I’m a very impatient person, so the Internet also has to be fast. It should take good pics because I travel a lot and I like to capture moments. And it has to have serious battery life.”
The result is a 4G phone with a 5.5” display, 13MP rear camera and f/2.4 aperture, 1.5GHz Octa-core processor, and a fast-charging battery.
The founder of AG Mobile, Anthony Goodman, was happy to oblige.
“We were keen to follow the specs Cassper wanted, because it leads to what the consumer wants,” he said. “It wasn’t challenging, because it’s something we wanted to do: we wanted a high speed phone for a social media consumer, and the rest had to follow suit. We all worked together to make sure it happened.”