‘Ja Rule – Ja Fool’: How I called the Fyre Festival fiasco, back in 2003

Ja Rule’s ill-fated Fyre Festival left thousands stranded – and arguably defrauded – and the rapper has issued only a half-hearted apology. I have to say it: I called this one, more than a decade ago, when the arrogant, aggressive and self-serving rapper visited South Africa. Here, he arguably defrauded his fans, and definitely treated his paying customers with arrogance and gross disrespect. Below, from 2003, is an article then titles “Ja Rule – Ja Fool” that I wrote for the “Laugh It Off” annual, a groundbreaking independent publication of culture essays. Reading this, would you have trusted this man to care enough about his fans to make a safe and decent festival, miles away from home? I wouldn’t.

Laugh It Off Annual, 2003

My article, “Ja Rule – Ja Fool” first appeared in the “Laugh It Off Annual” (2003). An independent publication featuring collected culture essays, it was groundbreaking in its time.

   Ja Rule – Ja Fool    (2003)

Music editor Evan Milton wanted to say good things about Ja Rule’s visit to South Africa [in 2003], but finds that he can’t.

We were keyed, we were keen….  In the photographers’ pit, security and stage staff kept warning, “Stand back from the pyro!”… We were cued for fireworks and flames…  The main man was gonna holier, holler and we were gonna follow, follow…  So what went wrong?

It wasn’t just that there was no stage-show to speak of. There were no dancers, no backing singers, just one DJ at the back and two heavy looking bouncers on either side). It wasn’t just that the sound was exceptionally poor and the lyrics often indistinct, or that there was no effort in the staging (just one red-light sign saying “Ja RULE”, and one burst of flames and one shower of sparks from the pyro we had to “stand back” from) or that Rule’s performance was lackluster and without passion. It wasn’t even that he missed a golden opportunity to collaborate with any one of the host of local entertainers (just a few months before, when P Diddy toured, there was a show-stopper of a collab with Mandoza and Lebo.) With Ja Rule, it was something far worse, and far more disturbing.

Ja Rule was scheduled to come on at 9.30pm, preceded by an intro from his unnamed warm-up rappers (perhaps they were part of the recently re-formed Cash Money Click, Rule’s old crew?). Clad in what are territory colours in the USA, but little more than generic baseball and basketball gear in the RSA, the trio worked the crowd well. We were about forty minutes late, when one of the crew stood centre stage to announce, “We need a lady to make this next song work.” Earlier, he’d got the crowd on his side, saying he understood what South Africa had gone through. He went on to endear himself even more with the follow-on, “And because this is South Africa, we’re going to choose a white lady and a black lady!”

Ja Rule, Johannesburh press conference 2003

Ja Rule demands that a South African journalist be removed from his Johannesburg press conference in 2003… after he became enraged when the crowd laughed that he had asked if Soweto was a club. Yes, the concert was co-sponsored by the Edgars clothing retail chain.

The crowd roars its approval, the young women get helped on stage, and all is well and good. They dance and gyrate, the rappers dance with them, and we’re an audience seeing some of our own making live history and living the rap videos we see on television every day.

Moments later, however, the trio call about twenty handpicked girls from the audience. The oldest is unlikely to be topping anything over eighteen, and they’re on stage to welcome the next phase of the warm-up. Teen testosterone runs high in the crowd, eager oestrogen strains on the stage and, once again, we all feel the thrill of living the bling-bling, even just for a few moments. Then it happens. The singer starts singing “Booty, booty, B-O-O-T-Y” and little else. Thank you, Ja Rule, you just turned my fellow fans, our South African people, the school kids on holiday who hustled money from their parents to see your show, into a strung-out stage-line of whatever “booty” your crew could line up.

I look around and there were those in the crowd echoing the sentiment, getting a little uncomfortable. On stage, some of the girls look distinctly ill at ease. Would you say yes if one of the Rule posse said, “Yo baby, wanna come on stage with Ja Rule?” Yes, you would. But what would you say if they said, “Yo, booty, wanna come on stage with the four guys who’re performing before Ja Rule, and dance in a line while they sing ‘Booty, booty, B-O-O-T-Y’?”

The worst is that in the local lead-up it was all positivity and reveling without blemish. From the Metro, Good Hope and 5FM DJs co-hosting the bill (the first time the three main urban SABC radio stations have joined forces) to a multi-faceted bill including hip-hop poineer DJ Ready D, kwaito upstart Mzekezeke, the house-meets-R&B of ReddAngel, then soul-tinged R&B from Loyiso Bala and contemporary Afro-pop in the form of Afro-Z. Multi-cultural music in a multi-cultured country. There were even members of pop-rock band Semisane in the VIP room!

Bear in mind, too, that the Cape Town concert was the final leg of the tour, and the Ja Rule posse had not endeared themselves to South Africans at their preceding appearances. At the Joburg press conference Ja and his bodyguards looked ready to silence, physically, the ranting Mzekezeke (who, while admittedly engaging in limelight-hogging, was merely taking a dig at local rappers who employ American accents). Ja also demanded that a journalist be taken from the room after he’d made himself look a fool in local eyes when asked if he’d join a gig with local talent in Soweto. “Where’s that at? Is it a club,” he said. Meanwhile, in Durban, one of the visiting rapper’s crew ripped an LP from the hands of local entertainer DJ Staxx, threatening to beat him up if he played it again and breaking the record into pieces. Real name Sakhile Xulu, mixmaster Staxx learned hard and quick that you don’t follow a Ja Rule concert with a track by 50 Cent.

But isn’t that precisely the point? Our audiences don’t care about the tiresomely manufactured “beefs” between one mega-machine US rapper and another; most of them probably have an East Coast album right next to their favourite West Coast CD. Even Ja Rule seemed to guess this, gaining his greatest applause when he started a song with shout-outs “to those we’ve lost”, rattling off a list that started with Notorious B.I.G. and ended with Tupac Shakur.

It occurred to me then, as the expedient big-screen image of 2Pac with his famous quote about feeling like a black Jesus faded, that we can’t even blame Ja Rule. He’s made no secret about what he is. He re-popularised the term “thug”.

When black America reclaimed the racist word “nigger” as a label of resistance and camaraderie, it was the action an oppressed community staking its rightful claim. So too when the gay community reappropriated “queer”, making proud a word that was once an insult. Arthur Mofokate knew this when he released the song “Kaffir” in Kwaito’s early days; just as Lekgoa, Kwaito’s first white singer, does now, making proud his umlungu status. Long after this Russell Simmons turned his hand to lobbying for legislation that would helph his community rather than front about a ‘bling bling posse’ and busting caps and everyone else being ho’s and bitches. So why does Mr Jeffrey Atkins, aka Ja Rule, want to reclaim “thug” and tell you he wants to give you (or Bobby Brown) his lovin’ over it? A thug is a common criminal, someone who resorts to violence at the slightest chance, a crass person with few redeeming qualities.

Maybe like someone who threatens to throw a DJ from a two-storey scaffolding DJ box; or someone who doesn’t bother to bring dancers or a decent stage rig. Maybe someone who visits South Africa and says he’s never heard of Nelson Mandela. Maybe someone who has to get only two channels of sound right in a live mix — his vocals and the backing tracks — but is content to let even that aspect of his “music” slide. Maybe someone who hands out backstage passes to sycophantic locals who fall over themselves trying to invite girls back there. Maybe someone who says to his warm-up posse, “Welcome to Africa, my brothers from Queens, now go out there and get some booty.”

On the way to the concert we passed graffiti on posters that targeted that other Yankee violator. “Bush go home,” the graffit read. I second that, and add: “… and take Ja Rule with you”.

Brief background of author: Evan Milton is the managing and music Editor for Tiscali, writes the Cape ArgusBandstand” column and presents two hours of SA music every Thursday on Fine Music Radio. He still believes rock ‘n’ roll can change the world.

This article first appeared in “Laugh It Off Annual” (Vol. 1) in 2003, and was also reproduced with permission  on FunDza.mobi, a project of the FunDza Literacy Trust.

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