dope saint jude is the patron of south africa’s intersectional hip hop scene

Premiering her debut EP on i-D, we talk to the future star about using music to reimagine a new world.

by Wendy Syfret
15 June 2016, 7:05am

Dope Saint Jude's debut EP 'Reimagine'.

When Catherine Saint Jude Pretorius emerged online as Dope Saint Jude in 2013, it was immediately apparent she was someone special. As a queer, South African woman of colour using hip hop to talk about gender, sexuality and engrained expectations Dope Saint Jude is at once a classic embodiment of everything rap is about, and totally original to the genre. With influences ranging from Tupac to the Riot Grrrl movement, the former drag king uses her art to reimagine spaces she wants to exist. Her debut EP, aptly titled Reimagineexplores the idea of recreating the world around you. As she explained to i-D, "There is a running theme of romance and realism throughout the EP — you can hear it in the production. It's an exploration of the many narratives of Dope Saint Jude."

Those stories caught they eye of MIA, who handpicked Dope Saint Jude to star in her H&M campaign. The exposure has lead to a tour of the US and France later this year. Now the artist isn't just asking what her African identity means in context of her past, but also how it will define her global future. 

Today Catherine is giving i-D the first public listen to Reimagine, so we called her up to talk about where she's from and where she's going.

Let's start at the beginning. How did you go from Catherine Saint Jude Pretorius to Dope Saint Jude?
I was actually a drag king before I pursued a solo career in rap. I was already exploring gender as performance, and started to use hip hop as my medium. I taught myself how to produce music because I wasn't happy working with other people's productions and I needed full control of my content. I put out my first track at the end of 2013, then released about five other tracks with videos and they kind of just exploded on the internet.

It's interesting you mentioned hip hop was your medium to explore gender. While now we have people like Le1f and Juglepussy, before they came along, gender roles in rap were pretty fixed.
Hip hop is an interesting medium to explore a variety of things because it takes from other genres: you just can't be a purist, it's very open. It's a platform where you're spitting bars and you're saying what you mean. Also, it's inherently political because it was created to empower oppressed people. It's interesting to explore different kinds of oppression: most people explore racial oppression in hip hop, but why don't we explore gender or queerness?

I'm interested in who you looked up to when you were growing up.
I started out listening to the stuff that my brothers were listening to — they're in their 40s now so it was a lot of Queen [laughs.] Then I picked up The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill when I was 11 and that was life-changing. I also listened to Alanis Morissette and Tracy Chapman, these female artists who were speaking about their own problems and being honest about what they were feeling. I was listening to a lot of introspective music that really spoke to me. When I was about 15 and I was really blown away by Tupac's ability to be in both worlds: to be a cool guy but then to also be really conscious. As I got older and I was able to access music on the internet I fell into the Riot Grrrl scene. When I started my music I was very into their DIY ethics: produce your own beats, make your own videos, put out your own content. It was almost like pushing a manifesto.

A lot of these artists stood up for, and to, something. Obviously South Africa has an incredibly troubled past, how does that play into your work?
I can't speak for other artists but politically I think we're in a really interesting time because the apartheid has been done now for 20 years, but there is still a lot of racial tension. You can still feel oppressed because the spaces are still the same as they were in the apartheid. While you might not have economic freedom, you do have freedom in other ways. You can express yourself and I think that's what is informing a lot of this new content. It's the only way to really transcend the barriers that were formed by the old political regime.

And how do you express that?
For me it's using my art to re-imagine and recreate my reality for myself. I think a lot of young artists from Cape Town are doing that: trying to create some kind of space that they would want to live in. For example, my video Keep In Touch is not a reflection of Cape Town, but it is a reflection of the Cape Town I want to live in. I want to be in a space that is inclusive of all different types of people.

You mentioned existing between worlds: you're participating in hip hop, queer and feminist culture, and are a product of these different things. When people discover your music, do they respect that, or try to put you in one box?
People definitely do that, but it has been an advantage because they've been putting me into a lot of different boxes. Some people will be like, "ah she's a queer rapper" or "she's a conscious rapper" or "she's a feminist rapper" or "is she really even hip hop?" Then I'm also getting academics who are into my work. It's all fine with me, I don't really care if people put me in a box or not. I think it only works to my advantage to surprise them all the time. A few years ago I read that when Kanye West was coming people they didn't see him as a threat because his hip hop wasn't hard enough, it wasn't from the streets so no one saw him as a potential rival. I think of myself in the same way, a lot of people don't think I can compete with them because I'm different.

So you're preparing to go to the US then France: does it feel like you're about to start a next chapter?
I feel like this is just the beginning. I mean, I'm only now releasing my debut EP, I haven't released a full body of work yet. I've been thinking about my African identity a lot, and what that means for me when I go into those spaces. Particularly because African culture right now is becoming "trendy" — or there's more of a spotlight on it. I want to take advantage of that opportunity as best I can, but at the same time I don't ever want to be an American, I always want to maintain my African identity. America really defines global pop culture and I'm very aware of that. Even in my style of hip hop, the reason I'm going there — like why they invited me — is probably because it's so influenced by American culture. I'm thinking a lot about my place as an African artist in those spaces. It's quite a big theme in my music and in this EP.


Listen to 'Reimaginehere.


Text Wendy Syfret

South Africa
Dope Saint Jude
catherine saint jude pretorius