In August, Missy Elliottretweeted a video of a South African artist rapping about wrestler John Cena with the comment “SUPA” and a fire emoji. By doing so, she introduced her 6.7 million followers to Sho Madjozi, a 27-year-old from the Limpopo province who has won two South African Music Awards and the BET Awards’ Viewers’ Choice for best international act. Now, with a catchy track about a cultural figure in the United States, she’s cementing her crossover success.
Known for rapping in a combination of her first language, Xitsonga, as well as English and Swahili -- and for pairing the traditional xibelani skirt with Air Force Ones -- Madjozi has unabashedly embraced her Tsonga heritage. She started rapping on Instagram three years ago and in 2018 independently released her debut, Limpopo Champions League, a mix of pop production and gqom music (a subgenre of house popular in South African townships).
But since she performed “John Cena,” which she mostly raps in Swahili, on the YouTube COLORS page that spotlights new artists from around the world, she has seen the biggest reaction yet. “People in Tanzania and Kenya started liking it,” says the rapper, born Maya Wegerif. “Then people in Europe and the U.S., too.” In a month, it scored over 3 million YouTube views; in September, Madjozi independently released the song with distribution from Africori. And Cena himself approves: He walked out to the song at a match and danced to it on The Ellen DeGeneres Show in September. (Madjozi has yet to meet the wrestler, but she’s been tweeting her hopes for that to happen soon.)
“A lot of artists second-guess themselves,” says Madjozi’s manager, Brandon Hixon, who has known her since she studied creative writing at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. (She attended high school in Tanzania.) “But when she decides something, she just does it.” Madjozi says she plays new music for her dancers first: “If it’s fun for us, we release] it. That’s the only] assurance I need.”
Madjozi has always said her opinion is the one that matters most; she doesn't care much for what others think, but she does care about how she represents for other Africans. "It makes a big difference if you see a guy like] Trevor Noah becoming a success internationally, or South African DJ-producer] Black Coffee," she says. "It does a lot to people’s self-esteem, like, ‘Whoa, finally these people see us as equals.’ It makes a lot of Africans proud and happy when they see you getting that recognition. It’s hard to tell people, ‘Be proud of yourself,' if the rest of the world is like, 'But you ain’t shit.’"
A version of this article originally appeared in the Oct. 12 issue of Billboard.