Feature

Rowlene talks dropping out of university in pursuit of music, signing with Nasty C, and how she visited Joburg and never went home

Cape Town-born, Johannesburg-based R&B songstress Rowlene first made her mark on Mzansi’s music scene with her 2016 single “Imposter”.

But it wasn’t until she released the music video for “Stop”, the first single from her upcoming debut album 11:11, that she came strutting onto my radar, with fiery red locks, thigh-high snakeskin stilettos, pitch black nails, and a voice that is equal parts sassy and sultry.

As if I wasn’t already convinced that she wasn’t here to play no games, two minutes into the track, hip hop trail-blazer Nasty C makes an appearance and drops a couple of bad-ass bars on the track and I was humbled.

Before I could get her on the phone, Rowlene released another sneaky single, “Sunday Morning” from her upcoming debut and I laugh and think to myself, “You’re in for a real treat with this one.”

We exchange howsits after I congratulate her on her recent releases and immediately I feel welcomed by her warm, calming energy. We talk music we grew up on and bond on all the staples you’re fed growing up in a coloured house-hold: Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, The Stylistics, George Benson. She explains, what with her father having been a DJ, how he was her education, “It was always just, ‘I know you’ll enjoy this!’ and I’d never question that. I feel like my dad just wanted me to experience it like, ‘Just listen, just take it all in’ and it was so much fun.” 

Next we bond on the strictness of coloured parents regarding studies, and she explains how, after two years of studying dentistry at the University of Western Cape, she decided to drop out. “That was the toughest conversation I’ve ever had to have with my parents because I was the first of my generation to go to varsity, so I felt like I’m disappointing so many people, like I’ve always been a smart person but this is a dumb decision.”

Ultimately, it was the best decision of her life, not only for her music career, but because her parents understood it as the first step into adulthood and independence. “It opened up lines of communication and now I can be honest like when I don’t want to do something. It’s also one of those things that I’ve learnt over time, like you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to. Listen to your body, listen to yourself,” she explains.

Following her decision to drop out of college in favour of a career in music, Rowlene hopped a plane to spend a couple of weeks in Joburg. “I was just like, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ but I was so excited at the same time, ‘cause I’m that type of person who loves trying new things and living on the edge, and moving here was the best thing I’ve ever done,” she explains with complete conviction.

Rowlene tells me how she hadn’t met the people she was going to be staying with but that they instantly clicked and how they grew genuinely close in absolutely no time, and how she went from making music every now and then in Cape Town, to incessantly with her new Joburg family, and I recall the adage: Your vibe attracts your tribe. “That is exactly what happened, and we’re six years strong,” she confirms. 

Nasty C found one of her tracks on SoundCloud and fell in love with her voice, leading them to collaborate on two singles, “Phases”, and “SMA”, two singles that put her on the map. Rowlene explains how, after the release of said singles, Nasty C made a point to get her signed to the label he was with, and when he left to start his own record label, Tall Racks Records, he tried to convince her to sign with him. She spent four months poring over the contract before agreeing to sign with Nasty C and subsequently becoming the First Lady of Tall Racks Records, a big move that has only meant great things for her career.

We bring things into the present and talk about her upcoming album, 11:11. I ask if it’s a culmination of all her experiences ever lived and her response is refreshing, “This album is my spirit album. [Lockdown was a] blessing in disguise because I would’ve rushed that entire process whereas I got the time to really sit and listen to my project and perfect it and really just understand my emotions and change lyrics here and there and really just make it fit who Rowlene really is now.”

It takes one top-to-toe listen to understand that, through the creation of the album, Rowlene has evolved into the best version of herself. She knows what she loves, she knows what makes her unique, and damn does she know how to sing. The album is hip hop, R&B, house, and soul wrapped up into an expertly arranged and produced 11-track offering that removes all doubt as to why Nasty C never had any intention of letting her go.