A little while ago, I was blessed enough to speak to Keano Fernandez – a South African rapper that goes by the moniker KNO – about the rapid rise of police shootings in South Africa, leaving a gang, growing up in Cape Town and his new single “Cape of Good Hope“.
A (VERY) Brief History Lesson on Coloured People In South Africa:
The term “Coloured” is globally considered a discriminatory term but in South Africa, it is a racial group with its own culture. Back in the day, the Cape areas were home to communities known as the Khoi and San people. They were described as the non-Bantu (non-black) indigenous people of southern Africa who spoke the Khoikhoi and the San languages. These southern African natives lived in the “bush”, building homesteads in the desert areas near the water, pretty much living their best lives.
Then, in 1645 the Dutch navigator Johan Anthoniszoon “Jan” van Riebeeck landed in the place we know today as Cape Town. On their return trip from Indochina, he and his colonial administrator buddies landed in the Cape where they stayed for 18 days, opening up a refreshment station for sea travellers who sailed across the Atlantic Ocean. Shortly after his departure, he travelled to Japan where he sold African animal hides. Some years go by and Jan Van Riebeeck receives immense support of this refreshment station in the Cape. He then decided to gentrify the area in 1652, making it an official part of the trade route between the Netherlands and East India, building a fort named The Cape of Good Hope, enslaving the indigenous Khoi-San people, and seizing their livestock. After “spending time” with the indigenous women, Dutch travellers birthed a new mixed-race of people later known as Coloured people.
Coloured people speak mostly Afrikaans which is a combination of Dutch, French, Malay, Portuguese, German, Indonesian and indigenous Khoikhoi and San languages. Coloured people also have roots in Xhosa and Asian bloodlines, making them the most diverse community in South Africa. Much as their history, like many of ours, is rooted in colonisation and oppression, the Coloured community has evolved into the most fun-loving and vocally expressive group of people – one of them being KNO. After getting the formalities in, he taught me how to pronounce his name Keano – pronounced Key-No – and we got straight into chats.
Q: How are you, really?
I’m good, thank you. Really enjoying being a new dad. My daughter is 4 months old now and I absolutely love her. Living without a father really made me want to be there for her every step of the way so she doesn’t have to struggle.
Q: Let’s talk address the elephant in the room first – the tragedy that brought us here today is the unfortunate killing of 16-year- old Nathaniel Julius by the police in Eldorado Park. We have seen how Eldos residents have tackled the problem. How is the community taking it in the Cape?
It’s really unfortunate what happened to Nathaniel and because of it, there was a huge uproar in the Cape. This happens a lot here. The police are either absent or killing. These are the people that are supposed to protect us and I’m glad that this injustice is finally being seen, even though I wish that more was being done. I’m glad that as Coloureds, as a community, we’re standing up against this. If we can stand together as one, who can stand against us?
Q: Your dismay shows in both the visuals and lyrics of Cape of Good Hope. I watched it many times and the ending almost brought me to tears. How did you go about the creative process?
I had close ties to the children in the video, especially since having a daughter, so I decided to direct the whole video. As artists, we need to do more than just make good music. We need to speak out against everything that has been an is going wrong in our communities. I wish I could include every child lost to crime, rape, murder, trafficking. I will be representing these children, working towards balancing the scales. I can’t see their deaths being in vain.
Q: There was a particular line in Cape of Good Hope that stood out to me, where you say “being hurt also explains our behaviours / that we, as blacks, have attitudes. / I guess it’s in our nature.” That’s a little controversial. Do you mind getting into that?
It’s about conditioning. When your entire history is built on the backs of people who are oppressed, the next generations will feel it and act out.
Q: You were a part of a gang when you were younger and you were lucky enough to leave. You touch on this in Cape of Good Hope. How did it all start and end?
When I was younger, we moved around a lot. My mother, Elize Fernandez, is a musician and social activist that goes by Black Athena, whereas my dad left us, moved to Australia and he started a whole new life. Apparently, I have about 7 other siblings over there [laughs]. When I was 14, I really enjoyed playing soccer and sneakers. Sometimes, guys would come around with brand new sneakers and I always wondered how they got them because, I mean, we didn’t have much. I asked one of the guys how he got the sneakers and that was the day I sold my first baggie of weed.
As I got a little older, unfortunately, my mom got cancer so the depression and stress to make the money for her chemo treatments and taking care of my younger brother kicked in. I then started to sell tik (crystal meth), buttons (mandrax – which was initially medically prescribed as an anti-depressant), and robbed people. I remember my first robbery like it was yesterday. I remember thinking “I’m quick, I’m young and I’m a gangster” so I snatched this lady’s phone on the street and ran for my life as the police chased me. I enjoyed the thrill of the chase but the money was coming in so I didn’t care about the repercussions. I got arrested eventually and got my first strike.
As the gang grew in capacity, becoming one of the largest gangs in South Africa, we made a lot of enemies. I lost a lot of friends due to gang violence and police killings, got my second strike for robbery, and the third strike for possession of marijuana. I was then committed to Bonnytoun Juvenile Detention Centre for a while. While I was in there, not a single one of my supposed “friends” came to see me and the gang was diminishing.
When I got out in 2011, my family was there for me. I spoke to one of the gang leaders that I was close to about getting out, expressed my vision in music moving forward and he understood. After that, I chose the clean money route. Changed friends, quit whatever drugs I was on cold-turkey and funnily enough – alcohol and cigarettes helped a lot with the quitting process. They were the lesser evils.
Mom overcame cancer, I overcame shyness and joined rap battles on Own The Block in 2012. Inspired by The Game, 2Pac, and 50 Cent, I’s spend hours freestyling in the mirror. I won all the rap battles except for one. I had gotten through the first few rounds so, during the intermission, I went to the bar for a cool drink. I never mixed alcohol and battles but some guys offered to buy me a shot called “Miss Your Flight”. I laughed and took the shot. I felt confident and unaffected so I took to the stage once more to face the next opponent. The moment I grabbed the mic, I started leaning and slurring my words – it was an absolute mess. I lost. What’s worse was that my mom was watching the whole thing. I had to win everything after that and I did. I get my drive from her. She never gives up and I value that.
Fast forward a few years and I’ve built a bit of a career in music, got a good management team with Jabba Entertainment and I’m unafraid of being labeled as underground.
Q: That was quite the journey. Thank you so much for sharing your story with me. To close off, how can we as artists make a difference in the political standings on a global capacity? How can we raise awareness of injustice?
Awareness gets lost in the system. Many “conscious” rappers turn into trappers, losing identity to the lifestyle, worshipping money. Love is the only religion. The music industry has control. Art has the power. What can we do? Band together and plot our next move to infiltrate the system and build something that unifies us. Thank you for talking with me today. It’s been fun.
The proud father of one makes music with the best intentions in mind – making a real difference. Earlier in the month, KNO spoke with Texx and The City, sharing a statement urging all celebrities, influencers, and the like to use their platforms for the better. His latest music video for Cape of Good Hope is currently at the #1 spot on the SA Top 5 Charts.