Tresor Riziki is part of what makes South African music so special. In a country dominated by trends in constant renewal, the singer and producer has since the beginning stuck to his very own style, which has proven to be successful. His success, as a foreign born man and a musical outsider, is an extremely positive sign for the national industry. With Motion having been released last week, his career now spans over five projects and six years, a proof of undeniable longevity.
We interview TRESOR from his house via zoom. It is from there, in the cozyness of his salon, that he recently wrote “Fountains” for Canadian rapper Drake and Nigerian singer Tems. The track, part of the Certified Lover Boy superalbum, now sits at almost 40 millions streams on Spotify. “It’s been such a beautiful process”, TRESOR tells us composedly. “He literally just reached out a few months back. He asked for some ideas and I shared quite a lot of songs with them. That’s how the thing happened. They just said ‘we love what you do, we love your music, we love what you’re about’ and… yeah.” From our little zoom window, the room looks restful and elegant. A typical upscale Johannesburg house, with a garden and a chimney. This comfort is the result of more than ten years of sweat, hard work and bold moves. Born in 1987 in Goma, Eastern DRC, young Tresor challenged his destiny in 2007, soon after losing his parents, by deciding to cross half of the continent to move to South Africa. “I had always dreamed of something big,” he recalls..“By the time I was 18, I had outgrown the city. Johannesburg seemed like a potential stepping stone. I travelled throughout Africa – Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Mozambique – and the trip took six months. I ended up settling in Durban by mistake – a beautiful mistake.”
Much has already been written about how TRESOR worked as a car guard by day and a security guard by night, hustling his way through the Durban music scene. But it is still difficult to fully grasp how a 17 year old boy must feel when he arrives in an unfamiliar, dangerous and competitive city without money, parents, or knowledge of English. Yet, TRESOR explains his mindset of the time very calmly. “I know that I was prepared for the worst. I had no tertiary education, neither was I fluent in English so my options of making a living were very limited. I had to do jobs that required me not to communicate. Car guard, gardener, security guard… It was very tough at that time. Now I don’t regret any of it because it really helped me build my character.”
His debut album VII, telling the story of the seven years spent in Durban after his arrival, was an instant success. With his solar and airy blend of pop with Congolese, East-African elements and South African music (house, mbaqanga, maskandi), the singer won the Best Pop Album at the 2016 South African Music Awards, found an audience in different corners of the globe (“Mount Everest” charted number 1 in Italy), and his adventure truly began. Now at the top of his success story, collaborating with some of the biggest international artists, what does he keep from that difficult time? “Respect for human beings. Humility. I don’t think a lot of people that used to see me in a parking lot or on the streets would assume that one day I would have a life like I have. But I knew!” he adds.
His success, both sudden and constant, was and still is an incredible tour de force. As South Africa is infamously known for its complex relationship to African foreigners, the country’s music is notoriously impervious to foreign genres, famous for its hyper-localised and distinctive flavours. Yet, TRESOR managed to use his outsider status as a force. “Being a foreigner can be an obstacle, because there is a language barrier and also big crime”, he explains. “The South African music industry bears a lot of cultural pride. The music is divided – English speaking people listen to a certain type of music, Zulus, Xhosas and others listen to other kinds of music… and I came in as a young African musician from outside, needing to find my place. I believe the music has helped me to break a lot of those barriers for myself. I think I was one of the early artists that really blurred a lot of lines in terms of languages and nationalities. It was almost exotic. I’d hear a lot of people telling me, ‘Hey man, you brought something really special here.’ I work with everyone, I’m very comfortable in my shoes.”
In addition to his strong resilience, another character trait in TRESOR’s personality emerges from our discussion: his denial of limits. This translates first and foremost in his music which he does not design with the aim of reaching a specific audience. “I don’t think I’ve ever had any interest in knowing who the people who listen to my music are,” he laughs. “I bounced into a Japanese fan in an airport in Frankfurt going crazy, when I was on my way to Kenya. I have fans in Sweden, in Japan, in France, in Italy… My vision is to really be able to transcend age, genre, colours and nationalities. In one year I can do a song with Metallica, Drake and then do an album with Maphorisa in French and Swahili.” But the refusal of limits is deeper than that, and also goes back to his experience as a young Goma refugee, trying to make it big in the city of gold. “You’ve got to be bold,” he says, reminiscing on his hustling years. “I’ve learned that the worst that could ever happen could be a delay, could be a ‘no’, but I just go for my craziest dreams and craziest ideas. So far they have proven to be right, and it has to do with perseverance and being really crazy. Thinking beyond what the world wants you to dream about.”
Thinking big and aiming global is also what Motion is about. The project seems to be a turning point for TRESOR: “This album is firstly a token of appreciation for my journey in the last five years, and is a bridge between where I’ve been and where I’m going. It’s about understanding that I’m entering a brand new chapter of my life as an artist and as a young African man. Sonically, anything that people are gonna hear from me going forward is gonna be very different. Let me turn the page and start a new one, but here’s a really special gift first.” Once again, the singer has multiplied his influences to create fourteen dense tracks, blurring the lines between pop, house, amapiano and other genres. “‘Zwakala’ is a sample from Stimela and Ray Phiri, ‘Makossa’ is very East/Central-Africa focused, ‘Bring On The Night’ is based in the 80s, it feels like nightlife in Kinshasa, Nairobi or Lagos. ‘Last December’ is literally a South African party, a summer song. ‘Smoke & Mirrors’ with Ami Faku is very broken, miserable… that’s a sad song, that still sounds happy. ”
Honestly, most of the album sounds happy. This can be surprising, coming from a man who has been through nerve-wracking hardships in his beginnings, and who has written Motion in a year filled with Covid and lootings. This clash is actually what TRESOR constantly looks for, seeking beauty in chaos. “I think the jacket that music wears is always exciting when it contrasts. If you listen to my first album there are a lot of songs dedicated to my dead parents, and a lot of melancholy. But the production that we build around is just different. And also: I love dance music. I love the feeling it brings to people’s minds and hearts. One thing I enjoyed is Stromae’s ‘Papaoutai’: a very sad song about an absent father, but incredible music. It’s always going to be the contrast! Because it creates a little bit of sonic and emotional confusion.”
TRESOR is now about to open a new chapter. His recent collaborations hint at an even more international vision and outreach. How do artists get international without compromising their sound? This is a question the singer has given a lot of thought to. He answers without flinching: “First, what I can’t compromise on is the narrative we try to create with African music. We get boxed as African musicians, the world thinks we only do afrobeats, or amapiano. But I’m a big fan and enthusiast of pop music. That’s something I’m very passionate about: if you hear the next African album, it should be put on the same level as Bruno Mars, or The Weeknd, or Daft Punk. But the core of the music will still have a very authentic African element. Even if next year I’m based in LA, London, Paris. We want to tell our stories so gloriously. I want to keep my base here, because it is a big part of who I am, but also I want to spend a lot of time outside.” It is now clear: after crossing the African continent, the singer is about to cross the world. It feels like TRESOR is 17 year old again when he tells us, winking: “I feel like I’ve outgrown Johannesburg now”.
Motion by TRESOR, out on all platforms.