Riky Rick was hip-hop’s selfless big brother

Countless South African musicians are where they are today because of the rapper’s big-hearted approach to the industry. His death at the age of 34 has left many reeling.

“Riky ‘Rick’ Makhado, 34, sadly passed away in the early hours of this morning (23rd February) in Johannesburg.” This was the statement Riky Rick’s family released about the death of the rapper, producer, fashion icon, entrepreneur and actor.

While the cause of death wasn’t officially confirmed, it’s said to have been suicide. Riky was open about his struggle with depression, speaking about it in his Lab Live podcast in September 2020.

His death has hit many people, even those who weren’t close to him or huge fans of his music, because he was so much more than just a massively popular musician. Riky was an influential figure in popular culture with a reputation for being “selfless” – this much is evident from tributes by fellow artists and industry insiders. Rapper and singer J Molley wrote on Instagram that Riky “believed in all of us more than we did”. Countless South African artists and creatives are where they are today in their careers largely because of a Riky Rick co-sign.

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It wasn’t only his unique blend of kwaito and hip-hop that spoke to fans around the globe. Riky was also always in tune with them. He was a kotini or cotton eater, a fashion trendsetter who – to quote the man himself – “rocks fashions”.

Riky’s music career started in the early 2010s and he hit the big time with his single Nafukwa in 2014.  But even before he became a star, Riky understood the challenges that up-and-coming artists face in the early stages of their careers. It could be for this reason that, even as a platinum-selling superstar, he never stopped checking for the underdog. 

He remained grounded and kept his ear on the streets, highlighting the talent he discovered both online and at live shows. Still a rising rapper in the early 2010s, Riky didn’t miss a chance to let everyone know that Cassper Nyovest was South Africa’s next star.

A cheerleader of note

He was right, and not for the last time. Throughout his time at the top of the South African music food chain, Riky would use his influence to expose young talent. East Rand rapper Frank Casino’s life was never the same after Riky appeared on his song The Whole Thang in 2016. For celebrated new-age Cape Town rapper Dee Koala, it was a slot during Riky’s set at hip-hop and house festival Major League Gardens in 2019 and a video of Dee rapping, which Riky shared on his Twitter account with the caption JHEEEZE!!!!!!.

The Big Hash, one of the country’s most prominent young rappers and singers, was given a chance to rock during Riky’s set at Johannesburg’s Back to the City festival that same year. And teenage music sensation Uncle Vinny got the opportunity to host Cotton Fest, a festival Riky started in 2019.

Riky introduced Uncle Vinny to rap veteran and media personality Slikour during an interview at Back to the City towards the end of the 2010s. “You need to give this li’l nigga a job, he’s the youngest motherfucker on the radio, give him a chance,” Riky told Slikour, before leaving a pint-sized Uncle Vinny to introduce himself. Uncle Vinny now rubs shoulders with Wizkid, Nasty C and other big stars.

Riky gave the likes of The Big Hash, Costa Titch and Ranks ATM all verses for their songs at some point, the latter for a song titled Different that also features Emtee. Ranks ATM said it was as simple as Riky being blown away by a performance of his. “While I was performing, I saw him in the crowd going crazy, like, oh yeah, repeat that song. You’re on fire, bro! After that, he was like, ‘You can hit me up any time, anything you want to do with me, we can get to it, as long as it makes sense.’”

Ranks ATM was impressed with Riky’s efficiency and professionalism. “He recorded the verse a week or so later. He sent everything, including the [stems for each audio element], everything at once so that I didn’t have to call and ask for them. So that’s how it came about. He just said he has my back.”

‘Listen to the kids’

A pivotal moment in Riky’s affinity with “the kids” was when he sacrificed his acceptance speech at the Metro FM Awards in 2017, to call out the industry for excluding young talent. Staring pensively at his Best Single trophy, for his mega hit Sidlukotini, he said, “I thought I would be more excited to get this.” Then he launched into a tirade in which he took the side of “the kids”. 

“There’s a lot of people that are struggling to put music out in this country,” he said, “and I feel like there’s too many structures that are blocking people from putting out the dopest music – 90% of the shit I hear on radio is garbage. The stuff is living on the internet, everything is on the internet right now. So, if you’re a kid and you’re watching this right now, forget radio. If they don’t let you play on radio, you better go to the internet and make your songs pop on the internet.”

South African hip-hop today may not be the mainstream fixation that it was in the mid-2010s, but the internet is abuzz with talented musicians and producers shifting the landscape. Amapiano is flourishing online, and artists don’t even do that many interviews – their songs go viral and become hits through TikTok. Dancers and other former internet stars on the platform, such as Pabi Cooper and Khanyisa Jaceni, have become amapiano stars.

Riky, who had become Cooper’s buddy, shared his admiration for the dancer-cum-musician in a recent radio interview, for being able to “convert everything that people love about the internet into a career and into music that people love”. He added: “We are in a special time now when kids can put stuff out on TikTok and Instagram, and kids can trend.” The digital nirvana he spoke of in 2017 is now a reality.   

The biggest platform Riky built is Cotton Fest, a music and street culture festival. The line-up at the first two instalments of the festival was a mixture of established artists and emerging talent. Riky appeared sporadically on stage to create colourful moments, such as when he joined A-Reece to perform their collaborative song Pick You Up – this culminated in Reece shedding tears on stage. An embrace immortalised in photos and video clips followed, and it’s making the rounds as the country mourns Riky.

Riky Rick, born Rikhado Muziwendlovu Makhado, leaves behind his wife Bianca Naidoo and their two children, Maik Daniel Makhado and Jordan Makhado.

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