Music and healing: Life lessons from Dope Saint Jude

Midweek in a low-lit Johannesburg club, a dreadlocked rapper picks up a mic, cracks a quick nod to the DJ and swiftly makes her way through one of the most remarkable sets to grace the Jozi gig circuit this year.

The monthly Pussy Party is in full swing at Braamfontein’s Kitchener’s and audiences have already been treated to a debut set by Maria McCloy and a spontaneous one-track performance by Moonchild Sanelly.

By the time Dope Saint Jude steps up, the gig is hers for the taking.

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“I’ve only been here a while, but I’ve already been shown so much love,” says a beaming Saint Jude to an ecstatic audience. “That’s what I’m all about tonight – showing love. Thank you for sharing it with me.”

The Cape Town-born rapper runs through a well-rounded set – old stuff, new stuff – with a host of personal anecdotes in between. It’s the personality she throws into the mix that makes her performance so memorable.

In those vulnerable, quiet moments between songs she speaks of family, self-love, identity and more. She’s an artist who gives herself over to her fans both musically and personally. By the time the club starts to empty out, even the bartenders are belting out their own renditions of Dope Saint Jude tracks.

It’s morning now and in Hillbrow’s Ponte Tower, Catherine Saint Jude Pretorius is nestled comfortably on the couch in a friend’s apartment, recounting the previous night’s gig with a smile. “It was just such an incredible show. Everyone just gave it their all and really interacted with the performance.”

Catherine is quieter now and speaks softly. She’s tired, no doubt, from pouring herself into last night’s show, both physically and emotionally. The past few months haven’t exactly been evenly-paced for the artist either. If you’ve been following her online, you would have seen that in the past while, Dope Saint Jude’s dropped her debut EP Reimagine, toured in France and America, featured in a music video for M.I.A (before the UK rapper slammed Black Lives Matter ahead of the AfroPunk festival), and has racked up an impressive amount of headlines in both online and print publications, locally and abroad. As we sit and talk, the previous week’s Mail & Guardian lies on the table, a striking portrait of Catherine inked onto the front page of the arts section.

“It’s been pretty wild recently — I mean everything has been explosive and full of beautiful moments,” she reflects. “I think what’s important now is to have all the work move towards me being in a zone where I’m willing to open up emotionally, otherwise it all falls apart.”

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Now it’s true that Catherine’s tour in the US was an exciting time – when she wasn’t gigging in sex-positive strip clubs in Oakland, she was riding a Harley Davidson in the valley, trying new food, connecting with a few musicians holding down the queer scene, and even dabbling in the metal scene – but all the while, she was dealing with the loss of one of the most formative characters in her life: her mother.

“The day I released Reimagine, I played it to my mother. Two days later, she passed away. A week later was my tour in the US so I left shortly after the funeral. It was a time that was full of success, but also full of sadness.”

A quick visit to Dope Saint Jude’s Soundcloud can easily demonstrate just how influential her mother is in both her music and her life. Entire verses tell tales of how her strength, her encouragement and her sacrifices have shaped so much of who Dope Saint Jude is today. So how did Catherine find the strength to hop on a plane and perform packed out shows in a foreign land while mourning the passing of her mother? Through music, of course.

“The only thing that got me through that period was listening to the EP. When I lost my mom, my whole self-esteem collapsed, because a lot of it was based on her strength and reassurance. So when I listen to Reimagine I hear her saying ‘you’re okay, you’re powerful, you’re strong’,” explains Catherine.

The day she received the news, Catherine was with long-time friends Kyla Phil and Sindi-Leigh McBride. The three of them sat in a room and played the EP loudly and on loop. From tracks like the intro (‘Please bless my mother’s sweet heart so it’s not sore’) through to ‘Spose2B’ with its empowering and declarative lines (‘I was born to fight, no I was born to win!’) and the delicate ‘Claire DeLune’ (‘Change is a beautiful thing, growth is a beautiful thing’), Dope Saint Jude listened and reflected, and she began to heal.

“I believe in fate and I know I was supposed to make this EP at this time of my life, because it helped me to survive,” Catherine reflects. “I wouldn’t have been able to get through all of this travelling and everything else if I hadn’t had something like this EP, which is kind of like an ode to myself while also declaring my place in the world.”

Catherine’s place in the world is a complex and multi-faceted one. To date, the rapper has had a good deal of coverage in the media, most of it painting her as a queer rapper who’s repackaging and reframing identity. And she is of course, but she is also so much more. Catherine is a daughter, a lover, a friend, a musician, a student – she is Dope Saint Jude.

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“I’m complex so allow me to be complex. Giving me one narrative like that’s all a person can be – no motherfucker, I’ll be whatever I wanna be,” she says. “You know, Dope Saint Jude and Catherine used to be different people, but they’re slowly becoming one person. Naturally, I can be quite shy so Dope was this persona I created to break out of that and express the other side of me. Now I find myself being more assertive in everyday situations, like when I walk in the street I walk with my head up now. I used to walk with my head down and have guys whistling at me all the time, but now I walk with my head up and make eye contact with everyone. It’s the little things like that, you know?”

Similarly, buying a motorbike and riding through the streets at night, taking to packed out stages or travelling across the country by herself are things that Catherine wouldn’t have done before Dope Saint Jude.

It’s been a wild ride for the rapper lately, there’s no doubt about that. But things are looking up.

“Ja things are definitely looking up! I mean I’m very critical because I run my own ship, but I’m surprised at people’s responses to my work,” she says. “I still feel like I’m maybe not even at 5% of where I want to be. I definitely see myself developing and growing a lot more. So ja, things are good, but I’m hard on myself. I’m still not at the place I wanna be yet.”

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She sits for a while and considers the view through the high reaching glass panels that give way to a sweeping cityscape. Cars shoot down their respective lanes while foot traffic fills up the pavements. Further out, skyscrapers build on themselves to rise through a blanketed smog.

“It’s incredible hey?” Catherine smiles. “I could sit here forever and just take it all in.”

Photographs by Khotso Tsaagane.

One Comment

  1. I love this interview. I’ll be closely listening to her now.