Rossouw Nel leads Digital Marketing and Communications teams spread across 19 different African countries but when he’s not , he’d probably be found at events as one part of Capetown’s DJ duo, Ross&Marty.
Some would call it a side hustle; others, an opportunity to share passion. Without a doubt, alot of passion and drive has gone into it right from their first gig in 2007 when the team approached famous Fashion Designer , David West asking him to DJ his event.
It is said that entrepreneurs need to be relentless and audacious in their pursuit of opportunities, whether it be in the creative industries , sales or any other form of business. This particular story- which you’ll read more of in detail- is as good as any example of this.
So Rossouw DJs alongside his friend, Martin at weddings, festivals and parties but then is very happy to return to work Monday day morning to a job he equally loves.
In many cases one suffers – either the side gig or the main job but in Rossouw says he’s found a system to make both work. He explains,
‘I find when you’re writing, or composing music you can spend a whole Saturday morning and at the end wonder if you’ve made progress. I think a person needs to give themselves the space, to say ‘that’s okay, it was time spent exploring an idea even if you have nothing to show for it’.
Basically, it’s all about proper planning. In my interview with Rossouw , he also discusses how he handles teams from different African countries, the role of Digital in promoting the pan African movement as well as a list of his top African songs. By and large, you’ll get an idea of how to have a side hustle even with a 9 to 7!
Amina: What is the most important thing you’ve learned in the process of handling teams across 19 countries?
Rossouw: I’ve learned that it’s important to have a sense of the larger purpose of the work you’re doing as a team. Often you’ll find two people disagree about the way to do something and after an open conversation you’ll realise it’s because they have very different ideas of the bigger goal. I’m learning about the methodology called Agile at the moment. One of the principles I’ve gotten from it, is that you don’t start by saying “We’re gonna build a car”. You start by saying “we want to transport people”. And then you figure out as a team what form that solution should take. It could be a bicycle, a bridge, a hoverboard or a camel. It depends on the needs of the people you’re trying to serve.
Amina: Describe a day in your life. What do you love most about your job.
Rossouw: My day always starts with coffee! I use a little Bialetti kettle to make espresso on the stove in the morning. At work I like that everyday is different and that I get to talk to colleagues from across the African continent everyday. They describe what they’d like to do for their project or business and we figure out what part digital can play to achieve that.
Amina: Are there any two African countries that you’ve found are similar and what makes you say that?
Rossouw: I think it’s tricky, because I wouldn’t want to simplify. When I went to hill towns north of Accra this year it reminded me a bit of parts of Kigali. I haven’t had a chance to visit your country, but I’d like to. I’m reading Stars of the New Curfew by Ben Okri and I’m sure I’ve developed an idea of what its like driving on a road in the Delta region( in Nigeria) that is different from what it would be like if I one day visited it. It’s something I think about often, how we can imagine the space around landmark and when you get there in real life, the imagined place doesn’t disappear in your head, it sort-of exists in parallel to it.
Amina: In terms of communications strategies , which countries have you found have similar requirements?
Rossouw: I was speaking to colleagues in Sierra Leone a month ago, and I said the key in doing non-profit communications is to make the thing you’re offering the public clear and accessible. So instead of telling the public what you’ve done in the past, show them what there is right now that they can benefit from. I think that is true whether you’re working in East, South or West Africa. Although I have seen that online audiences in some countries are more cynical, while others are more willing to embrace a cause sincerely.
Amina: We are going flip mode now; Let’s talk about the DJ Rossouw. Tell me how it all began.
Rossouw: My friend Martin Mezzabotta and I deejay together as ‘Ross & Marty’. Back in 2007 we started deejaying at a place called Evol on Hope Street in Cape Town. Initially we were immature and snobby in only playing vinyl records. On the one hand there’s a joy in finding some forgotten song from 1978 and getting a room full of people to dance to it. But on the other hand, it ultimately became very limiting, in that you can’t play new local music and there’s also the physical burden of lugging two turntables and crates of records around.
Amina: So what was your first gig like?
Rossouw: It was at that place called Evol, in February 2007. I asked fashion designer David West to give us a chance and he said yes. I can’t remember exactly what we played, but it was mostly 70s punk and 80s synthpop. Things started going downhill for us after we tried to have a night where we tried to set a record by only played songs that contained sexual innuendo. It did not go well.
Amina: That must have been terrible! But what I find inspiring about that story is that you felt bold enough to reach out to someone as famous as David West to give you a chance. Was that a difficult process?
Rossouw: The record-breaking attempt wasn’t really terrible, I just felt a bit foolish. I mentioned it to Marty recently and he has said he has a different memory of the night, that it was just because we were playing early. But in my mind, it was a turning point, where we had jinxed it because we were overconfident, thinking people will dance no matter what we play.
On your question about asking David West for the first time if we can play, I didn’t know who he was at the time. The doorman just pointed me at this guy sitting on the side in an American flag boiler suit. It’s only later someone told me that he’s an accomplished fashion designer.
Amina: Ahhhh! Still you have come a long way since then. And now- how do you decide on what gets played and when?
Rossouw: I Imagine most DJs have a set of favourite songs that they know people will enjoy while also being unique or retro enough so it feels like a special experience. Then you have your own personal favourite songs, that you see if you can get away with, by squeezing it in-between two hits. The way it typically works is one of us will queue and start playing the song, then Martin and I debate for 15 seconds what the next song should be. I think there’s a lot of value in that, whenever you’re doing something creative, to have more than one mind to bounce it back and forth. I got a new piece of gear in November that has enabled us to more easily match the BPM between songs, so now we also plan a night’s set in terms of seeing the tempo like waves, where we start out slow and build gradually.
Amina: What is a no fail way of getting your guests pumped?
Rossouw: For me the most reliable songs are late 70s songs by punk bands pretending to be disco bands. So ‘Money’ by the Flying Lizards as well as ‘Heart of Glass’ by Blondie. In terms of local music, I think there’s no better pop song than Brenda Fassie’s ‘Weekend Special’.
Amina: Brenda Fassie was huge in Nigeria, back in the day. Very Nice and what are the five things a person needs to maintain a full time job and a side gig( passion)
Rossouw: I wouldn’t say I’ve found the perfect balance yet. But I’d say I prioritise my job and that gives me peace. I don’t want to put that pressure on my creative pursuits, where it becomes my whole existence. I find when you’re writing, or composing music you can spend a whole Saturday morning and at the end wonder if you’ve made progress. I think a person needs to give themselves the space, to say ‘that’s okay, it was time spent exploring an idea even if you have nothing to show for it’. That said, I do think it’s important to put some restrictions on yourself:
- Create artificial deadlines by promising to show what you’ve made to a friend on a specific date
- Hobbies need to be sustainable with the expectations that friends and loved ones have of time together
- Develop daily and weekly habits that are easy to keep. It should require little decision-making and willpower.
- Separate the professional-you from the creative-hobby-you. You’ll need different answers to the question “what do you do?” depending on whether you’re at the airport or a festival.
- Your creative pursuit can make you a more energized, happier person. If it doesn’t, switch.
Amina: And I have to ask you, what are your top 5 African songs to listen to?
Rossouw: I’m gonna disappoint you slightly and not choose dance songs, but rather beautifully sad songs that I like a lot. I know the Sauti Sol song is a positive love song, but I’d say the melody still has a sombre tone. These are songs that would fit a playlist for when you return home after a long time away.
- ‘Lanitra Manga Manga’ – Salala (Madagascar)
- ‘Onhipiti Ossanta Toniyo’ – Associacao A Luta Continua (Mozambique)
- “Weeping” – Soweto String Quartet (South Africa)
- ‘Sura Yako’ – Sauti Sol (Kenya)
- ‘The Wedding’ – Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya (2011 version on ‘Sotho Blue’ album) (South Africa)
Amina: What no Nigerian music? That can’t be right! Thought you once mentioned something about Temi Dollface but back to digital. How important is digital and the creative arts in the growing pan African movement?
Rossouw: I’m not the best person to speak on this, but I am passionate about it. I look at it this way: think about all the music, writing, film and fashion styles that have come from America. Now think about the small set of styles people from outside of our continent associate with the word ‘African’. Maybe they’ll think of Highlife music and Kente cloth. But there’s no limit to how many different styles can come from a place. So in theory every city generates their own distinct style of fashion, music, film, design. And that has a huge value in terms of identity, what gives people a sense of belonging to a place. But it also has an economic value, in that people can produce things in that style and make a livelihood from it. The internet has made it possible for someone in Dakar to see a Johannesburg fashion designer’s latest range, the day it comes out. Someone in Addis can follow a musician in Nairobi. This is all basic stuff, but it is the benefit of digital, the low cost of production and distribution, the ease and speed with which people can access new things. It means you can include local produce from a neighbouring country in your entertainment diet. I think it would be good to get a better balance in how much of the entertainment we consume is imported from across the ocean. Ben Okri said that way to destroy people is to poison their stories. So I believe there’s a big social and psychological benefit in growing the creative industries here on the continent.
Amina: I definitely agree with that. Thanks for making out the time, Rossouw.
Rossouw: Thanks for having me.
I’m sure you’ve been inspired by Rossouw’s story like I have. A full time job shouldn’t stop you from going after your passion. What’s important is getting the right balance. Feel free to visit his website http://www.impendingboom.com to see more of what he does.