Sjava talks about Umsebenzi and inspiring young black people to know who they are
Award-winning singer and rapper, Sjava, recently celebrated going Gold with his Deluxe EP, Umsebenzi. The EP was initially released as a 4-track project in December 2020, however Sjava has confirmed that this has always been the plan- to add more songs onto the EP every time he reaches a milestone. The EP is currently consisting of 9 songs in total.
With a million streams just days after its release, the success of 'Umsebenzi' is a major achievement for the maestro as an independent artist, following his departure from Ambitious Entertainment. As it stands, Sjava is one the most streamed artists on Apple Music. In a recent tweet, Sjava shared that he has been writing music since 1993 and boy does he have a way with words and curating incredible songs that have meaning and powerful messages.
Ushevu is the most streamed song on the Deluxe— Sjava indlalifa (@Sjava_atm) October 3, 2021
Music is something else full of surprises that’s why it’s very important to let the people decide wena mnikazi wengoma don’t get too attached to songs LET IT GO. pic.twitter.com/dNpzslU9wX
“Started writing songs in 1993. It's 2021 and I am still doing it. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t get this far if I was not doing it out of love. Into mawuyenza ngothando nangokuzimisela ungagijimisi imali nodumo akuvamisile ukuthi ingaphumeleli And I will forever be thankful.”
With 3 years to his pen game, Sjava has been able to capture audiences in an unimaginable way, garnering him real die-hard fans who have stood with him through the test of time. However, his success has not been a smooth sailing journey- he has been criticised for his latest project but even more so, for being accused of sexual harassment.
Focusing on the positive
Speaking to Slikour a few months after that, Sjava confided in Slikour and stated that he was done with the music industry. However, his EP Umsebenzi is evidence that one cannot simply run away or leave their purpose because there are challenges– our purpose is bigger than us. Our purpose will always pull us back to do what we need to and Sjava is no stranger to this. His purpose in the music space may be to be a vessel for black young people; to inspire them to know who they are and where they come from. His music is filled with lessons that people might only appreciate years later, until then, Sjava says he is here to make music and perform for those who support him.
“I know I’d said I’d never make music again but at the end of the day, I love this thing. I’m just going to do this and move with people that mess with me, and just tell them the date and place. I’ll tell them, ‘If you mess with me, let’s meet at a said venue’ - even if it’s 1000 people. There will always be 5 000 people that mess with me and I’ll perform for them and keep it moving.
I realize that as artists we want everyone to love us- which is impossible. So, I need to focus on those who love and buy my music. So, when we go platinum, I’ll add another 4 songs, but this will be separate to the album I’m working on.”
Whilst some people have shown Umsebenzi a lot of love and support, the release did not come without backlash. Some people argued that Sjava “fell off because he is no longer making the hits he made whilst at Ambitious Entertainment.” This may just be evidence that you cannot please everyone even if you tried to, so it's important to know why you are pursuing music, and to make music that is true to you as an artist.
“People may criticize and tell me that I’ve fallen off but they don’t understand that music for me happens in phases and where I am in my life, what’s happening in my life and what’s happening in the world. I couldn’t come up with a happier song or music because I wasn’t going through that. I was not happy. From Isinamuva to Umqhele to Umphago and even now people still criticize. So, I appreciate people who listen and buy the music and I just want to focus and dedicate my time to people who appreciate it.
We’ll set up a venue and I’ll perform for those people. I don’t care about awards. I’m okay with my songs not being the biggest songs in the country and I understand that, I’m cool with that. I just want to focus on people who are focusing on me. I can’t go into the studio just to make a big song; I’ll end up losing myself.”
The 9 track EP entails songs that are true to Sjava’s style of storytelling and delivery which many people from different walks of life can appreciate. Not only does he give people hope but he inspires them to look towards a positive future. In this EP, Sjava reflects on his own life and the trials he has gone through but he also looks outside of himself to see what other people are going through- allowing him to make music that many people can relate to.
Umsebenzi unpacks common social issues. It is a reflection of the current state of the world with Covid-19 and its impact on relationships, people’s lives, the looting and corruption and people misusing state funds meant to aid people through this challenging time. Audiences have called out to artists to hear their opinions about the current state of our country. In the recent months, Amanda Black has come out on social media to express dissatisfaction with the governing party and the status quo. However, Sjava says people need to listen to his music to hear his thoughts. Every artist has a platform they find suitable to express their views, Sjava chooses his music for this.
“When I was making Umsebenzi, I was going through a lot. If you listen to it, you’ll hear that it’s very heavy- I was really not in a good space because of what I was going through and what was happening in my life at the time. In the EP, I was able to step out of my life and myself to look outwards and see what is happening around us and what is the world going through and that’s what inspired the EP. So, the EP talks about everything that’s happening today.
Sometimes people call us useless as artists, claiming that we are not involved. It makes me realise that people don’t actually listen to what I’m saying in the music I put out and for them, being involved means me coming out with a spear to fight for a cause in the streets. I’m an artist at the end of the day, if someone wants to hear what I think about different matters, they need to listen to my music to hear my voice. I talk through my music.”
Umsebenzi’s artwork- two goats in one frame
The artwork of a song, EP or album plays a key role in getting people excited about the project. Audiences get to have fun trying to decipher what the artwork could mean. With Sjava’s artwork for Umsebenzi, people seemed to not have any issues with it because it fits his image or identity that he has created for himself. His brand is synonymous with anything that represents and embraces African cultures. In the artwork for Umsebenzi, Sjava can be seen holding and pulling a goat. In some African cultures, a goat is offered as a sacrifice to appease ancestors and request for blessings.
“Sensei took the picture when we went to kraal to get a goat. We went to do a ritual for the EP, just to cleanse negative energy with everything that happened. We had parked a bit far from the kraal and had to drag the goat to the car. As we were doing that, he was taking pictures so I figured instead of doing a photoshoot for this artwork, get good lighting and swag that mean nothing. This goat has meaning, it was meant for this EP, why not use the picture of the goat. I was scared to tell the team because I knew they’d say ‘Sjava is at it again’ [chuckling], but they eventually agreed for me to have that picture as the artwork.”
Linda - African practices are bigger than us
“Ungashisa impepho emsamo uthethise abaphantsi”
In the song, Linda, Sjava talks about the kind of relationships people have with their ancestors where they offer an animal as a sacrifice and then expect their ancestors to perform miracles. “We think slaughtering a goat as a sacrifice will grant us number one on the charts.” Sjava maintains that a relationship with ancestors needs to be nurtured and that people need to understand that everything in life has its own time despite the sacrifice made. “You just have to keep working hard not depending on ancestors only, but you’re not working hard or working on yourself.”
It is through music, literature, and discourse about African practices that we are able to demystify African cultures and practices, learn and get to know who African people are and where they come from. This is particularly important so that Africans can be understood for who they are and not be moulded to what is palatable at a given time. With every story that is told about African people and their practices, one gets to understand why they lead the life they do.
“Later on, we found out that the goat was pregnant so we couldn’t slaughter it. In our culture, you don’t slaughter a pregnant goat. I asked my neighbour to exchange goats, so he gave me his and I gave him the pregnant one. To this day, that goat leaves my neighbour’s yard and comes to our home to rest there. That just shows that our culture and traditions and practices are bigger than us.
Experiences like that are things that happen to us and are part of our culture, our lives and who we are. Why not make a song about why a pregnant goat is also not to be slaughtered because that serves as information for the next person? They may look trivial to some people but they are part of who we are.”
“Umcebo we mali endodeni engenalo uthando idalu mona nenzondo..”
Umcebo is a single on the EP and was recorded on a beat produced by Delage (UK based producer). Sjava’s hunger to speak his mind through his music propelled him to contact Delage for a collaboration. Sjava says what he appreciates about Delage’s music is his ability to tell a story through music but with no lyrics thus, allowing other artists such as Sjava to colour the beats with their own words and meanings. Umcebo has since enjoyed over 5 million streams.
“I saw him on YouTube, hit him up on Instagram and sent him some of my work. I told him here’s what I can do and I’m a guy from South Africa. I love his work - he always puts out albums but without lyrics. When I listen to his EPs or music, it has no lyrics but it says so much. Every time I listen to his songs, I’m able to add lyrics to the songs and give the song my own meaning. I was also just touched by his talent to tell a story without lyrics, and how he gives the rest of us to tell our own stories on the same song and give the song our own interpretations and meaning.
Umcebo address political issues about our leaders, wars, marches, protests etc. worldwide. I talk about how when elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers. It’s about how our leaders make decisions that have severe consequences for the lives of people on the ground.”
“Ikusasa alaziwa ngoba kusa kuse ezweni”
Covid-19 has affected everyone in different ways. Some people have lost their lives, others lost their jobs and others have lost their streams of income. Some people were unable to be with loved ones for months due to the inability to travel to the next province and country. Not being able to perform has left many artists wanting for other avenues to earn an income. For many, the future was a blur, filled with crippling uncertainty and Sjava’s experience was no different. That said, leaning onto things that are familiar to us, things and people that ground us is what kept most of us going; for Sjava it was writing music expressing his emotions and thoughts.
“Ikusasa talks about the uncertainty of the world we live in with people losing their jobs. At some point even I didn’t what tomorrow would look like for me personally. I didn’t know if I’d conquer what I was going through or whether I’d lose the battle. As much as I’m saying that, but I’m speaking for people who are also going through something similar. We still don’t know what the future holds, we don’t know when this will end. Some companies don’t know if they’ll recover and there’s so much going on. Ikusasa is about not knowing what the future holds for me and my future and my life.
Maduze is about long-distance relationships. There are people who are in different countries and are unable to be together or travel and be with their loved once because of COVID. The song says even though you are far away, you’ll always be in my heart. It’s important to give people hope and say ‘hold on. Stay strong. Don’t find yourself getting tempted or losing hope, we’ll be together soon’.”
“Noma uhlala ukude nami. Uyohlala..
Bekezela sthandwa sam. Seli ntsuku
Unga xomi la ukhona. Bekezela
Umzwa ngedwa ubanga inkanuko”
Embracing black culture and identity
Sjava rapping and singing in Zulu has become a huge part of his identity, and so has his clothes. Not only has he normalized young, black people wearing their traditional attires on a daily basis, he has also contributed to black people embracing their cultures, heritage and traditions. It has become a rare occasion to see Sjava without a umqhele, a traditional Zulu headband made out of fur and often worn by Zulu men. Sjava says he wants to inspire black people to be proud of who they are and where they come from, particularly in a society where people shun down upon African cultures and practices until it is cool enough. For the longest time, African hair was said to be untidy and difficult to manage but over the years, we have seen more women embracing their black hair; there are a lot more African hair products in the market and a lot more salons that cater for people with their natural hair. To Sjava’s point, being African should not only be embraced when it can be exploited for currency, it should be embraced and appreciated for what it is.
“I love clothes that are close to my culture and spirituality. Like umqhele. I’ve seen how young people who are ZCC church goers hide the badge because people mock them, the badge doesn’t make them cool or they can’t get girls because of it and doesn’t give them a stature. Same thing with ubungoma (when a person is called to accept their gift of healing others) where people want to hide ibhayi labo because people will say it’s voodoo.
Me wearing that or having elements or our culture in my attire is to show young guys that there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. This is who we are. People ask me if ngithwasile and my answer is ‘no.’ I just embrace it because it’s our thing as Africans. I know and understand what’s happening in our society, there’s a lot of our things and culture that is looked down upon.
I’ve had young guys ask me where they can get umqhele. They want to wear it to their graduations and make their parents proud so it’s becoming normalized to own who we are. You see it in music videos as well, so people are starting to embrace who we are whereas in the past, you’d only see Jabu Khanyile dressed like that.”
Life mentors and idols
Having mentors and idols people can look up to often helps with navigating life better than their forerunners. In a time where people want to be called OGs and Kings of the game but have nothing to impart to the younger generation, it is important to have figures such as Sjava who try in their own ways to keep people grounded by keeping African identities and stories alive through his talent, music.
At 36 years old and still quite young, Sjava has realised some truths about life and wishes to inspire young people as much as he can. He is of the view that if he was introduced to the African culture and heritage from a young age, he would have been a better man. He admits to still making mistakes but is intentional about learning and becoming a better man.
“With everything I do, it’s to inspire young guys. I believe if I was introduced to our culture as a young person, I’d be a better man today. Learning to love who I am and take pride in where I come from only came much later.
I left the rural areas and came to Johannesburg where we are trapping in the streets but as you grow up, you learn and realize certain things about life. You’re able to differentiate what you were taught, what you saw on TV and decide what makes sense for you and your life, and that comes with growth.
I’m trying to inspire young people to put what we’re doing and what we’re learning and who we are, in the music. I want it to be normal to write a song about missing my mother because in our generation if you say you miss your mother, you’re mocked and called a mama’s baby and you end up as a black man who is afraid to express your emotions. She gave birth to me, how can missing her be embarrassing. Sometimes I get 60-year-old men who call me to the side to reminisce about their own mothers, and just show gratitude for my music.
Indoda endala ikhalela uma wayo
Ebafethu anyeke understand
It warms my heart when parents come to me to thank me because their own kids are able to embrace them through my music. It means there’s a bond that’s happening between children who are boys and their mothers. For a long time, we were told that if you miss your mother, you’re soft.”