Isina Muva liyabukwa

Late bloomer: South African hip-hop’s household crooner Sjava has been writing music for over 14 years. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

Late bloomer: South African hip-hop’s household crooner Sjava has been writing music for over 14 years. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

Sjava struggles with the idea of attributing his prolific discography to talent. He argues that the artistic medium was a staple in his diet on the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains in Bergville, KwaZulu-Natal, where he grew up.

“I’ve never had a relationship with music; I just do music. It’s not because I saw a bird sing or anything like that, it’s just what I do,” he shrugs in a reprimanding and almost dismissive tone.

Perhaps his tone comes from how the small town’s musical nature required the young Jabulani Hadebe to follow suit.
As early as the age of 10, Sjava was in charge of writing original songs for his primary school’s all-boy isicathamiya group, Abafana baseMpumalanga. In high school, he took it a step further by applying it to the classroom.

“I used to take the notes, turn them into songs and then teach the class. When it was time for ama exam they would rap the whole thing to pass.”

Every musical encounter was a seed. The seed was bound to produce a hybrid fruit tree.

Through his public relations liaison, Sjava and I agreed to meet on “Wednesday in Midrand at 1pm”. Details on the exact venue were withheld, only for us to meet one another in the boardroom of record label Ambitiouz Entertainment — seven days and 50 minutes later.

After cordial greetings, he sits on the edge of a chair across the room from my colleagues and I without removing his backpack. To the unassuming eye, this body language could be read to mean he had very little time to spare for the interview.

With his voice reaching the public on radio stations, on walks through Bree Street taxi rank, and on the theme song to Mzansi Magic’s series Isithembiso, Sjava is arguably becoming South African hip-hop’s household crooner. Perhaps this could be attributed to the intragenerational reach of his sound, borrowing equally from isicathamiya, maskandi, trap and R&B.

Though music has always been his thing, Sjava only stepped into the public scene in 2016, when he signed a record and management deal with Ambitiouz. His maskandi and isicathamiya take on hip-hop quickly resonated when he debuted in the chorus of Miss Pru DJ’s Ameni.

His work lives in hip-hop territory, but it would be misleading to refer to Sjava as simply a rapper. Like the late Nate Dogg, he delivers lyricism that lands with an ease that fits hip-hop in a way other vocalists cannot.

Shortly after signing to Ambitiouz he released his debut album Isina Muva. Taken from the isiZulu idiom “Isina muva liyabukwa” (a late bloomer produces more fruit), the title alludes to how long he took to reach commercial status in music.

Sjava considers himself a late bloomer because from 2005 to 2013, his aspirations took an unexpected sho’t left when he started acting. He appeared on SABC 1’s series Zone 14, Generations and Soul City and SABC 2’s 7de Laan, as well as the 2008 film uGugu no Andile.  His efforts were awarded with a South African Film and Television Award nomination followed by a seat on Safta’s judging panel for two consecutive years.

During this time, he continued exercises in deliberate music practice to ensure he didn’t lose focus on the primary goal.

“Every year, I would have 12 songs. I would just write songs and keep them. Just in case I were to have an album. I did that until Isina Muva came out.”

He explains how it took a while because he knew exactly what he wanted to talk about in his music. He would not compromise based on rejections from record labels.

“My thing was everyone was talking about the same thing and there was not an artist who was really talking about real shit. It’s very selfish for an artist not to talk about what they’re going through and instead sell what’s not there.”

His objective rings true in the albums Isina Muva and Umqhele. The artist generously offers his take on vulnerability, some admittance of fault, making ends meet, an openness to learning and unlearning along with overarching pride in isintu sakhe (his tradition).

On the track Izitha, featuring The Soil’s Buhlebendalo, Sjava explores ubungoma by taking on the role of a sangoma in training addressing amadlozi akhe (his ancestors).

“People don’t want to talk about it ... [Buhlendalo] was initiated but when she makes music, she won’t talk about that. That doesn’t give her a platform to talk about herself, her journey,” he says.

Another example of Sjava’s curatorial skill can be heard on the single Eweni where he features maskandi singer Mzukulu and rapper Anzo on an old-school R&B beat produced by Vuyo Manyike to address a love that’s not working out. The result is genius: it has potential to hit home, for lovers of various genres.

All in all, his music encapsulates the stance of many 21st century patriarchs at home: the ones who play in the “not all men” territory but aren’t careful enough not to present contradictory messages in their work. This is a vibe Sjava exudes throughout the interview when he addresses my male colleagues with a regard that keeps me at bay.

In Siyolala, one of Isina Muva’s tracks, he has a discomforting sense of entitlement to his lover. But this only seeps in after I sober up from the gentle diction he uses to get his message across.

Still, it goes without saying that his work is satisfying. Whether you want to get down elokshini on a Friday night, say a Monday morning gratitude prayer or wallow in the nuances of love, there’s a little something for everyone here.

The sonic references fuelling this approach include artists such as Thandiswa Mazwai, Busi Mhlongo, Jabu Khanyile and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

“I’ve been studying hip-hop for a very long time. So what I realised is that hip-hop is about repping your hood. Music needs to have a belonging. We need to know where you’re from. We have Black Mambazo. When a song starts you know these are not the O’Jays. That creates an interest because it’s something they don’t have in America. When aboKendrick see that, they’re like oh wow,” says Sjava, who was head-hunted by Kendrick Lamar’s Top Dawg Entertainment to feature on the Black Panther score. The artist also won the BET Viewer’s Choice Best International Act award in 2018.

To reinforce the need for this idea, Sjava speaks about the educational potential our music can have for international audiences: hip-hop helped him navigate the United States.

“Hip-hop helped me understand so many things. It was my ghetto GPS to a point where I knew which hood not to go to because I heard in songs. I even know what colours not to wear,” he shakes his head while laughing in disbelief.

After digressing on to other topics Sjava and I refocus to talk about his overall process as an artist. He exhales deeply, looks down at his hands and grimaces: “I don’t have a process. It just comes. Umzimba wam ukhethiwe. The ancestors said we’ll use this body to pass on these messages. There’s no way you can write a song on your own, record it then more than 10-million people like it. Nah. It’s my gift.”

Zaza Hlalethwa

Zaza Hlalethwa

Zaza Hlalethwa is a junior arts and culture writer at the Mail & Guardian. In 2018 she was the recipient of a Sikuvile commendation for feature writing. In 2019 she received the Gauteng region Vodacom Journalist of the Year award for feature and lifestyle writing. Her interests in the arts stem from a need to demystify the elitist and complex-looking art world while her pop culture analyses look to facilitate critical thinking and challenge perpetuated social norms by using popular, everyday references, multilingualism and prose. Read more from Zaza Hlalethwa

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