Sjava, the people’s champion

Dressed like a man of the people for the Samas, the trap artist’s new award-winning genre-bending album echoes everyday life in South Africa.

While Umqhele, Sjava’s sophomore album, won the coveted album of the year category at the South African Music Awards (Sama), his outfit almost eclipsed his win.

As usual, Sjava, or Jabulani Hadebe, made his appearance dressed in beige Brentwood pants, a knitted crew-neck chequered jersey and a matching turn-down-collar brown jacket, finished with formal black shoes. The look is reminiscent of a stereotype of middle-aged Zulu men, especially taxi drivers – a fact not missed on Twitter, where the look became the subject of memes, even from our new Minister of Transport, Fikile Mbalula. When a Twitter user photoshopped the artist’s photo onto a taxi rank background, Sjava – in on the joke – made the image his profile photo and tweeted taxi driver quotes.

This tongue-in-cheek move was a play on Sjava’s background. Years before he became one of the country’s biggest artists, Hadebe was a regular at the taxi rank in Malvern, where he did most of his growing up.  

From the people

Sjava understands the everyday experiences of the majority of South Africans. He was raised by a working-class mother from the small KwaZulu-Natal town Bergville, who ran a small business selling food at a taxi rank. Many black South African musicians have a similar story. But they don’t necessarily represent it as much as Sjava does, at least not in hip-hop.

Since his 2016 debut album, Isina Muva, the subject matter of Sjava’s lyrics are always relatable, from family politics to the anxieties that come with chasing success for most young people. “It’s played at hostels, taxi ranks, Sandton, everywhere,” Sjava said about his music’s mass appeal in 2017. “At the end of the day, we’re all human. No matter where you stay, we still have the same problems. You can stay in Sandton or in a shack and still grow up without a father.”

Towards the end of 2018, Sjava released Umqhele (which means “crown”), one of the most anticipated releases of that year. But before dropping the album, he had already become a household name with a gold-selling album under his belt, a BET Award win and an appearance on the Black Panther soundtrack album, curated by Kendrick Lamar and his label, TDE.

Success without superiority

After a successful debut, a typical hip-hop artist normally brags about their personal gains. But Sjava reflects what surrounds most ordinary South Africans. On Umqhele, he touches on spirituality (Izitha), gun violence (Is’bhamu), family (Umama), the complications of love (Eweni, Confession) and women abuse (Abafazi), among other issues.

The album title had nothing to do with him seeing himself as superior, as you’d expect from a hip-hop artist. “That’s how I want everybody to see themselves,” he said, explaining the title. “They don’t have to really be a king or be born to a royal family; you can just see yourself as a king or queen. Just carry that. That’s what I do. That’s how I see myself. That’s how people receive it.”

There isn’t a song in which this standpoint is reflected more than on Iqhawe, from his 2018 EP, Umphako, which came out a few months before Umqhele. The artist sings: “Mawuvuka ekuseni, uthi uy’buka es’bukweni, ungaboni iqhawe, buyel’ engubeni, you’re not ready for the day.” (When you wake up in the morning, and don’t see a hero in the mirror, then you are not ready for the day.)

In a world where our social media feeds are a pageantry of our success, Sjava encourages us to wait our turn on Linda, the third track on Umqhele: Ungashisa impepho emsamo, uthethise abaphansi, masingakafiki isikhathi sakho, linda. (You can burn incense, yell at your ancestors, if your time hasn’t come, just wait your turn.) He also helps listeners feel less imprisoned by circumstances they can’t control, be it being born out of wedlock or bearing hereditary curses.

Isina muva

Sjava knows patience. While growing up in Malvern, trying to chase his music dream, the artist used to get discouraged by some members of his community. “The general perception was, ‘Yeah, we know him, he’s rapping, but he’s probably not going get anywhere. He’s too old. So when it happened, a lot of people were shocked,” Sjava said. He released Isina Muva at the age of 33, hence the title – a phrase that comes from the IsiZulu idiom, isina muva liyabukwa, which can be loosely translated to, a late bloomer raises eyebrows.  

Musically, his lyrics are atypical for an artist whose base is trap music – a genre started by trappers or drug dealers in Atlanta. “Trap is crack baby beats,” said Curtis Snow, one of the subjects interviewed on Noisey’s docu-series about the origin of trap music in 2016. Trap is known for its aggressive production and lyrics mirroring its place of origin. Even when it’s not about the drug trade, trap is usually cynical, egocentric and hardly ever optimistic.

Trappin’ for a cause

Sjava’s version of trap is called ATM (African trap music), a subgenre founded by Emtee, his label mate at Ambitiouz Entertainment. Emtee, Sjava and another label mate, the rapper and singer Saudi, founded the African trap movement (also ATM), unified by their localised approach to trap. They rap and sing about relatable issues, incorporating vintage South African genres such as isicathamiya, umbhaqanga, maskandi and even Afro-pop into their music.

“The whole concept is to inspire each other,” Sjava said on the ATM documentary, an ongoing internally produced documentary series about the collective. “Even when you listen to the music, that’s what you gonna hear. If we are not inspiring each other, we are inspiring people out there. It’s not just for us, it’s something we started for the community.”

Sjava doesn’t rap about unaffordable brands or cars. In the song Ikhandlela, for instance, he sings about waiting for his lover’s visit until the candle in his room burns out, resonating with many black South Africans who still have no access to electricity. In Ujesu, in which he sings about a woman who stole his heart, he sings: “Emsebenzini, ngibamba 25k, khululeka, everything is okay, ngithatha 20k, nginike umama, ngithathe 5k, ngidle nawe. (I get paid 25k at work, feel free, everything is okay, I will give 20k to my mother and spend 5k with you.)

A concoction of genres

Sjava’s music is hard to categorise. While his base is trap, and hip-hop forms a huge part of his craft, his artistry is informed by the genres he grew up listening to. He was part of an isicathamiya group in high school. Kwaito and hip-hop found him later, and, just like maskandi, mbhaqanga and old-school R&B, he incorporates them into his music.“There’s no type of event I can’t perform in,” Sjava said, commenting on his anomalous music.

Sjava is but one of many contemporary South African artists blending their music with vintage South African genres – the likes of Muzi, Sho Madjozi, Anatii, and many others, have all pimped their genres for younger audiences, preserving the country’s diverse heritage while still making progressive music.

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