When Kendrick Lamar's Label was looking for authentic African trap it went to the source
Words: Sabelo Mkhabela | Photography: Bantu Mahlangu
Sjava's appearance on the soundtrack of one of the biggest movies of 2018, Black Panther, is one for the books. On the song, titled 'Seasons' the artist tells his life story in just one verse and goes on to dominate the song with a killer hook.
On his verse, he encourages us to never give up, because even when the odds are against us, it's possible to succeed. Exhibit A: himself.
Where he comes from, he sings, it's all darkness. Just by virtue of being a resident and being 35, you are guaranteed to never make it to where he currently is now, because you are too old.
That is the Sjava story in a nutshell. It inspired the title of his gold-certified debut album, Isina Muva, released in 2016. "I dropped the album at 33," he says. "and isina muva, isisho sesizulu, isina muva liyabukwa." The idiom, translated, means late bloomers always raise eyebrows.
Growing up in Malvern, Johannesburg, Sjava, now 35, was always a popular kid. He rapped and people knew who he was. "The general perception," he says, "was, 'yeah, we know him, he's rapping, but he's probably not gonna get anywhere, he's too old. So when it happened, a lot of people were shocked."
As we walk around the neighborhood right now, he's recognized by residents of all ages and where school kids ask him for autographs and selfies, so do older men and women.
"Me and him never spoke until this day," says Sjava, chuckling, after a man greets him like a day-one.
He points to the house where he used to live with his mother, who used to sell food at the nearby taxi rank. "I wrote the verse I spat on the MTV Base cypher here," he recalls, referring to his show-stealing verse from 2016.
The artist comes back here often, and chose to do today's shoot here because he believes everything he does must tell his story. "I take this shit really serious," he says as he goes through some of his outfits. "Because again, I'm not doing this for myself. When we come back to the hood and do things like this, people get encouraged. If someone is looking at this article and thinking, 'mos, this is Malvern, I know this place,' somehow it makes them happy. So it's very important to keep it real and show who you are and where you come from, whether good or bad. If people don't like that, it means they don't like you."
Sjava is all about the people and says he's disappointed his album only sold gold, that he was gunning for platinum. "It's because of piracy, and all these fugazi sites," he says. "And music is too expensive, people just can't afford it."
Earlier on in the day while rolling around in his mini bus, he recalled an incident while performing in Braamfontein. A young man was admiring one of his labelmates' jewelry. He still seems disturbed by how drunk the young man was. "You should be concentrating on your education," he says as if speaking directly to the kid in question. "I'm here trying to inspire you to be a better person, but you are only paying attention to jewellery."
He is rolling with two members of ATM (African Trap Movement), the imprint he co-founded alongside his Ambitiouz Entertainment labelmates Emtee and Saudi, whose music was pioneered by Emtee and his producer Ruff.
It's a brand of trap blended with South African genres such as Afropop, maskandi, mbhaqanga and isicathamiya. Most of the lyrics are sung in indigenous South African languages. The subject matter covers stories of ordinary black people and the problems they face everyday. Their personal stories of rags to riches form a huge part of ATM.
Sjava's lyrics revolve around relationships and family with the same emotional intensity as maskandi and mbhaqanga artists like Bhekumuzi Luthuli, Phuzekhemisi, The Soul Brothers and more.
"I feel it's important," he says on his subject matter, "because for a very long time, not many people talked about those things in their music. I remember, I was looking at my Facebook, I think I posted in 2008 that 'when was the last time you actually heard a song that actually talks to you?' And when I decided to make music about that, I was criticized; everyone told me, 'it's not gonna work, no one wants to hear that shit, people wanna dance.' So I took a risk, because I knew these songs were important, they were needed. And it's what I know, because for a long time I was in the streets." But Sjava believed – that's the main thing he cites for helping him succeed. "As a leader, to start a trend, you take a risk." he says.
Sjava's longtime friend, who you now know as the superstar trapper Emtee got signed to Ambitiouz Entertainment in 2013. "They signed Emtee, and he told them 'I have my brothers that I work with' and they listened to my stuff, and that's how I ended up signing with them," says the artist. Ruff, the producer who co-owned a studio in downtown Jozi with the late Swati King, where a lot of artists used to record, is now the in-house producer at Ambitiouz Entertainment where he's crafted hits for Sjava, Emtee, Saudi, Amanda Black, A-Reece and more.
Sjava, who was once on the SABC drama series Zone 14 several years ago, has always been into music. "Acting wasn't part of the plan, it just happened," he says. "That's where God wanted me to be at the time. I never stopped music, it's always been my first love."
It started in primary school in Bergville in Kwazulu Natal, where he was born and spent the first half of his life before migrating to Joburg for high school. "I did isicathamiya for a long time in primary," he says. This was followed by kwaito and as time progressed hip-hop.
This explains his fondness towards Young Thug and Future's music, which is the only music that's played on his bus today. A few weeks ago, Sjava told US radio host Ebro Daden in an interview for his Beats1 show that the song 'Wyclef Jean' by Young Thug is the most Zulu sounding trap song in terms of melodies – and he has a point.
Bringing the trap sound back home has helped set Sjava and his ATM goons apart from those who sound like their American counterparts. He attributes their originality to why they got approached by Top Dawg Entertainment, Kendrick Lamar's label, for the Black Panther soundtrack album.
"TDE reached out to us, saying they loved what we do," he says, "because what we are doing is proudly South African, something they don't really have that side. They just liked the whole idea, the whole movement, and the music we make. They never told us it was for Black Panther at first. We had no clue what it was for. We found out only a month before it dropped."
That appearance on the Black Panther album has led to some opportunities that he chooses to keep mum about until they are finalized. But more than anything, he is happy that "kids will understand how important it is to be proud of yourself."
"Because when we wore ama-Brentwood namabheshu at the SAMAs," he continues, "they were laughing at us, like, 'hawu, this guy, why would he dress like this at such an occasion?' But then if Kanye West were to come to South Africa dressed like that, he would be called a genius. So there are a lot of things that we have that are amazing, but we are always waiting for approval from either white people or the Americans, to be like 'yo, Sjava come put this song here,' and then everyone is now like, 'Sjava is amazing.'"
Of course Sjava's sense of style is inspired by his story, and he's particularly proud of one tracksuit that he's chosen to wear for today's shoot. "I got it for R180," he says. "I buy my clothes anywhere. Because when I was growing up here and didn't have shit, I had to wear whatever I could afford."
So now that he isn't broke, Sjava's looks can consist of a tracksuit that costs less than R200 and a pair of sneakers that cost fifteen times that. It's all about how he rocks the items, not how much they cost.
The artist is currently working on his sophomore album, and he's feeling good about it. He will build upon the sound, as growth forms a huge part of ATM. He's also building his mother a house back in Bergville. "Finally," he says.