An artist finding their sound is a process that never ends, although for many it starts in their youth. Sjava is one such artist. The internationally acclaimed musician, thanks to his record on the Black Panther soundtrack and subsequent BET nomination, determined his passion for music in primary school. Now, just two months after the release of his sophomore album, Umqhele, the rapper is back in the studio working on new music.
Special thanks are due to his grandfather and older cousin for exposing him to isicathamiya music. Since his time as a student, Sjava has gone on to earn nominations and awards for his musical offerings featuring his special brand of music, “African Trap.” African Trap Music is the byproduct of Sjava, Saudi, and Emtee’s musical stylings. Featuring genres like maskhandi, kwaito, and isicathamiya, Sjava’s take on trap music is inherently South African. Then again, in his opinion, the origin of music is African; as he believes, “In Africa, we are the ones who came up with melodies.”
While listening to Umqhele, one can’t help but note the musicality and soul of his instrumentals. A song that remains in your ear long after it plays is “Ikhandlela,” which also happens to be Sjava’s favorite song to have recorded. Trap music, though its merits are known by many, has the stereotype of being monotonous and repetitive. Whether the instrumental or a rapper’s vocals are being judged, trap music has garnered negative commentary over the years. However, Sjava’s brand of trap music is melodic, to say the least. The rapper often juxtaposes traditional instruments to mainstream trap beats. “Inkhandlela” is the perfect example of this.
“I only did the hook and I got Fatso to play the guitar [and] Bongani Radebe to play the saxophone,” Sjava says about his favorite song. Without heavy auto-tuning or distracting post-production, the instrumental of the track shines through. When others advised him to do more with the song, as opposed to allowing the instruments to take up the space of verses, he decided against suggestions. Thankfully, his decision has been rewarding.
The man one imagines in the studio is the same man in real life. In other words, Sjava is genuine; from how he represents himself musically to how he engages with the people around him in person. In conversation with people on set, the rapper explained how easy it is for rappers, or musicians in general, to lose themselves to their public personas. Genuine spirit is hard to maintain in the entertainment industry, however remaining grounded in his values have enabled Sjava’s success. Switching fluidly between his mother tongue, isiZulu, and English, Sjava shared stories about his experiences from his adolescence and early adult years. Topics ranged anywhere from relaying the story of how taxi drivers often got their nicknames to giving context for different customary practices. Changing back and forth between languages is called ‘code-switching.’ The practice, in the South African sense, carries a negative connotation on account of people having to mask their mother tongue in favor of English. This isn’t the case with Sjava; when he speaks between isiZulu and English, there is no element of trying to hide his culture.
In fact, it is the celebration of his culture that makes him the artist he is today. Over the years, the Ambitiouz rapper has shared his culture through music and his visual communication with the public. Him being photographed in close proximity to an element that signifies his Zulu background and making the majority of his music in his mother tongue exhibits the unfiltered celebration of his background. At the same time, with the celebration of one’s culture, there are preconceived notions of how one’s culture operates. For instance, a rumour reached Sjava that he uses impepho, a snake, and muthi in order to reach his success. His response to the fallacy being, “I just record. There’s no special things that I do before I record. There’s no snake, guys, there's no muthi for recording, it’s impossible. You can never go to [a traditional healer]...and then you become the best rapper.”
Sjava also believes that while the world, South Africa in particular, becomes more Westernised, it is important to retain one’s cultural background. “We’re losing [our culture],” he explains. “I decided that I’d like to play a role whereby, I’m trying to be like ‘yo as much as we’re Westernised, but sometimes just remember where you come from.’”
Nevertheless, Western music plays a role in Sjava’s collaborations. For instance, the track he did for Black Panther was initiated by Kendrick Lamar, and his co-collaborators were Mozzy and Reason (US). Sjava’s participation in the Black Panther soundtrack came as a surprise as the rapper expected the work he recorded would be on Lamar’s album. In the future, Young Thug and TDE artists, like Kendrick and SZA, are on Sjava’s wish list of people to collaborate. Still tight-lipped on the details, Sjava gave away that he will be working with US-based artist Sango in the near future.
In close, where Sjava is concerned, music, fame, and success are all derived from his ‘mind state.’ While there are melodies to imagine, genres to blend, and stories to tell, rhythm and poetry from this South African rapper will prevail.
Misa Narrates, @misaNarrates, Creative Director
Khabazela Mahlangu, @artvillain, Photographer
Mulalo Teddy, @mulalo_teddy, Graphic Designer
Atlegang Malao, @atligang_, Assistant Photographer
Azania Forest, @azaniaforest, Stylist