The invitation said: “Two giants unite. Come and experience this historical moment.” It also included an image of two artists walking across the midlands with their backs to the camera. This didn’t reveal much and it’s likely that many invitees didn’t immediately recognise the two figures in the image: Sjava and Big Zulu.
At the event, which was packed to capacity, the pair announced that they’d formed a duo and would be releasing a once-off collaboration project titled Ukhamba. With virtually the entire venue in awe, they then performed the album’s lead single, ‘Umbayimbayi’, which officially came out a week later.
It was immediately evident to all those in attendance that this union was a stroke of marketing genius – two of the biggest and most fanatically supported Zulu artists coming together for one project, at the height of their careers, is about as close to a sure bet as you’ll ever get.
However, I doubt even they could have imagined how wildly successful their very first release would be. Within three weeks, the song became a viral success and is now one of the fastest songs to be certified platinum in South Africa.
The duo go by the name Inkabi Zezwe, which they explained is a Zulu term of endearment, which when used in the context of music, describes a unified brotherhood that is representative and reflective of the nation. Zezwe means ‘of the nation’, and the implication is that these two giants have united as an offering to the nation.
With both artists hailing from the same area in Kwa-Zulu Natal and having been close friends for years, Big Zulu tells The Africa Report that it was a natural fit for both artists to collaborate. “We both came from the same hometown in Bergville. We’ve been wanting to do something together for a while, so the timing seemed right and we’re excellent friends. In a nutshell, we made the decision to record everything in seven days. We also camped out at home to gather ideas for the album.”
For his part, Sjava says: “As we are both from Bergville and it’s where we first learned music, the choice to record there was inspired. The experience was incredible, and we still find it hard to believe that after seven days of camping, 10 tracks were finished. We really enjoyed ourselves recording where the music started from and in the same place we gained support.”
Speaking on the meaning behind their first single, ‘Umbayimbayi’, Sjava adds that the song is a hymn to love in which they declare their unwavering love and the lengths they would go to for their partner. “The song is also intended to highlight how strong women can be and how male spouses should endeavour to protect, love, and resolve the issues of their partners,” he says.
“The song is titled ‘Umbayimbayi’ because it is an hommage to love and the desire of the man to defend his lady from all harm. The track has received a lot of support from the public; two weeks after the single’s release, it went gold, and this week we are platinum. The idea of this production was long overdue, and when it happened everything was smooth. We are quite appreciative of the single’s success.
Big Zulu and Sjava are slowly replacing Amapiano.
— Vin Qualiva (@VinQualiva) April 11, 2023
“We also want to express our gratitude to the production team behind the ‘Umbayimbayi’ project in SA for the sound’s uniqueness and authenticity. This is music we grew up with. This project was launched and produced at the appropriate moment with the right people engaged, as seen by the incredible support we have received from everyone in South Africa.”
‘Our spiritual calling for music’
Speaking on the upcoming album, Big Zulu adds that the production on the it was primarily helmed by Ruff and Stallion, two producers with whom they have a long-standing relationship and share a familiar sound.
When I ask if fans can expect a similar direction to ‘Umbayimbayi’ from the duo’s upcoming album, Big Zulu says: “Undoubtedly, the album is a representation of love and will please our fans. The wonderful thing about this project is that it demonstrates our spiritual calling for music, which is evident in the single.”
WMA managing director, Temi Adeniji, says the collaboration between the two musicians had been in the pipeline for some time before it was actually set in motion. “We wanted to do something really, special. Things didn’t immediately fall into place – meeting after meeting, putting all the pieces together, and coming up with a structure that worked for all parties.
“After a few months, we came to a meeting of the minds, and it was like everything clicked. For me, this project signifies so much. It’s the first really big project Warner has done since I came in and given our intention to transform our business and really bring it to the centre of the culture here in the country, it couldn’t be more perfect in my opinion.”
Garth Brown, the creative lead at WMA and one of the key architects of the project, says: “They both have spiritual undertones in their music, and because of their kinship and camaraderie, they were a good fit for us. As a result, when both labels, Nkabi Records and 1020 Cartel, contacted us, the moment was right, and their ideals and objectives coincided with our own. Our greatest concern was communication amongst three teams:1020 Cartel, Nkabi Records, and Warner Music Africa.
“[Each team was] required to come together and work cooperatively to ensure the success of this project. However, because we all had the same objective, everything came together… We had great expectations, but it is incredible to see them come true. We are appreciative of the positive feedback the song has gotten and eagerly anticipating the release of the album.”
Despite the challenges, Sjava said he loved working with Big Zulu. “Working with ‘Mkhaya’ [That is how we call each other] that came organically. We are practically brothers, and we share the same values, culture and vision. Our synergies aligned effortlessly, and it happened. Everything about this project was enjoyable to us both.”