At the shisanyama’s Sjava frequent hangout, the price would be about half of that, at most. Despite his elevation to continental superstar, Sjava, whose real name is Jabulani Hadebe, is about as relatable to the common South African as he was when he first came onto the scene a decade ago. Throughout our hour-long sitdown conversation, patrons and staff do double takes when they walk past, noticing his trademark beard and distinct frame.
This year marks the eight-year anniversary of Isina Muva, his debut album which catapulted him into the limelight in 2015. That same year his rise to mainstream popularity was propelled by a stellar cameo on Miss Pru’s hit single, ‘Ameni’. He’d go on to win the award for Rising Star at the DSTV Mzansi Viewers’ Choice Awards in 2017. He was all of 33-years-old at the time.
“I was the oldest person in that category,” he says. “It’s called Rising Star, and I’m thinking there’s no way I’m gonna win this award, I’m the oldest person here… but I won the award and was like wow. It showed that […] means it’s never too late.” Now 39, Sjava has elevated into arguably the most important South African artist of his generation.
In the years following Isina Muva’s release, Sjava would go on to find global acclaim when he was featured on the soundtrack album for the Hollywood blockbuster, Black Panther, which was curated by rapper Kendrick Lamar.
The album that followed, 2018’s Umqhele, deepened his portrayals of the hood and his own inner workings. A short while later, as his star continued to ascend, Sjava took home the BET Award for Best New International Act. One of the standout songs on the album, ‘Umama’, went on to be featured on the global music platform, COLORS, further broadening his global footprint.
Phases to the top
Sjava’s career has unfolded in phases. He first got his first taste of the entertainment industry as an acclaimed actor who starred in several drama series and films, including Zone 14, Isibaya and Ehostela. He then switched his focus to music around 2010 when he started to hang out with the likes of Ruff, Emtee and Saudi.
Then, after years of toiling away to little success, it was Emtee who was the breakout star when he landed the massive 2015 hit single, ‘Roll Up’, which catapulted him into one of the biggest rap stars in the country and landed him a feature from AKA and WizKid on the remix.
I think what people do not understand is me and Emtee coming together was not our plan and it’s way bigger than us
Emtee and Sjava would both go on to sign with the local record label, Ambitiouz Entertainment, and finally receive the financial boost they needed to support their talents. While Emtee’s shadow loomed large over Sjava for the next year, he would gradually eclipse Emtee over the years. Many pointed this out loudly on social media as Emtee spiralled into drug addiction and lost his edge. However, Sjava never seemed to let the noise make him lose sight of their bond, and the pair have remained close friends and collaborators over the years.
“I think what people do not understand is me and Emtee coming together was not our plan and it’s way bigger than us. From the get-go, I knew that Emtee is the one that’s going to take us to the promised land. I even told the guys, I’m like, ‘As much as we all make music here, we need to channel our energies to this guy. This is the guy that’ll change all our lives’.
“The first time I heard him I knew it, and I used to tell him every day how amazing and how great he is. Despite me becoming bigger or whatever you may call it, the minute I forget how we met and why we met and do not respect that part then everything else will fall apart, so that is bigger than us.”
When the deal with Ambitiouz went south for them both in 2019 and 2020, Sjava turned to his long-time producer Ruff to help him run his record label, which he named 1020 Cartel.
Challenges part of the experience
Over the years, Sjava has experienced his fair share of challenges. Fame has taken away the simplicity he once craved (he tells me the story of how he recently got kicked out of George Koch Hostel, an intimate annual event he’d been attending for years because fans kept asking him for pictures, which distracted away from the performances) and experienced betrayal from business partners.
He has also been accused and acquitted of sexual assault in a highly publicised trial.
Sjava says that despite this, he’s made a point of never compromising when it comes to the quality of music he puts out. “For now, I’m satisfied with being able to take care of my family, but I’m not making millions from it. I do it because I love it, so that’s why even with deals that go south we’re still able to carry on and proceed and make good music and still do what we do because if I focus on a deal that went sour or focus on someone that betrayed me, there’s no ways I’ll progress in life at the end of the day.”
On Amavaka, which is one of the standout songs on his new album, Isibuko, Sjava speaks on finding a way to focus on the joys of life instead of the negativity and challenges that sometimes come with it. He also speaks on how love and forgiveness aren’t for cowards and that the devil can’t conquer a praying soul. Throughout the album, he also explores themes of love and forgiveness, pleads with God to accept him with all his flaws, and warns that no weapons formed against him will prosper because of the protection of his ancestors.
When I ask him if he’s aware of how his music helps listeners find healing, he says: “Music doesn’t come from us, obviously. Our ancestors say okay we choose this body to pass this message. I am aware of this because everything I say can never just come from me. That’s why even some of the songs I don’t even have an answer about what they’re about. I’ll just say what comes to me in the studio. There are even times when I’ll say things that I’m against personally.”
Given the immediate success and rave reviews his new album has garnered, one of Sjava’s biggest goals for the year is to try and get everyone on the album under one roof to perform it for his fans. He isn’t worried about whether it sells out or not, he just wants to focus on people enjoying the music. “That’s all that really matters to me right now. Anything else that happens from here on is just a bonus.”