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Nelson Mandela’s love of music is well documented. But in his dealings with South African musicians, he showed his strict side when he reprimanded young kwaito stars in the 1990s for their ‘vulgar dancing and swear words’. He also inspired many musicians through his achievements. One of his biggest legacies was the 46664 concert in 2003 where, for the first time on South African soil, our artists received the same star treatment as international big hitters such as Beyoncé Knowles. Therese Owen spoke to some South African artists about their experiences with the great man.
Ross Learmoth, vocalist for Prime Circle
We met him when we were doing the 46664 concert. He had such a good sense of humour. He stood up to meet us and told us he wanted a job. We replied that we could fire our drummer and he replied that he’d play the drums for us.
We met him first at the Mandela dinner when we played Fancourt. On the bill was India.Arie, members of Queen, Katie Melua and Ard Matthews. We also met him in Rosebank for photographs. I felt really bad because I felt he was more of a tourist attraction, but he was very patient and realised people were there to meet him. Everyone became like a kid around him. He had that effect.
At the press conference we were told to turn our phones off. I forgot and it was one of those annoying ringtones and as he started speaking it went off. I was so embarrassed. Everyone just packed up laughing, even him. The cool thing was that we weren’t segregated backstage which is what normally happens at international concerts in South Africa.
The first time I met Nelson Mandela was in 1995 and I was a member of the Drakensberg Boys Choir. There was a relaunch of the air force base near us. We were invited to provide the entertainment. They set up the stage and flew pianos up there by helicopter. I conducted the choir. Afterwards he wanted to meet all of us. When I got to the front of the line I looked him in the eye and saw a grandfather, not a president.
I greeted him with “Molo Tata Mkhulu” as any young Xhosa boy would. He was taken by such surprise that I spoke to him in Xhosa. He asked me about my clan name and then explained their history, that he knew some of them were from Transkei. He told me his clan name and his history.
When I walked away it suddenly came back to me that this is Nelson Mandela, that he was black, that he was from the Eastern Cape and that he was speaking my language. If he could become that then I could become anything and the colour of my skin was no barrier.
The second time I met him was at his Houghton house. I had been invited there with American artists Snoop Dogg and Pharrell Williams. I arrived early and had a good chat with the family. There was a knock at the door so I went to open it. It was Pharrell and his entourage of about 15. I think they thought I was an African prince because they all started bowing to me. It was the closest I felt to a Mandela as all these Americans were bowing down to me.
They were all so shy. Mandela was generally interested in speaking to people. Everyone was quiet and he was like, “Say something to me, ask me a question.” He would tell a story and then people would speak around him, not to him.
I met him again when Kurt Darren and I were invited to his 90th birthday in London. I got a special thank you letter from him. He had asked for the artists specifically.
One of my early childhood mem- ories was when I was six, in 1994. I was sick at home. I remember watching the inauguration and it was pretty interesting. Even though I was six I remember thinking, “this is so important”. I watched him and saw the planes flying over and the new flag that came out. I was really swept up in the new South Africa.
Thebe and I were doing a lot of vulgar swearing in our songs. In fact, I was the master of swearing.
Nelson Mandela called a meeting of the kwaito nation which was done through Malusi Gigaba, who was then the ANC Youth League president. It was heavy at the time because Mandela was president.
There were also lots of heavy things happening between (record labels) 999 and Kalawa Jazmee. It was kinda violent, like the Biggie Smalls and 2Pac stuff. The meeting was held at Nasrec.
I had a song called Sdudla se Sfebe which literally means “fat b*tch”. I had a van with the title on it and used to cruise around Yeoville in it. Mandela had done his research and quoted that track.
He said that we create good music and then gave us the positives and minuses. Instead of saying this thing is f****d, he said it has potential, but is not the kind of nation we want to see, that this fighting and swearing was not good for nation building.
I only got nervous later on when I realised what the meeting was about. At that moment I never saw anything wrong with it, but then again, I had no children. But now I don’t want my kids to listen to those old tracks of mine.
Theo – Boom Shaka
We did a dance version of Nkosi Sikelel’ and there was big drama which also resulted in many interviews. Our response was that we wanted the youth to know the words and what better way to teach them. We thought they would ban it but, surprisingly, they didn’t. It was a big hit.
I remember the day he was inaugurated. We were on a train to East London and it was the beginning of our careers. I was remembering feeling sad as the train drove past Ellis Park where there was a big party. I remember he also complained about our dance moves, but a lot of people were complaining about Boom Shaka. He said we were being controversial and our response was that we wanted to create something different for the youth.
I laughed about it, but it was also nerve-wracking because he was the president of the country and his coming out of prison changed a lot of things. After he mentioned us we were booked overseas and when we were there they also asked us about Madiba’s comments. We never got to meet him because at that time he was meeting Americans.
The first time I met Nelson Mandela was at his Houghton home and I was still a kid. I knew Mandla at the time. He was so chilled and I asked him what his favourite music was and he replied that he really enjoyed Indian music. But he also liked Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Hugh Masekela and Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse.
Then I played the first 46664 concert in Cape Town in 2003. It still remains my favourite concert. There was Watershed, Johnny Clegg, Yvonne Chaka Chaka and myself.
There was also U2 and Beyoncé. They built this African village backstage. Normally these artists stay in their change rooms, but the big acts sat with everyone and were totally at ease.
For me that was what Madiba was about, the common purpose was being there for him. All egos and hierarchy were put aside. He was the ultimate superstar. When he gave the keynote you could hear a pin drop. There was so much respect at Green Point Stadium.
Then I was touring with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and he invited us to his home in Qunu for a Christmas party with thousands of kids. Every child got food and a drink. Some had walked 30km. He gave out the presents himself. Oprah was also there and they both came on stage and I was holding both their hands, singing Homeless.
It was because of him that I became the first South African along with Black Mambazo to be on Oprah. She chose us for her 50th with Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder and Josh Groban.
At the 46664 launch party he came on stage to dance when I sang. It was very easy to get him to dance because he loved dancing.
At my very last meeting with him he told my wife that I need to propose to her. One of my greatest achievements was that Madiba recognised that I am a man worth marrying.
When my brother passed away Madiba phoned my dad. He gave his condolences and said that he had lost children and thought that you must treat parents who have lost children with sensitivity.