One of South Africa’s greatest musicians and artists, Caiphus Semenya, turns 80 tomorrow. His 80 years is defined by a lot of illustrious and commendable achievements, which South Africa and the entire arts industry has not properly acknowledged and celebrated.
The 80 years of Caiphus Semenya include a solid 64 years as an artist because he appeared in his first show at the age of 16.
The 80 years of Caiphus Semenya include a 53-year marriage to another South African icon, Letta Mbulu.
The 80 years include 30 years in exile, in the US where prominent South African artists such as Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, and Jonas Gwangwa were exiled during the apartheid period.
The 80 years Caiphus Semenya is celebrating include working with one of the world’s greatest music producers, Quincy Jones, for the music of a 1977 television miniseries called Roots showing the hardship faced by African slaves and the impact of slavery.
Roots received 37 Primetime Emmy Award nominations and won nine, and Caiphus Semenya received an Emmy Award for his role in creating the Roots soundtrack.
It also won a Golden Globe and a Peabody Award. He is an executive producer for Quincy Jones’ QRadio website, for which he also writes a regular column.
The 80 years Semenya is celebrating include his contribution on the score to Disney’s The Lion King.
The 80 years of Caiphus Semenya include being the arranger of the world’s biggest ever music entertainer, Michael Jackson for his 1987’s Swahili chant to the song Liberian Girl on the album Bad, which was a tremendous success.
He has also worked with and composed for a broad range of jazz and pop artists, including Lou Rawls, Nina Simone and Cannonball Adderley, his facility with both jazz and African forms making him unique in his contribution. Despite a prestigious career in the US and playing for the big league musically, Semenya did not hesitate to come back to South Africa when apartheid ended.
He could have chosen to stay and assimilate into African-American black subculture. He chose to come back with his African outlook intact.
Those who interact with Semenya will bear testimony to the fact he’s a true, proud African and such is reflected in everything he does, including his music, home decor, food, language and most importantly love for other Africans.
After his return to South Africa in 1990, he composed scores for Molo Fish, Vicious Circle and Gaba Motho, three series broadcast by the SABC.
Semenya’s 80 years include production of several albums, collaboration with his talented wife Mbulu and live performances on various stages and platforms.
Semenya illustrated with almost perfection that love songs do not necessarily have to be sung in English, and had built a discography that will live forever.
Musically, Semenya has produced some of the anthems for South African music lovers.
His unique genre did not only serve to entertain, but to educate and conscientise. When he produced Women Got the Right to Be in 1996, the women’s emancipation and rights movement was still drowned in the exuberance of the new political order. Through song, Semenya rung a siren of women abuse before it was fashionable to do so.
The exact lyrics say,
“Ba ya khala bo mama
Bo dadeweth ba ya khala
Ba ya khala bo gogo
Na bafazi bethu ba ya khala
Sayi funda ‘phi le mikhuba(Hey madoda siya buza)Yo ku nga hloniphi a ma nkosikaziSi no ku ba thatha o kwa zingane Si ya lahleka.”
Translation: There’s a widespread cry from our mothers, sisters, grandmothers and even our wives - about the harassment that we subject them. Where exactly did we get such teachings that seem to inform our behaviour towards women.
The 80 years of Semenya include conceptualising and initiating a performing arts school National Academy of Africa’s Performing Arts (NAAPA) in Soweto and intended at empowering upcoming musicians to produce quality and durable music coupled with mentorship about life and the business side of music.
The National Academy of Africa’s Performing Arts project is incomplete because successive governments at national and provincial levels renege on their commitments to make the school a successful project.
Caiphus Semenya continues to work in the US, Europe and Africa in a variety of capacities, including with Mbulu as Caiphus & Letta.
The Southern African Music Human Rights Organisation (SAMRO) bestowed Semenya with an ACT Lifetime Achievement Award for having been excellent in his music career and having had an impact on the lives of many people, both professional associates and lovers of music, across the world.
When he was awarded the ACT Lifetime Achievement Award, there was a greater appreciation for his contribution as he continues to inspire a new generation of musicians.
Despite these illustrious and wonderful achievements, Semenya has never been honoured domestically. He has never received a lifetime music honour at the South African Music Awards.
He was never honoured by Metro FM. He has never received a presidential honour, nor a medal to celebrate that this great patriot has been an embodiment of artistic perfection even when things were difficult under apartheid.
Due to his love for education, literature and real-life experience, Semenya is now a sage, and those who interact with him will know that he’s a mine of knowledge. Let those who care about South Africa’s future do everything in their power to institutionalise the National Academy of Africa’s Performing Arts (NAAPA).
Brother Semenya should not only cut the ribbon to open the school in Soweto, he must also be there to cap its first, second, third, fourth and fifth generation of its graduates. Happy 80th birthday, brother Caiphus Semenya.
* Shivambu is EFF deputy president.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.