It was around the age of eight that Nelisiwe Sibiya realised she could sing.
Her older sister, Thabisile, who was already a musician, would teach her the songs of greats like Whitney Houston and Celine Dion.
“She would make me reach those high notes, she was an amazing singer. We took the talent from my mother’s side because everyone can sing there. When my sister passed away I thought I would never want to sing again because I thought I would die too,” said the 26-year-old.
While living in KwaZulu-Natal, Sibiya got sick and her mother, Dudu, took the decision to move them up to Joburg for her to get the help she needed.
“I had to repeat Grade 3 because I could not go to school for two years and my mother had no money to send me.”
When she eventually got better she was still afraid to sing because of her sister’s misfortune. One day at her primary school in Duduza, after a pupil had died, the school gathered to sing the same song that was sung at her sister’s funeral.
“They were singing it so wrong and I burst out singing. It shocked everyone. I cried.”
From then on the teachers made sure that Sibiya was always in the choir.
“I was that little girl with the huge voice."
Throughout school she would perform in the choir. In high school she went to a school that did not have a choir and ended up singing for other schools in Ekurhuleni.
“That’s how much I loved music. It was illegal because those schools were winning competitions and I wasn’t a pupil there. A choir was eventually started because of me at my school. I got choral and classical training and then I joined a production after school that lead me to really know that music was my calling. If not that then I was going to be a script writer."
The money problems at home meant that her mom could not send her to university so Sibiya saved up from the different gigs she got through her singing. She lived in a shack with her mother in Duduza. Before that they were living in an extended RDP house with an aunt.
“I grew up in an abusive environment. My mom and I lived with an aunt and her husband who always reminded us that we didn’t belong.”
Sibiya added that there was also sexual abuse involved for her older sister.
“I feel like life has robbed me of my youth because we had to grow up and fend for ourselves. I prayed to God asking him what it was we were doing wrong because I thought we had done everything right. We were believers. That prayer changed my life.”
Things started to turn around for her. She got a job as a promoter, and would use every opportunity she had to network with people who could help her somehow. After landing a job at the airport she managed to save money to go to university.
“I knew that I wanted to graduate and be the first person in my family to do so. I saved up until 2014 when I had enough money to pay for fees and accommodation.”
In January 2015 she got accepted to study Musical Studies at TUT which completely surprised her mother.
“That was going to be the first time I was apart from my mom. She gave me her blessing to go to Pretoria and said she would go back to KZN but that didn’t sit well with me so I took that money and built her a house instead.”
She said it was through faith and grace she made that decision as she did not know what was going to happen.
“That year was so crazy. I got into musicals that paid so well I was able to pay the fees of my first year and I got a bursary for my remaining two years.
Sibiya graduated last month. Unfortunately her mom could not be with her as she passed away in 2016.
“Right after I built the house for her she died. I know deep down that her spirit is happy. Right before her death I met the right people. She made sure I would be fine.”
Sibiya’s emotional hit song Mama ka Bafana which is also the theme song for Mzansi Magic’s female prison drama series, Lockdown, was recorded two days after burying her mother.
“I had to come back to Joburg to record a song for the show but I was so down and out I didn’t want to do it. But my head switched on when I thought about how my mother would have wanted me to.”
She came up with the song after Mandla N, show producer, asked her what was the one thing that would send her to prison.
“I would go to jail if I could kill a man and it was in reference to that man who was abusing us growing up. I called it Mama ka Bafana instead of a specific boy name because I wanted it to refer to the male species.”
That song has opened many doors for Sibiya. She has worked with the likes of Lindelani Mkhize and will soon be working with Mbongeni Ngema.
“Everything happening now, it is all God and my mother wherever she is.”
Sibiya said she will one day write a book about her life experiences. Right now though she is working on an album that will feature a number of artists.
“I can’t wait for everyone to hear my music. I am a traditional girl, I love maskandi music. I’m trying to do something different. My sound is called Afrokandi, a blend of maskandi, afropop and afrosoul. I can’t wait for you guys to hear it.”
She just shot the music videos for Mama ka Bafana and her other single Nomathemba.
“Hopefully the videos will be released on my birthday, September 13. I want the universe to respond and you guys to receive it.”@mane_mpi