“From the beginning, I felt I am a musician and I must appeal to everybody.” – Steve Kekana
Steve Kekana passed away on Tuesday 1 July at Polokwane Provincial Hospital in Limpopo due to Covid-19 complications. The following is a transcription of an interview with him at Downtown studios in Goud Street, Johannesburg on 25 November 2009. It has been edited for clarity.
(Do you think SA’s isolation was a possible reason for the success of the local music industry during the 80s?)
My personal view is that maybe at that time the sort of cultural boycott left South Africa with no chance but to rely on its own music. I’m not saying there was no international music here, but I want to believe that in a way, the cultural boycott made it possible for south African music to be played in their own country. To take an example, it is because of the boycotts or sanctions that Sasol [energy company] was made. If it wasn’t for the boycotts and sanctions that were made against South African, I doubt if anybody would have been pushed to create a thing like Sasol. so it was a Sasol kind of a thing which made South Africa to play its own music. That is my number one view.
Number two: during that time, musicians were just taken for a ride. We had the so-called talent scouts, whom we’re calling producers now, right. Those people would go and look for raw talent and get them into the studio and record them. And those talent scouts were employed by the record companies then. They would get people to the music industry and become everything – manager, producer, talent scout, and everything. So those people were having all the connections to the DJs – made friends with DJs, so that they were able to talk to them, ‘please help me out, play this artist of mine, I’m building this new artist’. You know, go in there, begging as if they are begging for the good of the artist. But they were doing it for their own pocket.
Artists were exploited … How can I do it diplomatically? You know, diplomacy is taking someone to hell and making them enjoy the journey. When you get your songs played on the radio, you become excited, you’re becoming great, everybody knows about you. But you are not the one who is getting the cream. I would include myself in that, although I quickly realised that and I got out of my producer. I started producing myself.
I’m talking about Tom Vuma. Because Tom would be my manager and everything. He would arrange shows. We would go there and perform, and he would pay me. I mean this you’re not going to believe, at that time we were being paid R15 per show. No matter how many people were there per show. I don’t even want to venture into guessing (how much the promoter was making), because we were nowhere near to count his money. You see, that is the way it was - that was his money, as if we were now employed by him. He’s capable of giving us R15 per show. And by then, a rural boy of my calibre enjoys having the R15, before you realize that that is not what you are worth. The first contract that I signed, in 1978 with EMI, this you’re not gonna believe, I was getting 2.5%! So I’m trying to back up the exploitation part of it. (it was happening at) all record companies.
I’m backing up the exploitation thing here. I’m saying musicians’ songs, half of their rights were taken without their permission, by publishing companies. And I’m saying, the law says, everybody who was dispossessed of property from 1913, needs to be equitably paid. This is intellectual property. As provided for by the constitution, section 25, subsection 7.
(Was there exploitation and/or racism in the music industry back in the day?)
I think the intention of the record companies was to follow the status quo of the apartheid state. In the apartheid system there was a saying that no black man can understand science. So that created that situation that I’m sure all or most whites at the time – I must be careful here, I cannot say all – most whites were following the status quo of apartheid, that only white engineers can be (ie. only whites can be engineers). Then you have these talent scouts as a busboy to coordinate between the white engineer and the black musicians. I don’t think it was a mutual kind of thing. But when time went on and on, a better relationship then started to develop, where the white engineers started to realise that actually they can talk directly to the musicians without having a middleman called a talent scout or the producer. and that’s when we started. Soul brothers started quitting their producer Nzimande, then we followed, and that’s when we started to talk directly to the white engineers. It was not – it was for a long time that you could find black engineers…
(Would you say the partnership between black and white is one reasons for the success of SA music?)
Not really. I don’t really buy that story. Music is evolutionary in nature. The way to which it would evolve cannot see colour, cannot see the mixture of two cultures. I’m saying ... I always say to people, you see, music, you need 3 things to be a successful musician. Number 1: you need cash. Number 2: you need talent. Number 3: you need luck.
Now, the problem is, you may have talent, and not have cash and luck. Then you’ll never make a successful musician. You may have talent, and not have cash, and have luck, you won’t make a successful musician, you see. But you may have cash, and not have talent and luck, you will make a successful musician. Cash is the most important thing. Unfortunately that’s the name of the game. You need to – how are you going to promote yourself cashless?
So I’m saying the issue of a mixture of black culture and white culture cannot be the reason for the success of the music of the 80s. The only reason was number 1: the producers and the recording companies wanting to benefit out if it, or milking the musicians, for as long as they are still milkable. And then chase them out of the kraal when the milk is finished. That is the number one reason. Number 2, it is that boycott kind of a thing, that I believe helped.
But having studied law, and knowing about the moral issue in the copyright act, that it is important that everything that you write, or make a song about, must be a moral fibre. If it goes against the right – we call it contra bonos mores – if it goes against the good morals of the society – then it’s not a good copyright thing.
Yes. I had a song called ‘Sadness’. It was banned, never played. Reasons of the lyrics not being acceptable to them. There is (was) nothing wrong with that (the lyrics). I remember why they banned it, it was ‘let the sound of your guitar be a gun, to shoot and kill the melancholy in me’. That was good enough for them. I thought I was being poetic. They look for the word gun and shoot and kill, that’s how it was banned. I still feel that song was a good song.
The other one was the ‘Feel So Strong’ thing, which I did with PJ Powers. 'Feel So Strong' was actually going to be banned, I still believe, if I was the sole writer. (But) actually that was PJ’s song, so maybe that’s how it survived. But we had to redo the song because the original words were saying, ‘I feel so strong, your love has made me feel again that I belong’. Now, at that particular time, it was taboo to hear a white girl saying your love has helped me, you know, ‘your love has made me feel again that I belong’, either saying that to a black boy or black young man, or singing that kind of a thing with a black (man). So we had to rephrase and say instead of love, let’s say ‘your help’. They actually said, say ‘your help has made…’ so it sounds like this white girl has helped me. That’s the only way the song could get out.
(What happened to this censorship law?)
It lapsed automatically in 94.
(What is the significance of ‘crossing over’ to other audiences?)
For audiences it was good. For me, it was good. I mean that was one thing that sometimes made me feel proud, that I’m working against the odds, I’m defying the laws. Blacks would feel very proud if they found themselves in a way defying successfully the laws of apartheid.
Fortunately by the time I worked with PJ (Powers), the political timidness had waned. So people began to understand what’s going on. So we were not criticised. Instead, PJ Powers was encouraged. She was even given the name Thandeka, which means the loved one. Ja, it was fine. We didn’t really problems with performing with PJ, except that they, as whites, will have to get permits to come to Soweto to play … I think it was easy enough because they never had any problems.
(Did you perform in white areas?)
(What was the live scene like in general?)
Other concerts which to me were a very, very great success, were the then Radio Zulu concerts – Amagagu Omculo concerts. These were the equivalent of the so-called SAMA Awards, but they were being held by different radio stations every year. So this Radio Zulu, because of the demographics and the populations, had a capacity of drawing large crowds. So before the awards, bands will be invited to go and have a festival, a big festival. People will come from all over – Kwazulu-Natal, Joburg – and everybody could fill the Kingsmead stadium. It’s a big thing.
Now to back up the exploitation part again, bands will only be paid about a thousand rand to go and perform. That’s split between (amongst) the band, including your transport. It was just nothing. (But) we went there happily and we felt we were honoured. Because if you… I mean I’m sure I won the best male vocalist more than 4 times. You went there for the honour (award ceremony and general concert). It was going, I don’t know when did it really stop, but I remember ‘79, ‘80, ’81, ‘82, I participated. And the thing that they would do, I don’t know if they were paying our producers or what, because we were not even allowed to talk to radio announcers, by our producers anyway. We would be told ‘No, don’t worry, you will perform there because you will be promoted.’
(How did you career develop in terms of singing in different languages?)
So when ‘Sadness’ was banned, and then I said to Tom, I said, ‘Listen, I actually need to do an English album’. And then he-, they got together with Malcolm [Watson], that’s when we started to write things like ‘Raising my Family’, ‘Shine On’ and all that, which was the songs which took me to Scandinavia on tour. I went to Scandinavia on tour in 1981. So it means the first English album for me was ‘Don’t Stop the Music’ in 1980. So I think in the mind of every musician, whether singing in Zulu or Sotho or English, he wants to appeal, cross over. And overseas was part of that crossover.
(What was it like touring Scandinavia?)
Well, It was an achievement. It was a dream come true. It was lovely. I mean, all those beautiful ways to explain excitement!
(Did you gain any political insight into SA and apartheid while touring?)
I want to be honest with you, it was just about performing. But by then I was about 22 or 23. Taking it from the background where I come from, a rural guy, who was only taught to be respectful to the elderly, that was the best teaching that a rural boy can come to town with. It was just about fun. First time overseas.
The second time overseas was when I went overseas with Hotline. That was when, where I started to realise there is something funny, there is something different in Europe as compared to South Africa. ‘84, I went to England, I went to Germany and Italy. In the Scandinavian tour, actually we were not even involved in so many interviews, newspaper or radio. Because number 1, they are not speaking English, we would struggle in getting an interview. But now in London, that’s where you would be interviewed by BBC. I remember one of the questions which was supposed to be the most difficult one, at that time, was: what is my take on apartheid?
I think it was true back then, because like I say, I needed no permit to go to white areas. It was whites who were getting permits to come to us (black areas). So to me, it was affecting whites rather than us.
(How did the ‘bubblegum’ term come about?)
I think it was just a media term. Very derogative, in as far as I am concerned. You know, bubblegum is something that you chew it now, and then it loses taste, you throw it away. That was what the media was (suggesting). I think in every kind of music (there) is bubblegum – serious! Because there are some songs from even the international people that you can listen to, within six months you no longer want to hear it.
I think it was the media showing disrespect to their very own musicians, giving their music a useless name like bubblegum. I never agreed with that name, and I will still never agree with it.
(What was it like featuring on Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse’s 1984 hit ‘Burn Out’?)
I wasn’t actually invited. It was a surprise kind of an event. Because I came in wanting to talk to (producer/engineer) Richard Mitchell about the pending recording that we were supposed to be doing. It was round about 7 o’clock at night. I wonder, I cannot say it was on a Sunday or whatever, but it was 7 o’clock at night. And as a musician, I had my own fun, you know… I had my own fun, I had some few drinks, you know, because I knew that I wasn’t gonna sing.
And then Richard said to me, ‘This is a good song, but it lacks something. What that something is, I don’t know. but I have a feeling that you can give it that something that it lacks.’
And that is why, most of our musicians are unable to diversify today. We believe that it’s a god-given talent, I’ll die with it. And there is no such (thing). Every talent will come to an end, and we must be able to see that if I was making vinyls, and the vinyls are no longer playing, why am I not making cassettes or CDs? You must be able to think in that fashion. But unfortunately to our musicians, we’re not thinking in that fashion. To such an extent that when I said, ‘Listen, guys, I’m going back to varsity, I’m going to study law,’ most of my friends said, ‘Books and music do not go hand in hand, are you really desperate?’ I said no - maybe I am, but I don’t think I’m desperate, and I believe that music and studies do go hand in hand. Because if they were not going hand in hand, then we wouldn’t be having music written.
(Can you tell me a bit more about your education after music?)
I started in 1992, I registered with Unisa for political science. I thought I wanted to be a politician. It didn’t go well. You cannot be a musician and think you can correspond. It didn’t go well. I failed. I decided in 1994 that listen, I’m going behind the desk. I knew that when I was sitting behind the desk, I always passed. So I still believe I can sit behind the desk and pass. And indeed I got my B.juris degree in record time. It’s a four-year (degree). I went to the University of Turfloop [aka University of the North, now University of Limpopo]. I got it in record time. I did LLB, another two-year degree, I got it in record time. And then here I am now, I’m still in music, I’m employed by government, as a labour relations manager. I only practiced as a lawyer when I served my articles, that’s all. My belief is that criminals need to be jailed, not to be assisted, but ja – I’m sure I’m against the constitution! (joking) That is my view.
(What’s your take on the SA music industry today?)
That thing has been transplanted, or superimposed into the black man’s mind. It has to be international to be good. It has to come from Europe to be good. That is why people will strive to take their last penny to take their kids to white school, because they must come slanging English as if they are like whites. And I’m saying what is the use of slanging English if I can speak English in the manner that I do, but we do (still) understand each other? Language is communication, it’s not for status. That is why it has been implanted in our minds, unfortunately. That you need to know English, then you will be employed…
RIP Dr Tebogo Steve Kekana 1958-2021