HE’S dog tired after driving home straight following an electrifying performance in Durban, but he lights up when his rental car rolls into the Bergville property.
It’s been a long time since he’s seen the woman waiting for him on the stoep. Sjava gives Thandi Nkabinde a bear hug before the pair start talking up a storm.
Mother and son have plenty of catching up to do – they haven’t seen each other since January, thanks to the award-winning artist’s hectic schedule. After his recent hometown concert, he couldn’t resist the chance to pop in at home.
“It feels good,” Sjava (34) tells DRUM as he shows us around. “It’s so quiet here.”
Thandi (64) beams as her son walks around the house he’s built for her. It’s her first interview with Sjava, whose hit single Umama was written for her. Thandi tells us she’s excited to get her makeup done, but even without the “face beat” Sjava thinks his mom is flawless.
“She’s the only person who understands me,” he says.
Since winning big at the Black Entertainment Television (BET) Awards last year, he’s hardly been home but “she’s the only one who complains about not seeing me”.
“When everyone else wants something from me, she’s the only person who doesn’t. When I say I’m going to call her back and I don’t or say I’m coming home and I don’t, she doesn’t really complain because she knows how hard I work. She’s very understanding and helpful.”
They seem as close as two coats of paint, but Thandi is the first to admit her relationship with her son hasn’t always been this great. She raised Sjava, real name Jabulani Hadebe, and his siblings, Sibusiso (43) and Sindy (40), in Bergville. She says she wasn’t exactly supportive when her youngest son told her he wanted to be a musician.
“Us older people, we only know someone has to be a teacher or something to find work. When he said he wanted to be a musician I didn’t understand.”
Her doubts over Sjava’s career choice were also coloured by her own experience. “When I was younger, I used to sing,” she recalls. “After I had my first child, I told my father I wanted to sing but he told me to leave and never come back.”
SJAVA holds no grudges. “When it comes to my career, a lot of people didn’t support it. You see, the kind of place we come from, people only realise it’s real when they see things start working out,” he says.
“You can’t blame them because they’re from a different generation.”
Things were so strained between mom and son at one point, Sjava hadn’t seen Thandi in two years.
“She was at the rank (selling food) and I was ( hustling) in the streets. There were years she didn’t know where I was because I was working on making my dream come true,” he says.
Now he’s living the dream. Sjava has been in hot demand since he was handpicked by American rappers Kendrick Lamar and TDE, alongside Babes Wodumo, Yugen Blakrok and Saudi, to feature on the soundtrack of the Hollywood hit Black Panther.
It’s thanks to this success, and his early years as an actor, that he could afford to build his mom a house from scratch. Sjava whistles as he walks around the brick home.
Thandi says he should come home more often because he works so hard. She’s clearly proud of her son. She didn’t imagine he’d become such a roaring success, although she “could see there was some talent when he was a child”.
Sjava was a quiet boy, Thandi says, but he came alive when there was music. “It started very early; he must have been a year old when he started singing. He used to sing along to adverts and we always used to tell him to keep quiet because he was making a noise.
“He’d be quiet for a few minutes then start again,” she says with a laugh.
Like any mother and son, they’ve had their share of ups and downs but Sjava has always had a special spot for Thandi. He grew up without his father, Sbinde Hadebe, after the couple split when he was seven.
“Growing up you were never your father’s friend. You talk to him when he’s talking to you. I never had the type of relationship where we just talked. We were cool but never tight,” he says.
His relationship with his father, who died of natural causes in 2009, became more strained when Thandi and Sbinde broke up and Thandi moved to Johannesburg with the children. “Our relationship was shaky because we never saw each other.”
IN Joburg his single mother spent her days selling meals at a taxi rank while Sjava went to school. “Joburg life is different,” he says of those days. “There’s pressure on you to make sure whatever you’re doing works out, so you don’t fail your parent.”
In 2004 he broke into the industry as an actor, going on to appear in Zone 14, Generations and 7de Laan.
Sjava fell in love with music when he discovered hip-hop, but he was influenced by mbaxanga and maskandi. In 2013 he was introduced to Emtee, who was signed to Ambitiouz Entertainment. When Emtee told his record company about Sjava, they signed him to their label.
Last year Sjava put African trap music on the map when he won the viewers’ choice best international act at the BET Awards in Los Angeles. Life has certainly changed since his humble beginnings. These days he can’t walk down the street or order at KFC without being recognised.
His journey to success has been a long time in the making – 16 years to be exact. “Now that people are seeing things happening, they’re counting it from there but this success didn’t come quickly,” he says.
Bagging the BET award has certainly opened doors for him, but he doesn’t only want to be known for that. “There is so much that has happened in my life, but all people focus on is that because it’s from overseas.”
His BET gong is still causing a buzz but it’s not the validation he strives for. Sjava, who is nominated for four Samas, including best Afropop album, says he doesn’t take voting awards seriously. “For me, meeting someone who tells me ‘ I listened to your song and it helped me in this way’ is the only thing that matters.”
He wants to make music that moves people, but he also wants to make some coin. Sjava loves spoiling his mom and he’s brought along a gift for Thandi, who’s preparing for our photoshoot. She smiles at the surprise.
“Oh, Hadebe,” Thandi says, fitting on the purple coat. All she needs now are boots, she quips.
THE winter coat is an early Mother’s Day gift as Sjava won’t be home to celebrate with Thandi. “It hurts that I can’t just spend time with my mom,” he says. “You travel all over the world but you never get time with the people you love and are doing this for. “All you can do is send money.” Thandi is grateful for the gift but the one present she’d like is her son’s presence. “I can never get hold of him and he can’t just come home,” she says. “I don’t know my child anymore, I can’t just sit with him.”
Sjava would love to spend more time at home with her, doing regular things. He wants to cut the grass, he says, pointing at the shrubbery in the yard. But his career is in full flight, and he must be on the road all the time.
He’s taken steps to make sure Thandi is well taken care of, though. Sjava built his mom’s house on the same land his father’s house stood on before his parents broke up.
“I came back 16, 17 years later and built my mother a house because we grew up renting rooms,” he says. “It was her dream to own a home of her own, where she can wake up whenever she wants and do whatever she wants without a landlord knocking at the door and asking for money. “I had to make her dream come true.” His commitment to his mother is second to none. Sjava is following a Zulu cultural process that will allow him to “marry” his mother. He’s doing what his father couldn’t because, according to Sjava’s tradition, he’ll remain a bachelor until his mother weds.
“I won’t be able to get married if my mom isn’t married so I have to marry her. Growing up in Joburg, there’s a lot of cultural knowledge that I lost. My mom helps me with that – it’s very important as a man to know why we do certain things,” he says.
HIS dedication to their culture means a great deal to Thandi, who is a loyal member of the Shembe Church. She’s been with them for 15 years and in line with religious beliefs has been made to sit with unmarried and single women while married women are seated on another side of the church.
Thandi is looking forward to being recognised as a married woman, and like any mom she longs to see her son walk down the aisle with his dream woman. “I want him to be greater, to be happy, to get married and have children. I want for us all to be happy as a family,” she says.
When the conversation turns to dating, Sjava is tight-lipped. His love life became the talk of the town when Lady Zamar recently revealed she and the rapper had broken up. Social media users had long speculated Sjava and the Love is Blind singer were secret lovers, but the pair kept a lid on things until the songstress confirmed their split on social media.
Fans are hoping the popular pair will rekindle their two- year relationship but Sjava isn’t entertaining the topic. “I’m not going to talk about my relationship status,” he says.
He knows it comes with the territory but having his private life in the public eye is one of the things he hates about being popular. “I miss my life,” Sjava says.
“I don’t enjoy the fame but I’m grateful for everything that’s happening. This (travelling) comes with it.”
He seems rueful as he gets ready to catch his plane back to Joburg. “Sometimes your calling is to make sure everyone is happy but yourself. There’s nothing I can do about that.
“All I can do is take care of my mom and family.”
Life as he knows it “is gone” but Thandi is the one constant Sjava can count on. “She means a lot to me,” he says. “I always feel for people who have no moms because I realise how blessed I am to have her.”