Johannesburg – He thought he had it all under control – the fame, the constant stream of people rocking up at his house wanting a good time, the weed and the codeine.
It was all part of the lifestyle, he told himself, stuff that went hand in hand with being a star.
Then came the day that would change everything: the day he collapsed on stage while he was performing in Lephalale, Limpopo.
Now Mthembeni “Emtee” Ndevu wants everyone to know he’s as “sober as a judge”. He made the decision to clean up his act and he’s a changed man. The 25-year-old musician arrives at the DRUM offices in Auckland Park, Joburg, with his manager, Gaba Sebego, girlfriend Nicole Kendall Chinsamy (23) and eldest son, Avery (2) in tow. Baby Logan (nine months) is at home with his grandmother.
The entourage listens quietly as Emtee tells his story, starting with the dramatic on-stage pass out that made him take stock of his life and realise he had to get his house in order.
“I am now sober from all narcotics,” he posted on Twitter a few months ago. “I don’t drink alcohol and I’m grateful for all my supporters.I’m back.”
Emtee wants us to know he wasn’t high or drunk on the day he collapsed during his gig. In fact, he hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol “since high school” and hadn’t smoked any weed or had a codeine “sip” that night, he insists.
He was merely exhausted.
He had travelled to the event by bus and had slept the whole way. “When we arrived in Limpopo I was woken up to go and perform.”
He’s still getting used to the life of a performer and sometimes has to do five shows a day. On that day things happened very fast: one minute he was sleeping and the next he was on stage performing.
“I was tired,” he says. “I lost concentration in the middle of the performance because I had just woken up and I was drained.
“I lost consciousness for a second. When my mind came back I was being carried off stage. I couldn’t understand what was going on because I was not done with my set – that’s how gone I was.”
He was in “another world of confusion” and it gave him the fright of his life.
Although he maintains he wasn’t high that day he admits he’s been smoking dagga since 2012. But weed has never made him collapse or act out of character, he says.
“I didn’t fall because of being high. I have collected awards, I have done interviews, written songs and performed while high on weed and that was never a problem.”
A lot of people blamed his mistakes on weed, he says. “They say I’m slow because I smoke and that’s not the case.” To “prove to people” he can be clean and that “marijuana doesn’t control my life”, he checked into a wellness clinic in Bloemfontein.
“I can’t call it a rehab. It’s like a clinic. It’s an enclosed community for people with different issues – not just drugs but alcohol, behavioural issues, depression,anxiety, addiction and things like that.”
The Lephalale incident made him realise he hadn’t been taking good care of his health.
“Nam ndingumntu (I’m also human), I make mistakes just like everyone else,” he says.
“I wanted to clean myself up and to learn how to deal with my problems.” He was at the clinic for 21 days where he received counselling and spoke about some of the pressures affecting him.
“I learnt a lot about myself while I was there. I was given a couple of pills to help with my recovery process. I don’t even know what they were – I just wanted to be all right. I ate well and went for walks.
“I had visits from my family and I got to reconnect with myself because I felt like I was losing myself.”
With no cellphones or outside communication, Emtee says he enjoyed being away from all the noise. “Around the time of the fall things got too much for me. I went into some type of depression and I needed to get away,” he says.
The industry comes with a lot of pressure, says the artist, who was born in Matatiele. “I come from humble beginnings where I went for days without eating and I would go to school without shoes. I didn’t grow up with all this money, fancy cars, the clothes and house.”
Now he’s one of the busiest artists in the country, with back-to-back bookings and he’s constantly working on new music.
The amount of work and the fame sometimes gets to him, he says. “It can be overwhelming. I had never been out of the country until I became famous. There’s a lot of pressure and people don’t understand it.”
Dagga wasn’t his only drug of choice. For the past three years Emtee has also been drinking about a litre of a codeine concoction a week.
Codeine, a prescription pain medication, can become addictive.
It’s also an ingredient found in some cough syrups and users make a concoction of cough medicine, ground up tablets and cooldrink, drinking the liquid in a practice known as “drinking lean”, “sizzurp” or “sippin’”.
“I’ve been sippin’ since 2014,” Emtee says. “It’s crazy, it’s the world we live in. I won’t lie, [American rapper] Lil Wayne influenced me badly in many ways.”
He first became aware of sippin’ when he noticed his icon, Lil Wayne, carrying cups everywhere he went and discovered he’d been drinking codeine to escape the pressures of the world.
“I can’t put it on anyone else. I still look up to him till this day.”
Codeine slowed down his heart rate and made him calm, he explains. “It was a luxury for me and I used it to celebrate.”
The rapper says he drank codeine two to three times a day. “If I had a long day or if I was stressed then I would end my day with a sip and it would put me to sleep.
Although my girl was worried and sometimes asked me to slow down on the sippin’, I never listened. I still did it for myself.”
He read up on codeine before he started taking it, he adds, to make sure he knew what he was getting into.
“Everything I get into I always make sure I read up on it and educate myself. I knew the effects of drinking codeine.”
Walking around with a double cup – a plastic cup within a cup – filled with codeine was part of the trap culture and image.
He admits to influencing some of his friends into drinking codeine. “I told them the side effects of drinking it. I feel a bit guilty but it was their choice.
“What I feel most guilty about is influencing my younger followers because I am hearing that codeine has even hit the township. Now my responsibility is to get people out the same way I got them in –through my music.”
Emtee is adamant he was never addicted to drugs or anything else. He quit smoking and booze “easily” so he doesn’t believe he has an addictive personality.
“I’ve learnt that addiction is a disease and I don’t have it. It’s easy for me to walk away from a lot of things but I won’t lie, it wasn’t easy for me to walk away from the cup – that’s why I went to Bloem.”
He had flulike symptoms for days when he gave up codeine, he adds. At the clinic he was told he could be addicted but he insisted he wasn’t.
“I had it under control. I never injured my kids, I just injured myself internally but I’m saved now from all those dangers,” he says.
Emtee says some of his friends are also trying to stop drinking codeine now. “I’ll never do it again. I missed the old sober Emtee who was hungry to succeed and could stand up for himself.”
At the clinic Emtee learnt he swept his problems aside and used marijuana and codeine to cope with his issues.
He makes an example of the time he flashed his penis on Instagram “by mistake” last year. “My private parts were all over the internet and it’s not something I planned to do or was proud of.
“It damaged me a lot and made me mad within. I couldn’t be mad at anyone because it was my mistake. The criticism was hurtful but I brushed it under the carpet and let it go. I just wanted good vibes, peace and harmony all the time and that’s not how life works.”
Being assertive and standing his ground is also one of the lessons he emerged with from the clinic.
This is especially important when dealing with his friends, he says. People walked in and out of his home at will but he’s put his foot down.
“At times I would have eight or 10 cars parked outside my house and I realized this wasn’t normal.”
“People would buzz or knock up to 12 times a day and I’d wonder why the security guard let them in but it was my fault. I let it happen because I did not have order and discipline.”
Not anymore. He now has rules he lives by and has distanced himself from a lot of people in the process. “I used to live with a lot of my friends because I have enough rooms at the crib.”
Now he helps them find alternative accommodation so he can have “a solid home” that’s not disruptive to his kids.
He’s taking his role as a father seriously and he wants a decent home that’s stable and where they can play – so if you want to see Emtee these days, well, you need to call to ask if you can visit.
“You can’t just buzz or knock.”
Emtee spends a lot of his time with his children now. “I’m a hands-on dad. Whatever ridiculous kiddies’ games they have, I play.”
He also keeps a journal where he shares his thoughts and sometimes goes back to read some of the challenges he’s overcome.
“I believe at some point I need to write a book or a movie about my life.”
He’s now a changed man, says Emtee, who’s just finished recording his EP DIY2. “I’m ready to influence people positively through the best way I know how – music. People can bring all the breathalysers and tests: I’m super clean.
“I’m never going back to smoking weed or sippin’ again.”