Rebecca Malope’s charmed life
Gospel queen Rebecca Malope opens up about her difficult childhood, her abusive father and why she has no regrets
THE queen of Mzansi’s gospel scene has been busy lately. She was the toast of the South African Music Awards ( Samas) recently, where she was honoured with a lifetime achievement award; she’s working on a new album; and she’s using her brand-new studio and depth of experience to help fulfil the dreams of other musicians. Oh, and she’s about to celebrate her 49th birthday.
With all this on her plate you’d think Rebecca Malope would be offish when we call her up and ask if we can have a slice of her time – but offish is the last thing this diminutive star could be.
She has a smile as warm as the summer sun as she welcomes us like old friends when we arrive at her state-of-the-art recording studio at one of her properties in Buccleuch, Sandton.
Rebecca – or Sis’ Ribs as she’s affectionately called by her army of fans – is still glowing after her well-deserved Sama achievement. “It was such an honour,” she says. “It’s wonderful to be recognised.”
Recognition is something she deserves. Three decades in the music business have seen her rise to the top of her game and she’s helped boost the careers of dozens of other artists who’ve worked with her along the way. And it seems there’s no stopping her. In the studio we meet her producer, Neil Kuny, who has worked with Rebecca for more than 30 years, as well as the musicians from her backing band. These young men and women will also have an opportunity to pursue solo careers when they record their own music in the new studio.
Rebecca is thrilled to be running her own studio.
“I felt it was time for me to stand on my feet,” she says, explaining that working in other studios was always a pressured affair.
“I used to book a studio for R4 000 a day or R680 an hour to record my music. I was always under pressure to finish the recording because there were other musicians who’d also booked the studio.
“I was tired of being told I was running out of budget and should finish up quickly. Here in my new studio I have a lot of time. I choose when to record . . . Nobody is breathing down my neck.”
She wants to use her studio to make Mzansi a better place for her fellow musicians.
“I’m tired of reading stories about musicians who die paupers,” she says. “I want to give everybody who has talent a chance to prove themselves.’’
AFTER giving us a grand tour of her studio we move to her mansion in Kyalami Estates north of Joburg. Rebecca also owns a home in Nelspruit and another in Spruitview. She ushers us in and can’t help laughing when she sees us admiring a display cabinet full of her music awards.
“I don’t know how many awards I’ve won,” she says. “There are more than 40 in there and there are some more in the cottage at the back.’’
We also saw two awards in the garage house when we arrived, we point out.
She laughs again. “Yes, I’m running out of space!”
The singer has two honorary doctorates – from the University of KwaZulu- Natal and from the University of California – for her contribution to music.
“To be honest, I didn’t understand what an honorary doctorate was at first. I thought if they gave you one, they wanted you to open a surgery! But, ah, it’s a blessing.”
Her life wasn’t always blessed though. Growing up in KaNyamazane outside Nelspruit it would be an understatement to say her life was hard.
“I just look back and see a beautiful picture that came out of a gloomy life. God looked after me because the odds were heavily stacked against me.”
Rebecca, who turns 49 on 30 June, opens up about her childhood – one of
the few times she’s delved publicly into those dark years.
She was born prematurely after her father, John Malope, beat her mother, Paulina Twala, while she was pregnant. Rebecca was a sickly, undernourished child who started walking late, “long after other children my age were tottering about”.
“I left school in Grade 1 because we were so poor. Even our neighbours avoided us – they didn’t want to mix with us. They treated us like outcasts because we had nothing. We were always struggling to survive,’’ she says.
“My mother ran away because my father beat her almost every day. I had to get some money so I started working on a tobacco farm when I was 11,’’ she says, choking back tears.
When she was 13 Rebecca and her sister, Cynthia, left home and went to Ermelo because Cynthia wanted to join a music group called Dan Nkosi and The Villagers.
“But when we got to Ermelo, to our disappointment Dan Nkosi had disbanded The Villagers.
“My sister and I hitched a ride to Johannesburg with nothing but the clothes on our backs. We were afraid to go back home because our father would beat us.”
Rebecca and her sister lived with nine other people in a small room in Evaton near Vereeniging.
“We went to Gallo Records but we were rejected. Some musicians told me I should go back to school – I was only 14. My sister and I were starving and Jabu Sibumbe, who played bass for Stimela, gave us money for food. He was like a father to us. Even today, he’s like a father to me.”
LIKE Job in the Bible, who suffered tremendous hardship but would never curse the Lord and was eventually rewarded for his faith, Rebecca believes God has a plan for her.
“That’s why I always tell people who are experiencing hard knocks to never give up. Keep on pushing because you never know – your luck could be
waiting just around the corner.”
After battling her way through her teenage years, her turning point came in 1987 when, at 19, she won the Shell Road to Fame TV music talent search with the song Shine On in the best female vocalist category.
Despite winning the contest she struggled to find a record company until Mike Fuller of Fuller Artists Management Enterprise arranged a recording contract for her and she recorded her first album, Sthembele Kuwe.
After the album’s release she went home to look for her mother, whom she hadn’t seen for many years. She found her living in an abandoned caravan in a veld in Witbank. “I took her in and bought her a three-bedroom house in Spruitview,’’ she recalls.
Then she wanted to find her father, a decision her mother wasn’t happy about. But Rebecca insisted.
“My mother said, ‘How can you do that? This person wanted to kill me and he also wanted to kill you’.
“But I said, ‘Mom, he’s my father. I want to find him and talk to him’. I knew my father was abusive – that’s why I never wanted to get married. But he was my father.”
In 1990 Rebecca drove to Nelspruit and found her father.
“He told me he didn’t expect me to ever come back. He was sick so I took him back to Johannesburg and had him admitted to a private hospital.”
After he was discharged she took him to live with her while she was building a double-storey house for him in Nelspruit.
“I also bought him a double- cab bakkie. My father passed away in 1996, the same year my brother Jonathan died of a heart attack and my sister Cynthia was shot dead by her boyfriend,’’ she says.
She adopted her sister’s three children, Zweli (now 37), Noluthando (now 29) and Thandeka (now 25). Noluthando is now Rebecca’s manager.
Despite the many hardships she’s faced, Rebecca says she’s grateful because God has been good to her.
“I made peace with my father and I forgave him before he died. I’m a mother to three beautiful and wonderful children. I have a successful career and lovely homes. So I have no regrets.”
Business is a family affair for Rebecca. Noluthando, who was adopted by the singer after her mother died, is now her aunt’s manager. (Turn over)
ABOVE: Rebecca is a proud “mom” to her sister’s three kids, Zweli (back), Noluthando (left) and Thandeka.
Sis’ Ribs is thrilled to have a recording studio in one of her three homes and plans to open it up to artists who are looking for a chance to prove themselves.