Samthing Soweto is soaring to success
Spending time in prison made him realise life is short – so Samthing Soweto is determined to make it count
HE FOUND his voice in the most unlikely of places – behind bars. The chants, the beats and the haunting a cappella sounds of prison songs inspired the young felon and drug addict and helped him realise he had to turn his life around. In fact, the music made such an impression on Samkelo Mdolomba that he joined an a cappella singing group soon after he was released from jail in 2000 and returned to school – and he hasn’t looked back since. That group of talented teens – consisting of Samkelo, Buhlebendalo Mda, Ntsika Ngxanga and Luphindo Ngxanga – would go on to become the award-winning band The Soil, but without Samkelo. Throughout their time together the sounds Samkelo had heard during his twomonth stint in jail for attempted robbery and possession of an unlicensed firearm thrummed through his head. “There was a lot of chanting in the prison
songs we sang,” he tells DRUM. “I wanted to combine that sound with hip hop and a touch of jazz and come up with something unique.”
Although he has no intention of returning to prison he’s grateful for the love of music he found during his time there. “I knew I could sing but I needed to practise. While I was in prison I spent a lot of time at the chapel, where I sang a lot. The Bible also helped me kick my drug habit.”
Samkelo and his friends worked hard on The Soil after leaving school and were about to make it big when everything fell apart in a contractual dispute.
The group was offered a recording deal by Native Rhythms owner Dr Sipho Sithole, but Samkelo wasn’t happy about it.
He wanted the freedom to be part of The Soil as well as another group, The Fridge, and Sipho was having none of it. You can’t have your cake and eat it, Samkelo was told.
He left the group in frustration but he regrets his attitude now, the 29-year-old admits. “I was young, I didn’t know better. I wanted to do everything at the same time and I admit I was wrong. I regret leaving The Soil but I’m happy they’re doing well.”
He’s doing rather well too. Fans know him as Samthing Soweto, the singer who’s making waves in the Mzansi music scene all on his own with his unique sound.
He features in Akanamali, the hit song by DJ and producer Sun-EL Musician, regarded by many as one of the songs of the year. Featuring Samkelo’s a cappella influence and an unmistakable African beat, the song is the soulful story of a love that rises above money problems and disapproving friends.
It’s regularly played on radio and Samkelo is reaping the rewards. Solo success feels great, he says excitedly.
“Some people still recognise me from The Soil because they know my voice, but I’m ready to take my shine.”
And it’s a shine that started when he was in the darkest of places.
SAMKELO’S troubles started when he dropped out of school in Grade 8. Born and raised in Protea North, Soweto, he was one of four children raised by single mom Thembisile Mdolomba. By the time he was 10 his older sister, Amina, had died in a car crash and his mom had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which led to her losing her job.
“She’d lock herself up in her room,” he recalls. “One day she was sad, the next day she would be very happy. She would also hallucinate.”
Without parental supervision Samkelo ran wild and fell in with “a really bad group of kids”, he says. “I dropped out of school and started smoking drugs. I was 10 when we started to rob people.”
By 11 he had a criminal record after he was arrested for attempted robbery and possession of an unlicensed firearm. He and his gang had been heading to a train station near a gravesite to rob people one night when the tables were turned on them. “We were busy robbing someone when we got caught and mob justice took over,” he says.
He and his friends were beaten up, taken to the cops, then sent to juvenile prison in Krugersdorp. “Looking back I’m so ashamed of the things I did,” he says.
By the time he got out of prison, fired up by music and faith, he was ready to clean up his act. “I realised life was too short and I’d been given a second chance. I knew I needed to stop smoking and drinking and go back to school,” Samkelo says.
Which he did. He matriculated and it was the smartest move of his life.
LEAVING The Soil might not have been the smartest move of his career, but he’s been steadily working on his solo career as Samthing Soweto ever since.
In 2015 he made an appearance on Coke Studio alongside international sensation Spoek Mathambo and Shane Cooper and his music has also featured on TV shows such as Isidingo and Big Brother Mzansi.
He’s responsible for the title sequence music for Rhythm City and has also contributed to the soundtrack of the movie Otelo Burning, a coming-of-age film set in mid-’80s SA.
He also won the Standard Bank Ovation award at the 2017 National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, has had soldout performances at the Soweto Theatre and The Orbit in Joburg, and he’s currently touring the country again.
He was also one of the featured artists at the recent Fringe Festival in Cape Town.
So all in all, he’s not doing too badly, he says, and with his voice on eight of the songs from The Soil’s first album, he’s still living off the money he made from that.
Though things aren’t great between him and the rest of The Soil members, he admits.
“I only started chatting to Buhle when she went for the sangoma initiation in 2016. I haven’t spoken to Ntsika or Luphindo yet.
“But I understand it was a business decision and they had to go on without me.”
Still, he wouldn’t mind working with them again one day “if they’d be willing”.
Meanwhile, prepare to hear a lot more from this talented man called Samthing Soweto.
‘Looking back I’m so ashamed of the things I did’
Samkelo (right) with The Soil members (from left) Luphindo Ngxanga, Buhlebendalo Mda and Ntsika Ngxanga.
Samkelo has carved a successful solo career and is currently touring the country.
He regrets leaving The Soil and says he’s open to working with the group again.