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.

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