Sjava: The Man In the Mirror
Breaking down the South African hip hop artist’s latest album, Isibuko.
Sjava’s third studio album Isibuko raked in more than 7.7 million streams in its first week. This was done without a lead single, just a well-planned and well-executed rollout and a loyal and ever-growing fanbase that had last heard from the BET Award-winning artist in 2021 with his previous project, Umsebenezi.
Isibuko is Sjava’s most personal album to date. Sjava lays his vulnerabilities bare. “Till today, my life is a mess, because of what I do. I was happier before I put out the music,” the South African artist is heard saying in the album’s trailer. “But now I’m happy because I finally understand that it doesn’t matter what another person says.”
Through a Broken Mirror
The album's trailer reveals a man in the process of self-reflection. Isibuko’s provenance was a minor accident. “I bought this mirror at Game,” Sjava said, explaining the album title is IsiZulu for “mirror,” during the album’s listening session in Rosebank, Joburg. “But then when I was walking down the stairs, I dropped it and it broke. But it was still in its packaging, so I just kept it as is. I would look at myself every time when I was getting ready, checking out my swag nam’ saying. And where I live, it’s quiet, so sometimes I’d just look at myself in that mirror and just think.”
From that reflection was born the concept of Sjava taking a moment to examine himself. “So,” he says, “I decided, let me make this album, an album for someone who will listen to it by themselves and it speaks to them. The music you play when you’re alone is usually not what everybody plays. I wanted to create that kind of music.”
Sjava - Isibuko (Album Trailer)youtu.be
“This is an album you can listen to when you are at home on your own or you are driving, music that will uplift you. Whenever you feel like a failure, you have a song that will encourage you, tell you that you are just pushing pressure on yourself, you are on the right track.”
The last sentence is a quote of the hook to the poignant “Amavaka,” a song on Isibuko where Sjava speaks of disliking who he sees in the mirror. “Ngay'buka es'bukweni ngay'zonda / Ngathi, ‘uwena omosh' impilo yami,’ ngaz'khomba,” (which directly translates to: “I looked myself in the mirror, and hated myself, and said, ‘you are the one who’s messing up my life’”) he sings as a lo-fi instrumental hisses under his hoarse alto.
YouTube Lo-Fi Beats
The lo-fi production is one of the elements that set Isibuko apart from Sjava’s previous three projects — Isina Muva (2015), Umqhele (2018), Umsebenzi (2021) — which were almost exclusively produced by his long-time producer Ruff. About 30% of Isibuko was produced by lo-fi producers Webmoms and Delayde who are both from the U.K.
Sjava found their music while listening to lo-fi beats on YouTube after a stressful day, he says. Some beats caught his attention. “I saw the names, went on IG and DM’d them saying, ‘I’m Sjava from SA, I fuck with your shit.’ I sent them links to my music, they liked what they heard, they sent me a beat and "Umcebo" was born.”
He recalls having one beat on loop as he drove and started freestyling what would later become “Grounding,” a song about a conversation between Sjava and his mother, who is asking him to settle down and get married. Sjava lets his mother know that the game today is different from dating during her time. “Uthando lwamanje sel’hlukile, lugcwele udlame (love today, is violent),” he sings.
Sjava #Isibuko Live Medleyyoutu.be
Webmoms and Delayed also produced “Ubuhle Bendalo,” a song about the necessity for humans to take a break from the hustle and bustle of the city and reconnect with nature and their roots. “We went to Emtshezi on a camp,” says Sjava, “I was just walking around and the chorus came.”
Webmoms and Delayed are among a number of producers who contribute to the 18-track album. Bassist and guitarist Vuyo Manyike produced “Ungavumi." Manyike, who’s also an instrumentalist, played the guitar on “Ubuhle Bendalo” on Isibuko and "Winter Nights" on Sjava's 2015 album, Isina Muva.
A Personal Body of Work
While some songs draw from observing the lives of others, a majority of the album feels personal because of the amount of detail in his writing. From the story of an ex who drunk texts him at 3 a.m. as she listens to too much Summer Walker (“Amaphiko”), to a song like “Amakhehla,” where he sings about walking around guarded by his ancestors, or a song like “Isoka” where he warns his woman that haters will talk shit about him, but she shouldn’t be bothered as no one is flawless.
“But, I was talking about the public more than intombi (a woman) because there have been situations where I was portrayed negatively so that the girl, who’s you, would dump me,” Sjava says. He was likely referring to the sexual harassment case that was opened by his ex-girlfriend Lady Zamar, a case that was later dismissed by the court due to a lack of evidence.
On “Ithuna,” a song featuring maskandi legend Shwi, Sjava sings from the perspective of a womaniser reflecting on his ways, which he equates to digging himself a grave. “I’m encouraging amajongo (gents) to slow down and settle down,” Sjava says. “After recording it, I felt like I had said my piece but the song needed an elder’s voice. Then I went to uBab’uShwi and broke the idea down to him." The maskandi legend introduces himself through backing vocals on the hook before dropping gems on his verse.
“It’s important to go back to our legends because they are the ones who inspired us to get here. If you listen to my music, you hear a lot of Shwi,” Sjava says.
Late kwaito legend Mandoza offers inspiration to Sjava in the song “My Life,” which features fellow ATM (African Trap Movement) member Emtee and Emtee Records signee, Lolli Native. “People who know me know how much I look up to Mandoza. He motivated me,” Sjava says. “That song was inspired by his vibe and aura. When I was making it, I remember saying to Ruff I’m not sure if it will sound the way it does in my head, but let me try.”
In the song, Sjava and his collaborators express that their lives aren’t perfect, which is a misconception people tend to make when looking from the outside. One can’t be blamed for thinking that. Sjava has fought some battles since his introduction to the game in the 2010s, but he has effortlessly maintained momentum in his thriving career.With the release of Isibuko, Sjava further settles into the hearts of South African music lovers’ hearts and the annals of contemporary South African music.