Interview: SA's Got Talent finalist James Bhemgee

"I felt really emotional. I wanted to cry," James Bhemgee recalls the still-fresh memory of his performance on the hit television talent show, SA's Got Talent. "The hardest part was not knowing if the judges would like my type of singing.”

On the third episode of the show, James Bhemgee from Rocklands took the stage in Cape Town not looking fit for show business. At 45 years old, he lacked the youthful polish and shine of an overnight pop star. But he looked streetwise in an urban style windbreaker bomber jacket and he knew something people at home didn't. Out came the voice.

"This is what SA's Got Talent is about. You are what SA's Got Talent is about," Shado Twala, one of the show's three judges, told Bhemgee. The first glance judgments smashed in mere seconds. "As singers from this kind of music go, there is no question that you are the best we have seen so far over the last two years," infamously staunch Randall Abrahams said.

"You stand here reminding us that wherever you are, even if you sweeping the streets; if you do your passion, a break could happen for you as it did. And you are so humble. You are a lesson for all of us," Ian von Memerty told Bhemgee. Von Memerty was reduced to a mere caricature of himself, ready to burst into tears.
Sadly, Bhemgee's break did not happen as overnight as the bright lights of reality television would like to summarise. He hasn't swept a street in over 20 years.

"People used to come out and say, 'Shut up! You are making noise!'" he says. His screeching voice sounds shrill and far from what came out under the bright television lights. "People didn’t know this type of singing was good. Good singing at the time was a pop kind of singing."

He sits under fluorescent lights in a white room, looking unafraid of the questions bombarded at him.

"I used to sing while sweeping the streets in the white neighbourhoods hoping that one day someone would hear me," Bhemgee says to dipping heads, awkwardly. Reluctantly, he adds. "I do'’t want to go too far back, but in the Apartheid years, we always thought white people would be able to help."

On a lucky day in 1989, his wish was granted. On his usual route, Bhemgee sang Gé Korsten’s Sonder Jou through the streets of Mowbray, Cape Town when an elderly woman came out of her house asking, "Was that you singing so beautifully?" Sounding confronted and the proud owner of the subject of conversation, Bhemgee recalls his reply. "Ja!" he says, nodding his head down hard. "Oh my God, I thought it was the radio," the woman said, astonished.

The woman, Angelique Fuhr, invited Bhemgee into her house and phoned her daughter, a professional pianist, to hear Bhemgee sing. Convinced of his talents, Fuhr paid for his first singing lessons, but after three months his teacher gave up on him, convinced he needed a better suited coach for his talents. Fuhr convinced advertising agency Young and Rubicam to sponsor his studies further.

"She sent me to the Nico Malan theatre (now the Cape Town Artscape Theatre Centre) where I was taught by the American baritone Wayne Long." After two and a half years of training, Bhemgee left the theatre to study a performance diploma at the University of Cape Town.

"I had a really tough time. I couldn't speak English and I couldn't even read sheet music. Singing was the only thing I could do." Bhemgee excelled in the practical parts of his studies, but had trouble adapting to the academic environment. "I only finished Standard 6 (Grade 8) while all the other students passed matric."

"I was very clever at school up to Grade 7," Bhemgee says.  "I was always second or third and sometimes first in my class." A bright student, his education was suddenly interrupted.  "In Grade 6, the boycotts started. For the kids township rioting, the boycotts; it was lekker." He says this looking like a disciplinarian father. "They're boycotting and you're at home. That's how I lost out on school."

After a story on him on M-Net's Carte Blanche, Bhemgee left the country before finishing his university diploma. In 1994, he appeared on Breakfast News (now BBC Breakfast) in the United Kingdom. As word of his talent spread, he had the opportunity to study in Germany, where he spent four years. "I can speak German now and in America I started learning theory. I can read music now. Each country had something good for me."
Before going to the United States, there was even talk of a film based on Bhemgee's life. Bhemgee declined the Australian company's offer on the advice of his advisors, feeling that his story would make a better film when he returns from the USA. It would not turn out so.

Bhemgee now lives in Rocklands, Cape Town and has six children, none of whom grew up under his watch. "In the township, it's very common for the mother to see to the child. You stay at your home, she stays at her home. That's how my children grew up."

That's how Bhemgee grew up, too. "I didn't grow up with my parents. I was born in Worcester and at four years old, my mother dropped my brother, Jonathan, and I at my stepmother's house where we stayed for two years." His mother then took them into her care again. "We stayed in Retreat, we stayed in Heideveld and we stayed in Gugulethu," Bhemgee counts down on his hands. "I could speak Xhosa perfectly at the time." After getting in trouble with the police, his mother was taken into custody and he finally settled with family in Kalksteenfontein with his brother. "My father was at sea. He was a fisherman," Bhemgee says from a very vague memory.

"The R250 000 would be a very good boost," Bhemgee says dreaming of winning SA's Got Talent. When he saw the first season of SA's Got Talent last year, Bhemgee thought: "My God, this is something I can win." His aim is to put his nomad past behind him and settle down in his own house. "It feels like the circle is going to be broken," he says looking desperate to let out a breath of relief. 

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