Letta Mbulu on how she’s stayed relevant: 'I didn’t care, I just wanted to sing'

Letta Mbulu. (Photo: Getty Images/Gallo Images)
Letta Mbulu. (Photo: Getty Images/Gallo Images)

Johannesburg - Established South African musos came together for the launch of AMPD Studios in vibey Newtown in Joburg to share their hard-won wisdom on financial issues with their younger counterparts. 

The studio, sponsored by Old Mutual, is a music and cultural hub for young and tech-smart artists that’s been created by the financial service group to amplify Africa’s musical talent and to help inspire and financially empower the younger generation.

Jazz legend Letta Mbulu and Thandiswa Mazwai served as panellists in a discussion about money matters in music and other artists in the audience shared their financial experiences in a lively discussion.

Among those in attendance were veteran musos Caiphus Semenya, Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Sipho "Hotstix" Mabuse as well as younger faces such as BET winner Sjava, Amanda Black, Slikour and Khuli Chana. Metro FM’s Thomas Msengana served as MC. Taking the mic, Mam’ Letta shared why she’s managed to stay relevant all these years: it’s because she’s not in it for the money, it’s all about the music. 

"I did it without money. I just wanted to sing, I didn’t care about anything else." 

But she also shared her moments of struggle with guests. The Not Yet Uhuru singer has been active since the 1960s and spoke about the time she and husband Caiphus Semenya, who’ve been married for 54 years, couldn’t make ends meet while living in the United States. She says things were so tough they sometimes couldn’t afford food. But after a lot of hard work and dedication they slowly started making money and, importantly, they learnt to invest it.

"His money is mine and mine is his," she says with a laugh.

Sipho speaks up to say he’s one of many artists who’ve been broke at some point in their careers but jokes Yvonne Chaka Chaka has never been broke in her life because she married a doctor.

"At 21, I had a million in my bank account," Yvonne says, but adds she hated her manager. He was ripping her off, she says, but he invested some of her money.

"I hated him then, but I love him now."

 Her good financial situation is also helped by the fact she’s not a shopaholic, she says.

"We don’t have good managers and agencies in South Africa looking out for artists. Money comes and goes. "When you have it, don’t say tomorrow will cater for itself because it may not," she advises.

Unlike Mam’ Letta, says Yvonne, everything in her house belongs to her.

"My husband’s money is mine and my money is also mine," she says with a laugh.

As for Thandiswa, she’s avoided being broke because of her decision to invest in a house. She’s also driven small cars for many years, she says, because she doesn’t believe in splashing money on flashy cars. "I grew up at a time where we didn’t show off what we had to other kids because we knew we were all suffering."

The There’s Music in the Air singer says it took her about a year to decide if she should buy a fancy car because of how she was raised. When she eventually gave in she felt like she was betraying something she’d always believed in. Thandiswa urges musicians to first find out why they want to pursue music as a career.

"My advice to young people is to think about what they really want to do."

Mam’ Letta also believes unions are very important in the music industry. When she performed in the US for the first time she was welcomed by an agent who informed her she couldn’t perform there if she wasn’t part of their music union.

"As time went by I realised how important the union was. They protected me from producers who wanted to rip me off but also protected producers from musicians. No one can rip you off when you have a union."

At AMPD Studios Mam’ Letta, Thandiswa and Brian O’ Shea will be involved in shaping the careers of future musicians. The state-of-the-art music recording studio includes a Metro FM satellite broadcasting station, a coffee shop, a VIP lounge, hi-tech presentation rooms and various workspaces.

"We envisage a dynamic venue that will serve as a platform and springboard for music stars as well as a laboratory for learning, growing and building financial prosperity," explains Thobile Tshabalala, Old Mutual’s head of brand. 

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24