Zakes Bantwini on Osama, the song's lyrics and success - ‘I didn’t expect it to be received this way’

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The hitmaker tells Drum he had to go back to basics and learn what the 'new school, cool kids were doing to make a modern-sounding album'.
The hitmaker tells Drum he had to go back to basics and learn what the 'new school, cool kids were doing to make a modern-sounding album'.
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He has released his long-awaited 11-track album Ghetto King.

The last album he released was Love Light and Music 2 in 2017. In this new project, his single Osama became the first song on RadioMonitor's to retain the number one spot for 13 weeks in a row on SA radio charts. The unofficial video of Osama got well over 1 million views on YouTube even before the official release.

Zakes Bantwini (41), real name Zakhele Madida says he had to go back to basics and learn what the “new school, cool kids were doing to make a modern sounding album”, he says.

“I chose the title Ghetto King because I like the contrast. It’s not often that you will hear the words ghetto and king in one sentence. The ghetto often has a negative connotation but from the dust, a king can be born. I love the contrast and joining opposing views,” he says.

Making the album was a learning experience for him.

“I was in the studio with young people because I wanted to learn from them. I also didn’t work with them only because they are young, but because they are dope musicians. I love what they do. I follow the music, I don’t follow the fame, that is why most of the songs on my album don’t have big names but have great musicians,” he says.

“There’s a certain sound that comes with the youth and I encouraged that with what I knew.”

He still cannot believe how Osama has dominated the charts.

“I knew we had a great song, but I didn’t expect it to be received in this way. Osama is big,” he says.

“I have no control over what happens to it next.”

Zakes says the lyrics to Osama can be interpreted in many different ways.

“People say the song takes them to a magical place, they say the song is spiritual and almost like a prayer. But for me, it’s all about the melody. The feeling one gets in the melody. Osama means lion, and I wanted people to tap into the lion within,” he says.

In the song he mentions Miriam Makeba in the lyrics, "because of how amazing she was as a musician and how she fought for Africans. Fela Kuti as well because he's my muse, and 'Lilongwe' being one of my favourite cities in Africa,” he says.

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With the rise of Amapiano music, Zakes is not threatened and believes there is space for all genres of music.

“Genres can co-exist. It’s only in South Africa syndrome where that has to end, people that people want to play one genre at a time. I think there’s space for all genres. I would hate to only listen to one genre of music. I want to hear Hip-Hop, Gqom, dance, and everything getting the same kind of love,” he says.

This year has been tough on all artists but while working on music, he has been pursuing other business interests. 

“I have invested in our company called Blackpay.co.za where we support township businesses. Anyone can go in there. We finance housing, cars, personal bonds, events, and people who want to extend their homes in the township for business purposes. I have also set up an agency that will operate all over the world, so I have been busy with multiple streams of income,” he says.

“This year hasn’t been bad. I have been lucky. After so many years, even during the pandemic people are still jamming to my music. So many of my friends have been affected badly, but I feel truly blessed,” he says.

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This year, he celebrates 15 years in the music industry. With the accolades and success, Zakes believes he has done everything he can in the South African music industry and it’s time he goes international.

“There’s not much left for me to do here at home,” he says.

“I’ve made great music. I sacrificed two years of my life working a nine to five job as an executive head of Artists and repertoire (A&R) specialist for Sony Music Africa. I had one salary for two years making sure that I help to fix the country’s music scene and to develop and release new content from Sony Music Africa’s domestic artist roster and I’m content,” he says. 

“My wife was not too happy about me having one source of income, but I was determined to make a positive change in the SA music culture,” he says.

“It’s now time to get out of my comfort zone and go to other countries,” he says.

“I’m ready to travel the world, first starting in the African continent and then abroad,” he says.

He was born and raised in KwaMashu F-section in KwaZulu-Natal. After matriculating, Zakes went on to study at Natal Technikon (Durban University of Technology) where he received a national certificate in Light Music.

In 2004, he established Mayonie Productions which is known for music such as Bum Bum, Wasting My Time, and Clap Your Hands. Zakes released his debut album The Good Life in 2008.

Two years later, he released the album Love, Light, and Music. Last year, Zakes announced that he had been accepted into the prestigious Harvard University Business School in the United States to study the business of entertainment, music, and sports. 

“You know it’s never too late to train yourself and to learn something new or an instrument. Go to school. You are better off broke with education than without an education.”

Zakes says the South African industry is flooded with producers and artists who tend to take advantage of the unknown talent and do not give them the well-deserved credit and that needs to change.

“We have an issue in South Africa where people don’t give credit where it's due. They want to be seen as though they did everything on their own until you take them into the studio and realise that they can’t produce. I love working with different people and crediting them. But I put education at the forefront of it all.”

Zakes says what is needed to better the SA music scene is government and corporate participation.

“Government and corporate needs to invest in the entertainment industry. People are still suffering, looking for something to fall back on. Artists survive on luck. It’s volatile and not structured. You can’t even get a good bond and life cover as an artist. Everything I complicated.”

This festive season, he plans to work and gig across the country. 

“It’s just a pity that gigs are being cancelled. I had a fully packed festive season diary but because of the increasing covid-19 numbers, gigs are being cancelled and it means spending more time with family, and making more music,” he says.

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