Gqom phenomenon Mr Thela hoists SA flag on world dance music stage to international acclaim
‘I pioneered Cape Town gqom’ — 24-year-old Simphiwe Sihawu from Samora Machel in Cape Town took the South African gqom sound to South Korea and the UK all in one year. Sihawu, better known as Mr Thela, started his music career as a hobby in 2016 but emerged in 2020 after releasing the collaborative album ‘Make Cape Town Great Again’.
During August, Mr Thela took on his second international gig at The Clapham Grand in Birmingham, UK in partnership with Skyy Vodka.
He joined the likes of Uncle Waffles, Major League DJz and a plethora of amapiano artists in taking the local art form to world stages.
The musical prodigy has been left mind-blown by the immense support and love he is receiving from around the world and says it’s “God’s blessings that all of this is happening”.
His first international gig in Seoul, South Korea, earlier this year manifested through word of mouth and international hunger for the South African sound.
“South Korea was everything I thought it would be. It was incredibly exciting. The love was amazing to experience, and it was heartwarming to see some people from South Africa who keep on spreading the culture over there. People travelled for four hours just to come and see me. I am eternally grateful,” said Mr Thela.
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Mr Thela told Daily Maverick that even though the Amapiano genre is dominating the charts and has gained a global audience of its own, he had no intention of enticing the audience and using Amapiano tunes as bait for the longevity of his international career and reputation.
“They wanted a gqom artist. I mean…if they wanted an Amapiano artist, they could have easily gotten one, but they chose me and I played strictly gqom which got the crowd going crazy. This is my sound and I’m sticking to it”, said Mr Thela.
Gqom is a genre of electronic dance music that emerged in the early 2010s from Durban. There is a slight difference between Durban gqom and Cape Town gqom. The Cape Town one infused a keyboard sound and is sometimes called Gospel gqom.
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Growing up in one of Cape Town’s crime hotspot areas, Samora Machel in Philippi, Mr Thela was determined to control his fate by being driven by passion. As a preacher’s kid, Mr Thela played the keyboard every Sunday and listened to the “forbidden” gqom music with his friends later and became hooked to the sound.
He went to AZ Berman Primary School in Mitchells Plain and went to Ned Doman High School in Athlone. He was taught deejaying by local DJ Soyisele Mdzinwa — popularly known as Ta Koko.
The 24-year-old currently lives in Cape town’s Northern Suburbs.
Mr Thela’s childhood dream was to become a pilot, mostly to feed his soul with the beauty of diverse cultures around the world. However, because of his humbling economic state at home, he had to think on his feet for ways to help put bread on the table and gqom was there to “save” him.
Family ties and career growth
“I wanted to travel the world and thought that by becoming a pilot I would secure that, but growing up things were difficult and I needed to be by my mother’s side. I needed to try to find something that I’m going to be able to make quick money out of and help my mother.
“Gqom was just that but it really started out as a hobby but then I saw that this is my career, this is what I want to do but being a preacher’s kid, I knew my mother would not agree to it because of the behaviour that is associated with it, like becoming an alcoholic, addicted to drugs and becoming a womaniser,” said Mr Thela.
Although Mr Thela did not receive any support from his family, he believed in his talent and kept going until he could prove to them that the path he had chosen was indeed the right one for him.
“Today they are my biggest fans,” he said. “They love my music and jot down the dates of my gigs and pray for me. I am blessed to have them.”
From the beginning, Mr Thela experimented with the gqom sound, turning it into his own. He wasn’t aware of what he was doing at the time but his church keyboard inspired him to infuse gospel sounds into his beats.
“I really wanted to accommodate my family and make my music more digestible for them, not knowing that I was creating my own sound. I love my sound, I pioneered Cape Town gqom. I even got to work with the award-winning gospel artist Betusile Mcinga”, said Mr Thela.
Social media played a significant role in the rise of Mr Thela, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. The star wowed his audience with his determination to entertain them consistently on virtual platforms, from which he then gained global recognition. Although social media also provided backlash for the way he articulated himself. However, Mr Thela chose to focus on the positive in order to grow his career.
His mother, Noluthando said he excelled in school and was good in mathematics. “He entered school competitions and would get awards,” said the proud mom. “He was a well-groomed child who excelled in soccer and was part of the school singing choir. He dropped the ball when his deejaying dream started coming to light. His school results dropped and he did not have time for his studies.”
The star now has his own record label where he mentors young musicians from Samora, including his 15-year-old brother. Although he has branded himself as a gqom artist, Mr Thela explores different sounds as a producer as he appreciates versatility.
“I do explore other sounds, but I love gqom, it’s what saved me. I’m a versatile producer. I produce Amapiano, Afro-house… I do anything when I’m in the studio. I unleash my creativity,” concluded Mr Thela. DM