“Well in many ways Sharpa was my heart you know… from as long as I can remember… we had a really special bond. Given the age difference between us, he often joked that he knew me before I knew me… and he was right … yeah our bond was special… I mean this is the same kat who gave me the chicken pox as a five months old baby because he simply couldn’t leave me alone. Ha! … in retrospect, I’d say that was one of the greatest acts of love because I never had to experience it as a child, when one is more conscious of what itch, irritation and pain is etcetera,” says Teboho Semela, Ben Sharpa’s younger sister.
Such is their connection as siblings, that Teboho tightly grips at every memory that ties her to her older brother. Today marks a year since the iconic figure died from complications with diabetes. “As a family, his passing has definitely left an unfathomable void, but you know, we’re pushing on.”
We often think that a person’s public persona, or what they choose to show us, is all that they are. When one looks at Sharpa’s life from the exterior, it’s easy to make assumptions about who he was- a nocturnal hard-ass emcee, which only listens to Jak Progresso, in a dungeon somewhere on the outskirts. But Kgotso ‘Ben Sharpa’ Semela was a multifaceted dude, who had passion for humanity. “Sharpa may have come across as “hard” at times, especially in his music, but that guy was one the most loving guys you could ever know. It was just as he said ‘… imagine if you mix one-part hip hop, one-part love, one-part quantum mechanics and one-part God… then you’ll probably get close to what Ben Sharpa is about’…”
“I’ll let you in on a secret, that so called “hard” guy that brought us one of the most relevant records of our time Hegemony I will tell you that, before every single show we ever did together, no matter what or where, we would find a space, tune out the noise and hype, hold hands and pray together. Kgotso prayed, yo! … like a preacher … that man prayed. Through and through.
“… he was a true believer, in others, the raising of consciousness and quite simply, he was concerned for the human condition… he just believed… heck, he believed in me at times when I struggled to believe in myself… so to not have that… to not have that one person who truly got it, who got you… well… it’s the kind of hurt I really would not wish on anyone,” Teboho tells me.
That social side of Sharpa was evident last year after his passing, at his memorial service- a service which would be the envy of any Hip Hop show, in how Sharpa’s life was celebrated vicariously through Hip Hop. “Honestly, I always knew Kgotso was beloved but seeing it all in action was truly beautiful. Folk from all over the world reached out, stood in the gap, and quite simply showed up for Sharpa; and for this I could not be more grateful. On the whole, the Hip Hop community displayed such a sense of camaraderie in the wake of his passing that it is something that shall be forever etched in my mind.”
The tributes that came in were fully justified by the skill of the man and who he was, but the pity is that we gave him a floral garden when he couldn’t smell and appreciate it. “I wouldn’t be the upfront and reflective; chiselled by the sharpest knife in the drawer – Ben Sharpa – human I am if didn’t say that it is a damn shame that the magnitude of outright support for Kgotso in his passing, was not shown when he was alive to see it. Kgotso did not get the recognition he deserved, not fully. I genuinely believe that, but that said, it is done now and often the plight of many pioneers so more than anything else I perceive it as a call for us all to do better, be better. Look after our own, in life and in death.”
Sharpa was a classical violin player that was part of the youth orchestra, which is one of the things that connected her with Teboho who is also a violinist, singer and flautist- the two would often collaborate. So it makes sense that it’s his sister, making sure his name doesn’t wither with time. “So in line with what we consistently discussed – right up to the very last, I mean it was one of the various topics we touched on the last time I spoke to him before his passing – so in doing due diligence and honouring what I believe to be one the most eloquent rappers and beat makers of his time, this past year I’ve been quietly building the BSharpa Foundation.”
The genius emcee recorded a project before his premature passing, but Teboho is quite ambiguous about its release. “Chances are chances you know… so you all are just going to have to wait and see… I will say this, it is phenomenal.”
PRO KID was only 37. Ben Sharpa just 41. Ol’ Dirty Bastard was a mere 34. Mizcheif was 38. Sean Price was 43 .
All these are names of great rappers who’ve inspired generations of emcees. But the other miserable common thread among these names, is that they all died at a young age because of the lifestyles they lived. The gallons of alcohol drank, unhealthy food consumed, smoke that fills the lungs and countless blunts that are puffed and passed, plus shit sniffed up the nose are huge factors in most rappers’ early deaths.
Pro Kid who died just last week is said to have demised from a serve seizure following a night out with friends. Since his passing, a lot has been said about what actually happened to the genius rapper whose real name was Linda Mkhize. In an interview with Drum magazine, Pro’s cousin said the rapper had no history of seizures. There are suggestions that the rapper had begun taking drugs lately, to help him deal with career and life frustrations.
In my interview with the SABC’s Media Monitor this past Sunday, I mentioned that the only thing we can do now is speculate to what really happened because no one went to Pro to ask how he was. There was a requiring theme on social media in the past week from celebrities, saying they failed Pro. Failed him in what exactly?
This indicates something wrong had been happening in his life recently, but people turned a blind eye.
I last saw the rapper in June at Basha Uhuru where he delivered a good performance. But what was startling was how young he looked- before that, I had seen him around Tembisa where he visited often years ago. Then, he looked his age. But at Basha the kat didn’t necessarily look bad, but he suspiciously looked like a 22 year-old.
As much as people might think, talking about what really happened to him is tarnishing his legacy, I believe the family has a responsibility to share the post-mortem results so that it can also help the next generation of artists. It’s their prerogative I know, but being open about such helps guide artists who are already in the game and those who have ambitions of gracing stages with their talent.
Imagine what a post-mortem would do for a person like Emtee, who a just a few weeks ago fell on stage high on codeine. It would really be a reality check for the young kat and others like him.
Sharpa had been living with diabetes for a long while, but died due to complications with the disease. I can’t help ask myself if ‘the complications’ could’ve been avoided had he lived a better lifestyle.
Till this day, I laud Kwaito artist Zombo who went on live television to tell the nation that he was living with HIV AIDS. He died in 2008 at the age of 27. But that bone-chilling frankness has helped so many young men to think twice about dipping in the forbidden fruit without protection. Yea, he was ridiculed but at least now people know what not to do. If you can flaunt your success, then allow us to be privy to your downfall too. After all, you’re also a human being.
Wu Tang Clan animated rapper ODB died just two days before turning 35. His cause of death was due to an overdose on coke. An autopsy found a lethal mixture of cocaine and the prescription drug tramadol. The overdose was ruled accidental and witnesses say Ol’ Dirty Bastard complained of chest pain on the day he died- watching documentaries about the Wu, you get a perfect sense from those close to him that it wasn’t accidental. It’s this ‘sweeping things under the carpet’ mentality that causes the problem to escalate in the entertainment industry.
In an interview on Metro FM with DJ Fresh on his breakfast show last year, comedian John Vlismas spoke about this epidemic problem in the media and creative space. “We have been hardwired to think that we are working hard in media, we don’t really. Going down a mine is working hard. Being a domestic and working for people who are ungrateful is very hard. We think we work hard, therefore we should play hard and we have been raised in a society where this is permissive.” Vlismas himself, had issues with drug addiction before changing his lifestyle because of near-death experiences.
A member of hip-hop groups Boot Camp Clik and Random Axe, he was half of the duo Heltah Skeltah, performing under the name Ruckus, Sean Price’s death also shocked the world in 2015. A statement from his team, just said he died in his sleep-not giving anything else. He was 43 and still had so much to offer.
The last time I saw Sharpa perform was the last time I saw Mizchief, they were in Tembisa for the 21Mic Salute Hip Hop event in 2013- although Mizchief never performed. I vividly remember how Mizchief resurfaced from a hiatus, months before his passing. The Fashionable hit-maker was reported to have died of illness in 2014. The more ambiguous the reasons for an artists’ passing from those close to them, the more the legacy is tarnished by rumours.
Fela Kuti’s brother, Professor Olikoye (Ransome) Kuti, a prominent AIDS activist and former Minister of Health in Nigeria, admitted in a press conference that Fela died of AIDS in 1997. Great as the musician was, his lifestyle choices weren’t the best. People ought to know who their heroes really are, because no one is perfect. If anything, people can now relate more to Fela.
Canadian rapper Bender who came to South Africa in 2016 to rip apart Stogie T (Tumi, of The Volume) in a rap battle, also died in March this year from a disease linked to his lifestyle. He died from sleep apnoea- a sleep disorder characterized by pauses in breathing during one’s sleep. There are various causes for this, one of them being excessive weight or obesity.
The lifestyles we live will be our downfall. It’s very important for artists to surround themselves with people who genuinely care about their well-being because as much fun and cool excessive drinking and drug intake may be, one has to always think about their health. Added to that, is that most of these artists are survived by young families who are left stranded and in debt. That people have to donate stuff to the Mkhize family is sad and quite condescending for an artist of Pro’s calibre, because we’ve seen too many artists die as paupers. How long will this go on?
*Names not mentioned include: Brenda Fassie, Whitney Houston, TK, Jimi Hendrix, Brown Dash and plenty more!
THE air filled with the smell of dank blunt, omnipresent quarts of Black Label and Boom bap sounds racing out the speakers, a graffiti portrait of Ben Sharpa was the backdrop of the stage, and the DJ scratched on classic Hip Hop joints, when each speaker came forward-could’ve sworn it was one of those old school Hip Hop sessions at Ben Sharpa’s memorial service last night in Newtown, Johannesburg.
Hosted at the Stop Sign Art gallery, the service served its purpose in how it captured and celebrated who the man was. Whilst also reuniting old friends. Kgotso ‘Ben Sharpa’ Semela passed away last week due to complications from diabetes.
“The funny thing is, I knew him as Cilo, his baby nickname. Then he was Kaptin, I wasn’t there. The only thing I knew about Ben Sharpa was in the media. I knew him as Cilo when we were like 18, 19 year olds,” says comedian and foodie Tshepo Mogale. Mogale was Sharpa’s roommate at the University of Cape Town where they met around 1996.
Mogale was fortunate enough to see Sharpa just a day before his passing. “I hadn’t seen him in over 15 years. Then I got a call that he’s in hospital…I was so apprehensive to go see him- if last time I saw you was good times, then I hear you’re in a fucked up situation, it could be kinda awkward. But one of my boys said I should go and I went and the look in the guy’s face man, it’s one of those priceless moments ever.”
They spent at least two hours together reminiscing about old times. Mogale was one of the speakers at the service, whose speech was quite emotional. “I learnt so much from him. I just couldn’t say it in front of his mother up there, but he taught me how to untie a bra with one hand. He was like an encyclopaedia who knew everything and had rhymes for days.”
Osmic was still in Grade 7 when he first saw Sharpa performing at Le Club. “I looked up to him as a kid and I was like ‘oh shit, so this is how it’s done.’ I think we all saw Ben Sharpa the same way I probably saw him. We had nothing but respect for him and I think that’s what this is, people coming to say ‘big up’. Any parent would be super happy that their son is celebrated in this manner,” the Back To the City founder says.
After the formal ceremony had wrapped up, Breeze Yoko who was the night’s master of ceremonies went outside with a cordless mic asking fellas to jump on the beat and drop some bars. The cypher went on for hours. Speaking after the formal ceremony, Sharpa’s mother got on the mic while kats were free styling to say that she’s grateful to those who came and to see who his son was and how he lived, despite the fact that Hip Hop doesn’t sufficiently reward rappers- he loved what he did.
Those in attendance included Hymphatic Thabs, former Hype magazine editor Mizi Mtshali, skater Wandile Msomi, actress Renate Stuurman with her partner Krook’d tha Warmonga and a number of other Hip Hop heads.
Co-founder of BTC Dominique Soma, was also present but rushed out to a gig soon as the formal service was done. “Ben Sharpa deserved to get this reception. I haven’t seen these people in years, I feel like it’s a bit of a time warp…kinda taking me back to another time of my life. Very nostalgic.”
Comedian, writer and film director Kagiso Lediga says he was touched and moved by the whole service. Like Mogale, he too met Sharpa in Cape Town during their varsity days. With Hegemony playing in the background, Lediga says “I wanted to come and pay my respects. He was a very wise guy, who always spoke in concepts like his sister was saying. If he spoke about his passing, would he imagine we’d be all here like this…for me this is quite special, seeing all these faces, people I haven’t seen in a long time.”