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Steve Kekana: an 80s South African pop star, and much more

Two men holding microphones
Steve Kekana in 2020 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Photo by Oupa Bopape/Gallo Images via Getty Images

Steve Kekana was one of South Africa’s most popular singers in the 1980s era of soul and disco. But he was many other things besides – he was a law teacher, talk radio host and a man who overcame apartheid and disability to thrive. Yonela Mnana is a singer, pianist and music teacher who is currently working on his PhD on South African piano. The Conversation Africa asked him for his impressions of the artist whose songs he teaches and whose paths crossed his several times.

Who was Steve Kekana and what does he represent?

Steve Kekana was a popular and award-winning singer and songwriter, who became blind at the age of five. He was born in the Zebediela district of Limpopo province in the north of South Africa, in 1958, not far from Polokwane, the capital of the province. He went to Siloe School for the Blind at Chuenespoort, Polokwane, the same school that I went to. Belgian missionaries were part of the teaching faculty.

He never finished school because he was expelled for championing student rights. So that’s one of the things he represents, human rights, in more ways than one. And we know his passion for labour law and that he ended up being a university lecturer.

And his singing. This came later – around 1979, when his first album came out. Also, he became much better known after he’d moved to Johannesburg.

His life intersected with mine because we attended the same school. I first met him when the school had its 50th anniversary. I was in the final years of my schooling and I had already started playing keyboards. I did music in extramural class. We used to do his songs in his absence. And one day he came through. He struck me as quite an independent person.

I think he didn’t like hero worship, it made him feel awkward and slightly antisocial. Later I would see that he didn’t really feel chuffed about people telling him how much they thought of his music. He was known as a very honest person.

Tell us why he was so special musically

In the popular music environment, his music represented everything. At first, as a singer and songwriter, he was just doing songs with commentary on social norms and issues. One of his songs speaks about this guy who always wears great outfits, tailor-made suits, but he doesn’t even have blankets to sleep on.

He was as flexible as he could be in the music ethos of the time. As early as 1981, 1982 he began scooping up awards for huge hits like Iphupho (in isiZulu), Mandla (isiZulu) and Abuti Thabiso (Sesotho).

Most of the guys at the time were able to harmonise by themselves, but when it comes to his singing, we must appreciate fellow blind singer and musician Babsy Mlangeni’s mentorship as well. In 1979 Babsy was already 11 years into the industry when he started working with Kekana.

I find that Kekana’s singing always mutated, as much as his songs did.

Iphupho.

He also moved quite a lot in terms of record labels. By 1983 he already had a label, Steve Records, which I assume was his own, that released his music. He reminds me of Frank Sinatra in this way. I think the idea of constantly reinventing himself was appealing to him. He was stealing and borrowing from all genres. The Americans do it nowadays, but Steve was doing it years ago.

Take Your Love was ahead of its time, as were his collaborations with a white artist during apartheid, PJ Powers.

Abuti Thabiso.

How popular was he?

Steve’s popularity led to a stampede in Lesotho in 1980. In fact his song Kodua Ea Maseru was about what happened.

Hip hop musicians trying to fill up a venue are always acting like they’re the first ones to do it in South Africa. He did it in Lesotho in an age when there was no Twitter and no marketing. Of course, then people actually went to see music more. Nowadays we see it more as a product than an experience.

Steve worked with a couple of bands – Hotstix Mabuse was one of the producers. Steve, with his blind trio – Babsy Mlangeni, himself and Koloi Lebona – had garnered a lot of popularity in schools. And not only did they represent themselves, they also advocated for disability and especially blindness in a very real way. And they did it with such panache.

I was lucky enough to be invited to his house to help him with piano, you know, show him some scales. I think he made quite a comfortable living, really, and again I admired his independence.

Take your love.

In 2010 I was invited to a workshop with other blind musicians and Steve, Babsy and Koloi were there and I think they kind of believed that if music worked for them as blind people, who were disenfranchised, it probably should be able to work for everybody else. But it’s sad to look at people from just one dimension. He was many things.

How should we remember him?

I think maybe that’s how we could remember him: he was just another ordinary human being who did extraordinary things. In the way that all other great people do in this world.

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