Friends and family of the culture-defining Ben Sharpa reminisce about the late, great rapper, writes Helen Herimbi
“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”
That phrase, from the film, Dead Poets Society, was immortalised by the late, great emcee, Ben Sharpa. As a rapper, producer and thought leader, his words over eccentric rap beats and ideas around social justice galvanised members of underground rap as much as it gained him fans across the globe.
Because he gave us B.Sharpa, a seminal album, 10 years ago, he was able to change the scene and make the world realise you could be an alternative to the mainstream and still be popular.
Ben Sharpa, whose real name was Kgotso Semela, had been living with Type 1 Diabetes and passed away on July 26 in Johannesburg. He was 41-years-old. He will be buried in Enerdale on Saturday morning. A memorial service, which will be open to the public, will be held on Thursday (August 2) at Stop Sign Gallery in the Nedbank Majestic Building on 141 Bree Street in Johannesburg at 6pm.
The seed of ideas having the ability to change the world was planted in Sharpa at a very young age. His sister, the musician and educator, Tebs Semela, recalls: “Dad was an academic and my mother is a teacher so my parents always instilled a sense of being busy and doing as much as you can to change lives in a positive way. Kgotso took that and ran with it.”
In 1979, Sharpa’s dad got the opportunity to leave Soweto to study in America. He came back for Sharpa’s mother, his older sister and Sharpa in 1980 and Tebs was born four years later. In the years that followed, having moved from St Louis to Chicago to Michigan, it was there that Sharpa developed a knack for a dice game and academia.
“He topped the whole state of Michigan in English and mathematics,” says Tebs. “Those are things people don’t know. He actually played the viola and that’s how I started playing the violin. I always looked up to my brother.”
Tebs’ world was influenced and changed by Sharpa’s words and ideas. When the family returned to South Africa in 1993, the bright Sharpa was enrolled at the American International School of Johannesburg, where he was valedictorian. Even while he was still rapping, he had a keen interest in all things digital and moved to Cape Town to study and later consistently became employee of the month at IBM. In Cape Town, Sharpa’s music truly took shape.
“He was the best producer around,” Isaac Chokwe, aka Dick Smegma or more popularly, Krook’d tha Warmonga exclaims. Initially, Krook’d had met Sharpa – then going by the rap name Cee-lo “because when he grew up in Chicago, Cee-lo is a dice game and he was a hustler at the dice game so they called him Cee-lo.”
Sharpa’s ideas would bring the world together, so Krook’d decided Ceelo wasn’t a good enough name for the artist that would later become known as Ben Sharpa. Krook’d gave him the name Oh Kaptin My Kap’n – or just Kap for short.
“I named him,” Krook’d laughs. “I named damn near everyone. I named Kap after (a scene in) Dead Poets Society. We used to like that movie. Kap was the guy everybody liked. He was a people’s person. Everyone was down with him and that name stuck. He named me Warmonga because all I wanted to do was battle.”
Krook’d met Snazz tha Dictator and along with Kap, the three became a group called Audio Visual. Pretty soon, Audio Visual linked up with the likes of Hueman, Forekast (aka Breeze Yoko), Gemini and more to form a bigger group called Groundworks.
Through their indie label, Con Camp (formerly Concentration Camp), they released projects like Demolition: The Me Story in 2002 and the underground classic, Pavement Special Vol 1 in 2003.
A song that came out of this music family was the popular Stereotype Type by the late Hueman. Krook’d recalls how the song came about: “We made the beat back in the day when Kap was still at UCT. He used to take care of the UCT computer lab and so we used to sneak in there at midnight to go use the computers for free to make beats. So that’s how we started making beats – with Kap in the lab, because he had the keys. With Kap’s beats, it was first come, first served.”
Hueman was so intent on having that beat, he wrote to it in a matter of days.
While still in Cape Town, Kap struck up a partnership with Damian “Dplanet” Stephens, the co-founder of independent record label, Pioneer Unit. For this phase of his life, Kap became more regularly referred to as Ben Sharpa and in 2008, released his debut, B. Sharpa, through Pioneer Unit.
It was a culture-shifting body of work led by a riotous track called Hegemony, which was produced by Sibot. With a chorus that took the SA police protection service to task using the 5Ws (excluding “where”) and 1H, Hegemony was an anthem and a soundtrack to rage.
“Yeah, I was always gutted I never made Hegemony myself,” Dplanet chuckles. “It’s an instant classic. It’s an anthem and we performed it for years. People always wanted to hear that and see him perform it. It sounded futuristic.”
Hip Hop culture expert and OG, Leslie “Lee” Kasumba agrees: “Hegemony was important because all the questions he was asking were important. No matter where you were from, you could relate. As a young, black person, you understood what he was talking about. That song broke barriers because it was a story that can be related to everywhere.”
Dplanet says: “As a producer, I didn’t see that many rappers interested in using my electronic, left-field beats. They were more into boom bap. Ben made my beats sound better, how I imagined them to sound. I still have a full album of his that we never released.”
After his landmark debut, Sharpa didn’t want to keep doing the same thing and while he travelled the world performing at festivals, he teamed up with Dplanet and visual artist, spo0ky to release the 4th Density Light Show (4DLS) project in 2012.
He never let his diabetes take him away from the music.
Dplanet says: “I remember one time in Switzerland and we couldn’t get hold of him. We got the hotel to open the door and it was two hours before a show and he was in a coma. The fire brigade came and hoisted him down from the fourth floor of the hotel. He got taken to the hospital and we had to do the show so we played a set and three quarters of the way through, he turned up on stage. He was too weak to perform but he came on stage and the crowd cheered and he kind of apologised but that’s how it went, we just dealt with the diabetes.”
Tebs says: “The truth of the matter is that my brother was diagnosed with diabetes from the age of 12. I remember so clearly it being a painstaking thing and we had to all come in and be taught how to help him deal with that. He managed to do so many great things and affect so many lives in a positive way even though he was living with a disease that ate away at his organs. Towards the end, his kidneys started to fail and once your kidneys go, everything does. So there shouldn’t be any confusion about what happened. He had Type 1 diabetes – the hereditary kind.”
After 4DLS, Sharpa moved back to Johannesburg and was relatively quiet on the music front.
“We basically had a fallout because he was frustrated because after all these years of touring,” Dplanet pauses and then says: “we were working with Jarring Effects in France, who really pushed him. But he was frustrated that he wasn’t earning more money and we didn’t know how to do more than we were doing. There was no animosity but he was frustrated and wanted to try other things. I don’t know why we sat on this unreleased album. His name is always going to be in the hip hop hall of fame, in Africa and France too.”
Lee believes Sharpa’s legacy transcended boundaries. “When I put up a post about his passing, people from Ghana and across the continent were messaging me. He had that sort of impact on people who were actually about hip hop,” she says.
“Sharpa was genuinely a nice guy and he was very direct and very honest. I remember one time, there was something that had happened – it involves other people so I can’t say the names. Back then especially, there weren’t that many girls involved in hip hop, he always treated me like I knew what I was doing.”
This idea that Sharpa was nice comes up often from the people who truly knew him. In essence, he was using his platform to relate with and elevate others.
As Krook’d says: “He brought everyone who was on some undergound shit together. Particularly the Groundworks days. Kap was the glue that bound everyone together. He was a great lyricist and producer and he was a leader who had the patience to mentor people. The Kaptin name was very apt. He was Kap, we were always following him.”