Malcom Jiyane
Malcom Jiyane
Image: Andile Buka

Malcolm Jiyane is having a smoke on the front porch of a Johannesburg residential area. The view before him is that of Ponte City and the Hillbrow Tower, iconic markers of an inner city that many have come to associate with acts of terror. It’s hard to tell what he’s thinking about; he could be going through mental notes concerning his album, True Story, or partaking in the more pressing task of preparing for his photo shoot with the photographer Andile Buka.

The project is his second offering, and comes almost three years after the runaway success of Umdali, which featured daughter Sierra Leone on the cover. Later, he’ll reveal how she was the reset button he needed following a period of existential angst.

He enters the establishment and steps into character: the undeniable, magnetic aura of an iconic artist illuminates his surroundings, supercharges his rock star persona, and inflates his confidence tenfold. We are in the presence of greatness, and the room adjusts accordingly to accommodate that reality. The photo shoot is fluid; Jiyane is in his element, immersed in the glory of flashing lights and the ease of a free-flowing conversation.  

We headed eastward to Benoni after the photo shoot. This is where Jiyane reveals searing details about his upbringing. His mother left him with family at the tender age of six, he didn’t complete his studies, and he earned a living as a street parking attendant until Bra Johnny Mekoa found him. Jiyane loves Bra Johnny with his whole being; were it not for his efforts — convincing him to get off the street, enrolling him in the Music Academy of Gauteng and providing a place for him to live — we wouldn’t have the elusive, well-rounded, oddly comical artist among us today.

Jiyane takes us to the old location of Kid’s Haven, a children’s shelter he lived in after he moved out of his family home. He points at the room he used to stay in at the now-derelict compound, and notes the calibre of people who used to live there. 

“[There were] naughty kids here. So you needed to have a group of friends that would protect you. [There were] many bullies,” he says. We proceed to the school that Bra Johnny founded, a place that trained other talents such as Linda Tshabalala, Mthunzi Mvubu, and Ayanda Zalekile, with whom Jiyane plays in the Tree-O.

He shows us around the compound, and takes us to the room he used to stay in. “This is where I did everything. I took the bed out and left the couch. It was just filled with paintings. The only thing I could do everyday was music and painting, that’s [how] I built a large body of work.” 

Tragedy almost struck one night after Jiyane had fallen asleep while a candle continued to burn. He was woken up by a clogged chest and intense coughing. “The room was black. Smoke. Luckily, the fire had just started burning my paints and had hardly touched anything else. The ceiling was completely black,” he recalls. 

Image: Andile Buka

Jiyane has surmounted many challenges, and every uphill battle he fought contributed to the type of man he is today, for better and for worse. But what has kept him going for so long, we wonder. He responds by saying that God is not done with him. 

“I’m a musician, this is my life. I desire nothing else besides this. I’m very whole with this gift that God has given me.” 

True Story was recorded in 2021 at the acclaimed Downtown Studios in Johannesburg. Jiyane gathered his ensemble, the Tree-O, to assist in fleshing out his musical ideas. The two-day session was enough to collect the core material for the project. Umdali, which had been buried in the archives, emerged at the opportune moment. Jiyane’s label, Mushroom Hour, decided to divert attention to the already-finished record. It resonated with countless followers of improvised music on its release, and Jiyane’s long-dormant star finally shone bright. 

The Malcolm Jiyane Tree-O originally consisted of fellow Music Academy of Gauteng students Kgorogile Makgatle on drums and Senzo Nxumalo on bass.

“We were all boarding together at school, so we had all the time to work on music. When Senzo passed away (in 2017), I lost my mind. We had been together for a decade [at that point], and the Tree-O was at the peak of a very beautiful success, things were starting to happen. And then Senzo passed away. It took me a while to really [accept it]. And then I started smoking, drugs and things. I started to just feel numb. In fact, the aim was to drug myself and smoke to death. Even the love for the music went away. I didn’t want to touch it, I didn’t want to hear it.” 

Sierra Leone was born in the midst of that chaotic upheaval. “My father and mother’s first daughter passed away when she was six weeks old. So I’ve always had that void, that [need] to replace my sister. So when Sierra came, I was like, ‘Oh God, thank you,’” he lets out a laugh that echoes the relief he felt. The redemptive presence of his daughter challenged him to reconsider his life’s direction. “That’s when I rebelled. I was like, OK Thixo, I want my music back! That’s how things really shaped themselves.” 

True Story consists of vignettes from Jiyane’s redemptive arc. It’s an all-access, unfiltered look that maps out its maker’s wide palette. There’s straight-ahead pop on Baby Ngimanzi Uthando, there’s a nod to the legend of Brenda Fassie on Mabrrrrrrrrr, there’s the virtuosic tutelage and unprecedented perfection of Global Warming, and there’s torture and pain of nightmares on the ambient album closer, Name It Later.

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