In Conversation with ZiPheko

I first learned of Zipheko‘s music back in 2016 during his Pheko The Guitarist days, which was back then both his YouTube channel and stage name. At the time he was still doing guitar covers of popular songs.

It is actually crazy to think of how fast time goes by, moreover considering the strides and the level of improvements Zipheko has made with each and every project he has since released. I mean take his early house covers for example, they were basic covers with no studio and nothing much – just a man and his guitar recording on a cell phone. Overtime the sound got more polished and the cinematography received a bump in quality as well throughout his later covers.

It’s surreal to hear the differences in sound when you compare Zipheko’s older music to his later releases. The jump in quality is quite noticeable yet I can still hear that it’s him. One of my favourite things about his music is that he always seems to make what he wants and that he stays true to his sound while also continuing to improve on it. I love the tiny details in my music and with that he never disappoints.

Below I got to chat with Zipheko about all things him and the music...

Tell me a bit about your upbringing and how you got into music?

I was born Zipheko Mthombeni and grew up in Tshiawelo, Soweto. I started schooling at Hitekani Primary School, went on to Vuwani Secondary School, and I did my tertiary education at UNISA. At that time I was a cyclist so music was not in the picture at all. I was a bronze medalist at provincial level which qualified me to go to the SA championship and I did, but I unfortunately did not make it for the Commonwealth and that’s how my cycling career ended. Fast-forward a year or two later which would be around 2012, I was visiting a friend and her brother happened to have a guitar on display at his workstation. I was instantly fascinated by the instrument and asked him if he could teach me how to play, and he agreed. In two weeks I could play and after 2 months I played better than he did. At that point he told me there was nothing else that he could teach me and funny enough he quit guitar after that.

Things must have moved quickly for you then because I remember coming across your song Aluta War, around 2015/16. What is the story behind the song?

I released Aluta War after I left the record label Freeze The Moment and went independent because I wanted to grow further and show off my other talents beyond being a guitarist. There was no bad blood between me and the label it was a personal decision for me to go independent and looking back it was the best decision I made for myself.

I did the song Aluta War as a statement that I was going to war to take down all these walls that exist and make a name for myself in this music industry. If I had named the song “war” then people would not have questioned it but now that it’s Aluta War, some were curious about why I indicated the Portuguese word, Aluta, in the title, then I could tell them this part of my story. 

Why the name change from Pheko The Guitarist to ZiPheko?

My team and I at the time discovered that “the guitarist” was limiting me because even if I were to produce or DJ, people would only see me as a guitarist. So they advised me to change my stage name to Zipheko which is actually my real name and that’s how the name change happened. After the name change I did a song called Intliziyo Yami and boom it went even further and put my name on the charts.

After Intliziyo Yami you released a lot of music, Afro house scene was on fire, was that part of your strategy?

The reason. I released a lot of music then was because I had the songs and the opportunity to put them out so I was ceasing the opportunity. I wanted to give my best while I had the chance because you never know when the window of opportunity will close. So I had to release a lot of music to make sure that I was making some money out of it. I realized that if I release a body of work I made more money than when I released one song.

Who used to make your album covers? At the beginning it was experimental art mostly and now it’s more self portrait photos.

It’s still the same guy. His name is Daniel Phumutso Magidi, but goes by his stage name, Deezy. My creative director, we like trying new things I guess…

Is this creative freedom a perk of being an independent artist?

Being independent gives you freedom but you’re always broke. I always wanted to be signed to a record label. Me being independent was a means to get to the point where I could secure a good deal with a reputable record label. So I went independent to build up my portfolio and create projects that could attract the right deals for me.  After Intiliziyo Yam I got a publishing deal and a distribution deal, and I took those. At the time I was also getting royalties from radio.

That must have felt good given your work was paying off…

…Yeah, it was but to be honest what I was getting was peanuts in comparison to what I could have gotten if the song was released under a big record label. I lost out on about two million rands from that song. Universal wanted to license the song and they did but we hadn’t signed anything so we’re still working on getting them out of that licensing. That’s why these deals were calling me.

Is that why Birth of a King is edited on some streaming sites? 

Yes, it is because of the publishing rights. I have a lot of publishers and some of them I have no signed agreement with them. What happens sometimes is that record labels will claim you without you sending them anything so that you can go to them to find out what’s going on and when you get there they offer you a deal. That’s how they get your attention as an artist because they would be collecting royalties on your behalf or them cause your payout to be put on hold because there are now multiple claimants on the publishing rights. I don’t have a publisher now, but I am negotiating a new publishing deal that will hopefully favor me as the artist.

What is Royal Heart Entertainment?

It is a record label I started because no one wanted to sign me so I decided to establish my own. I started it with the aim of also signing other artists because I am also a producer, songwriter, and an instrumentalist. So, since I had these skills I started the record label and decided that music that would be made under this label would be music from the heart, it would be pure, honest, and genuine. I then started releasing my music under Royal Heart Entertainment. I then signed Eminen Fan, and Amukelani who I did Intiliziyo Yami with. It was a successful venture, I worked with a lot of people and moulded the careers of others. I mentored some of the artists that were signed to my label to a point where they established their own independent careers. One of the artists who was signed to my label was Afriikan Papi This venture showed me that I have the capability to help people launch their careers in the music industry but you know people like me are never given the credit they deserve. Nothing happens overnight, it takes a lot of time and effort to build up a career and traction in this industry, even more so when you are doing it for others as well.

What does the future have in store for Zipheko?

I am definitely releasing an album this year, my very first album. I know people think I have albums already because of the other projects which I have released that have a track list that’s longer than seven songs but this is going to be my first album. I do not have the release date yet but it will be out soon enough. I am excited about it because I have put a lot of work into this album and I will be featuring some industry heavyweights. Travelling is on the cards as well, I already have a gig lined up in Namibia. I’m gaining traction in other African countries so it’s likely that I will have more gigs outside of South Africa.

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