Caiphus Semenya is a South African composer, musician, and arranger that became known for his musical work while living in Southern California during South Africa’s apartheid. In order to appropriately study a cultural figure such as Mr. Semenya, an understanding of the social environment in South Africa is essential. The White minority rule of South Africa and the institution of racial segregation, otherwise known as apartheid, had life altering impacts on all South Africans of color. With most of the country’s population pushed to the edges of developed society, resistance was common. But, with the advent of Bantustans and forced removal of non-Whites from neighborhoods such as Sophiatown the resistance against the oppressive Afrikaner government steadily grew. In this trying time, black South Africans turned to one of the most important pillars of their culture: music. Singing and dancing have been a part of the cultures of South Africans for centuries, long before Europeans stepped foot on the continent. By the time apartheid had reached its most restrictive form, music had taken on a new role for the persecuted South Africans. Freedom songs were composed and dances that had their heritage in pre-battle rituals emerged as a way to fight against the apartheid rule. Because of the language barrier between the black populations and Afrikaner minority, freedom songs were used as a means to share messages, instill courage, and inspire hope among the African population. This is where we can adjust our focus towards the work of South African musicians, specifically Caiphus Semenya. Born and raised in South Africa, by the 1960s the increase in oppressive laws created by the apartheid government forced Semenya to relocate to the United States, Los Angeles in particular. He continued his musical career in California working with some of the biggest names in the media industry until he could return home to South Africa in 1991.
Caiphus Semenya was born in the Alexandra township of South Africa, on August 19, 1939. By the age of fifteen, Caiphus was a member of a singing group with three other boys his age, they called themselves the Katzenjammer Kids. At this time, he was living with his Grandmother in Benoni, a city just to the east of Johannesburg in the province of Gauteng. Mr. Semenya’s professional music career began when the quartet decided to enter a competition in 1958. They showed so much promise that they were drafted into the upcoming King Kong: The Musical beginning in 1959. Written by a lawyer named Harry Bloom, King Kong depicts the struggles of life in South Africa’s townships through the story of a black boxer. The play saw widespread success both in South Africa and internationally. It is in London on the set of the musical that Caiphus met a young, up and coming singer named Letta Mbulu. The two musicians would soon be married just as their lives were to change permanently.
In December of 1964, Caiphus and Letta uprooted themselves from South Africa and relocated to Los Angeles, California. Their relocation was no trivial matter. The increasing violence between apartheid government forces and protestors was resulting in bloodshed and unnecessary deaths. Forced removals and events such as the Sharpeville Massacre convinced Semenya that South Africa was not a place that offered a future for him or his wife. The Soweto Uprising a decade later only confirmed the Semenya’s fears, decades later, in 2013, Caiphus sat down to discuss the relevance the uprising still has today. The interview can be seen here.
Upon relocation to Los Angeles, the Semenya's began building their professional careers free from government oppression. Caiphus and Letta were welcomed into the exiled South African musician community that was quickly gaining traction in Hollywood. An old friend, Miriam Makeba, had already begun to establish herself as a successful performer, along with her husband Hugh Masekela. Caiphus started out as a background singer for Miriam whom he and Letta had first met while they were a part of the cast for King Kong. Miriam had used King Kong as a catalyst to get her foot in the door in the U.S. entertainment scene and by the early 1960s she was performing in New York City nightclubs. Like Ms. Makeba, Caiphus and Letta were both exceptional vocalists, but Letta gained more traction in the American market and Caiphus took her success as an opportunity for personal growth as well as economic opportunity.
He began writing and arranging Letta’s productions and soon enough was arranging for Harry Belafonte as well. Mr. Belafonte was an extremely popular American musician at that time, participating heavily in the American civil rights movement. Belafonte became a mentor and inspiration to Caiphus, giving the younger Semenya the confidence to put himself on the global stage. Quincy Jones heard about Semenya’s work ethic and extended an offer to work with him on some compositions. These initial opportunities led to Caiphus’ role in the creation of the soundtracks for Roots, a 1977 made for television miniseries depicting the hardships faced by African slaves shipped and sold to plantation owners in the southern United States , The Lion King, an animated Disney movie about a young lion coming of age , and Steven Spielberg’s 1985 critically acclaimed The Color Purple, a film focusing on the struggles faced by African-American women in the early 20th Century. Caiphus received an Emmy Award for his role in creating the Roots soundtrack and was nominated for an Academy Award in 1985 for his work on The Color Purple’s original score.
Because of his contributions to the progress of South African music and culture, Caiphus has been honored with multiple musical and cultural awards. In 2013, Caiphus and Letta were recipients of honorary doctorates from the University of South Africa in Pretoria. They were recognized for their musical achievements and dedication to the fight for freedom. In 2015, Caiphus was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award for Music by The Arts & Culture Trust, sponsored by Southern African Music Rights Organization. This milestone achievement is perhaps the largest validation of the contributions Caiphus has made to South African music. Caiphus gave an interview on SABC News that can be seen here. Despite his honorary degrees and numerous accolades, Caiphus continues to perform and spread the messages in his music. In 2015, Semenya was a headliner at the Buyel’Ekhaya Pan African Music Festival located in Buffalo Park Cricket Stadium in East London, South Africa. The Buyel’Ekhaya festival brings together the top performers in African music to celebrate African culture and heritage. As recently as September of 2016, the Semenya’s have performed at two separate musical events in South Africa. In July, Caiphus headlined at the Standard Bank Jazz Festival, part of the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, South Africa. A few months later both Caiphus and Letta performed in Cape Town for the celebration of Winnie Mandela’s 80th birthday. An interview the couple gave can be found here. These performances underscore Mr. Semenya’s desire to play a role in bringing South African music to the masses along with assisting in the development of younger performers. To learn even more about Caiphus and the music he played a role in creating, listening to his discography is essential.
Listen To The Wind (1982)
Streams Today, Rivers Tomorrow (1984)
The Very Best Of (1996)
The Best Of Letta & Caiphus (1996)
Woman Got The Right To Be (1996)
Music In The Air (2009)
Live At Carnival City (2011)
The Best Of (2016)
Singles & EPs:
Listen To The Wind (2011)
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This article forms part of the SAHO and Southern Methodist University partnership project