Vusimuzi Sidney Mahlasela ka Zwane was born in Mamelodi in 1965. His grandmother ran a shebeen from behind their home. He grew up listening to people singing at the shebeen which fuelled his love for music. Mahlasela made himself a guitar from tin cans and a fishing line and taught himself to play. He only started receiving formal guitar lessons when he entered high school. He started off by playing cover versions of popular songs until his late teens when he began to write and perform his own songs. Mahlasela describes a childhood very much oblivious to the many injustices brought on by Apartheid in the country. This changed in his late teens, having been exposed to the realities of Apartheid, he focussed on themes with social and political significance.
In 1981, Mahlasela joined the poetry group, ‘The Ancestors of Africa’. He became a sought after performer at political rallies. The group was on the watch list of the Apartheid police and the movements of its members were closely observed and scrutinized. In 1988 he joined the congress of South African Writers, which exposed him to many other writers and musicians. His biggest collaborator was Lesego Rampolokeng. Mahlasela found himself constantly harassed and arrested for singing songs with politically charged messages. Many of his peers, disgruntled with the political climate, left the country.
With Apartheid coming to an end in 1990, Vusi, who had become known as “The Voice,” was signed on by Shifty Records/BMG and finally recorded his first album. This meant that he would finally have a bigger audience. His first album was released in 1992 and comprised of songs he had written years before. The song When you come back became particularly popular, turning him into a household name. It was dedicated to all the exiled political leaders and activists, including his friends in the music industry and spoke of bells being rung and drums beaten when they come back.
In 1994, Mahlasela was one of the artists to perform at the inauguration of President Nelson Mandela. In the same year, he released his second album, Wisdom of forgiveness. The album echoed then President Mandela’s approach for a new South Africa and was followed by extensive touring which delayed the release of a third album. In 1997, he finally released his third album Silang Mabele which means crush the corn. Silang Mabele was followed by a compilation of his best songs, titled The Voice. The album was released in the United States and marked Mahlasela’s official record debut in that country.
In 2012, Mahlasela celebrated 20 years as a recording artist by staging a show at the Lyric theatre in Johannesburg. The live show was recorded and made into his first live album, Sing to the people. It comprises of songs as far back as the time when he first started out singing.
During his 20 years as a recording artist, Mahlasela has collected many accolades, including a South African Music Awards (SAMA) Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012 and The National Order of Ikhamanga which was awarded to him by President Jacob Zuma. He has shared the stage with artists such as Angelique Kidjo , Sting, Josh Groban, Paul Simon , Ladysmith Black Mambazo and many others. Writer Nadine Gordimer summed up Mahlasela as an artist in the following phrase: ”Vusi Mahlasela sings as a bird does: in total response to being alive.”