Sun-EL Musician is your classic small-town boy goes big story and he’s only just getting started. Sanele Sithole, better known by his stage name, Sun-EL Musician, is a DJ, producer, and songwriter who has spent the last decade inching closer to world domination through his music.
Since the release of his debut single Akanamali in 2017, featuring friend and fellow national treasure, Samthing Soweto, Sun-EL has composed chart-topping dance anthems that have earned him numerous SAMAs (South African Music Awards) and subsequently, earned him global recognition.
Back home for the first time in an unusually long while, the Pietermaritzburg-hailing artist shares his lockdown experience, “Man, at first, I thought this is exactly what I need — some peace and quiet, because I’m a private loner type of person — but as soon as everything went super quiet, I realised, uh uh, I need the people to move,” he says, and then elaborates, “I miss having people in the studio. That’s how I work. I love energies, I love seeing people. I love hearing different stories from different spaces”.
I ask him to take me on a trip down memory lane to his childhood, growing up on a farm in a small semi-rural town called Mooi River; one of five siblings. He relives one of his favourite memories. “One of the many amazing moments was when my dad came with a cassette of Black Street. Another level!” he laughs as he recalls, “My siblings and I can sing all the songs on that album ‘cause that’s some extra good R&B right there”.
We talk about butting heads with younger siblings, and he explains how his relationship with his younger brother has done a solid about-turn for the better. “I just realised I needed him. I needed him to be next to me so that he could just study me as well, and help me with certain things,” he explains with a deep appreciation, “[I would] struggle with things sometimes as a creative, and then [my brother] would just come and be like, ‘I know what you’re thinking right now, just don’t do it this way, do it this way’, and it works. So, he’s basically like my twin brother now. It’s amazing, and now we’re both in the music system. He introduced me to Simmy (award-winning vocalist signed to his label, EL World Music) — it’s just been working out for us. It’s amazing.”
Sun-EL admits that the vibe surrounding student life was the driving force behind him wanting to get into university. It was a First-Year Freshers Ball that changed the course of his life. “It was my friend’s ball — he invited me. I come from a small town, and I’d never experienced different peeps, different energies, just enjoying themselves. Now for the first time I was exposed to real equipment, strobe lights… I remember dancing until I took off my t-shirt, that’s how fun it was, and then waking up the following morning like, ‘What the… what happened?’”, he laughs.
Once he’d been exposed to the wonderful world of electronic production, he decided it was time to drop out of university, move back home and take the time out to truly master his craft. “I don’t even know what the heck I was studying. All I know is it had something to do with science, computers, and electronics,” he confesses.
After the interest of Demor of house label Demor Music was piqued, Sun-EL moved to Johannesburg, spending six years with the label before deciding it was time to find his sound outside of house music and start experimenting with bringing electronic elements and funk infusions into his sound.
He met up with Samthing Soweto to discuss storytelling and to analyse the international successes of their shared heroes and predecessors like late Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela. They discovered that the reason for their iconic success was the unapologetic way they expressed their authentic selves, living their truth through music, and not being afraid to sing in their mother tongue. And that’s exactly what Sun EL Musician has done, exporting his music from Mooi River to the rest of the world.
Having already collaborated with some of South Africa’s finest musicians like Kwesta, Bongeziwe Mabandla and Black Coffee to name a few, I ask about his next move, and he laughs before humbly concluding, “I still need to work really hard to get to where I need to be because I don’t even know where I’m going. That’s the most beautiful thing. I love the unknown, I love not knowing what my next album is gonna sound like — it’s good for me so I can live in the moment with the people”.
Listen to Sun-EL’s music here https://soundcloud.com/sun-el-sithole
Words: Alden Clapper @AldenClapper
Editor: Nikki Temkin @NikkiTemkin