Thirteen years ago, Sun-El Musician left his home in the Midlands of KwaZulu Natal and dropped out of university to move to Joburg and pursue a dream that continues to unfold with To the World & Beyond, the much-anticipated followup to his debut album.
“If it were up to me, I wouldn’t have released ‘Akanamali,'” Sun-El, real name Sanele Sithole, tells OkayAfrica. “I would have wanted it to be so extra perfect. I don’t know what that means anymore, but once you touch a song, you feel like you could do better.” Thankfully, with a little nudging from his brother, Sun-El let the song out into the world in 2017 to work its magic, earning him his place in the scene, along with three South African Music Awards, including Best Collaboration with Samthing Soweto.
Sun-El Musician almost didn’t release the very song that made him the much-loved name he is in South African dance music. He sent “Akanamali” to three different sound engineers and still didn’t feel it was quite ready to see the light of day. The song, which is about being broke, sat on his laptop for four months before his younger brother, Sandile, encouraged him to reconsider putting it out for others to hear.
Sun-El’s reputation has been shaped by years of working with Demor Skhosana, who helped get him started in the industry, and producing tracks for the likes of Thiwe, Zakes Bantwini, and Shota. The self-taught Sun-El has put all he’s learnt into a label of his own, El World Music, which counts Simmy and S-Tone, who both appeared on his debut album Africa to the World, among its roster. At the same time, he’s teamed up with artist development company Platoon to increase the reach of his music.
In spite of the idealistic tendencies the 31-year-old producer holds for what he creates, allowing others to hear his songs and getting feedback on them is how Sun-El works best. “I’m such a perfectionist, so every time I’m done with a song, well, I’m never ever finished,” he says. “It can never reach 100 percent. But now I’ve made peace with that.” In the years since his debut album was released, Sun-El has learnt to acknowledge his desire to want to make the best music he can, but also to trust in letting it go once he has given it his all.
Now, as he sets his sophomore album, To The World and Beyond, into orbit, he’s preparing himself for that ever crucial feedback that will help him see his music the way that others do. This time around, there are two discs with 15 tracks on them each—and plenty of opportunity for him to practice letting go while fans enjoy his soulful mix of Afro-electro beats and percussion with uplifting, heart-expanding vocals.
He talked to OkayAfrica about making the album below.
Your first album was titled Africa to the World and now you’re releasing To the World and Beyond. I imagine a lot has changed in terms of the circumstances of making the new album—what has changed from making the first one, and what hasn’t?
First thing would be the equipment that I’m using is different. It’s a little bit better. I moved to another space where it’s a little quieter than where I was. I miss the old space where there was just noise and people moving, a lot of people moving around. Of which it kind of affects the record. The intro of the kids on Africa to the World, the first album, is basically the kids that were playing outside the place where I was working. So, I kind of wanted to emulate that and put it in the story that is on the album. What I was trying to do with Africa to the World, I was just telling South African stories to other African countries, and now I got their attention, luckily, and now I’m telling African stories to the rest of the world.
You manage to find all these different voices on your songs—some are known, some are not. You feature such an incredible array of voices on the album. Each one gets to shine. How does it work for you, do you hear someone and think, ‘I want to work on a song with them’?
It’s different with every artist that I work with. Certain artists, I’m a fan of their work, like Msaki, for example. I’ve always loved her voice, her work. By the time she got to working [on “Ubomi Abumanga”] it was…not that easy. We were not sure about the record. Both of us, we left the studio, and were like, ‘eish, I don’t know, you need to come back and re-record some stuff,’ but then everyone around us was just going crazy, and then I was like, ‘okay, I guess we are just perfectionists.’ With other artists, I’ve never designed beats. It’s so hard for me to make beats for people. I’d rather create with you, go through samples, kicks, whatever sound. It’s really experimental, but it’s beautiful. I’m never specific about who I want to have on the record, but just people present themselves in a very beautiful way; in a way that we didn’t plan and the record just comes together nicely. It’s never super planned, it just happens naturally.
For your new album did you have more people wanting to work with you, as opposed to maybe you wanting to work with them, on the first album?
No one really understood my vision, I will put it that way. At first, I was still new. People really love brands. They want to work with the guy who’s already established. I tried reaching out but I couldn’t. It was a blessing because I got to work with new voices and I got to tell new stories. And that’s just beautiful. And now there are people trying to work with me but there are people who reached out to me on the first album and so I was like, ‘okay, I’m going to work with the ones who reached out first,’ and then whoever reaches out now, I will be working with on my next project.
You mentioned not being sure about “Ubomi Abumanga” at first…
It’s crazy! I guess, you never know. When you’re in it, you really can’t tell what’s happening around you and how beautiful the song is, but people around you get you into it and start telling you ‘hey, this record is beautiful,’ ‘it changed my life,’ and all the beautiful stories I hear.
Did you have the same kind of feeling with “Akanamali”?
Most definitely, yes. That’s it for me. Usually it’s songs that I really love, people don’t mess with them. I don’t know how, but songs that I’m like, ‘um yeah…it’s cool…what do you think?’ they just go crazy for. I’m like, ‘okay.’ I’m glad it’s like that. I don’t want to know when I’ve made a good song. It’s great, it’s a great feeling. I get to experience it in a new way, after the feedback. I’m glad, because I think I’d be super arrogant, and think I’m running the world.
You worked on two songs with former The Voice contestant, singer Ami Faku, one of them is the single, “Mandinaye”—how did that come about?
We created both songs in the space of four hours. We started with “Mandinaye” and then “Goduka” after. For “Mandinaye” what I asked from her was, ‘just write about anything that you’re feeling right now.’ I’ve never made a love song ’cause “Mandinaye” is a love song. I was like, ‘er, I don’t know,’ but then it just worked out. The melodies, the way she sang it, I really, really liked it, so I was like, ‘okay, this is beautiful.’ I just really wanted to make a dance record because I’ve been making a lot of down-tempo, mid-tempo songs, so on that one, I just went through samples and she jumped for one, which is a super hip hop sample, and I stretched it out so it could fit the dance vibe.
I give credit to my younger brother, who’s always just there. He’s more of an A&R type of guy. He’s always scouting, checking out what’s new. Because I’m always just locked in the studio, most of the time, making beats. So he’s always just presenting these new vocalists. I really liked her. When she pulled through, she was so scared. So I started singing the track, and she was like, ‘if you can pull that out, I can too,’ so I just had to crack that confidence out of her.
Your brother has been quite instrumental in your career—the one who pushed you to release “Akanamali”?
Yes—with even the samples that I have here, because he loves hip-hop. I remember when I was just working on music back in the day, maybe four or five years ago, I was composing, playing piano, making the drums, the bass, but then, he kept on just coming with these new sounds and I thought, ‘how do you do that?’ And then he showed me that he samples, and I started introducing that into my dance music… Even the name Sun-El Musician, he came up with that. He said, ‘you’re not just a DJ, you’re not just a producer, you’re not just a singer—I’m not confident on that one but I like sending out guides to artists—and he was like, ‘dude, you might as well just call yourself a musician,’ and yeah, that’s how he influenced the whole thing.
What does it mean to take your music to the world and beyond, especially now when there’s so much interest in African music?
The interest has always been there. This is what I did when I came up with this sound. I did a lot of research, I was checking out history, African music, Fela Kuti, to be specific, that was one person I kept seeing when I was Googling and on YouTube. But then for me to really get it right, I was checking out why is he not being played in the West, but he’s so popular? They go to his shows, but they don’t play him on radio. I was like, what’s the problem? I went through one of his interviews and they said his songs are too long, of which I understood because it’s a feeling. I understand if the clap would go for one minute, and then the vocal only comes in at 2 minutes 30 seconds. That’s just how African music is spiritual, you can’t always just dive into it. So I was like okay ‘cool, what can I do for the West to understand what we’re doing but not lose the feeling and the spiritualness of the music?’ That really helped me, because I knew that they really loved him way back, he was popular, but then that really helped me come up with the sound and come up with the title…A lot of Africans, us, we’re waiting for someone to come and take music from us. I was like, ‘nah, let me meet these guys halfway, let me use the title of exactly where I want this to go.’
One of your tracks is called “Proud of You.” Are you able to feel proud of what you’ve achieved so far?
I’m a dreamer. I’m always looking for something new and exciting. But I’m learning now, to embrace what I have, and the sounds. By the time I’m done with a record, I need people to give me feedback on the songs, then I’ll fall in love with them again. I fall out of love because it gets too technical—the bass, the voice, it’s this, it’s that—so until people come up to me, and [I read] the messages I get on socials, then I fall in love with the song again. That’s just me. But I’m glad, really happy I’m not able to really love my songs that much. I think I’d be super arrogant and take people for granted. I need the feedback to complete the whole circle.