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Doing Business To The Chaka Chaka Beat

Yvonne Chaka Chaka—the queen of African music—has sung for Nelson Mandela and royalty. Now she is multi-tasking in trying to hit the high notes as an entrepreneur.

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For someone who has been a bona fide superstar on the African continent for well over two decades, Yvonne Chaka Chaka is strangely the most approachable person I have ever met, with few airs and graces.

She is the opposite of a spoilt superstar; instead, she has this quality of mothering everyone around her. A couple of times during my one-on-one interview with her, she picks the most inopportune moment to ask whether I’m hungry and proceeds to offer me some pasta and mince.

Yvonne Chaka Chaka at her home, Bryanston, north of Johannesburg

We meet Chaka Chaka at her home in the wealthy suburb of Bryanston in the north of Johannesburg. We are not the only crew here; there is a team from a popular showbiz magazine wrapping up a shoot with her. One of her many assistants tells us that she has another two more interviews later. So how is it that this 46-year-old mother of four boys has managed to remain relevant, in demand and adored in this very fickle entertainment industry?

“I have just never bought into this notion that the music and entertainment industry are all ‘sex, drugs and rock-’n-roll’. I was raised to always maintain a sense of pride and to be responsible at all times. From the first moment after I was discovered, all I ever wanted to do was to make it big so I could uproot my family out of poverty. My mother, who was a domestic worker at that point, wanted me to get a law degree and be very successful. She didn’t approve of me being a singer. She had higher expectations,” she says.

Chaka Chaka’s debut album, I’m in Love with a DJ, sold more than 35,000 copies in two weeks back in 1985. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Chaka Chaka was to belt out iconic hits such as Umqombothi (African beer), Burning Up, Thank You, Mister DJ and Who’s the Boss?, among many other hits. Her songs are a soundtrack to many an African childhood, and she has performed in all corners of the African continent.

“I knew I was becoming really successful when everyone started comparing me to Brenda Fassie, who had started singing in 1981 and was the epitome of success at that time. Everybody started noticing me. My gig calendar went crazy and I could finally build my mother the three-bedroom house she wanted. I also started singing for serious company like former President Nelson Mandela, kings, queens and the world’s most important people,” she says proudly.

On the walls of her home, there are countless gongs, awards, trophies, certificates and picture portraits of her flanked by people straight from a name-dropper’s fantasy. Alongside them are many magazine covers and framed platinum-certified discs. The most refreshing aspect about Chaka Chaka’s career, though, is that it has been far from one-dimensional. She has managed to balance performing with getting an impressive higher education, being an entrepreneur and doing high-level philanthropy. It is her entrepreneurship that I am interested in, mainly because we have all heard the painful tale of beloved musicians dying as paupers.

“I started my first business in 1987. It was a hair salon based at the Carlton Centre shopping mall in the CBD of Johannesburg. It was called Le Classique and it was ahead of its time in the way it offered services. The salon had a separate wing where our VIP and celebrity clientele could come in and have private consultations, be pampered without the glare of the public, without delay or having to wait in queues. Le Classique was also one of the few salons at that time that had a multiracial client base,” she explains. The success of Le Classique led to Chaka Chaka opening another beauty salon on Kruis Street—just down the road from the Carlton Centre. “I opened my second salon in 1989. It was called Vonny’s 7th Heaven and it too was wildly successful. The two salons had a very good run until the steep escalation of crime in the CBD forced us to close shop,” she says.

These mishaps may have pushed Chaka Chaka away from the hair and beauty industry, but the business bug had bitten. In 1992, Chaka Chaka opened a limousine business.

“My husband and I bought a few limos and a couple of luxury American cars and started Byandlani Limousine Services. We realised that there was an influx of tourists coming to our shores as the political climate changed, so we jumped on the bandwagon. We hired drivers who would be based at the airport ready to pick up tourists and take them sightseeing, on tours or to wherever their destinations were,” she says.

Chaka Chaka also used her industry connections to boost her limo business’ image and they were chosen to transport Michael Jackson during his South African tour.

A few years later, legislation around how public transportation entities operate was changed, so Chaka Chaka decided to sell the cars and cut her losses.

“The cars were American, so they were a left-hand drive and we were always given grief about that. The business had also started doing badly at that point, so it made sense to just move on to something else,” she says.

Soon after the dissolution of Byandlani Limousine Services, Chaka Chaka then bought a house in Berea, downtown Johannesburg that she converted into offices for hire and a rehearsal venue for herself and other musicians.

“The house was a very popular rehearsal venue. You name any artist that was big during that period, and they were most likely also rehearsing with us. Bands like Sankomota and Stimela, as well as solo artists like Tshepo Tshola, Sibongile Khumalo and Hugh Masekela were among our clients,” she says.

Once again, crime became the thorn in her side and forced Chaka Chaka to think twice about the location of her business. “We got burgled way too many times. Our clients’ cars got hijacked and it quite simply became unpleasant. So we donated the house to a local church and once again shifted focus,” she says. This is the point where Chaka Chaka set her sights on the corporate world.

Her first major move was to buy into Gestetner—a company that produces printing machines.

“Buying into Gestetner surprised a lot of people. It was during the period where BEE (black economic empowerment) was the buzzword, so some even thought I was brought in to be ‘the token black’. People just didn’t understand why or how a singer could also feature in the corporate space,” she says.

Her move into corporate South Africa has flourished. Right now, she owns shares and sits on the board of JSE-listed Morvest Business Group, an IT company, as well as on the boards of many Section 21 companies like the African Women’s Development Board, Shalamuka Board, Sonke Skills Development and Women in Energy. Chaka Chaka also owns shares in major companies such as Media 24, Sasol and Telkom.

Even with such an impressive business portfolio, it is practically impossible to sit with Chaka Chaka and not notice that the thing that’s closest to her heart is her charity work. “I have just come back from Vietnam and Kenya, where I have been involved in a campaign started by the World Health Organization (WHO) along with The Global Fund and (international police agency) Interpol. The campaign aims to create awareness around fake medication, counterfeit ARVs and other drugs meant to treat dreaded diseases such as tuberculosis. I am the face of that campaign alongside fellow musician Youssou N’dour,” she says.

Chaka Chaka is also a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, and hints at the fact that unlike her other UN ambassador colleagues, such as movie star Angelina Jolie, she goes further than attending a UN press conference to just smile and wave.

“I have a passion for going to the grassroots and helping people who literally have nothing. I recently travelled to the most remote villages of Africa and shot a documentary highlighting the extreme plight of the people who live there in the hope that once it gets flighted on television, someone somewhere will do something to help these people who are so extremely disadvantaged.”

Chaka Chaka has also adopted Lethare High School in Jabulani Township in Soweto, where she has a program that supports the needy and sponsors a number of them through university.

“Lethare is the same school that I attended growing up. So knowing that community as intimately as I do, I knew that I had to do something to help, something to give back as they are behind my musical success. There are a few kids there whom we have taken to university, and in the next five years, I am making plans with Lethare’s principal to broaden this program so that there isn’t a child we cannot help,” she says.

With so much on Chaka Chaka’s plate, it is amazing that she finds time for everyone else in her life. But as I sit in her home, I realize that somehow it has been possible for this remarkable woman to raise great kids, keep her music career afloat and go from strength to strength in her business life. She is not about to slow down—she is currently shooting a musical with Leleti Khumalo (of Sarafina! fame) and Luthuli Dlamini, and going into studio to record a new album that will be released in 2012 through her own company, Chaka Chaka Promotions.

As I drive out of her home, I see a Lifebuoy soap billboard with her face on it—she is there too.

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