Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Vusi Mahlasela: 'The Voice' on spreading African spirit through song

From Jessica Ellis, CNN
updated 6:16 AM EDT, Wed May 9, 2012
  • With over 20 years experience, Vusi Mahlasela is one of Africa's most lauded singers
  • Through his international success, he focuses on spreading African philosophy, Ubuntu
  • He has established a foundation nurturing young African talent and providing music lessons

Editor's note: African Voices highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera.

Watch the show: Friday 0730, Saturday :1430, Sunday : 0800,1730, Monday : 0930,1630, Tuesday : 0430 (all times GMT)

(CNN) -- He is lauded as one of Africa's most unique voices, with a fanbase stretching across the world, but South African singing sensation Vusi Mahlasela remains faithful to his roots.

For more than 20 years, the legendary singer has been celebrated globally for his powerful vocals and universal messages of freedom and human kindness. He has toured the world extensively and collaborated with major music stars such as Sting, Paul Simon and Dave Matthews.

But despite all his success and international acclaim, Mahlasela still resides in Mamelodi, the small township northeast of Pretoria where he grew up and nurtured his passion and talent for music.

He says it all started for him here.

"Quite a lot of inspirations and also some of the songs that I wrote, I penned them here in Mamelodi," says Mahlasela, who is known in South Africa as "The Voice." "I still have very strong connections with this place," he adds. "I feel rooted and connected to this place, I love it."

A humble star, Mahlaselaʼs roots are reflected in his songs and lyrics, many written during one of the toughest times in South Africaʼs history -- the fight against apartheid.

Vusi Mahlasela with artists including Joss Stone and Angelique Kidjo at the 2007 Live Earth press conference in South Africa.
Vusi Mahlasela with artists including Joss Stone and Angelique Kidjo at the 2007 Live Earth press conference in South Africa.

Somali rapper K'naan makes songs in the key of love

Perhaps his most famous song, "When You Come Back," has become an anthem in the country, celebrating the return of those who escaped apartheid and lived in exile.

Mahlasela says the song's hopeful lyrics, written years before South Africaʼs democratic change, were also for those arrested, like former South African president Nelson Mandela -- not surprisingly, Mahlasela was asked in 1994 to perform at Mandelaʼs inauguration.

With Dave Stewart, Cyndi Lauper, Angelique Kidjo, Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Baaba Maal and Jesse Clegg during the Mandela Day concert.
With Dave Stewart, Cyndi Lauper, Angelique Kidjo, Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Baaba Maal and Jesse Clegg during the Mandela Day concert.

Passionate about spreading the traditional African philosophy, Ubuntu, many of Mahlaselaʼs global tours throughout his career have been benefit concerts. He has also become an ambassador to the 46664 foundation -- named after Mandelaʼs prison number and dedicated to raising awareness about HIV/AIDS.

"That spirit of collective good, it's still in the principle of ubuntu," he says. "Everyday kindness, love, forgiveness, reconciliation, so everything about us that makes us human."

[The foundation provides] music lessons, but also to develop even those who are playing already and we do have outreach programs for primary schools.
Vusi Mahlasela

Honoring a career that spans 20 years and 10 albums, Mahlasela was recently given a lifetime achievement award in South Africa.

Watch: Vusi Mahlasela's creative process

The singer is now focusing on helping younger generations, supporting Africaʼs future generation of musicians and songwriters through the foundation he created in 2000.

"It is to give music lessons, but also to develop even those who are playing already and we do have outreach programs for primary schools," says Mahlasela.

"They're trying to encourage the schools and the governments to give lessons to the young ones and to encourage also the musicians or the students to start picking up folk, indigenous, traditional instruments, because it's something that they really have to be proud of and to infuse them with Western instruments."

On stage, Ubuntu shines through. Mahlaselaʼs distinctive vocals blend in wonderfully with his enchanting music, taking the listeners on an emotional journey.

"My music is sort of more accessible to every listener, young and old, they love my music," he says.

"And I've seen it also happen that I have also gotten that energy back from the people -- performing and after that when I'm going out there to sign CDs people will come to me with quite a lot of different great compliments, so it gives me the pleasurable feeling that I can really give something to the people and that will really change their lives to the better."

Part of complete coverage on
African Voices
updated 7:40 AM EDT, Tue March 25, 2014
The veiled female rapper tackling Egyptian taboos head on
Meet Mayam Mahmoud, the 18-year-old Egyptian singer tackling gender stereotypes through hip-hop.
updated 6:50 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
As the head of Kenya Red Cross, Abbas Gullet was one of the first emergency responders at the Westgate shopping mall.
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Wed March 19, 2014
Gikonyo performs a medical check-up for one of her patients at Karen Hospital in Kenya.
Leading pediatric surgeon Betty Gikonyo reveals how her life changed at 30,000 feet and her mission to save the lives of countless disadvantaged children in Kenya.
updated 8:46 AM EST, Tue March 4, 2014
Biyi Bandele
As a child, Biyi Bandele immersed himself in a world of literature. Today he's taken that passion and turned it into a career as a celebrated writer, playwright and now director.
updated 6:26 AM EST, Wed February 26, 2014
Sanaa Hamri in Los Angeles, 2011.
Music video and film director Sanaa Hamri shares her story of how she made it from the streets of Tangier to the big film studios in the United States.
updated 5:34 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
African Voices meets James Ebo Whyte a passionate storyteller with a series of successful plays to his credit.
updated 5:16 AM EST, Mon February 17, 2014
Actress Lupita Nyong'o attends the 86th Academy Awards nominees luncheon at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 10, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o has become a new critics' darling after her breakout role in last year's hit movie "12 Years A Slave."
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Thu March 27, 2014
Celebrated designer Adama Paris reveals how she was tired of seeing "skinny blonde models" on all the runways, so she did something about it.
updated 11:48 AM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Packaging can change how people see things. And when it comes to sex, it could maybe help save lives too.
updated 7:06 AM EDT, Fri March 21, 2014
Global perceptions of the tiny country in east-central Africa are often still stuck in 1994 but local photographers are hoping to change that.
updated 5:39 AM EDT, Fri April 4, 2014
Lightenings strike over Johannesburg during a storm on December 14, 2013.
Ending energy poverty is central to a resurgent Africa, writes entrepreneur Tony O. Elumelu.
updated 5:45 AM EST, Fri February 7, 2014
A group of young students have taken stereotypes about the continent -- and destroyed them one by one.
updated 6:14 AM EDT, Tue April 1, 2014
Grace Amey-Obeng has built a multi-million dollar cosmetics empire that's helping change the perception of beauty for many.
Each week African Voices brings you inspiring and compelling profiles of Africans across the continent and around the world.