Life almost pulled producer and DJ Semi Tee in a different direction. On a recent Zoom call, the rising South African artist recalls growing up having aspirations quite the opposite of music before it became his mainstay. “My ambition was to be a professional soccer player,” he tells BET.com, “I wanted to make a change out of my life and my family's life, so I thought football would be the thing to change everything.” However, one day, in 2016, Semi Tee had a serious heart-to-heart with himself about his future.
“Along the way, I discovered that I have more passion in music than football, so that's when I decided to pursue my career in [that],” he explains. “I said, no, football, it won't take me anywhere. Because now I have more passion in music, wanting to create my own beats, and being a musician, actually … If music can do the same thing as football, why not continue doing that?”
Like most people, Semi Tee developed a love for music as a child. Born Tumelo Ramile in Orlando West, Soweto, the 24-year-old came up listening to hometown acts like Da Capo, Citizen Deep, and Ladi Adiosoul, as well as music duo MFR Souls, whom he credits for introducing him to Amapiano. The jazzy subgenre of South African dance music — known for its blend of upbeat percussions, soulful piano melodies, and deep house — laid the groundwork for Semi Tee’s musical path that has aided his homeland’s burgeoning music scene.
Amapiano is often thought of as the sound of the youth, with its roots coming from South Africa’s upbeat dance genre of the ‘90s, kwaito. While the former first gained traction in South African townships around 2016, it wasn’t long before its infectious sound began spreading far and wide, even influencing Nigerian artists like Asake and Rema. Pioneering acts such as DJ Maphorisa, Kabza de Small, and JazziDisciples, plus innovators like Sha Sha, known as “the queen of Amapiano,” are credited for taking Amapiano to new levels beyond its core enthusiasts, thus cementing its current course toward global domination. And now, Semi Tee wants to help take it even further.
“I started with Amapiano because the time I decided to make music, it's when Amapiano was starting to be the genre that it is right now,” he says of its explosive international attention.
His observations of the genre come nearly two weeks before South Africa’s own Tyla won the inaugural Best African Music Performance award at the 2024 Grammys for her viral Amapiano hit “Water.” “It's an outblowing thing to see someone from South Africa taking over the world,” Semi Tee says of Tyla’s breakout success. “Seeing her, she's raising the South African flag and showing young people that anything is possible. Even if you are from South Africa, you can collaborate with people overseas and have relationships with them. So yeah, it's an inspiring thing to see Tyla doing such big things.”
Similarly, Semi Tee also strives to achieve big things in his career. Hence, he went all in on a genre he once predicted could become the biggest in the world. That foresight made him fall in love with the dominating sound of his native land and kickstarted his solo artist journey just one year before his 2019 breakout single, “Labantwana Ama Uber,” featuring Miano and Kammu Dee, arrived. Things changed drastically after the track became one of the biggest South African songs of the year.
“That time is when I started to see that my music can make an impact to people,” Semi Tee remembers. “At the time, I never thought that. I didn't take myself as someone who's a celebrity. I took myself as someone who makes music, and I'm the same as everyone else.”
At one point, Semi Tee believed he was incapable of even making music. Beatmaking and DJing seemed foreign to the self-taught craftsman until he got some assistance from his brother’s friend. “In terms of equipment, when I started to produce first, he had everything,” Semi Tee explains. “He had the software to make music, so I asked him to show me the basics of how do you start a song, how do you do this and that. But everything else was self-taught throughout the journey. Even when it comes to DJing, there's a lounge around my area called Kwa Lichaba. I went there and asked those people can I just practice, even if there are no people, can I just practice maybe from 4:00 til 5:00 p.m.? That's how I started. Every day when I got back from school, I always went there first.”
Having technique was one thing, but Semi Tee wanted to ensure his motivation for making music was evident in his catalog, too. Because, at the end of the day, all his hard work needed to have a higher purpose. “Every time I go to the studio, I just want to make my life better, and even my family,” he says. “I make music to heal people and to change the situation that's around me. I want the people that are around me, like my family, to be in a good state and have a good life in general. That's what inspires me.”
Over time, Semi Tee’s musical skills and intention became apparent as he slowly etched a space for what he calls his “new-age sound”: a mix of kwaito with “a bit of jazz” he says. Semi Tee followed his breakthrough success with more hits like “Isingisi,” as well as the 2020 albums "Piano Wave Project," "I'm Only Twenty-One," and 2021’s “Tales of the 2 Peers.” But in between this time, the pandemic hit, and Semi Tee, like other artists on the rise, found himself stuck wondering how to maintain momentum when the world was at a standstill. For him, he only saw fit to stay ready with new music on tuck. “Whenever this lockdown ends, then I'll give people the music the way I want,” he recalls thinking.
Since then, Semi Tee has followed through on his game plan, releasing another string of Amapiano jams, including his latest single, “Sgcebezana,” with Ma Lemon featuring Bongza. Next, he plans to drop his fourth album this spring, which he says will feature many songs, though other details are still up in the air. But looking further ahead, he has way more in store than just new music. “I'm hoping to open my own record label,” the independent artist shares his ambitious aims to penetrate the music industry business, including educating those following in his footsteps.
“Everything that I've went through since my journey started, I want to show the upcoming artists that it is possible to make it in life. My advice to give them is that whenever maybe you have a breakthrough song, don't rush to go sign with a record label … Be your own artist. Be your own boss.”
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