To those who have followed his diverse career in the glare of the showbiz spotlight, it should come as no real surprise that Danny K’s first words as a finger-clicking toddler weren’t “mama” or “dada”, but rather “ha ha ha ha”, not as in laughter, but as in the catchy chorus to the Bee Gees hit, Staying Alive.
Born to move to the beat, Danny somehow wound up working in a bank after his law and business studies, in a position so unsuited to his natural skills that he quit after six months to take up an offer to sing for his supper.
That change of career led to his breakout hit, Hurt So Bad, which then set the scene for a dream deal in London, and a harsh return to home and reality when things didn’t quite work out as planned.
Even so, Danny has enjoyed great success as a pop star on his own turf, but as he tells Ruda in this frank and candid interview, even pop stars have to diversify to make a decent living.
As an entrepreneur, Danny has finally been able to put his business studies to good use as a purveyor of electronic goods and healthy foodstuffs, while his extracurricular actives have put him at the forefront of the fight against crime in South Africa.
Having just turned 40, Danny reflects on the long road he has travelled, as he reveals what it takes to keep staying alive in the tough business of show.
Hello and a very warm welcome to another session of the Change Exchange. My guest today, Danny K. You’ve been on the music scene for almost 20 years. Top hits and now you say that you’ve swerved into a different career.
I guess the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve had to adapt and change to stay sane, you know, not do the same thing. Insanity is repeating the same thing over and over again.
And hoping for a different outcome.
Exactly. So, I had to, yeah, get different outcomes by doing different things I guess.
Okay. So, let’s go back to the beginning. When did you know that music was your thing?
So, my parents tell me the urban legend is that my first word wasn’t mama or dada, you know, like my kids, but it was this: [singing, the Bee Gees, Staying Alive] my dad used to sing Stayin’ Alive, and I could go … So, I think back then probably the first signs that I wanted to make a noise and sing where evident, as early as I can remember, I would be in my room practicing a Michael Jackson song. The family would all be in the lounge. I would bust out my room, sit everyone down and be like, right, here is Thriller or here is Beat It, or you know, Billy Jean and I don’t even know what I was doing. But the desire to entertain was there.
Yeah. But then you went to university very primly, properly, studied business management and worked in a bank?
Yeah, I mean my parents were shocked as I was that actually landed up there and it wasn’t for wanting to do that. So, all through high school I was a very average student. I was in all the plays. I was involved in all of that in academics was not something that interested me at all. But I got to matric and I remember all the time I was trying to get a record deal on the weekends. I was knocking on record labels’ doors for years and not being successful at all. And my parents sat me down and they were like, listen …
One has to make a living.
You need a university pass and this 50 percent business cannot go on anymore. So, I studied I think in about six months, four years of not working in high school. I got three distinctions, got into Wits, studied law, went to Wits Business School and ended up at Investec Bank, which was like, what the hell am I doing here? I’m …
And what was it like? I mean, being, working nine to five in an office block?
Yes. It was tough. I remember I wanted to like it very much and then working …
Why? Because it was stable?
Because I didn’t have another option I think at the time and I thought well this is going to be in my life and I have to succeed at doing it. So, let’s just tolerate, you know, this, this opportunity in front of me and try do the best at it. And I remember sitting in the office thinking maybe I should give being an artist one last chance. And just by fluke I sent the demo to a very small label and they phoned me and said, come over. I went over during my lunch break and the guy took one look at me and he said, how’d you like a recording contract? And I was like, well, I’ve just been through seven interviews to get a job at this bank, what am I going to do now? And I remember going back to my parents thinking about it for a week and walked into the bank and I said, bye. I’m out of here.
How long did you last?
I was there for about six months. And I just was struck with this feeling that if I don’t try this now, I’ll never get this opportunity again. And I pretty much figured that Investec would still be around, but the chance of a recording career and really doing what I always dreamed of doing would not be and it’s a decision that I don’t regret for one minute.
And that … How long did it take to record? Did you record a single, an album?
So, I recorded, I recorded an album, I was signed to record an album and I released the song called Hurt So Bad, which was my first kind of big breakout hit. And before I knew it was kind of an overnight sensation in this country. It went number one on radio. I couldn’t believe what is happening to me. I mean, you’ve got to appreciate that for about seven years before that I had tried to convince every label in this country, every record exec that meant something that I meant something that was worth their time and it was an overwhelming sense of rejection for all those years, so to finally have a hit song and to be doing tours and getting approached by brands. It was really a shock to me.
Was there a moment when you thought this is actually working?
Yeah, I mean, I, you know, I just, I would, I would do signing sessions in, you know, in the early days and no one would come and no-one would really know who I was. My parents would be there. My grandmother and they would drag someone over to get an autograph from me and then all of a sudden, about a year into my career, I really started kind of gaining momentum and people cared. I started getting nominated for awards and I thought, well, maybe this could be more than just the one hit wonder. My second single really did well and I was on my way and then I got signed to an enormous deal, by Polydor Universal in London, one of the biggest record labels in the world and I was jetted off to the UK to record an album there.
Did you, did you pinch yourself and say, this can’t be?
Ja, you know, everywhere, I’d go in London, they would say, you know, this is Danny K, yeah? The next big thing from South Africa and they would introduce me everywhere and I stayed in this fabulous apartment and to cut a long story short …
And you were 21?
Ja, I was exactly. And I was on the verge of a huge international career. The deal was enormous and before I knew it, it all came crashing down because the guy that signed me to that deal got removed from the label. His name was Greg Castell. He got fired from the label and I was his pet project that he had brought in from South Africa and I kind of got kicked out the door with him in some vendetta against Greg.
How did you handle that?
Geez, Ruda, I remember I was on the next plane home and the press had made a big deal of, of, of this contract and my prospects, and it was tremendously embarrassing. It was my first, I guess, real dose of failure once things started going well and I was presented with this, this, this reality that maybe it wasn’t going to be so easy and that the visions of Grammys and all these things, maybe were not to be, but I resolved it to the fact that, well, you know, it could be a big fish in a small pond and I loved South Africa. My family was here, so again, like with Investec, I just thought, well, this is the cards I’ve been dealt,
Work with the reality.
Ja, and I came back to South Africa.
And, but Danny, then, just quite soon after that, you, your brother died. That was a must have been a tremendous shock. He was your manager. You said that he was your closest friend?
How did you deal with it? How did you use music to get past it?
So, I mean, the kind of blessing in disguise that, that, that occurred was that when I got dropped from Polydor, I got to come back to South Africa and spend the last three years of my brother’s life with him and that’s, you know, I look back on it now and I say, well, what would have wanted more? An international, a Grammy or three years of my brother? It’s not even a, it’s not even a choice. But my brother and I, we did, we formed a label. He was my manager. We thought we’re no longer going to be in the hands of the man, so to speak, you know, the big labels … We’ll form our own business. And as I was about to release my second album, tragically he died and …
Yes, a helicopter crash in the Lowveld by Nelspruit. And I mean, it was … Anyone who’s lost someone suddenly, especially so tragically young, you, it’s almost, it’s not real. You cannot believe that this person is, is gone. And for a long time, it just felt surreal to me. And what was difficult was that because I was, kind of become a public person dealing with his death and dealing with it so publicly, compounded the grief tremendously, but again, the blessing in disguise was that I had a platform to speak about him and remember him and I thought, well, let me write a song about Jarren and it became a track called I can’t Imagine. And I think it was therapeutic to me because I could sing it, I could remember him and anyone is lost someone young, I think, especially, you worried that their memory is going to be erased from the world. So, the fact that I could bring him into the world as often as I could, and even today, I stand on a stage. I sing the song, I speak about him. I draw … It brings him into my world time and time again. But it’s a hole, I think, that will never be filled. And I just, again, I guess the theme of my life is you’ve got to deal with what, what’s presented in, in front of you.
May I ask something very practical because I work with my voice, with voiceovers and so forth. And emotion is it, you can’t do it if, if you physically can’t control … Were there moments when it was, when it was that practical, that you can’t sing?
It happens. I mean, I did a show in Durban three weeks ago, I sang I can’t Imagine … Spoke about Jarren and halfway through the song, everything just kinda turned off. I just, the emotion in me, and this is, you know, that was in 2003, so that’s all those years ago. And that’s what music does. You can hear a song from years ago from your teens that reminds you of a girl or guy you broke up with and all of a sudden, all those emotions come back to you. So that song for me, yeah, it gets me every time I do it and I try my best not to break up. But then when I do, I see the look in people’s eyes in the audience and I think people respond to that honesty and, and, and it’s, out of all the music I’ve done, it’s my most special song because of what it’s done to other people and what it’s meant to other people. So, I know people who have played it at funerals, memorials. And maybe that was my contribution to the world of music. It’s just that one piece of music that helps someone. Yeah.
And in that same year, came the Greenpoint concert the 46664?
And that must mean … It’s such a rollercoaster of emotions. Then tell me about that night and experiencing it.
I mean, it was, I said after Jarren passed away. I kind of felt like I had a bit of a guardian angel on my shoulder because I felt his play in my life. You know, things just started after this terrible tragedy. Good things started happening in my career again. So, I can’t imagine when to number one in South Africa, the label said it would never go because it was so sad and such a sombre song. But people really responded to it and then I got invited on 46664. And I mean, God, who was there? Beyoncé, U2. It was just like the most incredible line-up. It was an opportunity for me to sing on this great stage for Madiba, which I think was, again, just such an honour to have met him and then all ended up working with the charity for many years. But ja, I mean, moments like that, special concerts like that I think, you know, will always be highlights for me.
Was that when you met Oprah?
So, no, but it was where the Nelson Mandela Foundation and I started working together and through that I was invited to do a lot of work for Madiba. And I met Oprah one Christmas Day in Qunu at his house in the Transkei, where I was invited to sing with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and unbeknown to us, Oprah was there. So, we got on stage. I looked to my left and all of a sudden Madiba and Oprah joined us on stage. We were singing, I think, Homeless at the time. And I’ve got this great picture of Joseph Tshabalala and myself and Oprah singing Homeless together and Oprah saw us there. And that was, I guess the beginning of my relationship with her, was, was indirectly through that concert, but through my work with Tata Madiba.
And then with Ladysmith Black Mambazo you were on her show for her 50th birthday.
Quite a thing?
I mean, I think the enormity of it didn’t really strike me until many years afterwards because I just thought, well, you know, it’s another gig, but when I look back and I think that I was invited to be the first South African musician with Lady Smith on Oprah. And then ….
Who were the other people on the show that day?
Well that was the amazing thing, was that we flew there and we didn’t know who else was going to be on the show, but it was a collection of her favourite songs and her favourite moments in music from her, her life. So, Stevie Wonder was there. Tina Turner was there. Obviously, Josh Groban was there. She was very influential in starting his career. God, who else? Also, John Travolta was there, Chaka Khan was there, I mean it was just like this real collection of people she loved and a Ladysmith and I went, we had product South Africa and our shirts, you know, we, we, we got to represent South Africa on the biggest TV show that ever was in the world. And what a privilege. It was amazing.
How does one when keep one’s balance?
You know, I think the one, my one secret to my success or my longevity is balance. I’ve really been able to not get too caught up in the, in the, in the trappings of the music business, the trappings of celebrity, the trappings of the pressure that comes with it. I’ve, I think it was just the way I was raised. I attribute it to my parents. I think the way you’re raised to deal with these things is, is a product of your upbringing.
Like what? What did they teach you that carried you through? Or that anchored you?
I think they, you know, they taught me, you know, respect, humility. Never to be too boastful of, of oneself, to care about others. You know, I grew up in a family where charity and social conscience was a very important part of my upbringing and I think all of these things made me probably think that the world doesn’t revolve around me. And I think a lot of artists, famous people, politicians, they lose sight of it. They get drunk on power, or on their own celebrity and I think they lose sight of the fact that, you know, we all just a dust in the wind man, you know, like our lives are so fleeting and so brief. You can’t take yourself too seriously. So, I deal with these, but I’m very conscious of the wonderful moments I’ve had. I’m not diminishing how wonderful these moments were. But yeah, I think I’ve just always adopted that philosophy to my life.
And that’s also the same theme, runs through Shout SA. How did that start?
So again, I think my upbringing was that doing good and giving back is your obligation. It’s really not a choice you have to, you have to do. If you’ve been given anything in this world, no matter how small, you’ve got to make a contribution back. And I was, like with 46664, for my work with Choc, Reach for a Dream … I was involved in a lot of charities in the early stage of my career where people thought my name associated to charities would help. And then Lucky Dube was murdered in a hijacking. And Lucky was the first artist I ever saw live in concert. My dad took me to a Standard Bank Arena and I saw Lucky perform. And he was always just, this …
How old were you?
I must have been eight years old, seven, eight years old. And he was always this mystical figure to me. And then I heard that he was murdered in a hijacking and I turned on CNN and I saw, you know, Lucky Dube murdered in a hijacking. I felt so embarrassed to be a South African that day. I thought my God, you know, one of our greatest talents and being part of the music fraternity, I just was, was shattered by it. And I decided to phone Kabelo Mabalane, my partner and co-founder in Shout. And I said, let’s get the entertainment community, the music community together. And let’s just, it’s just do a song, music is what I could do. I know you can, you know, music’s always been used against struggle in South Africa, you know, during the dark days of apartheid. And I thought this is a dark day and let’s shine some light in. God knows what’s gonna come of it. We didn’t know, but Shout was enormously well received. It became …
How did you get the artists together, and what was the response?
It was so difficult. Ruda, I think so, Lucky was murdered in 2007. Okay. And Shout came out in 2010. So, the charity, the NGO is officially 18 years old. I’m sorry. eight years old and it was so hard to convince the artists, the managers to let us use their talent on the song together. And yeah, it took us three years to …
Because people just felt, what for? It won’t help?
Exactly. I think they were like, what is this thing, Shout? I mean, now I say Shout, for a safe South Africa. People know what it is. They know about the collective of arts, entertainment, sports. But back then you can imagine people just heard me on the phone saying we want to do a song. They were like, we’ll get back to you. And then we really went after the big fish, you know, we needed the big, big names on it. So, we knew that if it didn’t have the big stars in it, it wasn’t going to have the impact. And it became the biggest downloaded song in South African music history.
Who went, who was the first person who said, okay, I’m in?
I’m trying to think who the first … It’s a good question because I think we knew we needed somebody really big to kick it off. So, I think it was, I think it was Johnny Clegg, I think. I think Johnny was the first person that we got and then we got the Parlotones, Prime Circle. We’ve got all the rappers and I mean today it’s very easy for us to get people’s support. But …
This last one is amazing. And you have what, 102 people on it?
Yeah, we’ve got a, we got a lot of, we’ve got a lot of people on it.
And that came out in 2013?
It came out in 2015. Called Smile written by Mi Casa and, and we’re not done yet. And I think what’s important is what we’re doing with the process.
That’s so interesting, ja?
So, although we’re a crime focused, a crime and safety security, kind of was our roots when Lucky was murdered and we gave a lot of money over the years to the police and to rehabilitation centres and the police would on orphans’ funds and we would spread it around … What dawned on us that the reason that there’s crime in this country, after a lot of research, was the fact that people just don’t have a, an option. They’re uneducated. There is idle minds, idle hands. These kids have got bad mentorship, role models and they end up turning to crime to feed their family sometimes to feed themselves. It’s, it’s, it’s, it’s a lot of the time a product of that. So, we went on a drive to put libraries in primary schools where literacy and numeracy was at an all-time low. So, they, they spread now all over the country. We’ve got 10 beautiful libraries that cost us nearly a million rand a library. So …
And is that all paid for by, from, from the downloads, basically?
From the downloads, from corporate fundraising, from our corporate partnership. So, I guess we’ve got a brand now sticky enough for a company like Steers to say to us, let’s do a Shout burger and we’ll build four libraries. So, what began as, as, as I said, we didn’t even know what was going to happen. a simple song now has hundreds and thousands of kids benefiting from learning to read and write through the power of creativity and an idea. And the, I guess the lesson to anyone is don’t ever limit yourself to how big something can become from a small idea.
Just start. Yeah. Get involved.
You said to me earlier that you have had to look at yourself in the mirror quite hard because, shame, you’re turning 40?
Turned. It already happened. Yeah. Can you see the grey hair?
And you don’t want to be Leonard Cohen still singing at 80?
Well listen, if I had as much royalties owed to me as Leonard Cohen I’d probably still be singing. But yeah, I mean I think the tough thing in the music business, I guess in any, any creative space, maybe it’s the same for acting. Maybe it’s the same for TV presenting, hosting, I don’t know, is that eventually the longer you’re in something I actually think it sometimes gets more difficult. So, while you’ve built a fan base and a reputation, the pressure to churn out new, relevant, exciting work gets more difficult because the younger generation comes up who haven’t heard Hurt So Bad because quite frankly they weren’t born when Hurt So Bad came out and now Danny K is an artist or a brand that maybe their parents know or their older brother or sister. So, you have to constantly work at growing your fanbase, retaining your existing one. And I just thought, well, how much longer do I want to do this? Can I do this? And …
What else is there?
Diversification, and I guess hedging your bets is something that dawned on me, so I had to, yeah, to take a look at myself in the mirror and say, do you want to just only do this music or do you want to make some smart moves and change and adapt and create some value or difference in your life that will allow you to grow and continue to have fun, mainly support your family, do all these things.
So, what have you done?
So the first thing that I did was I started an electronics brand called Rocka. Rocka is a brand that today has over 200 products in it. Everything from cell phone accessories to headphones to Bluetooth speakers to action cameras to the whole works. We, we, we’ve got, we’ve got a nice presence in a lot of the mass retailers in the country, but it’s not, it wasn’t so much … Rocka wasn’t so much a step away from music because I thought let’s do something different in, in a headphone and get top influencers to design their own headphones. So that was one of my projects in launching the brand. About seven years ago where I got people like AKA and DJ Euphonic and DJ Tira and Mi Casa and Khuli Chana and all the big tastemakers to come and help me create this brand. And I guess it was because of my musical background, my relationship with music. So, I used that to try and start something, maybe a step away. And more recently I’ve gone into the commercial foods business, have started a brand called KD Foods and we do sweets, confectionary. We’ve got a healthy range called Good Heart, which you’ll find in the Dischems, Clicks, Shoprites, all these things, also very, very different to what I do, but it’s still, I still find it’s like making an album because you got to put in the time to creating it, launching it, selling it, promoting it. And it’s been. Yeah, it’s been something I’ve purposefully been looking outside of the scope of being a musician at for the past three years. And it’s fun.
And future plans? More in the business world than music?
Well, actually this is going to sound contradictory because last week I launched a new single, which I haven’t really done one in two years, but I think you can’t ever take the artist out of me. There’s this just …
It bubbles up?
Ja, every once in a while. It’s like I’ve got to do something soft down this track called Stars with this fantastic producer called Sketchy Bongo who’s doing a lot of hit music in the country right now. And this girl called Busiswa, who’s, do you know what gqom, gqom music is?
So it’s a kind of in thing, it’s the in-sound and I’ve done like a hybrid Danny K interpretation of this new sound with this girl Busiswa and Sketchy. So, I’m really excited about the single. We’re shooting a music video next week and I think it’s a, I still want to make music to have fun and that’s kind of where I am in my life. I think music will always occupy that special space for me.
It strikes me how diverse your music world is. Do you think South Africa is special in that way, that we live so close together and it’s such different cultural influences and that that actually makes the whole better? It’s more colourful?
It’s an interesting point you make because I’ve been doing talks to corporates for the past, I guess two years. I’ve started this real key note, a kind of project on going into corporates and getting them to understand or the staff to understand the enormous benefit we have in South Africa of this diversity that presents itself in front of us. So, let’s compare it to Australia. Do you have 11 official languages in Australia? Do you have Sesotho, Xhosa, you don’t have these things so you have kind of like a very flat structure of most people being the same, not much of a cultural mix and that always for me as a musician was fascinating, so I always wanted to learn from other musical styles, learn from other musical genres, other artists. You know, tell me how you write your music. Let me, let me watch it. Let me try and understand. And my collaborations, I guess in the past have always been very unorthodox. So, our idea was never interested in collaborating with another R&B, pop, white singer, like myself. That to me, I thought, well, it’s boring, you know, let me work with someone completely different, and there, there in the alchemy of really getting together and making a special potion can exist in. I think in South Africa we have that tremendous opportunity. Business, music, art, culture. It’s a melting pot.
And you talked about the difficulty of being so much in the public eye. You’ve had a colourful love life which played out in the public eye. How did, how did you handle that? I mean, apart from just …
Well, it was my own fault, quite frankly. And I can’t blame anyone. I never blame the press. I never blamed Heat magazine when they were still around because I … You know the naivety of being a young guy in love and dating a pretty model and you know, all these things are the trappings of fame, the music business, it just, it just is what it is. So yeah, it was on the covers very proudly of these magazines exposing myself, probably not the best idea in retrospect. But then again, you know … Regret? No, because if I look at where I am now, all these things had to happen to get me to where I am. But yeah, they were times. It was hairy, you know, there were times where there were sleepless nights and it was difficult. But luckily where I am now, happily married, two kids, the story has ended well for me.
How did you decide that Lisa was the one?
How did I decide? You know, it’s, sometimes you, you meet someone and it just all adds up. It was like our personalities were compatible. I thought she was beautiful. Interesting. We spoke on the phone before we even had a date, for months, so it was very much about our personalities. It was nothing. There was no physical … We, we weren’t with each other for months. We just had a phone, Skype relationship. I was living in London and we got talking and then I came back to South Africa and it was like six months later and it was just so obvious to us that we were probably meant to be together and the relationship began and I guess, what was it, two years later I proposed.
That’s quite a long time to give yourself two years, but there is a question that I have to ask. Were you intimidated by her dad?
Enormously. I’m still intimidated by him.
The famous, infamous divorce lawyer. Billy Gundelfinger.
Yeah. I mean it just shows you how much I really must love her.
You said in one interview that you can’t afford to get divorced because it will be too expensive.
Absolutely. I’ll be game over, but yeah. I’m a pretty, I think level-headed guy and I realised the tremendously precarious position I was putting myself in, in dating Lisa and eventually proposing to her. But you know, love. What do they say?
It finds a way.
Finds a way and it lands where it falls. It just so happened to fall for her, yeah, her father is actually an amazing, amazing guy who really believes in the institution of marriage, despite the fact that he divorces people for a living, but Billy’s been married for 30 years himself. You would think he would be very pessimistic about marriage, right? But he isn’t and I’ve got, he’s like a father to me now. Really, if we ever, God forbid, get divorced, I don’t know if he will be then. But he’s an amazing guy and quite different to his …
I might be exposing him now, but he’s a master at what he does in a master marketer of, of what he does. He’s very deserving of his success, but he’s, he’s like a father to me now.
And your girls? What was it like to hold your baby for the first time?
They always said that your wedding day is the greatest kind of day in your life, but when my first was born, that day was scary. Terrifying. Elating. I don’t even know what, how to describe it. But, yeah. I don’t think anything can compare to that at least yet, when my second was born and that was as special, you know, I didn’t think, I don’t know how it was going to be, but I love my kids enormously.
How have they changed you? Because children do?
I think they’ve made me very conscious of my legacy, my reputation, the father that they will have and what he’ll do in the world and how he’ll treat people and also how he’ll raise them. I mean, I said to you in the beginning that I was raised with a certain way and I think it made me become the man I’ve become and sometimes you can’t blame people for who they are. If they’ve had tough upbringings with parents that aren’t there or, or you know, instilled the wrong values in them or they’ve watched the wrong things because I think those formative years of your life are so powerful. So, with my own kids, I try to be there for them. I try be a present father, an involved father.
What values do you want to teach them?
I want them to be kind. I think kindness is the most underrated value you can add because I think if you’re kind to people it shapes how you interact in the world, you care, you’re sensitive. I want them to be confident. I was always grown to believe in myself, believe in my abilities and I think it shaped my whole life to, to, to not be introverted or … So, I teach them, you know, you want to say something, stand up, look people in the, in the eye. Puff your chest out, stand up for yourself. That’s the kind of people I want them to be … and just to also live their own lives. I think sometimes when you have someone in the limelight, whatever, like me, there’s an expectation to follow in the footsteps or to do this if they want to be a vet and a soccer player or a whatever, they, you know, they must be who they are and just do it with all their heart and soul. Yeah.
Danny, thank you so much for your time, and all of the very best with all your future endeavours. Made it go very well.
Thanks, Ruda. Thanks for having me.
Thank you for sharing this time with us. Until next time, goodbye.
- This interview first appeared on the Change Exchange, an online platform by BrightRock, provider of the first-ever life insurance that changes as your life changes. The opinions expressed in the interview don’t necessarily reflect the views of BrightRock.