Music legend Irene Mawela receives honorary UP doctorate

Posted on May 02, 2019

Music legend and songwriter Ms Irene Mawela is the latest recipient of an honorary Doctorate in Music from the University of Pretoria (UP) at UP’s autumn graduation ceremonies.

Ms Mawela was awarded the doctorate from the Faculty of Humanities and its School of Arts. Ms Mawela began her composing career at EMI where her innovative capacity for telling an engaging story through the combination of expressive lyrics and beautiful melodies became evident. Music and other cultural pursuits are critical to bringing cultures and society together through the universality of art and by enjoying melodies and lyrics that express the feelings of people and society.

She is regarded as one of South Africa’s most notable singers and songwriters and has made a significant contribution to popular South African musical genres. She has participated in over 1000 studio recordings and radio transcriptions. Some of her awards and accolades include “Best Song” at the SARIE awards; a “Best Leading Venda Artist” SABC award; numerous awards from the Department of Arts and Culture, including a “Lifetime Achievement Award” in Venda Music; and a “National Living Treasure” award from the National Heritage Council.

Professor Schoeman, Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, commended Ms Mawela for her remarkable achievements: “She has composed some of the most memorable mbaqanga songs over a remarkable career spanning six decades. At a time when black popular music was mostly being circulated via vinyl records and on what was then known as Radio Bantu, Mawela was not widely known outside of the black urban communities. From the Sixties to the Eighties, she became a recognised solo singer as well as a member of several bands. Appearing in a local film, ‘The Rain Queen’, alongside singers such as Yvonne Chaka-Chaka, Irene was honoured by the then ruling Queen Mokope Modjaji. Her passion to sing in her mother tongue, Tshivenda, was finally rewarded by a record deal with a commercial label, gaining her the title of the ‘first lady’ of Venda popular song.”

At her graduation, the 79-year-old Ms Mawela recounted the many struggles black artists faced under apartheid, including having to record their music in different buildings and not being paid market-related fees and royalties and not even being given the opportunity to read the contracts they were given. She thanked the University of Pretoria for the honour and gave the graduandi some words of advice, encouragement and congratulated them: “This doctorate is the biggest honour I’ve ever received, for it is an endorsement of the work I’ve done since the age of seventeen. And I’m still doing my best as I approach my eighties. I’m thrilled to say that after so many years, I am now receiving recognition overseas, which spreads the culture, not only of the Venda people, but also the entire nation to a global audience. Finally, a sincere message from an elder to every student graduating here today: thank you so much for choosing education, for it is your path to success. You now hold the key to your future. Always strive to hit your target in whatever you do, be it music, drama, visual arts or whatever creative field you choose to work in. Never give up. Be determined, as I was, and you will reach the top. Well done to all of you for working so hard – and for making your elders so proud.”

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