For someone who dared to pursue a dream on SA’s Got Talent, one of the most popular shows on SA television with an estimated viewership of ten million people, James Bhemgee is soft-spoken and humble. In front of an audience of 26 journalism postgraduate students, he is quite confident, taking care to answer each question thoroughly.
He talks about his rags to riches story with such flair, that you almost miss his slight stutter. Although news reports have claimed that Bhemgee is partly deaf, he denies this:
“Maybe now I’m deaf. Maybe they (journalists) can predict such things.”
From that first introduction, it is clear he likes to remain mysterious, enticing us with anecdotes such as: “We grew up fast” or “Dreams don’t make themselves happen.”
Of all the questions our journalism class asks him, the one about his children he answers the most briefly. “They are happy. They are with their mothers. That’s how we do it in the townships: the mothers take care of the children.” He doesn’t go into much detail about their lives, except for his daughter, Roshana (in her early 20s), who has the same singing gift. He also sings with his sister, Dominique Adams. They come from a large family of four sons and five daughters.
Since May 2010, Bhemgee has been singing with his two best friends, Eugene Jephta and Matthew Overmeyer, as the Cape Flats’ Tenors. They even sang for tourists during the Soccer World Cup. “It was our chance to shine,” Bhemgee and Jephta say in synchronisation. Jephta has accompanied Bhemgee to the interview, even helping him answer the questions. They’ve been friends since they were boys growing up in the Cape Flats, an area known in South Africa for its gang violence.
Bhemgee has been through a lot since the age of four, when his mother left him and his brother, Jonathan, on his stepmother’s doorstep.
“Our mother was in trouble with the police and she made provisions for us before going to prison. Despite all her problems, she looked out for us,” he explains, choking on the last few words.
Born in Worcester, he lived the life of gypsy with his troubled mother, moving from Gugulethu to Heideveld to Retreat and Kalksteensfontein. In primary school, he fell in love with music when a boy from his class serenaded the prettiest girls. Bhemgee decided to beat him, by singing for the girls in his class, then for the teachers. He eventually found himself singing in the streets he swept as an adult.
One afternoon, an elderly woman, Angelique Fuhr, overheard him singing and told him she thought it was the radio. Much like the pages from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, she mentored him and influenced him to pursue his passion and talent for opera. She contacted her daughter, a music teacher, who told her mother that she had discovered “a dear treasure.” He was then taken to the Lloyd Strauss Top Tenors. Being the 1980s, at the height of the apartheid struggle, Bhemgee was hungry for any opportunity he could get.
His courageous spirit and sparkling personality took him to the United Kingdom in 1994, where he appeared on a BBC breakfast television show, after appearing on South Africa’s Carte Blanche. From there, he spent four years singing in Germany in different operas including Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme. He still speaks German fluently, amusing our class with a few words.
From 1998 to 2010, there is a gap in his life that the class tries to make sense of. He explains he went back doing odd jobs for the municipality, even collecting rubbish. “It was a humbling experience to go back to being a nobody,” he says, fiddling with his fingers. After Fuhr died, Bhemgee didn’t have the motivation to do things on his own. On her advice, he refused an opportunity for an Australian TV company to film a documentary about his life.
“It could have opened many doors,” he says with a grin, “But my advisors thought they knew better. Maybe I wasn’t ready, like they claimed. Maybe now I am.”
SA’s Got Talent has even opened doors in Bhemgee’s life he would have rather preferred closed. “With fame, comes much rubbish. So many people from my past came back into my life, hoping I could help them in some way.”
Online, his voice seems to have soothed strangers’ lives. The comments on SA’s Got Talent’s webpage read:
“You are better than Susan Boyle,” “You had me in tears from the first night,” “You have showed us what talent really is” and “Please put his voice on YouTube, his talent needs to be shared with the world.”
Bhemgee has even moved the judges of the show to tears. Randall Abrahams, one of the judges, said: “Of all the singers we’ve heard over the past two years, so far, you are the best.” Some have described him as the South African version of Susan Boyle, the middle-aged Scottish woman, who moved nasty Simon Cowell to tears.
He claims the fame hasn’t really affected his personal life.
“Family is what matters when everything else doesn’t anymore,” he tells me, as we are alone.
I cannot help but wonder whether he wishes his children were part of his dream. I ask him quickly as he leaves the room. He replaces the silence with a quick: “Maybe one day. Hopefully one day.” It is obviously the only dream that truly matters when this one is complete.