Getting a degree in International Studies usually means a student has mastered the geopolitical intricacies of international relations. While studying at Stellenbosch University (SU), Zubin Pietersen, who graduated on Monday 11 December, also achieved masterful international relations of the creative kind – earlier this year he became a social media sensation when his songs blew up globally.
The self-confessed introvert from Paarl now has a fast-growing online fan base spanning continents to countries as far as Indonesia and Malaysia. Pietersen has accumulated more than 275 000 listeners on the web-based music platform Spotify this year and not only has his hauntingly beautiful song “Letter For You" become a TikTok anthem of sorts, it's also been streamed more than 400 000 times since being released in July. Pietersen's music has also been a hit on local radio – 5FM has played his songs more than 500 times this year.
He recently came to the attention of a New York Times journalist who showcased “I Just Want You," an AI-generated “cover" of his song, supposedly sung by Taylor Swift and Harry Styles. Pietersen describes this video as a form of “guerilla marketing" aimed at a specific audience. “The video was just me lip-syncing to my song with the caption humorously claiming I was a ghostwriter for the new Taylor Swift and Harry Styles song for the upcoming Barbie movie. When I initially posted it late at night, I didn't expect much. However, the next morning, I was surprised to see it had amassed over 300 000 views. I couldn't believe that The New York Times journalist saw it!"
Pietersen's music career started during the Covid-19 pandemic when, as a first-year student, he was stuck at home in Paarl during lockdown. Like many people, he started binge-watching Netflix series, but after a few weeks, it dawned on him that being stuck at home might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire new skills. Coming from a musical family – he is the youngest grandson of the late Frank Pietersen who was one of the pioneers of music education in Paarl – Pietersen had always dreamt of honing his musical talents.
“Both my parents, Milton and Michelle, are qualified music teachers and are classically trained in piano, French horn and flute. Dad currently teaches at the Frank Pietersen Music Centre in Paarl. Growing up in a musical environment, I naturally gravitated towards percussion, starting with drums at the age of three. I've also played the violin during a phase of exploration in my childhood. I currently play the drums and produce most of my music."
With just his earphones and a microphone, Pietersen turned his bedroom into a music studio and started experimenting with digital technology to create and record his songs. At first, the music he posted on Spotify didn't get much traction, but Pietersen kept going. “I was inspired by the American rapper Russ who once said, 'What if it turns out better than you could have ever imagined?' You might not see the progress in the moment, but it's a bit like completing a degree at university – after putting in all the hard work, eventually you will graduate and realise the progress you've made," Zubin says.
His music spans various genres, blending energetic pop with heartfelt indie tones. Each song narrates a unique story inspired by personal experiences and life's complexities, touching on themes like love, self-discovery and the human experience. He aims for his music to transcend generations, becoming the timeless soundtrack to someone's life.
Inspiration from solitude
Pietersen gets inspiration from being on his own in a quiet space. This year he started a ritual on campus that he says he will cherish. “I started visiting the botanical gardens after classes. Sitting beneath a tree, I let my mind wander freely. Some days, the natural surroundings inspired song ideas, many of which I've transformed into songs set for release starting January 2024. These moments are particularly dear to me."
Getting positive feedback from people who appreciate his music also inspires him. He recently received a heartfelt message from a fan who said that after a rough evening, listening to his music brightened their mood. “Hearing that my music had a positive impact on someone's life deeply touched me. It's incredibly heartwarming and fills me with gratitude for this gift. Making all of my music in the solitude of my bedroom adds to the significance. I hope that my music continues to evoke positive experiences and emotions for people," Pietersen says.
The recent success of his music has not gone to his head. Only a handful of his classmates at SU knew about his musical hobby. “This might sound odd, but I didn't tell anyone about my social media accounts or anything. However, over time, a couple of people at SU recognised me from TikTok and showed remarkable support for both my content and music. Their encouragement has been very special," Pietersen says.
“Staying grounded is important to me. I value the support and love of those who have been there for me, especially my mom and dad and my sister Signe who is also studying at SU. Their presence keeps me anchored. Equally important is solitude; it's been really significant on my journey so far. While fame and wealth are appealing, my primary goal is to spread love through my music and be the soundtrack to people's lives. That remains my driving force despite any attention that may come my way."
Pietersen will celebrate getting his degree with a family lunch before flying to East London to attend a songwriting camp with a producer he's been collaborating with. His plans for the future revolve around consistent music releases and cultivating a community of supporters. “I don't see them as just fans, but as friends connected through our shared love for music. While I deeply consider the artistic side, I also acknowledge that operating as an artist in the 21st century means running my own business. Building and maintaining relationships is crucial in this journey."
Always a Matie
Although he's excited about the prospect of making a lasting impact internationally, Pietersen says South Africa will always be home. “In the digital age of social media, I've realised that anyone can have a successful music career from pretty much anywhere in the world as long as they have a phone and internet connection. I think it also depends on whether you want to be a successful label artist or a successful independent artist. The necessity to move to a 'music hub' for success has evolved. However, if the opportunity arises to move abroad temporarily for my career, I'd consider it, but I'll always return home eventually!"
And he'll always be a loyal Matie, Pietersen insists. “The University's vibrant community and diversity served as a catalyst for my music career. Stellies has taught me perseverance, grit and invaluable skills that have equipped me to navigate the complex landscape of the music industry."
PHOTO: Stefan Els