Luca Viola

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afropunk interview: shingai on the sound of revolution

July 11, 2019
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The idea of “coming home” is an intoxicating one. It is the other half of the hero’s journey, for one cannot really know the world unless they know themselves. For Shingai Shoniwa, the lead vocalist of the Noisettes, her return meant coming back to the place where she felt most seen, and her new solo project, Ancient Futures, is a sonic odyssey that serves as the culmination of a musical journey she began more than a decade ago. Ancient Futures is the musical offering of an artist of the African diaspora who has walked the walk of mainstream viability without letting go of her roots. Shingai is a London-raise Bantu child, with nothing more to prove to the white establishment who box in artists with an unapologetic African flair.

As the niece of Zimbabwean musical giant, Thomas Mapfumo, Shingai grew up around the sounds of revolution. As a Black girl who mastered the “white man’s music” by taking it all the way back to its origins in African polyrhythms, while acknowledging that in her music she is the revolution. On Ancient Futures, the influences of Zim that she described as trinkets in her sound are revealed as less frivolous ornaments and more a chest of treasures. Those treasures can be found anywhere the children of the African continent settle. Considering this interview took place over the phone with Shingai in London and me in Cape Town, the distance didn’t stop the meeting of hearts and minds. It felt like the appropriate way to speak about an album that had its own distance to cover before coming to fruition. Before coming home.

So, you are Zimbabwean-British?

Yeah, I’m actually a bit of a Bantu Remix, which is a lot more common than I thought. We did not create the demarcations and the borders and it’s coming up for a lot of my Bantu and Southern African friends right now in the UK. My grandmother’s from Mozambique and my grandma and my other grandmother on my mom’s side is Malawian and my parents obviously were born in Zim(babwe), but that’s only because they had to obviously look for work and were being moved around because of the sort of second colonization attempt with apartheid and not being able to stay on the land that was theirs. So I try not to be too weighed down by sort of the nationalism. Like, even Mugabe’s like half Malawian.

Well yeah, lines don’t account for the organic ethnicities that existed in the region…

You know! We’ve got so many things that we’ve had to overcome that I think it’s just an easier to say we are this or we are that. But Bantu share so many similarities – the food we eat, what we farm. Our beats and rhythms are so similar as well. I feel like for a lot of the southern African, um, you know, English speaking countries who’ve had, you know, German and Dutch interference, we really sort of came together like strongly like music. And you had people like Oliver ‘Tuku’ Mtukudzi and Hugh Masekela. Brenda Fassie was making records with Yvonne Chaka Chaka. Thomas Mampfumo was making records with the Kwaito guys. And then something’s happened in the last like five or seven years where maybe the powers that be have realized that we were getting too close together.

How has your fusion of Zim, Malawian and Mozambique ancestry found its way into your art?

I think I have this blended connection to a kind of wider spectrum of Bantu culture made through my art. I’ve been trying to harmonize because you know, sometimes you will get, some people going off, saying, “you’re not fully this” or “you’re not fully that”. And for a Black person to be saying that to another Black person, it’s like going 10 steps backward.

There’s this “moment” that the African continent is currently having where people are only just waking up to the length and breadth of African artistic expression. Having grown up in London as a member of the African diaspora, what is this mainstream, slow-motion embrace of Africa bringing up for you?

Well you know like the thing is that for the diasporans right, I think a lot of us Africans who would probably like in their twenties and thirties, I guess we spent a long time just trying to make sure that we can sort of fit in and get the grades, make our parents proud because often they left positions in places of conflict. But I feel like most of us, we’ve always been working, hoping that the work we can do can help to drive prosperity at home some day. Even though I grew up in London, I still ate Sadza. My South African friends still had pap. My Ghanaian friends still had fufu. Like, we still listen to Fela Kuti. I’m actually, I have been revisiting a lot of the music that I grew up with when I was a kid. People like Thomas Mapfumo, who is also my uncle. People like Hugh Masekela. I’ve got an amazing friend called Thandiswa Mazwai, who I stay with whenever I’m in South Africa.

Were these the artists that inspired the sonic foundation of Ancient Futures?

So,  many of the rhythms that come from the Bantu region of Southern Africa are complementary and they lend themselves really well to modern production and dance music and house music. Actually, when you look at 90% of contemporary pop music and even like R&B or Hip Hop over the last sort of 30 years, the backbone of it is African polyrhythms. For me, Ancient Futures was so important because I realized that I was just re-delving into a lot of the music of my childhood, like some of the artists I described. And then I was listening to a lot of white artists who seem to have had very successful projects that had been not just inspired by but directly influenced by African rhythm and beats. To the point where Paul Simon actually went and recorded with some of these guys and it took them a good 20 years before Lady Smith Black Mambazo who were actually credited and thanked for ‘Diamonds’.

Oh my goodness, yes. Which is par for the course and why “this moment” is important for Africans benefitting from their contributions, especially now that genre is experiencing this slow-motion death, which is ironic considering genre isn’t something that was focused on. For example, with you and the Noisettes, you’ve always ditched the box of genre. How has that evolved with Ancient Futures?

I’m really cautious about making sure that Ancient Futures contained collaborations with other artists that don’t get too stuck on trying to name the genres because, whenever I dig a bit deep, I remember that The Vaccines have made a record that sounds just like Congolese jazz music in the 70s and I’m just like, “Dude. Wow. Okay. You guys can pick up Grammy’s for that. But If a Black girl does it? Or a Black person or somebody who identifies as African with connections, like genuine connections, you’re going to put it into world music basket?” No.

Ah, yes, that frustrating “Urban” curse that all Black music has faced. Which, I imagine, is so much more aggravating for you as a person who did so much groundbreaking genre-fusion with The Noisettes and Ancient Futures also doesn’t answer to a single genre God.

Exactly. I had a journalist say that she had read on some of the comments of some of our stuff and that she’d been following me since the Noisettes and even she said, “every record you make, it’s almost as if you are your own genre.” Because there’s no one else that can make music like you unless they’ve lived your life. Unless they have grown up with, you know, Southern African musicians coming in and out of their house, which was the case for me. I had a song called like ‘Iwe’ with the Noisettes and it had this really heavy dance beat, but it also had really punky guitars on top, some of which I had played. And people put it in this like Rock/Indie box. This was back when I started 10 years ago; when I started doing my first AFROPUNKS and other festivals and I really, really credit them for just being amazing in terms of support.

But that’s the whole point, isn’t it? To define culture and redefine genre to account for how we don’t fit into those boxes. It’s musicians such as yourself that were doing the work we write about, all these years. Like, I know ‘Iwe’ would absolutely bump just as hard on an AFROPUNK stage today as it did 10 years ago.

Like I never felt like I had to fit into a genre as such. But if I ever mentioned Africa, I’d say probably like 10 years ago when I had this song, ‘Iwe‘ and you know, everyone was like, um, the fans were like really curious to know what it means. It is, it’s like “shap shap”, “Hey, what’s up?” It’s just like a kind of cool slang thing, right? It just sings really well, “iwe iwe“. It sounds really fun in a song to sing, you know? I wasn’t trying to be like political or trying to be whatever; I was saying something that I’d heard a lot. If my mom’s trying to get my attention in the kitchen, she was ‘Iwe! are those onions chopped?” It’s just fun.

That’s frustrating. Africa is either doom and gloom or smiling and playing drums. Mainstream media loves to impose a lens, especially on Black artists who try and embrace diasporic elements in their art. How has that changed now, now that the continent is getting more attention?

You know, whenever I mentioned ‘Iwe’ was from Zim, it was as if like Zim would it be a dirty word? And then nobody wanted to talk about it anymore. And now it’s really funny because there were all these journalists that are interviewing me in the UK more specifically, and they’re interviewing me and doing stories on Ancient Futures. There’s sometimes seems to be a bit of an embarrassment when they come to the question. So they go: “why are you suddenly singing about Zimbabwe now?” And I’ll be like, “Hey dude! Ten years ago I had a record, called ‘Iwe’ and you didn’t care about it and I told you it’s from Zim and then, you changed the subject. Now you want to know about Zim? Tried to tell you!”

Does it still tire you to have covered all this ground for Black girls that didn’t fit a mold, to only discover how little has changed?

Yeah, absolutely. I think like at the end of the day, me as an artist, they should know from having broken through with an original sense of sound and such a strong sense of identity. I’ve done three albums and I like the accolades that I have managed to secure. I feel like I did something inspiring for UK music by touring in the States. By touring Asia. By going to Japan. By saying I’m so proud to be a Southern African girl that is raised in London. I’m so proud that I can play punk and house music. I can do stuff with Dennis Ferrer. I’ve always been championing how cool the UK is in terms of being an export for music.

What has Ancient Futures uncovered for you as an artist?

In doing this project for the last few years, it reminded me that not much has changed because even though I managed to break through and be very original, there was still a lot of me hinting to and embracing my African heritage, but I just feel like a lot of journalists probably just didn’t want to look or didn’t point it out. There are so many like culturally exciting people that are excited about Ancient Futures except the BBC. Dude, we’ve had like Annie Mac make it her record of the week twice in a row. She’s never done that. And the BBC still won’t playlist it.

Why do you think that is?

I think it’s cause they know the original song that ‘Coming Home’ is inspired by is called ‘Shumba’. And that’s by Thomas Mapmfumo. And that song was a powerful song because during the late seventies there was a real lack of esteem? A lack of esteem for Bantu people. And I have to keep saying Bantu because, as much as I love to say Zimbabwean or Malawi, they share so much culture. This song was banned by the Bantu Affairs Department. It’s like a traditional mbira song and the mbira is the thumb piano and the thumb piano used in like celebration or ceremonies or to commemorate the ancestors – that kind of thing. And obviously, that’s a very massive thing, you know, in Bantu stuff. It works really well in dance music and has a very cyclical type of music that has this ability to literally work you into a trance. 

Like Trance music?

Yes! African Trance music. Mbira was an instrument that I grew up knowing and knowing about as being very, very sacred. But obviously, because I grew up in London, I never really saw it used in music or in ceremonies unless I went back home. So why I love what Thomas did is that he reignited the confidence of Bantu people by actually putting in barrel music into guitars and basses – in the late seventies, early eighties, pop or modern music was all guitar, bass, drums and keys. Thomas, he provided a soundtrack to our revolution and I’ve toured with bands like Arctic Monkeys and I’ll tell them Thomas is my uncle and they’ll say “No fucking way. That’s fucking insane man. I love that Congolese stuff. I try and play it but it’s really fucking complicated man. But it sounds beautiful.” I’m the only Black girl and these white boy bands know more about Thomas than I do.

But also, that’s not true because of how you’ve shown innovation by deliberately fusing African elements into your music all these years?

It sounds really big headed, but you’re almost forced to kind of like act like a genius because I think when you live life in the West and you’re forced to validate and defend your originality all the time, you have to be 10 steps ahead of the game. I’ve always had to be ahead of my time because I’ve always going to have someone going, “How can we play base? How can play guitar? How come you play white man’s music?” And so, I have to write a song called ‘Sister Rosetta Tharpe’, which I did with the Noisettes. She’s the African-American woman who taught all the guitar players in the 60s.

The literal grandmother of rock and roll.

Exactly! She was the first person to have an all-white Stratocaster. Literally like made just for her costume made like in the 60s you know how much that would have cost? Thousands in modern currency.

It sounds like your uncle Thomas was a well of inspiration for Ancient Futures?

Yeah. For the royalties, I really wanted to keep Thomas as a writing credit for the song. Cause, dude, if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have been able to hold my head up high in my primary school and say, “Actually, my name’s not, Cyndi. It’s actually Shingai,” but I was embarrassed because Cindy is the only name that the teachers are willing to make the effort to pronounce. That’s pretty dark shit for a six, seven, eight-year-old girl to be going through as it is. So when, you know, you can go home or your mom plays all the favorites like Brenda Fassie or Thomas or Bob Marley, you’re smiling. That’s when you’re happy because the whole day you’ve had to sit in the back of almost shrink your existence for fear of intimidating someone else. Just by your difference when you are not even the aggressor. If anything, the aggressor is somebody who already decides that you are not enough in that space as you are. You have to contort yourself or you are too much. Contortion is like a breeding ground for huge mental health implications later on in life, you know? But again, when are we allowed to say these things without the fear of being blacklisted. 

That’s real. AFROPUNK did a Blacklisted series for Black History Month. Makes you wonder how many Africans still have to suffer for speaking the truth.

Africa is not a country, but how are you able to be honest with people who are so used to being the dominant voice again, then maybe turn round and blacklist you for making them feel like excrement or intimidated. We know the whole process of professionally creating, manufacturing, packaging, art and expressing it in a way that feels true to us. With Ancient Futures, I know that there’s going to be a lot of people that appreciate it, but I still know that I’m not going to be allowed in certain spaces. But when they find out that, “It’s that girl from the Noisettes,” or “Oh she did that track,” or “Oh my God, I love your record,” then it’s okay. So I just think that, you know, it’s my responsibility, responsibility as an artist to make sure that like I’m not helping to reinforce any walls that should definitely not be broken down. It’s our job to keep things opening up – to keep the doors opening up for everyone. So if I don’t do ancient futures, you know, it’s almost like I feel like I’m not, by not evolving and I’m not evolving in my truth, then I’m not kind of doing my job as well.