afropunk interview: thandiswa mazwai

July 1, 2019
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Thandiswa Mazwai is a rare songbird. When music speaks through her, it helps release the forces of nature and expose the spectrum of human emotion in all those who are present. It doesn’t really matter the style or the context — party or ceremony, punk or dance music, event or festival — Thandiswa simply brings it. And the fact that the South African singer is as under-appreciated beyond the continent of her birth as she is, is one of the biggest indictments of the global pop machine’s Western-centric complexion that I can personally think of. <Full stop!>

Yet Thadiswa’s story is not simply that of an immensely talented musician — it is also that of a spiritual and political leader, even if she at times chooses to skirt that title. She has played with and refracted the social context she grew up in (Soweto in the ‘80s); while her long, diverse career — which kicked off at the dawn of kwaito, and has seen her move between traditional and gospel and rock and jazz music with the fluidity of a true master — has mirrored the cultural post-Apartheid history of her homeland. Thandiswa has steadily and naturally (and, as she tells it, consciously) moved from being a kid singer on the pop charts to one of her nation’s preeminent voices. The people sometimes call her King Tha — and she has earned that dominion.

We at AFROPUNK bowed down to Tha’s throne from the get-go, already aware of her incredible voice even before she fronted the excellent Blk Jks at Joburg in 2017, initiating a gospel-punk racket none of us will not soon forget. This August, Thandiswa will bring her enormous talent and energy to Brooklyn for an all-too-rare U.S. appearance. Before she arrives, we asked her to sit down for an interview to discuss not only her life in music — her roots in the kwaito groups Jack-Knife and Bongo Maffin, her relationships with the giants of South African music, her approach to singing — but how music dictates her ideas of what’s important in life. It was a blessing.

Who were some of the voices who have been your singing inspirations through the years?

When I was younger, obviously the voices were Whitney Houston and Regina Belle and Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan — definitely Chaka Khan. I was a huge Michael Jackson fan. Whitney Houston, a lot of Whitney Houston. You know, I got into the music industry really early and by chance, really — I didn’t think that it was something I could do [for a living], it was something I did throughout my life. I would sing in public at church and I would sing at school — and I also would force my friends to kind of listen to me, make an audience for myself and do some kind of performance. But all of [the public singing] I did kind of reluctantly. And it was always painstaking, like, “Oh God, I have to go sing.” I really loved it, but there was also something about it that was just hard to do. It was really emotional. I didn’t want to lose, so I didn’t want to get into the competitions at school.

But around [the age of] 18 or 19 [years-old] I went to university and started living in Yeoville [a neighborhood in Joburg]. So in 1993, when I left high school, it was right at the beginning of our freedom, and Yeoville was kind of like this melting pot of cultures all of a sudden and so suddenly I was thrust into this world that was multicultural, whereas I grew up in a monoculture in Soweto, which, was very separate from the others and where I never knew what anyone else was doing. But when I moved to Yeoville, I started getting exposed to these other voices, these other African voices, and realizing that there was a brainwashing that made me want to emulate foreign voices. And so I made a very concerted decision — I would even say a revolutionary decision to — emulate the voices of my own people. And I started searching for who those voices would be: Busi Mhlongo, Miriam Makeba, Dorothy Matsuka. And then moving further, to people like Salif Keita. (My mother gave me [his] album Soro when I was really young — or played it for me. She passed away when I was 16 years old, and I would play that album on repeat. I know every nuance.) Slowly, it became more about looking inward, and because I was young, I couldn’t do it like the elders were doing it, so I was like injecting a little bit of street culture into it. 

How old were you when you did the music with the kwaito group Jack-Knife? Was that also happening around this time? 

This is way before that. It’s crazy because, you know, we were basically at the vanguard of this really massive movement and we were just kids — but I guess that’s how it always happens, right? It’s always the kids. We had no idea. I mean, when I recorded that song (“Fester”), it was the first time I’d ever even seen a recording studio. I had never imagined a place called a recording studio. It was new to me that people were creating songs. the way they were imagining these melodies. I was there by chance because a friend of mine was going to sing and she didn’t tell me exactly what was happening. She just said, “Come with me.” So I went, and the next thing she’s singing. I said, “What is that? Who’s song is this?” And she said, “Listen, we’re conjuring this thing.” I said, “Girl, if it’s conjuring, I know how to do that.” That’s how I went into the booth and recorded — and that was it, you know, 

That song asks the question, “When will you return?” a kind of lament about somebody leaving. But the song became really huge and nobody knew who we were — and we were broke, we had no money, obviously. I was a student then and I’d just kind of be walking through the streets of Joburg, ‘cause I couldn’t afford to take taxis. I would walk past a brothel you know, some kind of space where people are really, really drunk, like, a really sad, sad space — space that I couldn’t inhabit, because I was too young and I was a female, and these spaces were usually filled with men — and that song would be playing. And I would just see all these people in, you know, this kind of crazy mixture of joy and anguish, sadness, listening to this song. 

That’s so interesting. Trying to figure out how to talk about the magic of your voice, the thing I keep returning to is how it simultaneously elicits joy and pain. So it’s fascinating that even back then — the very first song you recorded, and a dance track no less — that was how people regarded it.

I think we live within that dichotomy. Every time we express either one of those emotions, we end up at almost the same face: crying. And so I think that’s really what it’s always been about, finding that delicate balance. How do we balance those two in our lives? I think that’s what we’re all searching for. Yeah. That’s what I mean, that’s a balance. 

Tell me a little bit about your relationship with Bra Hugh Masekela. When did you first meet him and record with him?

We did two songs when I was like 20. I basically threw myself at him. You know, it’s that kind of confidence you have when you’re really young. We were starting to make a name for ourselves — the young people — but none of the older generation were paying us any attention, and one day I saw Bra Hugh walking in this artist’s precinct and I called out to him from across the road, like a rude child: “When are you going to feature me?” The thing was that I met Bra Hugh when I was 14 years old, and we became friends. He came to my school because his daughter had started [attending] our school, he wanted to see the choir, and at the time I was kind of like the star of the choir. So he came and he noticed me. He was doing a gig and he said, “Why don’t you guys come and sing with me?” Then he taught me the song called “Bajabula Bonke” [ed. “The Healing Song”] when I was 14, and I hung out with him ever since. We were buddies until the day he died. So when I saw him [on the street], he already knew me and I’d already been following a lot of his concerts and he knew that I was a huge fan of use and we were buddies anyway. 

That was the relationship that Brah Hugh with so many artists he would put you on. He conjured my name with so many amazing artists. The fact that I was on [Paul Simon’s] Graceland tour {singing Miriam Makeba’s parts] was because he said the only person who can do this is Thandiswa, and he spoke to Harry Belafonte about me. It’s just been a crazy ride with him kind of opening doors and teaching me a lot of songs. And he always used to say to me, “You know what, Miriam made me, she taught me every song I know.” And now I really believe that Bra Hugh made me. 

So does that make you feel like you are actively part of the lineage of the great singers of your homeland? 

I know that these things have been said over and over, but they are really hard for me to accept, because these are voices that I think have always had a love for the people, [Whereas] I have always felt that my journey has been a selfish one. I’ve been very much about my own healing. But what I’ve realized is that when you do tell an authentic story, something resonates with others. And so inadvertently this story has been my generation’s story. I think that there’s a certain honesty that an artist has to have. And I’ve found that it was really important to inject as much honesty as I could. 

Do you think the intentions of your creative purpose have remained the same throughout the different chapters of your career or have they changed somehow? 

I think that they’ve remained the same. It has always been about my mother and so very much about memory, and tapping into that memory. You know, memory doesn’t just mean our memories; it also becomes this kind of collective memory. So I ended up tapping into this kind of collective memory — and that politicized everything. So it’s always been the same subject matter. It’s been about my own healing, my own freedom. I’m very much about my own freedom to do and be whatever I want to be, to express myself however I want to express myself. Everything I’ve done has been about breaking some kind of barriers that are either put there by other people or that I place on myself. 

For instance, one of the great barriers was that Africa couldn’t be something I could be proud of, either historically or aesthetically or just culturally. And so the fight became, how can I own these things and be proud of them. So aesthetically I became way more Afrocentric than I guess most of my peers at the time. Everyone was watching American TV, they wanted to have weaves. They wanted to have, I don’t know, whatever it is they want it to have [in the ‘90s]. And I guess it remains that that sort of thing. People still want to turn into American artists, they all want to turn into Beyonce one day. But I really wanted to turn into these other old ladies. So it’s been about women, about sexuality, about freedom, about memory, about rebellion. It’s been about loving myself. 

Thandiswa performing at AFROPUNK Joburg 2018

You do a lot of different kinds of music. Do you change your mindset or your approach depending on what kind of music you are performing? 

No, the mindset remains exactly the same. I’m just changing my ear a bit, but it’s the exact same mindset. It’s about creating revolutionary, transient, and meditative spaces. That’s what I’m doing all the time. Sometimes it’s a little bit muted — and other times it’s just louder. Like what I do at AFROPUNK, or when I played with the Blk Jks, or when I play with my all-women band. Other times it’s very traditional, or with a jazz band. But it remains the same. I’m trying to express my freedom. 

And is this from the nature of improvisation? Is it vocal improvisation that you consider to be your primary creative expression? 

I’d say that’s something I enjoy the most, the improvisation. I like the uncertainty. I like the music to take me away. It takes in that moment, in that present moment. I definitely enjoy that, as a way of being on stage. I get very stressed when it has to be tightly rehearsed. 

But I saw that you’ve done a new Bongo Maffin track and that seems like it would be more tightly rehearsed, and more tightly wound. What’s the difference? 

It is more rehearsed, but because there’s four other people on stage, I’m able to kind of mess around in between and, you know, embellish. I do Bongo Muffin because it’s funny. It’s been about 10 years [since they’ve worked together], and, yeah, we’re back in the studio now working on a new Bongo Maffin album now. I just do it because it’s fun because it makes me feel energetic again. I think sometimes there’s a heaviness to tapping into this kind of spiritual context every time, that becomes very heavy sometimes, you know? Bongo Maffin allows me to play even though it’s very much the same kind of messaging. I enjoy that.

This year’s AFROPUNK mantra is “We See You.” What does that phrase mean to you? 

In [isiZulu], when we greet each other, we say, “Sawubona,” which means “I see you,” and I was talking about this with a group of friends, about how affirming it is to repeatedly hear this. I see you. And in fact, in one of the other [South Africa] languages, the word for, for hello is “Dumela,” which means “respond” and “talk back to me,” which is also a kind of needing to be seen, an acknowledgment of someone’s presence. So it’s like, “Yes, say something. I’ve walked into the room, acknowledged.” This is a kind of seeing. I think that we all long for that, and our greeting is a testament to that longing and the answer to that longing. So I’m down for being seen. It’s very easy for people to be invisible. One of the things that leaves people most invisible is poverty. When you see someone begging on the street, for instance, you tend to look away, it’s something you don’t want to see. It makes them invisible and they know this. So I think maybe one of the biggest things we should be thinking about in seeing one another is how do we take away the dehumanizing effect of poverty, of not being seen. 

Anything you’re looking forward to playing AFROPUNK Brooklyn for the first time? 

In my own personal space, I really wanted this year to be about friendships. I’ve been afraid of friendships. I’m socially awkward. There’s people I love, but I’m still afraid to engage with them. So I’m finding that a lot of what’s going on now is that I’m forming really important friendships. So I look forward to finding the community. I love New York City, so I’d love to be able to keep coming back and find a community when I get here. Somebody was saying the other day, that’s kind of the privilege of being a musician: you can go anywhere in the world and find your community. So I just look forward to finding that community of other crazy folks, wild ones like myself who live outside of the lines, and are very much about love. 

Thandiswa Mazwai headlines AFROPUNK Brooklyn on August 23rd-24th. Don’t dare miss her.