To Commemorate Women’s month and the international Women’s Day theme, through out March we will highlight and re-publish some of of our popular interviews and features with some of Africa and its Diaspora’s inspirational women, published over the past 10 years. Today we look back at our interview with one of Africa’s best loved voices – the Xhosa singing sensation Simphiwe Dana as published in our Issue 7.
She is lavished with so many impressive comparisons – the African Eryka Badu, Lauren Hill, even Norah Jones. But highest of all is the accolade that she is the best thing to happen to African soul and jazz music since Miriam Makeba. But in this candid interview with Masanda Peter South Africa’s Xhosa singing sensation Simphiwe Dana, Is truly a unique musician in her own right and she humbly insists: “I am not extra special, I am far from it.”
NAW: Thank you for taking time to speak to New African Woman readers. You are a force to reckon with in organic African jazz and soul music. So who exactly is Simphiwe Dana?
Simphiwe Dana: I am a country girl and when I say country I mean an African country girl. I was born in South Africa in a rural town and used to gather wood and water from the forest as a child. I come from a poor background and will not try and sugar coat that.
I played a lot when I was young and explored my environment and surroundings. I grew up with a lot of kids in my house and learnt to take care of myself. I was given free rein to wonder and got a sense of independence from a very young age. I know how to survive on my own. I did not grow up with my parents, but was raised by my grandparents and therefore I have been self-reliant since I was a young girl.
At meal times as kids, we used to be served in one big dish and if you were slow other kids would finish the food before you and there was no other food to be served to you. My mother was a domestic worker and worked her way up to being a student nurse. She could not stay with us while she did her studies and therefore our grandparents took care of all of us including my cousins. They tried their best and were dependent on their pension money to survive.
You have been described as a musician of exceptional and unique talent. Do you acknowledge that?
I am not extra special, I am far from it. There is lots of talent where I grew up. I am lucky that I made it, but that does not make me a special person over other people. I have my mother to thank for my talent. She sacrificed so much for us to have the best despite her financial challenges. I remember back in high school, we were struggling financially and she was the one who would always be called into the school to explain the late school fees payment, or why we were wearing tattered uniform.
You seem to have a deep sense of gratitude towards your mother – what kind of a journey have you travelled together?
My mother sacrificed a lot for the four of us. She would work from one job to another just to make sure that we had enough. Through my music, I want to make her proud and up the game because she helped open doors for me. My mother was married to my father but he did not play his role as a father. He was around and did not have time for us. Sadly, I do not have much of a relationship with him.
Our house was headed by a woman, which is not a unique situation. Through this experience I realised that no woman should blame themselves for a man leaving her. Pity that as long as we have too many of those kind of households we will have another generation like that. My mother has been my rock. I wrote the song Chula ukunyathela (Take it easy) for her. I want her to take it easy and we will work for her now. She is my best friend as I do not have many friends in the industry.
So how has your musical journey evolved so far?
Until high school I was not sure of a career path to follow. I was embarrassed that I loved music so much that I wanted to pursue it as a career. My passion for music comes from my mother. She has the most beautiful voice one has ever heard. People back home always tell me that no matter how good I am I can never surpass my mother’s musical talent even though she never took the professional route.
I used to sing in the bathroom and the more I sang the better my voice got. I never thought I had a great voice and used to mime in my school choir. I was never sure if I had a great voice. I never felt like Brenda Fassie, Miriam Makeba or Whitney Houston. Only at church did I give it my all because no one was listening to me, we were all singing in unison. One day I sang with a peer of mine at the school valedictory and my deputy principal told me that I was a great singer. That was all I needed and those words changed my life and that made me believe in myself. Later I decided to leave for Johannesburg and all I had was my voice. I met with underground artists and we started performing, sharing literature, which helped build my confidence and my sense of identity as there were people who liked the same things I liked. I also tried my hand in song-writing.
Are you happy with where you are now as an artist and what you have achieved so far?
I am where I had envisioned myself to be and do not feel that I have missed out on anything. People must keep up with me, as I am ahead of my time. The first time I performed in Johannesburg was at a poetry night. A TV programme was covering the event and I got a standing ovation after my performance. The next week my performance was on television. I got to sing at former President Nelson Mandela’s 87th birthday and that built my confidence. I was blessed from the onset and music companies wanted to make a premier artist. There are people more talented than me who are not as blessed as I am, hence I am grateful.
I believe that my ancestors are looking after me. It was their way of saying the Danas have been living in obscurity and it is their time to shine. I can now put the Dana surname on the map. I am humbled by all of this.
When I performed at the Cape Town Jazz Festival there were so many international and world acclaimed artists, but it was humbling that people were interested in my music. I was very scared and intimidated but people wanted more of me. This gave me an opportunity to be exposed to an international audience. When I started in the industry I received love and I appreciate that. People do not like competition, but the type of talent I bring to the industry is different to what is already there. There is therefore no reason for other artists to feel threatened.
.You say you like doing things your own way. What do you mean by that? Are you a Diva?
People think that you do not know what you want as an artist and want to tell you what to do. I am Simphiwe and I know what I want. Do not tell me what has been done before as I am also here to make my own mark. I have been called a diva but I will not compromise on what I want. I am an artist not an entertainer. I do not like to be forced into being someone I am not. I do my own things and I want my cool to be respected.
I demand to be listened to, because this is my art and my career and I experience it my way, and if you do not get it through my feelings and listening to me I have a problem with that. You need to have confidence in this industry and it is good to know yourself. Had I not been true to myself I am sure I’d be singing another genre of music far from what I am singing at the moment. My music has travelled the world but it starts here in Africa. I call my music soul music from an African perspective. You need to stick to your guns and as a woman you need to stand your ground. I know I am unique because I am not trying to be anyone else. We are all unique when given a proper chance. I am made of the same grain of sand that the next person is made of and all of those sand particles make up what we call God, and that allowed my divinity to show through. We are all mirrors of each other. My way of thinking is quite rare and I protect it, but that does not make me unique.
When you are not on the music scene, how is Simphiwe as a mother?
I have two kids and my daughter is the queen of the house and my son is the king. At home I am a mother and my daughter is so proud of me she would go “my mom is Simphiwe Dana maybe you have seen her on TV” – she is well aware of what I am doing. She is an intelligent old soul in a young body. I am a complete doormat at home and my home life takes over.
Your music is deeply-rooted in your culture and you are very proud of your African roots. What challenges do you think the African continent needs to urgently address?
We need to be able to move freely around the continent and to stop discriminating each other. Given the xenophobic attacks we have experienced in this country, I feel that as South Africans we do not travel much. If we did we would have so much love and respect for the rest of the African people. We have self hate as African people. We should not be embarrassed by our poverty, this is not of our own doing, and we should not accept handouts but be given a proper chance to also make it. I know there are some who have been given that chance and have used it effectively to build themselves.
What do you see as the role of women in African society?
We are the cornerstones and builders of our society, yet by and large, we are oppressed. But if you take strength from that it is easier to fight the oppression. My kids are going to assume roles that are not gender specific. I want both of them to feel equal.
From the Simphiwe Dana Cover interview- Issue 7