*An edited version of this article appeared in Marie Claire (October 2016)
Sex is on the table. Okay, it’s not all we talk about, but it takes up a substantial portion of our lunchtime conversation. Thandiswa Mazwai recently tweeted that she is working on two new albums: one is a jazz album, the other erotica. As we sit down at a healthfood restaurant, tucked away in a wellness centre’s parking lot in Parktown North, Johannesburg, I ask her about the latter.
‘Now that I’m 40, I think I’m old enough to talk sex and sing about it, too,’ she says. ‘Erotica is something I’ve always been interested in, especially thinking about what it means for an African person.’ Expecting her album to add to the catalogue of black female musicians who explore eroticism, like Grace Jones and soul singer-guitarist Meshell Ndegeocello, she says it creatively uncovers what erotica sounds like; what musical textures and cadences illustrate it.
Thandiswa is dressed in a black Superella pinafore, without the statement jewellery and African-print dresses she often wears on stage. Her hair is in a Mohawk-like style. Her dewy skin and dimpled grin haven’t changed much since she first stepped on stage in the mid-1990s as the lead singer of the now-defunct kwaito group Bongo Maffin. Some things have changed since then. For one, she is no longer in her 20s.
It has been two decades since Bongo Maffin’s ‘Makeba’ was the anthem of a nation high on the fumes of an emerging democracy. This year, on 30 March, Thandiswa celebrated her 40th birthday with a highly publicised concert, featuring her all female backing band and guest performances by Ringo Madlingozi and BLK JKS.
‘Turning 40 wasn’t painful, it was just surprising,’ says Thandiswa, who has a 16-year-old daughter with former Bongo Maffin band member Stoan Seate. ‘My age caught me off-guard because of how old I used to think it was. This is a new 40, not like Mama back in the day.’ After reports of diva-like behaviour, Thandiswa rarely meets with journalists. ‘I don’t do press. They made me out to be this horrible person in the past,’ she says. As she reaches a significant milestone in her career that coincides with releasing new music after an almost eight-year hiatus, she is ready to talk again. For her first solo album, Zabalaza, she won six music awards and a BBC World Music Awards nomination for Best African Album.
Her last studio album, Ibokwe, went gold within a few weeks of its release in 2009. Since then Thandiswa says she has struggled to produce music. ‘I became afraid of the sound of my own voice. I was afraid of creating. I experienced a spiritual block and went through emotional darkness for a few years,’ she says.
With the help of a friend, who suggested she produce her jazz album, and her long-time partner, who gifted her with pottery classes last Christmas, the block started to lift. ‘Pottery has been an interesting way of getting my creative juices flowing. There’s no pressure making pots. Nobody gets to look at it; only I do and I love it.’ It’s a calming, meditative practice, she says about the ukhamba (traditional Zulu pot) she’s making.
Thandiswa says people often ask if Bongo Maffin will reunite. But they overlook the context of the time in which the band existed: it was during the nascent democracy of South Africa, when joy, fear and anxiety gave birth to one of South Africa’s most original music expressions, kwaito. That moment can’t be reclaimed, she says. Last year the group met with the intention to reunite, and even recorded new music, which she says, ‘is just sitting there’.
So will the band ever get back together, I ask. ‘I don’t think so. It seems like a long shot,’ Thandiswa says. She doesn’t dwell too long on her Bongo Maffin days. Instead, she continues talking about her pots, her politically active mother, who died during childbirth when Thandiswa was 16, and her jazz album. The project, which will be released soon, was recorded with jazz maestros Nduduzo Makhathini, Ayanda Sikade and Herbie Tsoaeli. On it, they revisit classics like Miriam Makeba’s ‘West Wind’ and Letta Mbulu’s ‘Jikijela’.
Many of the songs she interprets were originally sung during apartheid, and the relevance of them today – with youth protest movements being compared to those of 1976 – is not lost on the singer. ‘“Jikijela” is about the act of throwing stones,’ Thandiswa says, while ‘West Wind’, written by Caiphus Semenya and later sung by Nina Simone, is about African unity. ‘The current energy in the country lends itself to some of those songs,’ she says. Her music rings with revolutionary and pan-African messages, while relaying the black experience in her papery falsetto and sometimes contralto voice on hits ‘Nizalwa Ngobani’ and ‘Zabalaza’.
‘One of the first lessons I learned from Miriam Makeba and her generation of musicians, is that your music has to have an intent,’ Thandiswa says. While her music, sung mainly in isiXhosa, interrogates the African experience, Thandiswa has also extended her voice to Twitter, where she speaks publicly about politics, gender and love.
‘I feel like Twitter was created for black people,’ she says. Referring to Botswana-based writer Siyanda Mohutsiwa’s 2016 TEDTalk titled ‘How young Africans found a voice on Twitter,’ Thandiswa says: ‘Black people have found an international voice, and it’s loud; the fact that there is a thing called Black Twitter says a lot.’ For Thandiswa, movements like #FeesMustFall, the #RUReferenceList and #BlackLivesMatters have been accelerated by social media.
‘These hashtags couldn’t exist outside these spaces and have been great ways of unifying the black voice.’ If Twitter activities read like a reflection of our lives, then Thandiswa’s would spell out: sage and spicy. Before we wrap up, Thandiswa talks about another, raunchier, side of Twitter, which she finds progressive and relevant. ‘#TwitterAfterDark is very interesting,’ she says. ‘There are people tweeting about their sexuality, what they desire and what they want. I follow a lot of homosexual people on Twitter, and having the voice of lesbian desire out in the open is important.’