Author: Stefanie (page 2 of 7)

Novelist Panashe Chigumadzi on ‘forgetting’ and recovering Shona, finding self through books and (dis)connecting to African print

10and5 brings you a series of conversations featuring five womxn from across southern Africa, centred on topics such as preserving history, culture, self-expression and more. As Heritage Day, which took place on 24 September, evokes further dialogue around culture, this series aims to explore how heritage and tradition is expressed and thought about among a few contemporary womxn in South Africa’s creative community. Photographs by Madelene Cronje.

Panashe Chigumadzi is a writer, founding editor of Vanguard Magazine and an award-winning novelist of best-seller Sweet Medicine, as well as curator of the inaugural Mzansi literary festival Abantu Book Fest in 2016. Born in Zimbabwe and raised in South Africa, Panashe — who in 2015 became a Ruth First Fellow — is currently at the University of Iowa, in the US, for the International Writers Program. And her forthcoming book on the interwoven politics of hair and land, is titled Beautiful Hair.

Panashe visited our studio and shared what being at a physical remove from her culture meant while growing up, the intricacies of her “traditional attire” and how she’s used books to engage histories of Zimbabwe and Shona people, plus a whole lot more.

Hi Panashe, can you tell us where you were born?
In Harare, Zimbabwe. At the age of three, my family moved to Durban, South Africa. In the year I turned eight we moved a second time to Polokwane where my family still lives. I moved to Johannesburg for university, and I’ve lived here since.

Would you mind sharing your family’s cultural background?
Without sounding too academic, my parents come from different subgroups of the people who, at least since the Mfecane, have come to be known as Shona. Before the Mfecane, which saw the push of the breakaway Ndebele into what we now know as Zimbabwe and the interaction with the British settlers, we did not have the kind of “Shona consciousness” that we have today. It’s more likely that people would have been identified more closely with the clans that make up the various Shona subgroups that speak different dialects of the Shona language. For example, my father is Zezuru, which is seen as the politically dominant group from Mashonaland Central Province, and my mother is Manyika from the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe, which is sometimes seen as the more economically dominant group.

Part of the reason why the answer was not a straightforward “Shona” — and when I’m feeling particularly academic, I might say I’m “from the territory that has come to be known as Zimbabwe” — is that I’m wary of reinforcing the coloniality of national borders both at the physical and inter-group levels. I’m also interested in understanding and celebrating my Shona heritages, while being aware of the dangerous consequences of the kind of state-sponsored Shona chauvinism of post-independence Zimbabwe that led to something as devastating as the Gukurahundi Massacres of the early 1980s, which saw the genocide of tens of thousands of Ndebele people. This feels important to state because the celebration of heritage even amongst Africans is not always an innocent exercise, especially when we let the complexities of our identities slip under the guise of “recovery” and “reclamation”.

Relating to fashion, is there a particular dress you don to express your culture?
In terms of “traditional dress”, I, like many other Zimbabweans, typically feel out of place when we are asked to represent our culture because we don’t have any distinctly Zimbabwean or Shona clothing in the way that say you might have Zulu isicholos, the Tsonga xibelani skirt, the Ndebele idzilla and the Sotho shweshwe print. When we talk of “traditional” or “African attire”, it usually means West African or to be more specific, Nigerian and Ghanaian style clothing. So when we are asked to wear traditional clothing for this or that function, we often appropriate the East African kanga or the Nigerian traditional style, albeit a much more conservative version, sans the gold jewellery and sunglasses seen in the society fashion magazines from which we often cut out patterns.

You brought a few books along to the shoot, what are some of your selects?
These are books, fiction and non-fiction, academic and non-academic, that span topics as wide as art, history, religion and politics that have been important to me for the ways in which they have helped me locate myself within the world. Some of the titles included are Yvonne Vera’s The Stone Virgins, Nehanda, and Under the Tongue and Without A Name; Ama Ata Aidoo’s Sister Killjoy; Claudia Rankine’s Citizen; Toni Morrison’s Jazz and What Moves at the Margin;  Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens; Yvette Christiaanse’s Unconfessed; Barbara Thompson’s Black Womanhood: Images, Icons, and Ideologies of the African Body; and Audre Lorde’s Zami.

Could you share how — through work, studies or everyday life — you engage in your personal history and culture?
Having lived in South Africa, away from my extended family since I was three, I have always been at a physical remove from my culture and the ways it is practiced in every day. At some point, my brother and I had “forgotten” Shona. I can’t tell you how exactly it happened. It felt like a very swift and “painless” process. I arrived at my predominantly white pre-school in Durban not speaking a word of English and within a short amount of time, it was the reverse situation where I could barely speak any Shona. This “forgetting” was very much in spite of my parents’ efforts. Looking back, it was mostly due to the fact we were discouraged from speaking our languages at school and at home, and any traces were often erased through compulsory “speech therapy”.

One way that my parents and wider family tried to mitigate this was through books and through the personal narration of our family histories. My grandfather, for example, was a primary school teacher so he would buy us Shona school readers. Because of him I can read and write basic Shona. More than that basic literacy, it was a way for me to get to read and hear some of the stories and fables that traditionally my grandmothers would have told me had I grown up with them close by.

Over time, I “recovered” much of the language. Although when I haven’t been to Zimbabwe in a while, my South African accent creeps around my tongue and people can hear that. Books have since then always been one of the primary ways in which I engage my language and culture and histories of Zimbabwe and Shona people. My academic work, for example, is based on the figure of Mbuya Nehanda, the woman spirit medium who led Zimbabwe’s First Chimurenga in the 1890s, and the ways in which the narrative of her life and death by execution by Cecil John Rhodes’s British South Africa Company, is engaged in Zimbabwe’s national literatures.

I was also fortunate enough to grow up with parents who loved to tell their personal histories with details about the “record evenings” they would have at their mission boarding schools or when they had been woken up at night by “the comrades” and summoned to attend a Pungwe where they had to learn about the “struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoise”. What I appreciate most is our visits to Zimbabwe often included “detours” to both national heritage sites such as Great Zimbabwe and Victoria Falls, and sites of personal history such as the primary and secondary schools they attended or my grandfather taught at, hospitals they were born and the places my father would herd cattle with my uncles as a boy. Along with looking at pictures of their high school, university and early working days, this was incredibly important in ensuring that those histories were not abstract for me but very much real and felt, so that in many ways, I grew up in my parents’ nostalgia for their childhood and youth in Zimbabwe.

What did you wear to the shoot?
We tried on a range of African prints that I have bought from different African countries, as well a few that belong to you 🙂

Can you tell us about your relationship with or thoughts around African prints?
Given that Shona people do not have an “official” national costume or traditional attire, I found that I had to look elsewhere. I started wearing African prints “actively” after I’d just left university. There were a few factors that came together: earning my own money, a desire to assert my “Africanness”, an increase in the number of functions to attend, the “mainstreamification” of African fashion by international fashion houses and, of course, the beginning of the “Africa rising” and “Afropolitan” narratives. I initially bought quite heavily into those conversations but soon I found myself a little more critical of what began to feel to me a brand of neo-liberal cosmopolitanism cloaked in African style.

I also felt restricted by the ways it at time felt narrowly essentialist and unimaginative in the ways we could represent “authentic” African identities. At some point it felt like all you had to do to “make something African” is to add Kente cloth, Dutch wax print or a dashiki. So, from one extreme of wearing African prints to any and every occasion, I almost completely disavowed it.

Having come to understand how the use and incorporation of the iconic Dutch wax print in West Africa is a relatively recent “invention” of African cultures as a result of trade by the Dutch who had initially created wax prints mimicking the local Batik styles for sale in their Indonesian colony, but soon found a better market to adapt the style in West Africa; much in the same way that, for example, the iconic Ndebele mural art and traditional clothing is the result of relatively recent cultural expression, which was in part as a response to the devastations caused by the Mfecane and wars with Boers in the late 1800s.

I came to see that their “inventedness” and even more, their relative “newness” within the periods of colonisation, doesn’t make these styles any less “African”. That freed me in so many ways. I feel much less tied to ideas of “authenticness” and freer to creatively draw from various heritages to express myself, whilst being respectful of mine and other peoples’ histories. So, nowadays, I do still wear African prints simply as a way to bring an outfit together, and at times, as a way of sharing in a broader, maybe pan-Africanist sense of cultures on the continent and the broader diaspora. But I’m far less naive about wearing it to index an “authentic” sense of Africanness or blackness in the ways that I did when I was younger and reacting to a sense of alienation and displacement. I now see wearing African prints as part of a range of the many ways I can express my identity, which is always in flux and yet always tied to being black and a woman in this part of the world at this moment in history, as opposed it being to the absolute way to express myself.

All photographs by Madelene Cronje

Maria McCloy on celebrating self: ‘I’m England and Lesotho mixed, stomping the streets of Jozi’

This article originally appeared on

This month, 10and5 brings you a series of conversations featuring five womxn from across southern Africa, centred on topics such as preserving history, culture, self-expression and more. As Heritage Day approaches on 24 September, and evokes further dialogue around culture, this series aims to explore how heritage and tradition is expressed and thought about among a few contemporary womxn in South Africa’s creative community.

Maria McCloy is an “Africa-inspired Jozi-based accessory and shoe creator”, publicist, co-host of monthly party TONGHT, and a deejay in training. Born in the UK to a Mosotho mother and English father, she spent her childhood in Nigeria, Sudan, Mozambique and Lesotho before moving to South Africa in the late 1980s. In 1995, she co-founded legendary urban culture-centred media company Black Rage Productions, and is currently working on a new range for retailer, among other ventures.

Maria invited us into her Yeoville apartment, where we spoke about preserving heritage, contemporary fashion icons and how her diverse background plays a major role in her eclectic and coveted style.

Hi Maria, could you tell us a bit about your cultural background?
I’m a Mosotho, English mix. My mum is from Lesotho, my dad is from England. My mother is trained as a lawyer and likes music and markets, and my father is an architect who likes art. Both are rather intellectual. And my father’s job taking us throughout the continent during my childhood was a massive influence on me. If you look at my clothes, you see both parts. My seshoeshoe brogues that I make epitomises the mix!

What was it like growing up?
Growing up, I had seshoeshoe skirts from my Mosotho grandmother, and my English grandmother would take us shopping on the high street in York over holidays. Also, my parents have both influenced me greatly in my aesthetics and way of seeing the word. They have open headspaces, hang out in all kinds of circles and with all kinds of people.

Basotho culture is in my work but I also see myself
as an African and a Joburger, part of a global scene.
You can see that in the shoes, accessories and bags.

How would you describe your style?
Super accessorised, Afrocentric and colourful. I’m all about wearing Africanness everyday, everywhere. From corporate spaces to the club, people should land in Africa and know where they are by how the people dress. My brand is all about getting away from the idea that wearing African attire is merely for special occasions and Heritage Day, that idea stems from shame and self-hate, which came from colonialism and apartheid; part of the programme of those systems was banning indigenous culture – and those wounds are deep.

What are you wearing in this shoot and what do these items mean to you?
Let’s start with the blue wire earrings because that’s where my accessory journey began in Maseru, Lesotho. I started selling earrings in 2007 after I was home on holiday and met David Makoae who was making amazing wire earrings, these earrings are common in Maseru, but his were special. I came back to Jozi and all my staff and the stylish women in the city wanted them.

I love this jacket. I bought it four years ago from a designer named David Hutt. It’s nice to see that people are seeing such jackets as trendy more and more now, at the last fashion week, I saw a lot of people in Basotho blanket designs. I thought the Seshoeshoe wrap goes lovelily with the earrings and jackets. I also love the new seshoeshoe colours like these but I like the classic colours, like this red and white seshoeshoe on my brogues. The brogues are by me, and represents me, England and Lesotho mixed stomping the streets of my home Jozi.

Beyond personal style, how does your space and work reflect your heritage?
I think my work, my home, my style, my DJ sets all reflect who I am. There’s a strong African bias but with a streetwear urban culture kind of edge. There’s a lot of vintage. In my home, there are two Basotho hats, a disco ball, Mozambican and Xhosa woodwork, a Zulu kist, Xhosa cloth, lots of Basotho blankets and western vintage furniture from different eras. I have a painting by Kudzanai Chiurai, but also Tupac off a pavement seller, Chris Ofilli and Keith Haring prints. Plus lots of little bits and pieces from trips to India, Nigeria and Los Angeles, as well as many books on African style. I also work with Zulu artisans on clutch bags and necklaces, my bag makers are Malawian and Nigerian, and a South African person makes my wax-print necklaces.

And what about your kitchen space?
That is inspired by both my grandmothers. So I have tea sets and a painting by Lesotho’s Meshu [Mokitimi] of a woman grinding corn on a stone, I have my UK grandmother’s tray and my Mosotho grandmother’s table.

Who are some of your style icons?
My mother, I inherited a love of cloth. She always comfortably mixes African and western fashion. I remember her at a school prize giving in a seshoeshoe dress and black leather jacket, but she liked like boutiques too and shopping in the market and bargains, Neneh Cherry: the hair, the turbans, the dresses with sneakers, the mix of African, New York and London style. Also Thandiswa Mazwai. The first time I saw her in 1997, she had a suit on, braids and maasai jewellery! She is a style revolutionary, and has always been boldly pan-African yet punk in style.

Marianne Fassler is another fashion kindred spirit of mine; her work is amazing as is her interpretation of all that is African. Yasmin Furmie epitomises the hashtag StayFlyForever, I want to look like her when I grow up. I adore Dianne Von Furstenburg too, and of course Esther Mahlangu and Frida Kahlo.

Photographs by Madelene Cronje.

Hillywood: The rise of Rwanda’s women filmmakers

An edited version of this article appeared in Mail & Guardian (24 March 2017)

The closing eve of this year’s Fespaco, Africa’s most symbolic film festival, should be remembered as an historic one. When the weeklong Pan African Film and Television Festival (Fespaco) drew to an end in Ouagadougou at the start of March, it was a night of many firsts.

The festival – which has taken place biennially in Burkina Faso since 1969 – named the winner of the inaugural Thomas Sankara prize, in honour of the country’s revolutionary leader and former president. Celebrating films by Africans made mainly in Africa, Fespaco awarded the accolade to Rwandan director Marie-Clémentine Dusabejambo for her short film, A Place for Myself, about Elikia, a young Rwandan girl with albinism discriminated against at school and in her community, and her mother’s fight to protect her.

“I became interested in my film’s topic in 2008 after hearing about the killings of people with albinism in Tanzania. There was lots about it in the news that really stuck in my mind. And I hadn’t seen many people with albinism in Kigali, except an old man, a street beggar, who no one came close to,” she says.

At the time, Clementine, who had no formal film training (but would later gain experience working with filmmaker), was embarking on her career and exposed to news reports such as those stating that between March 2007 and October of the following year, 50 people with albinism had been killed across the Rwandan border. “I wanted to go to Tanzania but as a young woman filmmaker, I lacked the means. So my mom suggested I stay in Rwanda and question why we don’t see albinos here. I did research [and discovered] a community that is hidden; whose own families at times marginalise them by keeping them indoors.”


A week after meeting at Kigali’s Hilltop Hotel, where she spoke about her visually moving film that’s in equal parts heartbreaking as it is empowering, Dusabejambo also scooped the La Chance prize at Fespaco. This making Dusabejambo one of the first women filmmakers from Rwanda to win major awards at the festival. And highlighting not only her work but the growing tide of female filmmakers from Rwanda, collectively breaking into the global film scene. A wave of women filmmakers creating work in a nascent and still very male-dominated Rwandan cinema; telling the stories that they want to and from their perspective. Narratives that range from anything between sexual identity, to the consequences of the genocide or living with HIV in the East African country.

“The film industry in Rwanda is new. There aren’t more than a handful of female filmmakers here,” she says about established women directors in Rwanda. Nicknamed Hillywood – as an ode to the country’s rolling hills – Rwanda’s movie scene emerged in the early 2000s as the country was rebuilding from the 1994 genocide and civil war; which left close to a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead in 100 days, an estimated 500 000 women raped, scores of people displaced and the country’s’ infrastructure severely devastated.

“When the film industry started in Rwanda, it was 99% male,” says filmmaker Erica Kabera, credited as the founder of Hillywood, and who in 2001 produced the first feature on the genocide, titled 100 Days. “The dominance of men in the industry inspired people to encourage young girls and women to take up on trade,” he says about initiatives such Rwandan Women Panorama, which showed films made by women and was facilitated by the Swedish Development Agency. Two years after 100 Days premiered, Kabera established Kwetu Film Institute in Kigali, to upskill emerging film practitioners.

One such filmmaker is up and coming screenwriter-director Ndimbira Shenge, whose works have shown across Kigali, the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles and the Afrikamera Film Festival in Berlin, and more. Similarly to Dusabejambo, Shenge creates films that tell the stories of women on the margins of Rwanda’s conservative society. “People always ask me why my films are about sex,” she says discussing the responses to her work. It’s a couple of days after the public screening of her films on the rooftop of Kigali’s community centre, Impact Hub, where the theme for the evening is “Taboo Topics in Motions”. And her short movies – one about a woman filmmaker who is infatuated with her female colleague, titled She, and a documentary about a young woman’s life as a sex worker, Hora Mama – make the cut.

Ndimbira Shenge

Ndimbira Shenge

“People are ashamed to speak about sex in public [in Rwanda], some thinking it’s not our culture,” she says, arguing against those who view homosexuality as un-Rwandan or un-African. The 26-year-old is currently developing a web documentary series about Rwanda’s LGBTI community, scheduled to release in July.

Despite the fact that homosexuality is not criminalised in the country, Shenge says “coming out” in Rwanda could mean facing marginalisation or discrimination. And because of this, Shenge has met challenges casting people in her series, who are not reluctant to reveal their identity. “We are planning to tell the story of six people, but so far have only found two who want to appear in the show.” But Shenge says she is hopeful that stigmas attached to sexual identities that are not heterosexual will fall away, the more public dialogue on “taboo” topics are encouraged.

Reflecting on Rwanda’s cinema, Shenge says watching films by the likes of Dusabejambo assures her “that in five to 10 years, Rwanda we will have some of the best women filmmakers, because we are working so hard”.

And indeed they are, as filming legend Kabera chronicles the gradual increase in the number of films – from shorts to documentaries and features – produced by Rwandans; across gender.

“If you wanted to make a film in the old days [after the genocide], you’d have to wait for people to come from Berlin or France with equipment. But as the digital revolution spurs on, people can now go out there and make their own videos, produce great photography and film. It’s become more affordable and accessible.”

For Rwandan-born, US-based screenwriter and director Anisia Uzeyman, the affordability and accessibility of technology today, has helped her create her acclaimed debut feature film. Dreamstates, in which she stars alongside celebrated poet and her husband Saul Williams, was shot entirely on iPhone.

Anisia Uzeyman (Pic: Katina Parker)

Anisia Uzeyman (Pic: Katina Parker)

The film, which premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival last year, is a love story about two people who first meet in dreams before meeting in reality while travelling by road across the US.

“I left Rwanda as a child in the 1980s to get an education and an ‘easier life’ in Europe. I came back in 1993 to see my mother for the last time,” says the actor and filmmaker, who later studied at the National School of Theater in Rennes, France. “In 1996, I came back to Rwanda, and since then I have been returning, as someone who is bonded to this land.” Uzeyman has recently come back to the country as the director of photography on Williams’s upcoming sci-fi short film, In The Wires, which was shot in Rwanda.

As the opportunities for Rwanda’s filmmakers in the diaspora, like Uzeyman, and at home increase and the industry grows, Rwanda’s film practitioners still experience challenges. Ashley Harden and Ann-Elise Francis of independent US think tank Council on Foreign Relations, in 2012 released findings on the country’s film scene, writing: “Rwanda’s film sector is still in its infancy. It started only in 2003 with the founding of the Rwanda Cinema Center, and it has struggled to expand in the face of legal and tax barriers and a culture unfamiliar with film. But despite these barriers, Rwandans are passionate about growing the industry.”

The Francis and Harden highlight obstacles for Hillywood, such as the the lack of government funding for potential filmmakers to train in the field; little to no business skills or financial guidance for filmmakers, and their inability to fund film projects; and Rwanda’s local film industry being untapped as a result of the lack of film culture in the country.

Mughisha Pamella (left) and Bernard Ishimwe. (Pic: Gabriel Dusabe)

Mughisha Pamella (left) and Bernard Ishimwe. (Pic: Gabriel Dusabe)

Pointing to one of Kigali’s only commercial cine complexes, Century Cinema, which opened in 2013, they write, “‘Going to the movies’ is simply not a typical leisure activity in Rwanda [and] Distribution of Rwandan films through television is also minimal.”

Looking further south, Kabera reiterates the findings, saying: “Unlike South Africa, where you have the National Film and Video Foundation and other government support structures, we don’t have that. The Rwandan government tries, but they have not yet created a mechanism for funding film.”

It’s really hard to get funding for young filmmakers, says Dusajambo. “We don’t have a cinema culture in Rwanda because the industry is so new. So in this business you have to prove yourself and your place, especially as a woman.”

For aspiring filmmakers such as 19-year-old Mugisha Pamella, proving oneself in the industry is what she’s learnt to do, she says. “There are a lot of people who [shudder] when they hear the words, ‘a girl with a camera’. It’s still a rare sight. Women actors and presenters are more common.” Pamella, has freshly graduated from Mopas Film Academy in Kigali, and is getting started on her career as an editor and cinematographer.

Mugisha Pamella. (Pic: Gabriel Dusabe)

As Rwanda’s universities do not yet offer film courses, private institutions like Mopas offer aspirant filmmakers short courses where they can take up subjects like animation, lighting and sound. Housed in a makeshift classroom and renovated home, Mopas Film Academy opened in July last year and is focused on empowering women in the industry – even giving a discount to its female learners when they enrol.

Seated in one of the classrooms at Mopas – where she is currently interning (assisting with film edits and shadow filmmakers) – Mugisha looks to the future, saying, “One day, I want to have a company with only women where will train girls to become filmmakers. But for now, I want to tell my fellow girls, don’t be afraid to get behind the camera.”

Musician Laura Mvula heads to SA, talks Prince, Style and Life after Sony

This interview appeared in Marie Claire South Africa (April 2017)

Multi-award winning British singer-songwriter Laura Mvula is celebrated for her vocal strength and soulful compositions. The protege of the late musician Prince makes her way to the Cape Town International Jazz Festival this month, where she’ll perform music from her canon, including her latest album The Dreaming Room.

She chats to us ahead of the show.

You’ve filmed two music videos in South Africa, and you’re back to perform at the CTIJF. Could you share your connection with the country?

South Africa has always been important to me.  That’s where I created some of my most symbolic music videos; the first time I worked on one was in South Africa. So it’s a country that holds memories of a virgin experience to me; it takes me back to a special feeling.  My parents are Caribbean but most people think I’m from SA because of my surname; I’m yet to tell them I’m not. The country really holds a special place in my music foundation. I grew up listening to South Africa music like the Soweto String Quartet, who I got to see perform in my hometown of Birmingham when I was young.

Your music videos are visually striking, and so is your personal style. How much creative direction do you when deciding on your wardrobe or video/stage visuals?

When the first record came out, I was determined to be safe. That quickly changed by the time the second record came out. I realised there was an opportunity for me to be the truest expression of who I am. I love colours, vibrancy and interest shapes; and things that don’t fit into a box. That extends to the music. That comes from idolising musicians like Earth, Wind and Fire or watching Michael Jackson videos, which were unmistakable and striking.

You wrote the music for the Royal Shakespeare Company show Antony and Cleopatra, which premiered in March. How are you feeling about it?

This is the most excited I’ve been for a long time, and it came at the most perfect time: when I was just dropped from Sony and began to reimagine my career. The show’s director, Iqbal khan had a specific idea about the music and he wanted my sound translated into theatre. I’ve yearned to make music for film and theatre, so this made sense.

Last year you spoke out about the lack of diversity at the Brit Awards. How are you feeling about the award show this year? Do you think diversity has been achieved, compared to last year?  

This whole thing is complex. I spoke about it and then I didn’t get a nomination [this year]. So it’s quite political. The nominations themselves should reflect accurately the music being made in the country, and it wasn’t.

You recently tweeted about being dropped by Sony. How are you feeling now? And what plans do you have for the future?

I feel as though the public have been comforting and encouraging me but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel hurt. I got caught up with the illusion some how that the label dictates the direction of my career. Prince tried to warn me before he died, he urged me to own my masters, and be independent. But I was so caught up in my journey, and didn’t know if i could do it on my own. But now I know I can, which puts me in the best position I’ve been in the [last] couple of years.

Laura Mvula will perform at the The 18th Annual Cape Town Jazz Festival, 31 March – 1 April

Soul sisters: Kelly and Zandile Khumalo in conversation

This article originally appeared in Marie Claire (April 2017)

Few celebrities have captured the country’s – not to mention the tabloids’ – attention quite like Kelly Khumalo. Bold, confident and unabashed, Kelly has blazed a trail through the entertainment world, racking up awards, affairs and fans along the way. But just behind her in the spotlight stood her younger sister, Zandi, her backup dancer and singer.

As Kelly sang her way up the charts and into the tabloids, Zandi stood by her side, through the 2012 conviction of Kelly’s ex-boyfriend Molemo ‘Jub Jub’ Maarohanye for culpable homicide, to the 2014 death of her lover, soccer hero Senzo Meyiwa. But 2017 is a fresh start for the sisters. Kelly is joining Idols as a judge and has just released a new album, while Zandi is releasing her first album and settling into married life.

The power of sisterhood is strong with the Khumalos, in the same vein as Beyoncé and Solange Knowles. Beyoncé recently interviewed her younger sister for Interview magazine, saying, ‘I remember thinking, “My little sister is going to be something super special,” because you always seemed to know what you wanted.’ In the spirit of celebrating sisterhood, Kelly and Zandi sit down to talk about their careers, family and future.

Touch Not The Anointed ones….my #WCW @zandie_khumalo_gumede ❤

A post shared by Kelly Khumalo (@kellykhumaloza) on

KELLY: It’s so weird having you interview me.

ZANDI: I know! So, to the beginning of our musical journey…

K: It started at church. We sang in the youth choir.

Z: Let’s not forget the choir we had at home. Remember that?

K: Oh yes, the choir was made up of 14 kids, all of us living at our grandmother’s house. She had five children, so all  the cousins were in this choir. Our upbringing wasn’t as hunky-dory as we may have liked it to be. The music in church kept us going.

Z: Yes, our grandmother had favourites at home and it wasn’t you and me.

K: We found solace in music, and when we moved to Joburg from KwaZulu- Natal, we participated in SABC1’s Crux Gospel Star competition in 2004.

Z: I made it to the top seven.

K: I was in the top three, and from there I got signed. The following year I released my first album, TKO.

Z: And we just began working together automatically. You were looking for a dancer and a singer. And I became that.

K: Did you enjoy working with me?

Z: I loved it. I would live all my industry dreams vicariously through you.



K: And now 12 years later your first, long-awaited album is dropping. I don’t know how many times I called you to pressure you to go into the studio to record. I’m so happy it’s here.

Z: You’ve been pushing me to do what I love. I don’t know what I’ve been waiting for. Now I have a soulful album dropping! How did you feel when I decided to go on my own, and no longer be your backup singer and dancer?

K: I always wanted you to grow and go your own way. As much as I loved working with you, I wouldn’t want to be that sister who ties you down to my dreams. I would have felt as if I’d cheated you out of your own destiny. I wanted you to flourish in your own career. Don’t cry, it’s going to make me cry too!

Z: [Crying] This is an emotional moment. Do you worry about me getting into the industry?

K: Not really, because you’ve had 12 years of experience in this game. But I am concerned that you have a laid-back and soft personality. In this shrewd industry, where people can be vultures, it might be easy for people to push you over. I have learned to fight and push back. So if push comes to shove, I will fight on your behalf.

Z: During my years of working with you I’ve witnessed so much…

K: I’ve had my fair share of crazy fans. I’ve had people collapse and cry in my presence, and throw a glass at me as I was getting off stage that has left scars on my neck.

Z: What about dealing with negative social media comments?

K: I actually don’t care. It’s that simple for me. I’m running my own race, which is more important than what the next person thinks of me. People trying to pull me down have nothing to do with me. I see comments on social media, people share stuff with me and tag me in posts. I untag myself, block what I don’t like and carry on with my life.



Z: What advice do you have for me about going into the entertainment industry?

K: Be yourself.

Z: I always try to see the positive in everything. Not many people have the privilege of having a sister lend a hand and say, climb up. But people do expect us to be measured on the same scale.

K: That’s unfair because you can’t compare my 12 years and seven albums to your first single and album. It’s very challenging for siblings to be in the same industry because it’s easy for people to compare them. They forget that as much as you’re from the same family, you’re different individuals.

Z: OK, now that we’re here, I’ve always wanted to ask you something…

K: [Laughs] Now that you’re the journalist.

Z: Yes! I’ve been exposed to three different Kellys. Kelly at home. Kelly before she goes on stage. And Kelly on stage. What goes through your mind during these stages?

K: I also experience very different people and I never know who’s going to come out. Before a show, I prep, prep, prep. And I’m nervous about everything. I make sure I don’t forget anything. It’s a panic. Backstage I’m super nervous; I’m about to crumble and die! In my mind I’m thinking, ‘What if I forget the words? What if I trip and fall? What if people don’t like me?’ This is me 12 years later.

Z: And on stage?

K: When I get on stage, I have the energy of 10 men. I transform into this confident woman who says, ‘You can’t touch this. I will sing you to your bones and make sure that by the time you leave, you think I’m the best thing you’ve ever seen.’

Z: I’ve felt that energy before.

K: I hate embarrassment and failure. So the person you see on stage hates mediocrity. I always want to be the best I can be.

Z: What about dealing with failure? K: I will never fail when it comes to this [pointing to throat]. I can fail elsewhere in life. But on stage nothing can go wrong for me. You can take away the sound, and I will still sing.

Z: Your new album is called My Truth. What’s your truth?

K: Embracing who I am and what my experiences have been. My truth is wishing for the best for myself; it’s who I am as a mother, a friend and an African.

Z: Speaking of experiences… Let’s talk about overcoming your challenges, specifically substance abuse.

K: I’ve been clean for about five years, with no desire to go back to drugs. I have chosen to live a healthy lifestyle for myself and my children.

Z: I’m very proud of you. It’s not every day that someone comes out of such a dark place with so much enthusiasm.

K: I’m trying very hard to self-preserve: to eat healthily and take care of myself. When I started going to Narcotics Anonymous meetings (you came with me!), I was expecting to find ‘nyaope [a street drug cocktail of heroin, dagga and other narcotics] looking’ people but instead I found lawyers, businessmen and hot housewives. It showed me that there are so many different types of people caught up in it. If me speaking on the topic results in one life saved, that means a lot.

Z: It helps that we lean on each other. Despite us not working together any more, we still communicate a lot.

K: Thanks to FaceTime, and the fact that we always make time for each other. Sisterhood is not only about the good times but the support we offer each other.

Z: Shall we talk about love?

K: I love love. I don’t think I’ve really ever been in love but I still believe in it. What about you? How does it feel to wake up to someone every day?

Z: It’s been good, hard and beautiful.

K: I introduced you to Hloni Gumede.

Happy Sunday ❤️️

A post shared by zandie (@zandie_khumalo_gumede) on

Z: Yes, at a jazz festival in Durban. He bullied you for my number.

K: I thought, ‘Sure, have it. She’s never going to like you, so call her.’

Z: I tried to blow him off but he was such a nice guy, and he made me his wife. What about you? Seeing anybody?

K: Yes, I’m seeing myself! And it’s been lovely. I’m enjoying my space and the quietness. I’m in a selfish space; it’s about me, my career and my kids for the first time in my life. I’m at my happiest.

Z: I can tell. So many great things are happening. You’ve always wanted to be a judge on Idols. Now that it’s happened, how do you feel?

K: I’m humbled. And it’s assurance that whatever I ask from God, I get it.

Z: What will you bring to the show?

K: My input will be based on my years in the industry. I’ve also seen moments where contestants who can sing get turned away. So I’m hoping to change that. I believe I’ll give people who might have been turned away a chance again. I hear things that others don’t.

Z: And you’re very honest.

K: It’s a reality show, so it has to be as real as possible.

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