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
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.
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.
A post shared by Kelly Khumalo (@kellykhumaloza) on
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?
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.
This article originally appeared in the Marie Claire (January 2017)
After travelling more than 5 000km from Syria to Germany in a wheelchair, Nujeen Mustafa longs for a normal life and to ease the plight of refugees
Anxiety and excitement overcome Nujeen Mustafa. She knows that everything will change once she gets on the tiny boat in Behram, Turkey. The dinghy is already filled with passengers who, like herself, are escaping their war-torn homeland in the Middle East. But she can’t turn back because her family has spent thousands of dollars to ensure that Nujeen and her older sisters, Nasrine and Nahda, make it to Germany to join their older brother, who has been there for a few years.
Nujeen, a Kurdish-Syrian from Aleppo, has heard how treacherous this trip across the Aegean Sea is, and questions the durability of the inflatable boat that will transport her, her wheelchair, her sisters and 36 others from Turkey to Greece.
‘I didn’t realise how close death was. Just a small tear in the fabric from my wheelchair catching and we could have capsized, or a large wave could have turned the boat over at any moment,’ she writes in her memoir, Nujeen: One Girl’s Incredible Journey from Wartorn Syria in a Wheelchair. Besides the boat sinking, 15-year-old Nujeen fears the dinghy might be intercepted by Turkish police and they will be detained or deported. At the time, in September 2015, Nujeen and her sisters had already been travelling for almost 1 600km, from Manbij in northern Syria to Behram.
For 11 long months, Nasrine had pushed her younger sister across all types of terrain: stony pathways and steep roads; at other times they had to wait for hours for their smugglers or to hide from police. They make it across the sea to Lesbos, but their journey is far from over. From the Greek island to Germany, they will endure another 4 000km of travelling plus a short but gruelling detention, filled with uncertainty, in Serbia.
‘My feeling at the time was excitement mixed with a lot of fear because I knew I was risking my life in many ways. But I knew I deserved a better life,’ says Nujeen during a call from Germany. As she recalls the 14-month-long journey, her positivity is infectious and her eloquence and assertiveness beyond her years.
It’s been more than a year since Nujeen and her sisters reached their new home in Wesseling, just outside Cologne, Germany. They share a two-bedroom apartment with Nadha’s four children. When we talk, it’s an exciting time for the teen. Nujeen’s memoir, about her life in Syria and her arduous journey to Europe in a wheelchair, has been published to impressive reviews; she’s preparing for her final year in high school and saying ‘goodbye childhood’ on her 18th birthday on 1 January 2017.
Born in Manbij, Nujeen, her siblings and her sheeptrader parents moved to Aleppo when she was a young girl. The last of nine children, 26 years younger than her oldest brother, Nujeen was born with tetra spasticity, a type of cerebral palsy.
‘Maybe because Ayee was quite old when she had me – 44 – I was born too soon,’ she writes in her book about her mother. ‘Something happened in my brain so the balance part doesn’t work and it doesn’t send proper signals to my legs. So they have a life of their own. They kick up when I am speaking, my ankles turn inwards, my toes point downwards, my heels curl up and I can’t walk.’
Since her arrival in Germany in September 2015, Nujeen has had physical therapy twice a week at her school. ‘I believe I am a lot more flexible now,’ she says. This is very different from her life in Syria, where she spent most of her time in the fifth-floor apartment she shared with her family. She did not attend school or go out much because of her severe asthma, which was aggravated by the dust in the city and the cigarette smokers – ‘just about all men in Syria smoke, and so do some women’.
When armed conflict broke out in Syria in 2011 after protesters called for the removal of long-time President Bashar al-Assad, followed by civil war the next year, Nujeen and her family were forced to stay indoors before fleeing to Manbij. Before the wars started, Nujeen had already developed a knack for collecting facts and information.
‘I don’t collect stamps or coins or football cards – I collect facts. Most of all facts about physics and space, particularly string theory.’ She learnt to speak English from watching satellite TV, consuming American soapie Days of our Lives and testing her smarts watching an Arabic version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. During the 2010 Fifa World Cup, which she watched with her footballloving family, ‘we learned all about South Africa and the cities,’ she says, and names the colours in the South African flag and the country’s major cities.
Books and the internet also became an invaluable source of knowledge. In Germany, Nujeen still collects facts and has developed an interest in psychology and space. She reads books when she’s not listening to Beethoven or Mozart. ‘I also listen to pop when I’m in a really bad mood and just want to be a teenager,’ she laughs.
Like all teenagers in Europe, Nujeen goes to school and 2017 marks her final year of high school. ‘A few years from now I will be a college girl,’ she says. She would like to study physics or literature ‘at the best university’. ‘I will work really hard and be totally stressed by exams. I see myself as a fluent German speaker with a normal life. And in the long term, I hope to go back.’
Despite being happy and grateful for her new life in Germany, where she is settled and has quickly grasped German, Nujeen says she’s started to miss home. ‘I’m growing quite nostalgic. Every song that reminds me of my childhood or anything Syrian makes me want to cry and go home. Where I am now is much better, but that doesn’t mean I hate where I have been or how my life was. I miss my childhood, the innocence and absence of responsibility, and being my parents’ spoilt kid.’
Recalling her mother, Nujeen says, ‘In the war, my mom would say the most important thing is that we are together and nothing happened to any of us.’ ‘Nothing’ you assume is a euphemism for getting hurt or even the unthinkable. And in the case of her life, ‘nothing’ has happened to any of her family members, but Nujeen and her parents are no longer together. Her mother and father are in Turkey; she speaks to them daily to get updates on their lives but Nujeen hopes they will reunite in Germany. Under German law, Syrian refugees under 18 are eligible to have their parents join them in Germany.
But when a refugee turns 18, that right expires. When Nujeen, who only has temporary residence, talks to me three months before she turns 18, she is concerned. ‘I am running out of time,’ she says. ‘When I get granted reunification, I will be able to see my parents. I try not to think about what would happen if I don’t get it because when I think about that, it makes me really sad.’
As Islamophobic sentiments persist across the West and the Eurozone mulls the influx of immigrants, the refugee crisis has become a polarising issue in Europe. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened the country’s borders in 2015 to 10 000 refugees fleeing war zones, thousands more entered the country. Since her open-door policy came into effect in September 2015 – the month Nujeen got to Germany – the chancellor has been heavily criticised for her decision from within Germany and the Eurozone, but she is committed to the policy.
‘We decided to fulfil our humanitarian obligations. I did not say it would be easy. I said back then, and I will say it again now, that we can manage our historic task – and this is a historic test in times of globalisation – just as we have managed so much already. We can do it,’ Angela said.
Nujeen says she is committed to fighting for the equality of refugees. ‘Refugees are like everybody; there is good and bad, just like any society. I’m not angry with anyone, I wrote this book because I wanted to play my part in changing the perception of refugees. We are all human and we should be thought of as a human fi rst.’ Before we say goodbye, Nujeen shares her joy in knowing that people in ‘Madiba’s country know about my story’.
And when I ask who she looks up to, she says, ‘I don’t have role models because everyone has character fl aws. I have my own thoughts and ideas about the world, and I would like to do my best to make it a better place. I used to wonder if I was delusional for being optimistic during tough times, but then I discovered that I was not wrong for being who I am.’
Nujeen: One Girl’s Incredible Journey from War-torn Syria in a Wheelchair, by Nujeen Mustafa with Christina Lamb (R295, Jonathan Ball Publishers)
A shortened version of this article appeared in Marie Claire (January 2017)
US comedian and co-host of hilarious and successful podcast 2 Dope Queens and Sooo Many White Guys, Phoebe Robinson, spoke to me about her recently published book of essays, You Can’t Touch My Hair (And Other Things I Still Have to Explain), recording the third season of 2 Dope Queens with co-host Jessica Williams and her love for Michael Fassbender and Michael B Jordan.
How did “You Can’t Touch My Hair” come to be? It was like an act of fate. I know that sounds hokey, but it’s true. In 2014, I was questioning still doing comedy. At that point, I had been doing comedy for about six years, but I felt like my career was stuck. Out of the blue my lit agent, Robert Guinsler, sent me an email about working together on a book. That email felt like a dream come true because I started blog Blaria (aka Black Daria, inspired by the MTV show Daria) in 2012. And since it’s made up of essays, it felt like a natural fit for the book to be that and about things that are more evergreen like racism and sex positivity.
When did you write the book? The process took about 13 months; between May 2015 and June 2016. I wrote some of it upstate New York to jumpstart the process, other parts were written at the office in my apartment or backstage at stand-up shows while I waited to perform.
Why the title, “You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain”? I’m a title person. I came up with the name because in America, black women’s hair is touched all the time. So I thought it would be fun to name it something that we say all the time. Thankfully, people got the joke, so I’m happy about that.
The other part of your title is “And Other Things I Still Have to Explain”, which begs the question, who is the book aimed at? This book is for everyone. I think people who have a similar background to me, will feel reflected in the book and laugh, “That happened to me, too!” I also think it’s for other people who maybe aren’t that familiar with someone like me and maybe they will learn something.
How much writing/preparation goes into creating your podcasts? With both podcasts, I want it to feel natural and like a party, but to get that is not always easy and other times, it is. Since Sooo Many White Guys is an interview talk show, so a lot of prep goes into the research about my guests and the questions I ask them. While 2 Dope Queens’s structure is looser. My manager, Chenoa Estrada and I book all the acts and then [co-host] Jessica Williams and I improvise our performances. The producers then come in and edit down what Jess and I say.
Do you view the process for producing essays, podcasts and stand-up routines as similar? They are absolutely interlinked because they all come from one mindset, and that is being a creator. It all starts with me and making sure I have a strong vision. Having something to say whether it’s high brow about sexism or lowbrow about my love of Michael Fassbender and Michael B Jordan. A lot of my work is inspired by me wanting to make my audience feel like they’re hanging out with a best friend.