It is a chilly Johannesburg afternoon. The hum of traffic backgrounds the patrons’ chatter over mellow music as we sit on the top floor of an eatery in Parkhurst. Simphiwe Dana is a vision of regal innocence as she attentively awaits the start of our conversation.
Her hair in what have become signature coiffures that are elaborate celebrations of the possibilities of African manes, is as captivating as her floral sequinned blouse paired with an understated pleated white skirt. As our waters are set down, we commence our unchartered dialogue.
Q: Tell me, how are you?
A: I’m great, actually. I’m in a very calm place, very grounded, very centred.
Q: Where are you at this present moment in your work schedule? A lot of people don’t recognize or are unaware that you are a working artist and producer.
A: I’m working on putting out a live album and theatre production called ‘Moya’ that I worked on with Gregory Maqoma as the director and Titi Luzipo as our musical director. It’s a touring production that, once it’s put out, I want to take it to the world. Outside of the borders of SA. Besides that, I’m grown enough to not be all over the place.
Q: Would you care to elaborate on this controlled busyness?
A: I have beautiful projects that I like to do, and performances, and people that I work with. I am moving into a space where my work can be recognized more as an art form, an art installation, rather than just an entertainment performance. I don’t even like the word entertainment – even though I understand why people would resort to it – because my work is more spiritual than entertaining. So, I am moving into that kind of space where I am working with other artists from different art forms and genres; really dedicated to presenting my work as installations.
Q: One might ask, why this move? Why this shift? Is it something that’s always been there as an undercurrent, or has it recently emerged for you?
A: I’ve always felt my music was like that, but now I am intentionally making sure that the spaces that I am a part of possess the characteristics to enable such an exhibition.
Q: In a recent interview you did regarding ‘Moya’, you mentioned how you’re not making gospel, you’re making spiritual music. How do you get people who might call it gospel reframed to see that it is more than just about seeking a God or a saviour but engaging with the world of spirit?
A: With Moya, there are heavy elements of Christianity in the music because it was an ode to my mother. My mother was a staunch Christian. So, all the songs that she loved, I took them and I rearranged them and I added to them in my own way. I am a spiritual being.
Our spirituality is older than Christianity. I believe that God is the same in all forms of spirituality and religion, et cetera, so all of them can coexist. I’m very much invested in African spirituality being recognized and getting the reverence it deserves. In the South African context, African spirituality was essentially criminalized, made illegal, and banned, with the Witchcraft Suppression Act 1895 of the Cape Colony, which was actually based on the Witchcraft Act 1735 of Great Britain, This stopped us from practising our day to day spirituality.
If you think of our spiritual healers – Sangomas, amagqirha, and others – they are practically the repositories of our cultures; so, when you banned those people, you essentially banned our identities. I’m very interested in that without being anti any other forms of spirituality – in fact, embracing them; but from the standpoint of being a spiritual African.
Q: You’ve spoken about how some of the creative shifts in your work have been informed by the work that already exists. What has this done for your relationship to your own catalogue of music from your debut to date?
A: Like I said before, my work has always been art from the very beginning; I just had to fit into the spaces that were available for me to perform in at the time. Now I’m older and more experienced, and I can pick and choose the kinds of spaces I’d like to occupy. Since we must all evolve and grow, the way my music has evolved has not changed in its essence.
Q: It takes a comprehensive retrospective to understand that, and I immediately think of how much of a travel companion ‘Firebrand’ was and continues to be for me. I wonder what then you’d say – with this evolution – to fans who might panic and say: “When are we getting another one?”
A: You know, I’ve always been lucky in that I’ve never felt pressured to put out an album, because I am very pedantic about my work and the honesty that must exist in the work. I’m the kind of artist who needs to feel compelled to go into a studio because once I do, I don’t come out until it’s done. I’m not one of those who does a song here, a song there, and another one there. It’s almost like a big event needs to happen in order for me to go into my studio and create around the theme of that event.
Q: Interesting, and quite daunting from the outside looking in. This, however, doesn’t stop you from working in between major events. What has been the journey with the Thabo Mbeki Foundation; what was the genesis of that relationship?
A: President Thabo Mbeki is my favourite president. I’ve always felt free to talk about him, and even criticize him without the love being diminished; and I’ve had lovely and insightful conversations with him. He truly is a giant. Even his vision with the Foundation regarding the arts is quite revolutionary in many ways. I feel that he’s the kind of person – or leader, rather – who sees us as the people, and that is something the media misrepresented during his tenure. He was portrayed as someone who was aloof and disconnected from the people.
What people don’t know is that the guy is really shy, but I’ve had the opportunity to have conversations with him and ask him all the difficult and uncomfortable questions, and he’s had the patience to answer them truthfully. I feel strongly that he truly cares about the people beyond him having been a president.
He wants to leave a legacy of change, and that’s what he’s trying to do with the Thabo Mbeki Foundation with a vested interest in doing so involving the arts – recognizing the arts as a component of our revolution and our struggle and what needs to happen for us to get out of this quagmire that colonialism put into. There aren’t many leaders who view the arts as an important tool for our emancipation.
Q: This is the challenge of leadership in any sector: being seen as a person beyond the role. Is this how you ended up accompanying him to Guinea for the Miriam Makeba tribute? Was it from a common love for her work or was it a matter of leveraging her legacy as a strong woman and liberation figure to progress this worldview you describe?
A: There aren’t many artists who can interpret the works of Miriam Makeba like I can, and I’m not even blowing my own horn. Like I can’t interpret Brenda Fassie’s works, while there are artists who can do that pretty well. I feel like our energies have a similarity, and I’ve highly enjoyed her works from when she was with The Manhattan Brothers, The Skylarks… I know her trajectory, her music. I almost feel like the music portrays her as someone who had a similar background to me before she came to Joburg; in that way, she interpreted music on the basis of her upbringing. Her politics are impeccable.
She is called Mama Africa for a reason. And yes, I have been compared to her but that is hugely unfair to her; she left very big shoes to fill. She did so much on a global scale for South Africa, putting the country on the map in many ways; she precipitated a lot of awareness of what was going on around here, and I don’t think we give her enough credit for that. If you think of her speech at the UN and how that changed the landscape, and her politics while she was in the USA to the point that they banned and chucked her out of the country. I can see how our energies match in many ways, but I do feel like she was much more talented than me.
So, it was quite an honour to be the one to be chosen to interpret the work and also because we went to Guinea where she stayed for many years and immersed herself in the community to a point where even today when you get there, you hear her music all over the place. She is a big deal there. There is a great testament to this in that, while we travelled with a band for the performance, we were joined by Guinean musicians who are familiar with her music – the renowned kora player, Ba Cissoko, and I got to work again with the guitarist, Djessou Mory Kanté alongside a few other artists – to give it that intercultural feel that she herself embodied and promoted.
Q: This is, again, another impactful manifestation of pan-Africanism and intergenerational craft transfer. Having spoken about two people’s legacies – one misrepresented and the other forever diversifying – are you at any point during your work thinking about the legacy you are creating, or do you believe that it will be what it is without you controlling it?
A: I do not work with the idea in mind that ‘I want to do this because it will take me to this level’. I don’t think that would work for me. It would render the music dishonest; but I work hard – when I do work – so that my music lives on forever, and that it has an impact in that it changes lives, it heals people. If just that, the healing aspect of my work survives the times, that would be a legacy that I am proud of.
Q: Do you see any younger artists that are poking at spaces that you’re interested in being in that you’d consider inviting in to work with you – not necessarily in a mentorship kind of dynamic, but guiding their journeys?
A: I don’t think I’m good at mentorship. I’m too inward. However, I have tried to give stages to other young artists where I can. I’d be interested in mentorship, but I don’t have the words to explain to another artist how my work comes about – like my working process, because I don’t really have a working process.
Q: Does this apply across the board?
A: Yes. I don’t know how to explain to them how I create my harmonies, because they just come to me, right? I don’t really have a method, so I can’t teach you a method. But what I want is for the artist to be around me and I’ll just give them life lessons – things like how you dress, how you treat your voice, and maybe give editorial advice on song construction.
That might be the best way I can serve in such a role. You know, writing music is torturous. Writing music is no joke. Performing music is the reward for having endured the pain of creating it, and I wish that more of the young artists would realise that and not fall short and get tired. Push until you can’t push anymore. I’m always working on my songs until I can’t anymore, and even afterwards I listen to recordings and I find things that I could have added or done differently. I really am that pedantic. I push people to the brink. By the time we’re done working on my albums, people say: ‘Yoh! If I don’t see you in a year…”, because I really do push that hard.
We laugh as the conversation finds its way to a natural cadence. The farewell is heartfelt and warm, and the liveliness of the balcony returns to our consciousness. Dana’s course with influencing the world through her musicianship has been as steady and measured as a marathoner’s breathing. Perhaps this is the unspoken magic behind her longevity; an unrelenting dedication to craft, tradition and the spirit of music. Moya is slated for showcases in 2024.