Mazwai on a mission

2011-05-13 14:13

‘People see my name on the South African Music Awards (Samas) nominations list and they ask, who is she?” chuckles Nomsa Mazwai. It’s an honest enough question, if not for the surname that gives away some of the answer.

“In an article I read about the awards, I saw they referred to me only as ‘younger sister of Thandiswa’,” she adds.

Yes, the 26-year-old who’s up for three nominations at this year’s Samas, is indeed related to the famous singer, Thandiswa, and middle-sister poet Ntsiki – but that’s only half the story.

“I tell them that I am a young social activist who is studying in the US and who is also a singer,” comes Mazwai’s own answer to the question.

It’s telling that she only mentions being a singer at the end of the sentence. For Mazwai, who is currently reading for a masters in international political economics and development on a Fulbright scholarship at Fordham University in New York, music is second to the message she is out to spread.

Mazwai is on a mission above any musical dream – to change South Africa.

She says: “I want us to find new ways of doing things at home, to find a new way to define progress and change.”

Far from becoming a music superstar, Mazwai wants to work for government – to speak to the youth and grow South Africa through her music.

The young Mazwai studies subjects that she feels will give her the necessary tools to lead. She says: “I want Africa to be a global contender, but not by abusing people in the process. I want to redefine what progress means.

“Music is a marketing tool. It’s an agent of change. And we, as the youth, need to become a formidable force.”

She points out that the nominations will get people talking and finding out more about her and, in the process, finding out more about the aims she has.

But far from being preachy, Mazwai’s music is fun to listen to. She combines a mix of her sister Ntsiki’s poetics with that beautiful voice inherited from her family genes.

Indeed, Mazwai says her sisters are “the best gifts God could ever have given me”. Her mother died when she was seven, and in her sisters she has found much inspiration and guidance.

She says: “Thandiswa is a very unique human being. She motivates me in the way that I see the world – that it can change, that we can change it.

“When people ask me what it’s like to be in my sisters’ shadows, I say it’s the best place for me to be.”

Practical advice from her sisters has also been valuable.

“Thandiswa told me to make my album on my own, as much as I could, without a record label; to hire session musicians; to work it out myself; and to have complete control for as long as possible.

“Both sisters gave me so much information and they taught me to be fearless,” she says.

That Mazwai’s debut album Nomisupasta is self-funded and without record-label distribution; and has garnered nods for best newcomer, best adult alternative: African, and best album packaging is evidence of that DIY spirit and tenacious attitude her sisters instilled in her.

Mazwai credits producer Mpho Pholo, whom she met seven years ago at the University of Cape Town, for helping her create the vision.

“He’s a genius. He brings the beats and I bring the voice,” she says.

As for the album packaging, Mazwai turned to a group of young people called The Mothership Arts Collective.

“They’re young people who all have different creative skills and they wanted to create an image out of the photo shoot we did. It was hard work, but worth it,” she says.

The singer believes that her nominations show that there are ways for independent artists to push on. She says: “It is good for entrepreneurism in the country too. We need that encouragement in South Africa to create jobs and not just wait for them. Just in making my album, 10 job opportunities were created.”

Mazwai may be thinking about her country and the opportunities for the future, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t care if she wins or not.

“I’m not a good loser,” she says. “So I plan to wipe the floor come Sama night!”

» The 17th Samas will be held on Friday and Saturday at the Montecasino in Joburg 

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