Yvonne Chaka Chaka looking after Africa

2014-04-27 15:00

As an artist she’s always commanded the space around her, but as a humanitarian she’s gained new gravitas. Yvonne Chaka Chaka has a big voice and she’s lending it to those who have none, writes Tamara Rothbart

Mtwara, Tanzania. It had been a routine trip for Yvonne Chaka Chaka – inspecting rural hospitals, posing for press shots, meeting patients – all part of her humanitarian work for the UN International Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef).

On her way out, a doctor beckoned. On the bed lay a baby, its mother had walked 30km for medical attention. It was declared dead on arrival.

The mother would have to walk another 30km home, with the corpse of her dead child on her back to bury it in her village.

Meeting with policy makers across the world, addressing representatives at the UN General Assembly, appearing with secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, advocating among leaders of the G20 countries: all this takes a special kind of person, someone who is neither starstruck nor easily intimidated, but to watch a mother hoist her dead baby on to her back – that takes an altogether different kind of metal.

Chaka Chaka is made of that metal.

Any attempt to neatly identify her alloy would be like suspending a wave midswell: teen disco diva, restyled Afro-pop princess, articulate radio and TV presenter, wife to a Soweto physician, mother to four sons, astute businesswoman, committed educator and humanitarian superstar.

Chaka Chaka rose to fame on a succession of hits such as I’m Burning Up, Makoti, Motherland, I Cry for Freedom and the ­

ever-popular Umqombothi. Miriam Makeba called her “my baby”, Hugh Masekela “my mad niece” and her fans refer to her as the Princess of Africa. Her embedded message and catchy tunes gave the disenfranchised reason to dance.

Even Nelson Mandela wrote to her from prison. One of his notes reads: “Darling Yvonne Chaka Chaka and family, with great admiration and love from all your fathers in prison and the nation that loves you.”

(See below)

In a career that spans nearly three decades, 16 award-winning albums, a string of gold and platinum hits, and an SA Music Award for best female vocalist, Chaka Chaka has retained the right to these or any number of glowing designations. But the real foundation for those accolades is her ability to be supremely engaged, participating in life in ways that can only be described as courageous.

She was born Yvonne Machaka in Dobsonville, Soweto, in 1965. Her father died when she was 11, leaving her mother to raise three daughters on a domestic worker’s salary and the strong Christian tenet that we come into this world with nothing and we leave with nothing.

“In the early years, I sang what I felt: frustrated, humiliated, invisible. Later, I realised there is a global apartheid that still exists,” she says.

“Millions of men, women and children do not have access to basic health services. I am lucky to have been given a platform, I am lucky to have been given a voice. I need to use it for those who don’t have one.”

Her roles as Goodwill Ambassador for Unicef and Roll Back Malaria as well as the UN Millennium Development Goals Envoy for Africa all augment the work of her own Princess of Africa Foundation.

Whether she’s partnering with Bono (Uncle Bono to her kids) or singing to massive crowds from Kigali to Cape Town, her honeyed alto songs seduce fans even as the boom of her message hits home. Her efforts have been globally recognised. In December 2012,

Chaka Chaka became the first African woman to receive the World Economic Forum’s Crystal Award for artists who improve the world through their work.

Her most recent album, Amazing Man, addresses issues such as substance abuse, poverty and even counterfeit medicines – thorny problems that affect ordinary people. Through her dogged perseverance and consistency, and her knack for doing the right thing, Chaka Chaka keeps growing in stature.

Asked to rank her titles, the singer, performer and activist says: “I am a partner to my husband and a mother first and foremost. I try to be a mother not only to my own children but to all those who need me. And being a mother is hard. There are no guidelines.”

DID YOU KNOW?

Chaka Chaka was the first black child to appear on South African television, as part of Sugar Shack, a talent show that aired in 1981.

Mandela wrote two notes to Chaka Chaka while in prison. The first is quoted above; terrified that the security police would find it, Yvonne literally swallowed Madiba’s second message.

Her determined fight against malaria began when her friend and back-up singer, Phumzile Ntuli, contracted malaria while on tour with Chaka Chaka in Gabon. Misdiagnosed, she died of cerebral malaria in July 2004.

» This series is supported by Play Your Part, which is a nationwide campaign to inspire and celebrate active citizenship. Each South African is encouraged to offer their time, money, skills or goods to make a collective difference to the lives of those in their communities. Start following @PlayYourPart

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