Language births identity. Ngasincela ebeleni, for example, is an isiZulu saying that refers to "the language was breastfed to me as a child". It’s an expression of pride in both the language, and the identity it carries. I am reminded of this whilst speaking to singer Zoë Modiga, whose sophomore album Inganekwane (Myth) drops today, 26 June 2020.
Comparing it to her debut Yellow: The Novel, Modiga says the follow-up is "more intentional about being a love letter to blackness". With this album, the singer-songwriter fully embraces her native tongue, something she admittedly, has not always been comfortable doing.
The album title shares its name with track 13 from her debut, a song that marked a turning point in her relationship with the Zulu language. Attracting positive feedback, and comparisons to the late great Busi Mhlongo, Inganekwane would spark Modiga’s interest and desire to write more songs in her mother tongue.
But making a body of work so deeply rooted in the exploration of identity would force Modiga to grapple with her own.
"As a child, I lived eMbali, in Pietermaritzburg, with my grandmother. It’s when I moved to Johannesburg with my mother that I think the disconnect happened."
"We spoke a bit of Zulu at home, sure, but it wasn’t allowed at school, and there wasn’t much of it around me as a lot of the black kids spoke other languages. Even before moving to Johannesburg, in the schools I went to, speaking isiZulu was seen as rude. To a young mind, you find yourself rejecting the language because of that."
Most black South Africans who attended former model-c schools share a similar experience. Beyond the halls of educational institutions, colonisers have always known that language is an effective tool for weakening – and even decimating – the cultures, traditions and identities of the colonised, thereby establishing a cultural sovereignty that, certainly in the South African context, reinforces white supremacy.
Which brings us back to the title of the album. In addition to sharing a title with the song that sparked Modiga’s newfound interest in her native language, Inganekwane is also about "black people being a myth, even to ourselves," the artist explains.
"So much of who we were before colonisation is a myth. We are real people but also a fiction of someone else’s creation."
Umdali – meaning "The Creator", is a jazzy ballad produced by renowned bassist Banda Banda. Following the strumming of a guitar, and shaking percussions, Modiga’s crisp voice draws one into contemplation as she sings: "Wadala umdali. Wadala abantu. Ebadala ngemicabango yakhe. Wanelek’ emoyeni; eba fanisa naye…" (God created man in his own image).
As the drum rolls and the beat drops, the harmony of the singer’s backing vocals kick in, like the magic of a fairytale unfolding. Padded by bass, keys and the sounds of a flute chiming, Umdali is breathtaking in its layered beauty.
Intsha is a salute to the heroes of 1976, who took to the streets in protest against the introduction of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in local schools.
"While it is about commemorating the youth of ’76, it’s also about highlighting that watershed moments in the past as well as the present, have been driven by young people. Movements like Black Lives Matter, the LGBTI community’s struggles, gender based violence - these are issues brought to the fore by young people today."
It’s therefore quite fitting that this album, encompassing the individual and collective struggles of black people, comes out as Youth Month draws to a close, at a time when the world has been so consumed with the racial politics sparked by violence on black people.
It’s a violence that those who have taken to the streets the world over are rejecting, and shining a light on the continued pervasiveness, dominance and privilege that accompanies whiteness at the cost of black lives.
For Zoë, embracing her language and identity, by default, is an act of defiance, with a body of work that, as she puts it, builds on her artistic philosophy of “reflecting the human experience back to the people.”