Johannesburg – It was a scorching hot Tuesday afternoon when we sat down for a chat with local star DJ Zinhle.
Our meeting spot, Honest Food at One Hyde Park, provided two options in the way of comfortable seating – inside on a crisp white couch, surrounded by artwork and the distant sound of fruit being blended into delicious drinks for customers who had just returned from a vigorous workout, or outside on the deck where we could lounge underneath large umbrellas while watching the sunlight bounce off the crystal clear water from the swimming pool. We opted for the latter, fully enjoying the perks of the South African summer.
After rearranging the furniture to create the perfect little haven, she arrives, styled in a bright yellow T-shirt, paired with pink plaid pants, and matching yellow heels. We get straight to business as she orders an orange and mint cold pressed juice.
With 15 years of industry experience backing her, Zinhle is a formidable force in the local music scene. But she admits there was a time when she doubted her own ability.
"My brother was working in the [music] business and I think the only time I ever thought I can literally be a DJ was when there was a show at UJ and they wanted DJs to come and play. I called my brother and I said: ‘Do you think I can DJ?’ And he’s like: ‘From what I’ve heard at home you can definitely DJ.’"
Those words of encouragement were enough to convince her to take on her first gig, and from there Zinhle laid the building blocks for what would one day earn her the title of number one female DJ in Africa.
The star also credits shows like SABC 1’s Jika Majika, which she joined in 2006 as a resident DJ, for giving her that much-needed push in the beginning. "When I got that opportunity that’s when I started realising this is actually becoming something serious," she tells me. Another sign of her rising star-power was the moment fans started recognising her in public.
Life at the top
The title of number one female DJ in Africa had been awarded to Zinhle by online platform Djane – a website dedicated to sharing news and music from female DJs around the world.
I jump at the opportunity to ask her about the exciting achievement, and I can hear the joy in her voice when I bring it up: "It’s insane. Just to think of it in that magnitude. It’s something I never thought was possible. I’m actually happy about it."
My own excitement may stem from the fact that a win for one female in a male-dominated industry feels like a win for all. She shares my sentiment. "It’s not just for me, it’s for other female DJs to know that we’re getting the recognition that we deserve. I’ve been able to use my influence in whatever way I can to help other DJs that want to have the same opportunities that I’ve had."
She tells me about a time when her interest in music was questioned because of her gender: "I remember one guy who was like: ‘Why you trying to DJ? You’re just a girl.’ But I feel like now girls can just get up and do it."
Zinhle’s goal has always been for female DJs to become a “norm” in the industry, and she believes that dream is finally taking shape. "Before, when you saw a female DJ that’s killing it, you’d be like: ‘Oh, that’s crazy. Where is she from?’. But now it’s becoming more normal. I feel like girls now have a better opportunity to get into DJing. They’re not going to be questioned as much."
DJ Zinhle and The Strangers
She lets a bit of interesting information slide as we talk about her career – "I’ve always wanted to be in a band."
I’m surprised by the revelation and I lean in as she explains: "I’ve officially found the members of the band – the bass guitarist and the percussionist. They’re called The Strangers. So it’s going to be ‘DJ Zinhle and The Strangers’. And we’re going to start performing together and it’s going to be insane."
While they’re still searching for their sound, the newly formed band plan on performing once a month at Moja Café in Soweto. Though Zinhle adds that they’re hoping to have their first show together at 947’s Hauwei Joburg Day.
Finding her voice
As we sink into the comfy couches the conversation takes a turn from her public life persona of “DJ” Zinhle, to her personal life as Zinhle Jiyane. I ask about how she is able to handle the negative publicity and social media trolls that are associated with the life of a celebrity.
Her first solution is to take time off of social media when needed. But a big part of knowing how to successfully deal with the dark side of celebrity, Zinhle says, comes with age.
"You start realising how dumb it is to be so convinced by the opinions of people that never even met you. It’s like, how did I fall for this trap? How am I so dedicated to listening and believing and literally changing my life based on the opinions of people who might think they have an idea of my life, but actually don’t?
"In reality I’m the one who knows my life more than anyone else, so surely my voice should be the strongest over everything else. So, my voice trumps everything that I hear on social media."
She smiles as she adds: "The other day I was like: ‘I’m so smart, how did I fall for this trap?’"
Now that she’s found her voice, Zinhle plans on using it to empower, not only herself and the lives of those around her, but most importantly, the little person who calls her mom.
Before wrapping up, we talk about the one lesson she would like to teach her 3-year-old daughter, Kairo. "Self-understanding and self-love, that’s the thing I want to pass down to my daughter. Understanding yourself and loving yourself, and just putting yourself first above everything else."
(Photos: Leolin Coetzee)