Johannesburg - Ahead of her annual concert performance at The Lyric, soul star and activist Simphiwe Dana has decided to speak out about her lifelong battle with depression, in case her story can help others. She told City Press' Charl Blignaut about her struggle.
It doesn’t come as a surprise that soul star Simphiwe Dana texts to say she’s running 10 minutes late for lunch. I know the singer-songwriter to be down to earth, conscientious and considerate, like most of the bigger stars – it’s how they got to be stars in the first place.
The surprise is that she’s made it at all. Because Dana has been really quiet this year, often not at the big events or not accepting requests for her time. Her Wiki and Facebook bios haven’t been updated in awhile. Over at WordPress she hasn’t blogged since April 2016. But I’ve seen her out again lately, at the opening of an art exhibition, the screening of a film...
When she arrives, patrons and staff look up. Her Kisua blouse is a bold backdrop to her oversized Jackie O shades and famous Afro. She doesn’t take the sunglasses off as we eat lunch. She is here for a reason, and it’s not just to promote her extraordinary new live-recorded, Pan-African album and DVD, released in August, The Simphiwe Dana Symphony Experience. On it, she collaborates with a 60-piece orchestra, a 30-person choir, pop star Asa from Nigeria and vocal powerhouse Concha Buika from Equatorial Guinea, with Winnie Mandela in the audience and a debut screening on BET.
“I would actually like this to be a very honest interview,” she says quietly in her trademark, slightly raspy voice with its occasional small shudder of a stutter.
Done with the circus
“You’ve taken the year out of the limelight?” I ask. “No,” she replies. “I’ve had the worst year. I just felt, I wanna step off this circus.”
“What happened?” I ask.
She thinks before she replies. “For me, the business of music was making a mockery of the art of music. There have been so many problems generally, even with the record labels going under. It made people very desperate and devious and less respectful of the art of the music itself. I do understand business, but art does serve a higher purpose, it’s more than just a career, it’s a sacred undertaking.”
Simphiwe Dana on stage is a kind of vessel, channelling the spirits and challenging the status quo. But she has not always coped with the hype her voice and views generate.
“You know, I’ve always been a very reluctant celebrity. Because, really, all I want is to do the art, to make people feel, to feel things myself. And I thought that politics was also drowning my art at some point. I love being an activist, right, but I mistakenly thought that being an activist and being an artist is one and the same thing. It just became way too much. It’s possible that it was my depression acting up, because this has been one of the worst years of my depression.”
I ask if she’s dealt with this before. “Since I can remember,” she replies. “I guess the depression just descended and I shut down completely. I shut out the world. I was like, okay, I’m done.”
‘The year of my depression’
“How did your breakdown manifest? Did you just go to bed and refuse to open the curtains? Cos it’s tough for you, you’ve got kids,” I ask.
“Ja, I did that. For a long time I didn’t even take them to school. We just used an Uber. Normally I enjoy taking them to school in the mornings. The worst thing to do is alcohol when you’re depressed. You think it makes it better, but it actually makes it worse. At best it postpones it till tomorrow. It doesn’t fix anything, it can actually drive you over the edge. You end up doing something you wouldn’t normally do, like try and kill yourself or something.”
Like the rasp in her voice, Simphiwe Dana’s beauty is pronounced by scars. On her face, from a car accident in 2007 that she believed would end her career, but only made her stronger.
Have you been suicidal?
Yes. I have been suicidal. But I’ve got kids.
So you lay in bed for weeks?
When did you emerge again?
I have not really emerged, I come up for air here and there. Also, I have that to market (she points at the DVD and CD). If I don’t market my products I can’t feed my kids.
Did you seek help?
I did seek help, I got given pills. I don’t like pills. I know that maybe I’m being naive, but for me the best way to deal with my mental issues is to create.
Did you go into therapy?
I’ve tried it. But I’m one of those people who believes that I can’t be counselled. I end up counselling you instead.
I have this lovely group of friends, we even have a WhatsApp group. We hang out a lot. I love to cook, so I cook, buy wine, sit outside by the pool, play lovely music, and just sit together and laugh the whole night. That’s been my biggest support system, my friends. I can call any of them at three in the morning and they’ll come. And I’d do the same for them. When I’m feeling really, really low, I try and be there for other people and it makes me feel better. It’s a kind of self care. If I can’t feel better I can always help someone else be better.
You say that people don’t understand depression. Even your mum, who’s a nurse?
The thing is this, né, there are very few people who understand depression within the black community. My mum, I know she really, really means well, she loves me, I’m her firstborn. She says, ‘My child you must be strong, you know God is there, don’t allow the demons to bring you down, don’t be weak.’ They mean well. I remember one of my exes was like, ‘It means you don’t love yourself, you must love yourself more.’ What are you talking about? I’m the queen of self-love! It’s not about that. This is a chemical thing, it’s an illness. People don’t understand that, and that’s very harmful. I remember someone saying that I use my depression to manipulate. Do you know how triggering hearing something like that is? It’s very dangerous, it’s putting me over the edge when you say things like that, because I internalise them. I start to doubt myself.
When did you start coming out about the depression?
I chose to start talking about it two years back. I had been suffering in silence. As someone who believes that I do things that heal other people I could not keep it inside. Also to say you are not alone, I am also here, suffering from the same things.
Someone I love very dearly suffers from this illness too. He helped me understand it by telling me about the teaspoon theory. Today, say, you’ve got three spoons. You’ve gotta get up and get dressed, you’ve gotta get the kids, and you’ve gotta attend that crucial meeting. Each is a spoonful. If you manage to swallow one of those spoonfuls you’ve achieved something massive, the hardest spoon being the first one – get up, get out of bed.
That’s me! First thing I do when I wake up is jump in the shower. If I don’t I’m gonna stay in that bed the whole day. But I know if I take that shower then I’m gonna take the kids to school. Then I’m gonna have some fresh air and then my mind is already occupied by other things and perhaps that day I’ll escape the depression.
The villains have become the heroes
Part of my friend’s problem, I say, is the state of our nation. The whole world is mad and this reflects in our mental states. I wonder if the state of our corruption has triggered Dana’s pain.
“You know, there was a time when we were trying to be a cohesive nation, we were trying to make it work. And then it all just completely and utterly fell apart. And now we’re not trusting each other, we’re pointing fingers at each other, even lying about each other, trying to discredit one another. This country has broken my heart, to be quite honest. That’s why I hardly ever even comment nowadays about what’s going on. The whole world was looking at us and cheering us on and we all thought it was possible. And then one day we woke up and it was just not possible.”
It’s this that makes Dana start to cry behind her sunglasses. She lifts her head, her cheek glistening, but she does not accept the tissue I offer.
Surely there is some political hope. Her seminal 2006 album The One Love Movement On Bantu Biko Street was a precursor to the #FeesMustFall movement of brilliant young thinkers, who she supported.
“I think that at some point I just stopped believing. In my own people. Believing in a better tomorrow. Believing in the goodness of our hearts,” she says.
Is she referring to the incredible imploding ANC?
“I don’t believe in the ANC any more,” she replies.
I ask if this is because of the corruption scandals around President Jacob Zuma.
“Well, he’s not the only one, that’s the thing.” she replies. “People tend to centre on him. If it was only Zuma he would’ve been long gone by now. They’ve broken the ANC. There’s no more ANC left, to be quite honest.”
The singer once released three mournful and furious tracks about the massacre at Marikana.
“It’s funny, because at the time I still had faith that there are just a few elements that will be weeded out. I thought Marikana would be a turning point and the ANC, if it was straying away from the path, would quickly right itself. I don’t even know what is going to happen to us – and I’m trying very hard to not even think about it or internalise it, because every day the news is … incredible. And the thing is this. It is creating an anti-Blackness that is very scary.”
I agree that it’s become so easy for white people to stay racist, because look at Zuma.
“Ja,” she agrees, “it’s letting whiteness get away with a whole lot. I mean, it’s so easy now to be white and corrupt because no one is looking at you. The face of corruption is black, look at these monkeys they’re ruining our country. All of this. It’s a huge mess.
“Everything is just so warped, Charl, everything is upside down. The villains have become the heroes, the heroes have become the villains.
“And I know that possibly it’s also my depression talking. I feel like our value system has been severely eroded. We need to have some sort of intervention where we tell each other the truth. Let’s put all of our dirty laundry on the table and let’s all move forward.”
Dana knows she’s going to emerge from her depression at some point. “I am almost ready to start writing a new album again,” she tells me.
“It’s the only way for me to heal myself.”
When we meet for a second interview, another lunch, she is in a black blouse with a difficult collar, an A-frame Dalmatian-print skirt. She looks slimmer and radiant, thanks to a certain Dr Singh, an aesthetics doctor from the Silhouette Aesthetics Clinic, who’s helped her boost her confidence.
She takes a playful selfie, but says that inside she’s still numb.
We talk about her last depression, in 2012, when malicious gossip in the media drowned out her achievements, her awards, her political work at the African Union and for Amnesty International.
How did she get through it?
“Actually, Suede came to my house. He said, get up, get in the shower, get in your studio. It’s the only way you’re gonna get through this. And I did exactly that. I just sat in that studio for, like 20 hours a day, and wrote my next album.”
Her eyes get a tiny sparkle, though, when she speaks about the symphony album and her dreams of African unity through the arts. About a book that Zakes Mda has started her writing, a sci-fi novel for young adults. About how she has been rearranging the hymns for the century-old Church of the Holy Ghost. Raised by a church-loving mother, she is more spiritual than religious, but she wanted to “show an appreciation of how gospel music has carried black people through very, very tough times in this country”.
That morning she was in studio, working on a track with Black Coffee for his new album. Two days earlier, the legendary producer dropped a snippet online. In it Dana’s voice soars, falsetto, before grinding back down to her distinctive, bluesy growl. It’s about love and a toxic relationship she didn’t want to let go of but had to, to preserve herself. I asked if it’s based on a true story. She’s candid as always, even though this newspaper was part of her pain when her last relationship ended.
We talk about Brenda Fassie and Lebo Mathosa, and on her phone she plays a song she once recorded with Lebo, before Dana was famous.
Our smiles fade again, though, when she refers to a thread she tweeted two days ago about the young woman at Wits University who jumped off a building as students below egged her on.
“People are very intolerant of mental illness. They see it as a weakness. When people are not allowed to be weak themselves, they don’t indulge other people’s ‘weaknesses’, they get angry. And it can be triggered just by a bunch of neurons misfiring. It’s a disease. Yet it is largely viewed as attention seeking, unlike other life-threatening diseases.”
Since our last lunch, Dana appeared at the Macufe festival in a jazz set for the first time in a while. Everyone I spoke to was raving. Critic Mpho Matsitle wrote: “She opened her set with the lament I pray you never have to recite: ‘Thina sizwe isintsundu sikhalela izwe lethu.’ [We, the African nation weep for our country.]
“We all had our fists in the air, or holding our hearts, on the verge of tears.”
You get the sense that Dana is heading out of the woods again, but the thing about her pain is that it is all of our pain.
Simphiwe Dana Live at The Lyric is on Friday, November 3, at Gold Reef City at 8pm. Tickets cost R250 at computicket.com