After 15 years in the music industry and life in the spotlight, DJ Zinhle is ready to take her career and life to the next level with her music and finding peace amid the storms, writes Rhodé Marshall.
Women who are DJs hardly get their due in what is a patriarchal industry, although there’s no shortage of women who can hold their own behind the turntables. From seasoned veterans such as Zinhle Jiyane to rising stars like DBN GoGo, these bona fide women mix masters are emerging as some of the most important dance floor tastemakers.
DJ Zinhle has become a beacon of female empowerment with 15 years in the industry and 10 years running the Fuse Academy, her deejaying school for young women who want to learn deck skills.
#Trending caught up with her in her Johannesburg home and I asked her about the school.
“We are now trying to partner with a bigger organisation so that we can have a bigger reach. It has been a great journey of trying to grow the female DJ industry and I want to continue the work but I feel like now I need help to take it to the next level,” she says.
Zinhle famously built her house for her three-year-old daughter Kairo Forbes. I ask her about Kairo being an internet sensation with more than 393 000 followers on Instagram, having just run her first successful campaign to help her father rapper Kiernan Forbes, known as AKA, win the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Award in the Favourite SA Star Category in Los Angeles, US.
“Yesterday I saw a picture of Gabrielle Union and her daughter on the cover of a magazine and I was thinking about how do we know whether it’s good to have our children on these platforms or not. Even though Kairo is on social media I literally question it every day. Did I make the right decision? Is it okay for her to be on social media? Do I need to pull back a little bit? But even though she’s on social media, I don’t put her out as much.”
Zinhle says social media is a part of her daughter’s era and has become some form of currency. “Social media is such an important part of what we do that we can’t avoid it. It’s part of life. But then you still feel as a parent you need to be able to control the things that your child is exposed to or where your child can exist. It’s a tough one for me. I don’t really have a formula but go with what feels right.I definitely have my doubts most of the time.”
The DJ, however, hasn’t been as lucky, with every thread of her personal life splashed all over the news.
On social media people followed her very public split with AKA. Many shared their opinion on the matter.
Zinhle vs the trolls
“I think it comes with age when you start realising that some people don’t say things because they believe it, they say things just to say it – to be part of the conversation,” she says about the constant criticism of her decisions.
Andy Warhol famously said: “In the future, everybody will be world famous for 15 minutes,” and while Zinhle’s fame has expanded, many have exploited what was a private matter for likes and retweets. Statements were released, threats of lawsuits were made, there was the release of a diss track and Twitter rants.
In the 1990s the line between fame and anonymity was easy to find – this was before the dawn of reality television, when you were generally just famous for being an actor or a musician, a sports star or an expert. There were many pathways to fame and celebrity, but they all took networking, going through structures such as agents, and hoping to get that big break.
Zinhle followed these steps, but along the way a lot changed in how the public observed and interacted with one another.
“Everyone has a platform these days. That’s how life is and you start understanding that not everything that happens around you is really about you. Some of these conversations on social media really have nothing to do with me, even though they are had through my experiences. People are having their own conversations but the way they could start the conversation is through my life ... and that’s okay. I have to accept that.”
The old rules don’t work. Things like celebrity breakdowns aren’t covered up by publicists anymore, they’re fanatically documented by gawkers on the internet.
For the better part of this year, speculations about whether Zinhle and AKA had reunited was a trending topic, the attention almost overshadowed the rapper’s 30-piece orchestra show.
“We’re not even in a conversation where we can really say that we are reuniting. I feel like people are jumping the gun. We need to give it time and see what it is and even then whatever decision that I make ... it’s okay. If you know exactly what you’re doing and you are okay with the fact that it might be a mistake or it might not be – that is how life is. We learn from things, we take chances, we need to just live our lives. If there are lessons to be learnt then we learn them.”
A decade and some later
Zinhle – who has hit the top of the charts with songs such as My Name Is, Colours and, most recently, Against the Grain – has concentrated her musical philosophy into a forceful, inclusive statement. It serves as a testimony to the inspirational potential of women needing to be consciously and deliberately included and elevated in the music industry. These songs showcased her versatility – and her eclectic taste in collaborations with other strong women in music like Busiswa, Tamara Dey and Bonj.
"The other day I was asked on Twitter how I feel about all these female DJs coming up ... it has always been my dream to see more female DJs. We are finally headed to the space where we can have an all-female DJ line-up. It took so many years just to get to that point when we could have a number of female DJs to fill up a line-up as opposed to before when it was just me, Cndo or Lady Lea and a few other girls."
Though times have definitely changed, the widespread sexism in music means that globally some of the industry’s most exciting DJs and producers aren’t getting the platform they deserve.
Last year 45 international music festivals pledged to ensure their line-ups became gender balanced ... by 2022. Pitchfork.com reported that this initiative was part of a new programme from the UK’s PRS Foundation called Keychange, which was founded to help women transform the industry.
“I’m very excited to see all these DJ girls. I want the peace to stay the same,” Zinhle says, sitting comfortably on her couch. “If you check with me or Cosmo, Cndo or Lady Lea, we get along and we support one another. I don’t care, there could be 100 other girls that join the industry as long as they keep the same peace we’ve kept throughout the years of supporting one another and ensuring we all get along."
Starting a band baby
Zinhle has come a long way, inhabiting many roles at once and to take her career to the next level she has been driving a campaign in search of musicians with the chance to be a part of her soon-to-be formed live band.
“Having a band is a dream I’ve always had and it just makes sense for me now while celebrating 15 years to go to a different dimension of performance as a DJ."
“I’ve watched other DJ bands and thought ‘Wow this is really dope’. I’ve seen Good Luck and Black Motion and I remember seeing Gold Fish years ago and being wowed."
“Just to have the opportunity to try it out for me is big.”
With crowd control at the tips of her fingers, Zinhle and her band will go on a tour across the country with music from her album, to be released this August.
“I want people to see how much women can achieve when they get along and when they work hard."
“For me it’s a given that it has to be an all-female band."
“For one, it’s cool, but I also feel like anything that I can do in the industry to help women get the spotlight, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
As a natural talent at mixing and bringing a sonically unique set every time she hits a stage, she says the far off future is definitely still music.
“I don’t know if I will still be performing in 15 years, but who knows? It feels likeI will be more involved in the business of music.”
Zinhle says she was raised in a small rural area in KwaZulu-Natal, with no perception of the kind of life she now enjoys.
For her, the highs definitely trump the lows.
“Just being able to travel the world and be part of something that brings so much joy to people, like music, is special. My years in the industry have been good. I will never fault it and say that it has been tough or that is has been a bad experience."
“I would say it really has been a good journey.”