The original black girl magic

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IN AWE AND GRIEF Singer-songwriter Simphiwe Dana explains what was behind her song Nokunyamezela
IN AWE AND GRIEF Singer-songwriter Simphiwe Dana explains what was behind her song Nokunyamezela

In an exclusive interview, soul star Simphiwe Dana tells us why she wrote a song for Mama Winnie, reports Charl Blignaut

‘I could see her light up. She lit up in a smile throughout the entire time I sang it to her,” says soul star and activist Simphiwe Dana of the first time Winnie Madikizela-Mandela heard Nokunyamezela, a song she created for her.

Dana wrote the song in 2015 “as a significant dedication to her, in gratitude and in recognition of her efforts”, but had never had the opportunity to sing it to her until the middle of last year.

Preparing for a live album and DVD recording, The Simphiwe Dana Symphony Experience, she wanted to finally sing Nokunyamezela to her heroine.

“My dear friend, who happens to be her niece, made it all possible. We drove to Mama Winnie’s home for me to personally give her the invitation. She was jovial and in good spirits. She said it would be her honour to attend,” she said.

Dana then sang her the song in her home.

“She expressed her gratitude and said she wouldn’t miss the performance. I was grateful, but a part of me also knew that the chances of her not attending were quite high, given her frail health. When I was told that she was indeed coming and was actually in the audience before the show started, I was beside myself with joy, nerves and excitement,” Dana recalls.

In what was probably her last visit to a theatre, in August last year at the Kyalami Theatre On the Track, Madikizela-Mandela watched Dana perform Nokunyamezela for the second time.

Dana began the song with a spoken tribute, interrupted repeatedly by applause and at one point said, “I even imagine that you might have been the first strong black woman that we knew in our world. We thank the universe that she chose to put you among us so that we know what justice is, what strength is and how to be black girl magic.”

Asked about these lines, Dana this week told City Press: “She once said, ‘The overwhelming majority of women accept the patriarchy and protect it. Men dominate women through the agency of other women themselves.’ It was she who publicly challenged patriarchy and her then husband when she didn’t agree with his methods ... while everyone else saw and treated him as a god – while seeing her as an extension of him.

“Throughout her life, Mam’ Winnie always had a very strong message for young black women and girls, which in itself was a form of black girl magic, just like Rosa Parks.”

In a soaring voice, Dana then launched into the song, which is part praise poem, part village song and part hymn. At one point in Nokunyamezela, Dana sings that Madikizela-Mandela went to prison, came back and found herself in another prison.

Asked about the line today, she says: “Post-1994, the public relations machine of the Nats [members of the National Party] finally found a way to silence her by accusing her of the murder of a black child of the struggle. Why were we so quick to believe that the mother of the nation was in the business of killing the very kids she got into tussles with apartheid police to protect?

“We persecuted her. The very people she had sacrificed so much to save.”

Dana does not mince her words about Madikizela-Mandela’s living legacy.

“As a black woman, as a black woman activist, I relate to her greatly. It took me a long while to realise that some of the responses to my activism were mainly because I was a woman and had nothing to do with my politics.

“We have suffered in the hands of men in this country and continue to do so.

“We will make sure patriarchy is not comfortable anywhere on this land. The blindness of our black leaders to the oppression of women is shocking, that they believe that patriarchy is their right is amazingly absurd. Sadly, Mama leaves a huge leadership gap. No other woman leader has embraced feminism as she did.”

Asked how she felt this week, Dana replied, “I have felt an overwhelming sadness since I heard of her passing. The magnitude of her contribution leaves me speechless. I don’t know if I feel sad for her or for the scores of powerful black women who now know the sacrifices it will take, the trauma that will follow their decision to stand and be counted. The black woman has to fight both racism and her own people to realise her freedom.”

WATCH: Simphiwe Dana sings for Mama Winnie


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