In an exclusive interview ahead of the release of her new album, a candid and relaxed Simphiwe Dana tells Gugulethu Mhlungu how, after a decade in the industry, she’s finally in a good place
I meet Simphiwe Dana on a particularly hot Thursday afternoon at the Sony Music offices in Westcliff, Joburg.
As I am getting out of my car, she arrives and gets out of hers. She’s dressed in a black-and-white striped maxi dress, a white polka dot shirt over it, her mane of hair under a big white sunhat, that face recognisable to millions hidden behind black Jackie O sunglasses.
She may be small in stature but is, of course, a very big deal. Her distinctive, soaring, raw, soulful, political voice is today one of the country’s more essential cultural exports.
She’s back in town after performing at the Apollo Theater in New York. While she was there, she was awarded a Bessie, a prestigious contemporary dance award, for a composition for a work by Gregory Maqoma.
‘My record company tanked’
We’re not just meeting. She’s going to play me her fourth studio album, Firebrand, which she has been working on very quietly for the past two years.
“It was actually ready last year, but then my record company, Gallo, tanked,” she offers forthrightly.
As we get comfortable at each end of the couch, her manager comes in and shows her the final cover art for Firebrand. She gasps. It’s gorgeous, from a shoot partly styled by fashion prince David Tlale.
The album marks her entry into the first decade of her musical career. “But I haven’t made any noise about it,” she says, laughing, “because you guys will think that I am old.”
It’s hard to believe that Zandisile was released a decade ago. Time flies when you’re having fun.
‘I thought my career was over’
I ask her what the most surprising thing of the past decade has been.
“That I am still around,” she says. “Most artists who came out at the same time as me are gone and I’m just happy to still be around.”
It’s not just her career. Life has also delivered its fair share of surprises. Eight months pregnant with her son, Phalo, she was seriously injured in a car accident on her way to a performance in Vereeniging. The accident left her with a scar on her right cheek and she needed reconstructive surgery.
“When I had my accident, I thought my career was over. I just felt so deflated because people are so?…?fickle?...?when it comes to people in the public eye.”
But she was surprised again when she was asked to perform weeks after her accident.
“I had shows, people were still booking me. I remember I did one show and I had to wear glasses because I was still swollen from the surgery, and I still had stitches. My son wasn’t born yet, and it was hardly a month after the accident,” she recalls, then gets pensive.
“The artists I looked up to had very long careers?…?If you look at Miriam Makeba, she actually died on stage. And it’s nice that my music is still relevant. It feels like I can be around for as long as I like. I don’t have to worry. I don’t have to do theatrics to stay relevant. I can just do me and not please the crowd,” says the artist who is, in fact, pleasing the crowd, without trying, and has been for nearly a decade.
‘Are you in politics now? What about the singing?’
Dana has never been one to shy away from politics, increasingly making her black consciousness feminist views clearly known. She named her 2006 album The one love movement on Bantu Biko Street.
Firebrand has three songs inspired by the massacre of mine workers at Marikana. One of them is the plaintive Nzima, the album’s first video, released earlier this year.
She has recently started following singer John Legend, who has been very vocal about the racial issues in the US after the murder of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
“Before, you didn’t mention race. If you are a musician, you are going to lose fans and blah blah?…?But I think people are realising ‘I should use my voice for something. I should not be silent,’” she says.
Dana has publicly come out in support of the governing ANC, which has drawn criticism, most notably from Economic Freedom Fighters commissar Andile Mngxitama.
But although she loves the ANC, she’s vocal about her criticism of it. She becomes passionate when she talks about the place of arts and culture in the country, and how she thinks mother tongue languages are integral to solving the prevailing education crisis.
“The language, and arts and culture issues, show a lack of self-pride and we keep having these task teams. I was on one recently and I’m thinking: ‘You are government, you are supposed to be decisive and lead us.’”
We’re listening to the new album as we chat.
“I am very honest when I write music and that’s why some songs, I don’t want to talk about them. I just want you to listen,” says Dana.
Her activity on social media, particularly Twitter and Instagram, has seen her views and ideas gain a lot of attention.
Some people have tried to silence her “by telling me to stick to singing”, she laughs. “Are you in politics now? What about the singing?” they ask.
“And it got to me because what they are saying is that the time of the activist musician is over …?‘You are not Bob Marley, you are not Fela, you are not Miriam Makeba, so don’t try to be. Just make us sing and dance, that’s what we want.’”
She says she has found that the world embraces her refusal to be silenced.
I ask her whether her politics has ever affected her career.
She recalls singing On Bantu Biko Street at the awarding of the national orders while former president Thabo Mbeki was still in office.
“And there is a line that says ‘Nawe Mongameli, xa ubon’ abantu bakho. Unqandwa yintoni ungaphilis’ isizwe’ (and you Mr President when you see your people, what prevents you from healing the nation). He was sitting there with former deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and they looked at each other and laughed.”
She continues: “I won’t lie to you. Gigs from government dried up after that and you know in this country you need government. I really don’t think it was him personally. I know he loved my music. He even gave it as gifts, but that album did cost me some work. Politics will cost you, either way.”
‘Those vodka-infused days of hiding where I was crying my eyes out from dusk till dawn’
I ask her about the media storm that swirled around her love life in early 2012 where she was accused of being a “homewrecker” and “side chick” because of her relationship with a married man.
“I felt so humiliated, so completely humiliated. I didn’t think I would be okay. I just wanted to go and hide somewhere.”
And she did hide. In July last year, scholar and author Pumla Gqola, author of A Renegade Called Simphiwe, wrote: “The attacks on Twitter were so virulent that she withdrew to lick her wounds and, at the time of writing this, many months later, she has not returned to even half of her previous social media presence.”
Today Dana confirms this. “The slut-shaming and hatred was so intense and it was worse because I had been lied to so blatantly [by her partner] and he then goes on to deny it when the story comes out. I didn’t know he was married. I was told he was going through a divorce, and to go out and try to explain would have given an opportunity for people to say: ‘Oh look, now’s she’s lying.’ It was as if people were waiting for something, because I was ‘squeaky-clean’.”
Why did she apologise?
“I didn’t know what else to do because I was Simphiwe who was this Jezebel who seduced a pastor.”
She went to the Press Ombudsman against Drum magazine.
“They ruled in my favour, but by that time I didn’t want to talk about the story any more or get them to write an apology.”
Her first single from Firebrand is My Light and she says it is about her son, who was a source of joy during her time away from the limelight.
“I’ve always wanted to write a song for him. And I wrote it during those vodka-infused days of hiding where I was crying my eyes out from dusk till dawn. He just was really the light of my life.”
‘I’ve grown to love myself a little bit more. I’m so glamorous these days!’
Now Dana has entered a new, lighter phase.
“I have very strong views about a lot of things and I’m freeing myself of some of those. I don’t feel like my entire album has to be in isiXhosa. Mother tongue language is still important, but lately I am like: I don’t have to carry that on my own.
“The other prison is the hair issue. I am a big advocate of natural hair, but it’s not my fight alone so I decided, let me free myself and I got myself a weave, one that appeals to me – that’s why I got an Afro weave,” she says pulling her large sunhat over the large Afro peeking out from under it.
“I’ve grown to love myself a little bit more. I’m so glamorous these days,” she says conspiratorially.
“The first time I went to get my nails done at a salon was last year and now I have heels this high...” She gestures with her two index fingers. “Now I can do my make-up to perfection. I’ve just become this girlie-girl and I’m enjoying it. And all of these prisons I’m saying: Let it go! Let it go!”
Gqola says: “Simphiwe is simply not interested in adhering to conventional ideas about where to live, who to love or how to write. One minute South Africa worships at her throne. The next minute, we are trying to rein her in. This says something about her?...?It also says something about South Africa’s sensibilities.”
The 14-track album ends. It’s a beautiful body of work that demonstrates Dana’s vocal and storytelling versatility. Her distinctive jazz influence and Afro-pop sound meets inspiration from other parts of the continent.
It is the first album for which she owns the rights. Her previous three belong to Gallo. “It gives me freedom to do what’s best for me with my music. I can go to distributors directly if people can’t find my music,” she says.
Looking at her manicured nails with gold glitter on them, she says: “Sometimes I wish I was one of those people who spoke about their nail polish or whatever. They have fewer hassles, everyone loves them and no one knows their politics. But I am not like that. I have made peace with that. I have a voice. And that’s why I called the album Firebrand because that’s what I am and I have accepted that.”