/ 10 February 2012

Simphiwe Dana unplugged

Simphiwe Dana Unplugged

In the most severe cases, people who stammer always contrive to avoid situations in which they have to speak before an audience. The expectations of the silent crowd and the nerve-wracking discomfort they set off often result in a comic, yet pitiful sight.

Afro-blues singer Simphiwe Dana has largely tamed her speech impediment. It took me a little while to realise that Dana, like myself, has a stammer. This is quite unusual; most times I can tell that a person stutters or stammers even before they hesitate to open their mouths. (There is a difference. Stammering normally involves repeating a couple of letters rather than a whole word, as in “br-br- brewery”, whereas stuttering involves hesitating and repeating words as in “please, please, could, could”.)

This insular world — one of tremulous sentences that come out as if through a sieve, delayed and lingering sentiments robbed of punch lines and the playful teasing of children who find stammerers funny — is one Dana inhabited for a long time. But unlike most of the half-mute tribe, she is out there: debating politicians on radio, presenting papers in Parliament or conversing with the hundreds of fans who come to her shows (for some reason, people with speech impediments do not stammer or stutter when they sing).

Just last month she stood in Parliament yet again, delivering a paper on the Languages Bill, a draft law on how government departments will communicate with South Africans.

This, in a sense, is part of her project to get schools to adopt mother language instruction, a follow-up to the education stokvel initiative she launched in September. Using her celebrity pulling power, Dana was able to bring people such as former national director of public prosecutions Menzi Simelane, ex-AngloGold Ashanti chief executive Bobby Godsell and former higher education bureaucrat Mary Metcalfe to the initial lekgotla at the Park Hyatt, a posh hotel in Johannesburg. The launch, which I attended, was meant to discuss the problems that beset public schools. Dubbed the Black Culture Education Tour, it was the culmination of Dana’s marathon round trip to 26 schools in five provinces.

The singer’s increased civic engagements outside of her career as a musician invite those old concerns about whether artists should immerse themselves in politics.

Until recently Dana was living in Cape Town, the city to which she relocated two years ago. “I went there because I needed a change. I had lived in Johannesburg for 10 years and my partner wanted to move there,” she says. After a two-year stay she is back in Johannesburg. “I wasn’t happy in Cape Town. I had no reason to stay.”

The reason for her return may include her break-up with her American partner, Hessel Pole, but it was not just personal. There are the toxic race clouds that, for some, seem to hover over Cape Town. “The weight of your skin colour, you feel it —” she says, trailing off.

Dana’s aggression toward injustice
Those who follow Dana on Twitter — about 24 000 — will know of her tenacious and at times aggressive approach to dialogue when she senses an injustice. She says her social-activism persona came to the surface during the time she spent in the city. “[It] pushed me to confront certain things. The activism was inspired by Cape Town.”

Late last year Dana got into a Twitter spat with the premier of the Western Cape, Helen Zille, who is also the leader of the Democratic Alliance, in a contribution to the topic “Cape Town is racist”. The debate — more like an electronic brawl — started when a Twitter user, Lindiwe Suttle, wrote: “No matter how famous/rich you are, you’re still a 2nd class citizen if you’re black in Cape Town —” — a statement Zille dismissed as “complete nonsense” and “a baseless assertion”.

The Twitter battle, covered word for word in The Times, escalated when Dana responded: “Are you disputing that it’s racist?” She added: “It’s embarrassing that as a leader you would deny people their experiences. Try live in a black skin for once. You have the power to change things. Use it!” Zille retorted: “You’re a highly respected black professional. Don’t try to be a professional black. It demeans you.”

The debate descended into a bare-knuckled free-for-all that was never quite resolved. The two were then invited to take part in a radio programme and, as is the nature of these spats, neither of them backed down.

Dana says: “Ma Zille put her [foot] in it. She did start it.” She adds: “I was really offended. I am still waiting for my apology.” Yet she is keen to state that this episode does not signal her entry into politics. In fact, she is adamant that what she does is not politics, preferring instead to call it “social activism”. She says: “I have no political ambitions. Zille doesn’t have to worry. I’m not trying to get her job.”

She should not have found the Cape so strange. After all, she was born in 1980 in Gcuwa in rural Transkei and was raised in Lusikisiki, described in tourist brochures as “rugged, remote and untamed, and [where] time has virtually stood still in a part of the world known as ‘God’s country'”.

A precocious child, she knew there was something not quite right about her town, which had lots of Africans and just one Indian and not any whites. “I grew up feeling there was something wrong with me,” she says.

After matriculating at Vela Private School in Mthatha, Dana trekked to Johannesburg where she studied information technology at the then Wits Technikon. At the time, she regularly used to frequent the roving “Monday Blues” sessions held in a number of venues around Johannesburg.

The sessions in the late 1990s brought together talented but unknown musicians (including MXO and Sliq Angel, who performed as Roots 2000, and Waddy Jones, now with Die Antwoord) trying to make a mark in the competitive music world. The platform was, in its heyday, run by music writer and film producer Peter Makurube. “She impressed me,” he says, when I ask him about the teenage Dana.

During those days Dana would do cover versions of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston songs. At some point Makurube told her: “We want to hear Simphiwe and not all these voices.” Then, after a three-month break from “Monday Blues”, Dana came back with a demo tape, complete with drum patterns she had created on her computer. “I was blown away,” Makurube says.

Dana’s place in the music industry is solidified
Now with three albums — Zandisile, The One Love Movement on Bantu Biko Street (the CD that won her Best Female Artist at the 2007 South African Music Awards) and her latest, Kulture Noir — Dana’s place in South Africa’s musicography is assured. Makurube is not surprised by her percussive presence in South Africa’s public life, but wonders whether it is not a distraction. “She thinks deeply about things. But I don’t want her to end up a politician … I seem to hear a lot about her life as a politician rather than as a musician.”

It is important to ground Dana’s public interventions in the writings and thinking of Steve Biko. The legacy of the slain Black Consciousness activist and thinker is being contested by a variety of people and interests. Their ideas of Biko do not always converge. There is his son, Nkosinathi Biko, who runs the Steve Biko Foundation, and people with whom he has been associated, Mamphela Ramphele, who is the mother of two of his children. On the ultra-left is radical thinker and activist Andile Mngxitama, who publishes New Frank Talk (one of the first issues was titled “Why Biko would not vote”). Then, representing the underclass, is the slumdwellers’ activist organisation Abahlali baseMjondolo, a group of revolutionaries fighting for the rights of the poor. And then there is Dana, the most glamorous of the Bikoites, whose affection for the murdered icon is explicitly alluded to in the title of her second album.

“I first read Biko when I was eight or nine. Of course, I [only] understood it much later. [The first reading] planted a seed that was easy to go back to,” she says.

When I ask cultural critic Bongani Madondo about Biko’s place in Dana’s oeuvre, he is somewhat dismissive of the strands of Biko’s thinking that have sprouted in our public discourse – strands that are not contextualised enough or seem to incarcerate Biko in a time warp. He tells me in an email that “this — overarching narrow glorification … is highly problematic. Biko was inspired by a lot of personalities and texts, all of which seem foreign to self-appointed Biko flame-throwers.”

My attempts at pinning Dana down to an interview did not elicit much Biko goodwill. I conducted the interview in Bramley. It was originally scheduled to take place at her Sandhurst home, but it was hastily and unceremoniously moved to a boardroom at the Bramley complex that also houses the Gauteng Gambling Board. I had driven to Sandhurst only to be told that I should instead head to Bramley. I could not bring a photographer along because that would have meant that Dana had to secure the services of a make-up artist. It is a legitimate concern: she is an artist who controls the way her image goes out into the world.

The Mail & Guardian then proposed paying for a make-up artist, but on the day of the shoot the following week Dana was not at the scheduled venue. Calls were not returned and she did not respond to SMSes. Later, her publicist called to say the singer had forgotten. One wonders what Biko would make of this. But I should also say that once I had sat her down the diva persona fell away; she was a warm, gentle soul.

Biko adorns the wall of Kulture Noir, a club on Grant Avenue in Norwood, Johannesburg, that Dana has recently taken over. One imagines the reason she has opened a club is to correct the situation in which there is a paucity of live-music venues in the city.

“It is a place where cultures will meet. We have great ideas for [it],” Dana says. The venue will host poetry readings, jazz nights, African sounds; she specifically mentions Congolese music. This, in a sense, recalls the template laid by the iconic “Monday Blues” sessions. “It will be a celebration of black cultures in all its difference, but all people are welcome.”

I have been to the venue and it is still drowsy, the kind of bar that only appeals to its regulars. “We are still fixing it. Once we feel it’s ready we’ll market it,” she says.

It could become the platform where an unknown musician will first announce their arrival to the world — and then blow us all away.

Simphiwe Dana has composed music for the dance production EXIT/EXIT which will be showing at the Market Theatre