Each of singer Moonchild Sanelly’s musical influences can be traced back to her childhood in Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape. Her love of jazz stems from her mother’s own jazz club, her hip-hop persuasions from growing up around her brother’s recording studio, and her kwaito connection from mixing with her cousins’ dance crew.
This has all come together to form the foundation of the 26-year-old’s richly textured urban sounds on her debut full-length album, Rabulapha, which is being released next year by local independent label Just Music. But Sanelly doesn’t only dabble in music. She is also a poet, a dancer and a fashion designer.
After moving to Durban to study fashion when she finished high school, Sanelly got a gig on radio station Gagasi FM, and performed her poetry every Saturday during a slot hosted by DJ King Sfiso. She started performing in the city’s hip-hop circles as well, before her focus shifted to jazz, where she shared a stage with artists such as Busi Mhlongo, Madala Kunene and Theo Bophola.
It was also at this time that Sanelly started working on Time Traveller’s Playlist, a 24-track album recorded over two years. Though it was never released, Sanelly says the project helped her to cobble together her own genre-bending sound.
“People were starting to compare me to other artists so I decided to shed all these imitations and just find me,” she says. “During those two years, from the beginning to the end, you can hear the difference. It’s a process which happens the more you perform: you find yourself, unless you don’t really mind being told you are like someone else.”
A universal language of music
Some of the outcome of this venture can be heard on Rabulapha, which means “sip this” in isiXhosa, a title chosen because it refers to the way Sanelly writes her songs. She uses the universal language of music to preach tales and warnings of social ills, which she skilfully weaves into an upbeat tempo.
Her track Go Sterring tells the story of South Africa’s failed police service and Banana Peel is about the importance of using a condom. Sdula is a song that speaks of eating disorders, which she decided to write after hearing her five-year-old niece complain that her thighs were too big.
Having suffered from anorexia and bulimia as a teenager, it struck Sanelly just how pervasive eating disorders are.
“I’ve felt that I’ve had to experience them to be able to write properly about them. It’s not like I’m just relating or did psychology and then think I know. It’s from experience, and the only way to connect to people is when you are authentic. You can’t go wrong because they’re real things. We go through the same things at different times in different ways.”
Witty and playful
Sanelly’s lyrics are written in what she calls “Xhonglish”, a mixture of Xhosa and English, because “if you’re going to make any kind of difference or teach anything, you need to be clear”.
“It’s to reach a wider audience. That’s me and my way of teaching. I’m still witty and playful but I’ve also got to get that hook. I make you sing along without you realising what you’re saying.”
Rabulapha was produced by BLK JKS drummer Tshepang Ramoba, whom Sanelly met soon after moving to Johannesburg three years ago. The two have since formed a deep-rooted working relationship.
“I can do a dance move and he knows what kind of beat I’m looking for. He hears me and I hear him. It’s like I’m translating the message he wants to put out there and he does the same with me.”