Monique Bingham brings out her best

Last month, following a visit to South Africa, American house DJ Osunlade posted an angry message on his Facebook wall, calling for, among other things, a cultural boycott against the country.

He had apparently been served after a white man on a business-class flight out of the country and decided to vent about what he called “the most white privileged place I’ve ever experienced in my life …

“I suppose I, like most, was caught up in the smoke and mirrors of the scene and how our music in general is received there … I experienced racism far beyond that of America, which I thought was impossible. Not only have blacks been trained to walk with their tails between their legs like well-trained monkeys, but white supremacy is almost a given and not much a taken privilege.”

After calling for other artists to boycott South Africa, Osunlade drew the ire of many South Africans, but his strongest detractor was none other than his compatriot, soulful house singer Monique Bingham.

Bingham, a 20-year veteran increasingly at home in South Africa, responded on Facebook: “To paint those of us who come here to perform and sing for the crowds that dig us as mercenary interlopers more concerned with our wallets than our principles? Accused of somehow supporting a racist apartheid-like system just by my presence here? Eh eh. Now you crossed a fucking line.”

Reflecting on the exchange weeks later, Bingham says she is not opposed to the idea of cultural boycotts, but thinks the outburst by her compatriot was unfocused.

“I think when you start dealing with terms like boycott, you have to be focused. There has to be like: ‘Okay, this is the condition, this is what’s causing it and, until this modus operandi ends, we will no longer support XY and Z.’

“If it’s not targeted then it is histrionics. Sometimes people want to do something because they are angry and they are not really thinking about how effective it may be.”

For Bingham, Osunlade may have had a point had his anger been directed at a “government programme” rather than talking about “general apathy” because she finds South Africans “not apathetic at all”.

Bingham believes “there are lanes for people and you should stay in your lane. If you’re gonna talk about politics then you really should back it up with action. I just gave my opinion that day, but I’m usually quiet on social media.”

Although Bingham doesn’t eschew politics altogether, her lyrics generally tread the realm of social and sexual politics “because they are a part of everyone’s lives. It’s useless just to throw out empty lyrics that don’t mean anything. It doesn’t stick with people. They are not going to be listening to a song ten years from now that doesn’t mean anything.”

With Best of the Last, a two-disc anthology that combines 26 singles charting the New Yorker’s career as a vocalist, what is evident is the strength of her songwriting.

Bingham first began frequenting South Africa in 2011 while shopping around some remixes for her music. That year, thanks to Leighton Moody, she performed with a band at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival and also collaborated with local DJs Christos and Pepsi.

Her song Take Me to My Love with Ralf Gum, released in 2012, has become a national anthem of sorts, cementing Bingham as an in-demand performer in South Africa.

Although the South African house scene has largely given way to hip-hop, at least in record sales and air time, Bingham says its influence is starting to filter into the sensibilities of DJs abroad.

“What I have noticed is that when I go home, [and when I was] at the Miami Winter Music Conference, it seems to me that the South African sound – and it is very difficult to describe because it is subtle – is really starting to pick up in the States,” she says.

“DJs that I know are starting to play the same way and craft that sort of sound there now. I have witnessed the growth of hip-hop here [South Africa] over the past few years. But even a declining house scene is still bigger than anything in the States.”

For her upcoming shows in celebration of her anthology, Bingham will play with a Tembisa-based band called JazzMeloz, who were already covering some of her songs when they met.

“I like to work more with musicians on stage. Sometimes translating electronic music with live musicians, the electronic sound that people love may be lost.

“So I’ve been trying to create a new album with musicians so that when you recreate it on stage, people can feel like they are not missing anything. And that to me is my focus now, it’s about performance.”

Monique Bingham plays at the Bassline in Johannesburg on Friday December 4 alongside Mi Casa.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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