Zoë Modiga and the sacred art of Yellow

High note: Zoë Modiga says singing is a spiritual experience that goes to the heart of who a person is. (Photo: Delwyn Verasamy)

High note: Zoë Modiga says singing is a spiritual experience that goes to the heart of who a person is. (Photo: Delwyn Verasamy)

It’s Sunday mornings.

It’s a comment below a killer selfie.

It’s recitations of chapter, line and verse.

It’s rituals repeated and incense

burning.

It’s Beyoncé, for some.

It’s a yarmulke, hijab and turban.

It’s a mat on the ground, waiting to receive bodies bent in supplication;

It’s bodies contorted like pretzels on another, sweating it out.

It’s Credo Mutwa, for some.

It’s communion wafers, challah broken and shared and prasad offered and eaten.

It’s hands in the air at 9am, bodies falling to the ground and speaking unfamiliar tongues.

It’s hands in the air at 1am, bodies moving to sounds and caressing tongues.

It’s stadiums.

It’s the smallest country in the world.

It’s a tiny room.

It’s anywhere.

We are all, it seems, searching for the godly or the God of small and big things. Thank you, Arundhati Roy. We are all, perhaps, trying to transcend our Earth-bound existence and find god in a hopeless place. (Apologies, Rihanna.)

“I met god and she’s a black woman.”

I saw this statement while ritually scrolling through Instagram. I suspect many people were thinking something similar as they watched Zoë Modiga perform on Friday night at the launch of her debut album, Yellow: The Novel.

“Slay us,” the audience yelled, in place of hallelujahs. “Cut us, we are your onions,” she responded in millennial vernacular, as amen. And, as if reciting an Anglican call and response, I added: “Heist us, we are your OR Tambo.” Service had begun.

If we speak in excess in the linguistics of our present, it is perhaps because hyperbole seems vital. It is perhaps the way we deal with overwhelming realities. We elevate the ordinary and exalt the extraordinary in the face of the debilitating conditions. This reality does not escape Modiga.

6pm. The partially lit venue at the Joburg Theatre is filled with dozens of scattered yellow balloons. Modiga sits on the stage lip, rapidly writing thank you notes on yellow Post-its, dressed in a yellow cape and a skin-tight black jumpsuit. She possesses cheekbones that could slice through your entire existence. Double-ball earrings accent the helix of her ears; worn like a style signature. The launch is in two hours.

Even through palpable stress, Modiga occupies space with a quiet ease: calm, funny, generous, introspective, extroverted and dramatic, all at once. This sense of the seemingly different and almost dissonant can be found in the album, where the playful, serious, hilarious and poignant collide.

Her voice is remarkable when singing, beguiling when speaking. If gymnasts train for optimal body control and absolute mastery over their physical instrument, Modiga has vocal control of Olympian standards — the result of more than a decade of vocal training. Velvety low notes, feathery top notes, a clean falsetto, impeccable runs and a quieter, childlike whisper bear testament to this on Yellow.

Junior choir.

The National School of the Arts.

The University of Cape Town’s South African College of Music.

These were the sites of her vocal education, spaces where Modiga relentlessly trained for this moment with steady determination and unwavering parental support. But, if all roads led to the Joburg Theatre last Friday night, one particular detour might be the reason her name sounds familiar to some.

The 23-year-old appeared on the first season of the reality television show The Voice South Africa, auditioning with Hozier’s Take Me to Church, as if conscious of the transcendent effect she has on audiences.

But Modiga seems almost unaware of the profound extent of her talent. Compliments float in the space between us and never sink into her skin.

Finishing in the show’s top eight, she joins Idols’ Amanda Black and Shekhinah as artists who had post-show success, deftly escaping the curse that seems to follow winning.

Although Modiga is deeply appreciative of the experience and the people she met through the show, she muses: “As real as it is, it is completely unreal at the same time … There are a lot of things that are beyond your influence, and it’s not always just the merit of your skill.”

Quiet appears between us. She weighs her words in her mouth, carefully selecting what escapes. Modiga shrugs it off, choosing honesty. Explaining her decision to enter the competition, she says: “It was attractive to me because it was different. It was attractive because Lira was there … I really do dig her, I dig her as a person, and I recognise her influence in my musical and personal career, you know.

“Before her, I really can’t think of, outside of Lebo Mathosa, I can’t think of a vocalist that looked like me … that had short hair, that was dark. To be quite honest, for a very long time I struggled with the image of beauty and what that was, and it was so refreshing to see something like ‘oh my word this is similar’.”

The spectre of Nina Simone enters our conversation:

“My skin is black/ my arms are long/ my hair is woolly/ my back is strong/ strong enough to take the pain/ inflicted again and again.”

Modiga won the South African Music Rights Organisation’s overseas music scholarship for jazz in 2015 with a rendition of Simone’s Four Women. She loves Simone. Among many other things, the song is a reminder of the conjoined but different experiences of distinct black women, whose hues range from black to yellow, tan and brown. Although all live under oppressive circumstances, our world still measures beauty on a spectrum that favours lighter shades. Reality is complex.

Inevitably, Modiga finds herself being compared with Lira. I broach the topic carefully, aware that it is a potential minefield.

“I don’t like comparisons,” she says slowly. “I appreciate her achievements that she has made, and I appreciate that there was a time where a person like Lira did not exist, and a lot of doors have been opened for me because she exists in the industry …[but] I like the idea of making a person feel like you’re the only person in the world.”

“Okay, Rihanna,” I respond, referring to the hit record Only Girl in the World. She cackles in reply. The tension dissipates.

Modiga eschews lazy comparisons that rest solely on her black womanhood. A desire to escape easy associations was perhaps a reason behind her decision to reinterpret Hozier for her audition on The Voice. But although the song expresses a disdain for religion, delivered in a tone of searing contempt, for Modiga, the spiritual is profoundly sacred.

“We grew up Roman Catholic. There were a lot of things that just didn’t make sense to me — a lot of things that were opposing each other but were in the same basket … A lot of questions couldn’t be asked. So my relating to God didn’t make sense because the people that said they knew him kind of were not prepared to explain things or even say ‘I don’t understand’ … So for the longest time, I was like ‘I really dig you but I don’t like how your people portray you’.”

Modiga explains her initial religious reticence as a reluctance to judge people on the basis of their difference or ideas of what is right and wrong. An eventual shift in perspective came after “I had a little bout of depression at some point because of just the trauma of a lot of things that had been happening at the time, which kind of led to wanting to find a particular kind of anything to grab on to.”

It’s the kind of utterance that immediately calls up Yeats’s poem The Second Coming, and its explorations of how, in times of turmoil, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”.

Many of us are currently searching for some sense of a centre or peace in the world we occupy. The axis it spins on cannot hold, but continues to, at the expense of particular bodies, lives and experiences of those who find themselves on the underside of history and the present; perpetually tilted, out of balance.

Writing for Dazed and Confused magazine, Jesse Bernard noted that 2016 “saw a slew of artists respond to the year’s violence by releasing albums of warm, calming music … These records all brought a sensuality and spirituality to hip-hop, soul and R&B, and combined the music with socially conscious lyrics. They were curative pieces of work that black music fans collectively needed and desired in a particularly difficult year.”

Profiling Thandiswa Mazwai after the release of Mazwai’s third album, Belede, writer Lindokuhle Nkosi noted: “Music is a higher vocation, a divine calling. Music is the purest medicine of the gods.”

These sensibilities echo through Yellow: A Novel, and are particularly present in Uh Oh (Sensible Life), in which Modiga sings: “This lousy idea that we should be apologetic about everything/ that’s swimming without fins” and “This is for the people that don’t ever think it’s for them now”. This last line sounds like a companion to Solange’s claims that “this shit is for us” on the song F.U.B.U from her award-winning A Seat at the Table.

“I think music is a very spiritual experience, and it’s spiritual because it goes to the core of who a person is,” Modiga says. “As a music person, whatever kinds of spirits we translate to people, we are translating

a particular kind of energy and I think sometimes we are not really aware of it or we are not accepting of the fact that we have that responsibility or we don’t care about that responsibility.

As a result, Modiga’s “objective is always aligned to the spiritual experience without trying to make you swallow things that you don’t want to swallow”, and is sensitive to our capacity for human error, too.

Apparently, this is a distinctly millennial perspective. The Pew Centre for Research found that “millennials are less attached to organised religion” than older generations and identify as more spiritual than religious. Although many of us still believe in God, we identify more with statements such as “I feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and wellbeing” or “I experience a deep sense of wonder about the universe”.

This deep sense is the spine that holds Yellow: A Novel together.

Explaining the title, Modiga says:

“I think the project is like a book — you have to sit down and read it. You don’t read a book in traffic, unless you have got major skills. Not that you can’t listen to it in traffic but it’s like that introverted moment with yourself. The whole thing is centred around self-realisation and it’s those kinds of songs.”

She is right. I am still absorbing Yellow and trying to make sense of its narrative and offering. Recorded two years ago, the album features jazz luminaries such as Kyle Shepherd and Bokani Dyer, whom Modiga regards as “characters in the book”. She describes it as niche music that “you won’t listen to at three o’clock on 5FM”. She has deliberately chosen this path.

“I just always hope that at some point being myself is going to pay off and we’ll see how that goes. If it means that my music leans more towards this niche, underground situation and it catches fire, I will know that I was completely myself.”

A desire for self-control and self-realisation underlies her decision to become an independent artist, despite being offered many record deals. “It’s so liberating to be my own person and be allowed to make mistakes because I’m betting on myself. It’s also an opportunity to exist without the label demands of a sexualised image. I didn’t want the idea of having to show legs and thighs, unless I want to show my fricking legs and thighs … there was so much more stress on my image than there was on my sound.”

Modiga’s stress is on sound and effect.

Shake the World, one of her song titles, has become a personal tagline. “It’s a song that I want to turn into a movement … You’re not just a number, you’re not just a barcode … I’m trying to find ways to engage that in a more practical way.”

Remarking on the Pew study, University of Virginia associate religious studies Professor Matthew Hedstrom says millennials “also want to be a part of something larger — a spiritual belief, perhaps, or a movement to improve the environment, or social justice”.

Yellow slots right into this matrix, as Modiga notes: “I do want to shape- shift and collaborate with different kinds of people, completely contrasting kinds of things … Those are exciting things to me.

“I don’t want to be remembered as a jazz musician. I just want to be remembered as a person that was an entertainer and that gave a damn about a lot of things.”

The sacred remains.

It’s Sunday mornings.

It’s a comment below a killer selfie.

It’s recitations of chapter, line and verse.

It’s creating a 23-track album.

It’s trying to shake the world.

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