/ 24 November 2017

Shekhinah bears the first fruits

A new light: Shekhina Donnell pushes boundaries on her debut album Rose Gold
A new light: Shekhina Donnell pushes boundaries on her debut album Rose Gold

Shekhinah Donnell and I first met on a Sunday afternoon when we were in high school. I sat cross-legged on the carpet of my home’s living room surrounded by my history, English and life science notebooks — glued to the television on which Idols was showing. When she began singing, I was meant to be immersed in the content of the hardcovers, but I had to glance up to see who this glorious voice belonged to. I still remember my first thoughts when Shekhinah and I made eye contact: “Doesn’t she have homework to do like the rest of us?”

I had to brush off the allure because I thought she would be like the ones before her, the ones who always ace the audition, soar up the ranks of reality television and fade away at the end of the season. I had to ignore how her voice engulfed me and how drawn I was to this stranger, this peer, when all she did was sing a cover of Lauryn Hill’s Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.

After encountering her that day in 2012, things between Shekhinah and her peers — us — remained a little quiet. We only kept in touch with her through Instagram. Her posts let us in on her media studies at AFDA and how they required her to perform from time to time. We would promise to catch up with her over listening to the music she had posted on SoundCloud but, like most promises made by acquaintances, we never had the time to make time for her.

It was only in 2015, when her official debut single Back to the Beach, with Kyle Deutsch, was released that we started interacting with Shekhinah on a day-to-day basis. By 2016, her voice was always visiting a dorm room in my university residence. If it wasn’t the single Let You Know, produced by Sketchy Bongo, then it was her collaboration with Black Coffee on Your Eyes that was blasting through various speakers. What started out as a girl-meets-peers situation four years earlier had become an almost daily ritual.

Shekhinah is not designed to fit into any one musical mould. How would you classify an artist with a fast-paced flow, repetitive lyrics, a sultry voice and harmonies that give off an old-school romance feel? Her sound and subject matter are designed to push boundaries. Although there’s no easy way to limit Shekhinah to a genre or two, for comprehension purposes we can call it “trap soul” that borrows from an electronic sound, which you can only find in South Africa right now.

By 2017, when her collaboration with Sliqe was released, we were satisfied with Shekhinah being the female vocalist who would collaborate with producers or other artists to cook up bangers. It was not the most ideal set-up but at least we had a reference, a representative in the music industry.

For so long, the generation that Shekhinah speaks for, my own, had been looking outside South African borders or to previous generations to find solace in music. Before her breakout, the only time we would feel as though “that’s how I feel” or “that’s how I look and sound” is if we were listening to American artists like Dounia or local artists before our time such as Lebo Mathosa.

When Rose Gold was released last month, we were ready to devour the rich bounty Shekhinah had prepared for us. From the romance with fashion designer boyfriend Lungelo Xulu in Suited all the way to her stance as a feminist in Power to She, we ate it all up with pride.

The most compelling element of Rose Gold, apart from her wholesome voice, is how it isn’t all about love. There is more to our twentysomethings and the subject matter that Shekhinah covers is a clear indication of this. She sings about agency, fulfilling a higher purpose, a move away from group-think and loss. In this regard, Rose Gold definitely exceeds the expectations of a first effort because it’s a first from a solo artist of our generation.

And, now that the meal has settled, we can take stock of our bond with the artist. The infatuation phase is over. Three years later, we’re ready to inspect what we have going on.

The topics Shekhinah covers in Rose Gold tick all the boxes in terms of what we’re going through in our everyday. However, the lyrical content is at times not particularly compelling. For instance, she makes use of relatively dated expressions that are sometimes incongruous with where her fans and to some degree where her musical progression is.

In the song Different, in which she collaborates with Mariechan from Jamali, Shekhinah chooses to word her need for independence in relationships with the lyrics “Guess I’m just a sucker for the independent mama drama”. Then in Power to She, although the intention resonates with contemporary ideals of African feminisms, by continually referring to herself as an African queen she inevitably runs into the sketchy and patriarchal territory of hotepism, which limits the dimensions of what it means to be an African woman. But that’s just me.

I wonder whether Shekhinah had to manage our expectations of a good sound and compelling content against staying true to herself. Perhaps my mild dissatisfaction comes from the fact that Shekhinah has to compete with the seasoned lyrical tropes that we have become accustomed to. Her abundance of natural talent is undeniable. But singing a cover and creating a song from scratch need different skills, with the latter being way more challenging. Although her debut album awarded her a large audience, there is a need for continued deliberate practice on her part and, equally, a need for consistent keenness from us. We’re not used to growing with artists from their teething years as writers and, as such, have become spoilt.

But we are here to stay. The quality of her musical production, her academic and creative dedication to the craft and her willingness to be the first from our generation to get this far in the mainstream guarantees our loyalty. I believe in Shekinah’s ability to develop the narrative she represents into one that not only takes us on a sonic journey but on a lyrical one as well.