Shekhinah is coming up roses

Shekhinah is launching her own micro-festival this Women’s Day. (Elizabeth Donnel)

Shekhinah is launching her own micro-festival this Women’s Day. (Elizabeth Donnel)

As Mercury left retrograde and South Africa ushered in women’s month, Apple Music released an all-genre list to celebrate the women with the highest streams. At the top of the list is 24-year-old songstress Shekhinah.

She sits above Lady Zamar, Karen Zoid, Lebo Sekgobela, newcomer Simmy, Karlien van Jaarsveld, Zonke Dikana, Amanda Black, Juanita du Plessis and Ntokozo Mbambo.

And Shekhinah managed to snag the top spot even though she last released an album in 2017.

Creating staying power

Albums from other artists have come and gone since Shekhinah’s debut album, Rose Gold, was released two years ago. So why and how has it managed to keep its relevance?

Perhaps the answer lies in the many layers one is offered when listening to Shekhinah’s music.

The first layer concerns how we categorise the artist.
To describe Shekhinah’s music as R&B is incomplete. Her fast-paced flow and repetition of lyrics are traits common among trap artists. But Shekhinah’s pentecostal harmonies — delivered in her nonchalantly sultry voice — transcend expectations, resulting in a vibe that lives somewhere between offerings from Nate Dogg, Lauryn Hill and Monique Bingham. Even then, there’s an honesty to her words and sound that you can find only in South Africa right now.

The next layer is the pace with which Shekhinah releases music, as well as her ability to hop genres. Her 2015 comeback after her post-Idols sabbatical was launched with Back to the Beach, a string-heavy, summertime ballad featuring Kyle Deutsch that was true to her coastal Durban vibe. For this single, she was nominated in various categories at the Metro FM Awards, the MTV Africa Music Awards and as the South African Music Awards.

Then, in 2016 she collaborated with Sketchy Bongo to give us Let You Know and featured on Jesse Clegg’s Breathing before working with Black Coffee on Your Eyes. While the 2016 tracks kept the same slow-jam tempo as her first single, two of the three ushered Shekhinah into the club scene by borrowing from house music. She then furthered her range in 2017 by releasing On It, a trap-soul-inspired collaboration with hip-hop DJ Sliqe.

At that point in her career, the public had become accustomed to Shekhinah being the female vocalist who collaborated with producers or other artists to cook up bangers.

But she defied this when she released Rose Gold, a holistic record that encapsulates one’s twenties. Instead of riding the wave of her captivating voice, Shekhinah worked at making sure that her catchy lyrics were saying something that resonated with the times. The songs touch on themes of agency, individualism, loss, intersectionality and love, of course.

“I believe our country is yet to have a functional committee of songwriters, so I write my own. The words come from trying to figure out how I’m feeling through music,” she says.

The lyrics lacked a storytelling element like the ones found in 20 Something by SZA, Shea Butter Baby by Ari Lennox or Busiswa’s Bazoyenza. Instead of flexing poetic muscle, Shekhinah’s lyrics aren’t as sophisticated as they could be because she used dated, Americanised expressions to get her point across. For instance, in Power to She, she runs into hotep territory when she refers to black women using the term “African Queen”.

But Rose Gold stuck, not only because of her solid voice and beat choices, but because it was refreshing to hear a mainstream South African pop artist’s attempt to venture into lyrics that aren’t just about having a good time, one’s love life or getting paid.

In addition to the Recording Industry of South Africa awarding the album platinum status, it landed the songstress 13 nominations and five awards in 2018.

Although Shekhinah has not released any singles of her own this year, she continues to work in a variety of genres, keeping her appeal broad. For R&B and hip-hop lovers she featured on Nasty C’s Whipped, together with Tellaman. For those more interested in a vosho-friendly sound, she collaborated with gqom phenom DJ Lag on his track Anywhere.

Shekhinah has kept Rose Gold and her preceding singles in our hearts and minds since their release by presenting them on innumerable stages, ranging from the Feel Good Live Session to opening for international acts such as Lauryn Hill, Ed Sheeran and Masego. And after witnessing the artist perform live on three occasions I can say that no two performances are the same. To achieve this, Shekhinah and her band study the studio and live versions of her discography to continuously improve and reinvent it.

“The performances aren’t just me. It’s also thanks to the band. We have all been there to rehearse twice a week since the album came out,” Shekhinah says.

Her faithfulness to the stage fuels her relevance, but it also comes from a need to find solace in the work of entertainment.

“I have realised that the industry prioritises men,” Shekhinah says. “Plus, being a full-time artist is really challenging and time-consuming. I spend a lot of time dealing with and talking about myself. Both those things are tiring. So I feel at home when I’m on stage. I love engaging with people that way.”

A Rose Gold utopia

To address the industry’s misogyny, Shekhinah has expanded the Rose Gold experience to include a micro-festival, RoseFest. “I want to create a festival-like experience that is driven by the idea of escapism and feel good music. But I also want to change ideas people have of women’s roles and abilities in the entertainment industry,” she tells the Mail & Guardian.

To achieve this, RoseFest is organised, executed and headlined by a woman-only team. Before Shekhinah takes to stage, RoseFest will see performances from the likes of Sho Madjozi, Simmy, DJ Doowap, DJ Zinhle, Busiswa, DBN Gogo and Melo B Jones.

With sponsorship from Nedbank, in association with East Coast Radio, 947 and Channel O, the one-day fest looks to be a physical manifestation of Shekhinah’s Rose Gold album.

“We’ve created an escape from our daily reality, an invitation to see the world through rose-tinted glasses, an opportunity to connect with our child-like wonder by turning Nasrec into a picture-perfect dream world of music, candyfloss, food trucks, balloons and a fun fair,” Shekhinah says.

The move toward transforming the spaces that she occupies is a bold one, especially in the teething stages of her career in mainstream pop, a time when many artists steer clear of engaging with social politics. Behind the boldness is the necessity for women to take up space in the same way the men behind the variety of festivals in South Africa have placed themselves at the fore.

“It’s really cool that we can attend Fill Up the Dome (Cassper Nyovest), Ivyson Tour (Nasty C), Super Mega (AKA), Shimza’s One Man Show, Major League Gardens… but what about putting women in the centre? I’m not going to wait for someone to do that for me. I’m orchestrating it myself,” she says.

RoseFest takes place on August 9 at Nasrec in Johannesburg and on October 12 at Kings Park Stadium in Durban. For more information visit shekhinahd.com

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