Msaki sings, and we heal

On Friday Friday April 4 2019, two music videos featuring the East London-born Msaki were released to terrestrial broadcasting and online worlds. One was Sondela, an isiXhosa-Lingala duet with pop chanteur Tresor; and the other was Fetch Your Life by the bonafide hitmaker, Prince Kaybee. 

The latter was one of the biggest songs in Mzansi at that moment, while the former’s potential as a hit was bolstered by its easy-going melody, and by the linguistic flair that provided it the local, regional, and continental relatability necessary for inclusion into the perennial African wedding bangers playlist. 

5FM declared it a #MsakiFriday, and slotted a mid-morning interview with the singer on the daily Hamman Time show. 

Msaki exited the Uber at the SABC’s Radio Park as Nick Hamman announced her name pre-adbreak, made it up the escalators, past the security guards, and inside the studio just in time not to disrupt regular programming. A short interview and two-song performance followed.

As she told Hamman: “I think for me, being on Fresh’s show the other day and doing what I’ve been doing on community radio stations for the past four or five  years; doing it on a different platform that’s got that much traction ―  that was kind of shocking because I went, ‘Oh, but I’ve been doing this: What’s the difference?’


“As a person who’s focused on longevity, and all the people that I look up to have got a long-term plan for their career, you don’t really want to be this … you don’t wanna pop and then disappear. I’m just trying to keep my head level: do the same thing I’ve been doing, and just keep working,” she continued.

A year later, the world had changed. The onset of Covid-19 saw many musicians scramble to make sense of their new reality. Mass gatherings were banned, which discounted any possible performances. Msaki decamped to the Eastern Cape to regroup and strategise on the way forward. 

Meanwhile, Fetch Your Life lost out on the record of the year and best collaboration fronts, but won the best-produced music video award at the South African Music Awards ceremony held in early August. Sondela also scooped nominations for best-produced music video, and for record of the year. And Msaki’s self-directed video for the song Pearls to Swine also received a bestproduced music video nod. 

As of writing, Msaki is busy promoting Blood, Guns and Revolutions, her latest release.

“It’s hard to protest and to see nothing happen, and that’s why song, for me, is a place to try and gather some strength or some courage; to try and bring that back into my real life; to be like: ‘Okay, what needs to happen on this plane, as a black person, to try and strive for justice?’” she informs a Texx Talks podcast host days after the song comes out. 

2019

Msaki’s position in the mainstream is a beautiful puzzle. She maintains strong links to the live music scene, ruled by mostly underground bands, in East London and Port Elizabeth, Cape Town and Johannesburg — the cities she zig-zags between when she isn’t seeking new markets for her folk sound in Europe and the United States. But she’s also an outsize presence in house music, who turns her poems into searing melodies that have landed on songs by Black Coffee, the Revolution twins, Black Motion, and Mobi Dixon.

That privileged standpoint has afforded Msaki the flexibility to take bookings at lifestyle events such as the monthly rooftop get-down, Feel Good Series; and to curate thriving alternative music circuits that disrupt mainstream narratives through initiatives such as the Alt Blk Continua event series, the most recent of which was held parallel to the National Arts Festival in Makhanda. It featured nightly performances from cats like iPhupho L’ka Biko, Skhumba Namathambo and Nguni Relic.

Msaki then decamped to rainy-ass Cape Town and regrouped with regular collaborators — she refers to the revolving cast of musicians she plays with as “the golden circle” — to work on new music towards the end of July. 

She had spent the past 20 months, roughly, developing a set of songs under the mentorship of Neo Muyanga, himself a stealth mastermind of song who, for a while now, has been studying protest music. 

“I’ll be releasing a series of singles. [I’m busy] reading the digital space and how it behaves. That’ll help me make decisions [about the future],” she says.

Whether the songs shall end up on an album remains to be seen, but Msaki is certain that she doesn’t want to go through the same money-related hassles she had to endure while recording her debut long-player, Zaneliza: How The Water Moves (2015). The album was made possible by the assistance of Facebook friends, and through contributions from a Kickstarter campaign she ran. 

“I want all the money that I need for the project available upfront. Whether I’m raising it or partnering with people, that’s what I want. I don’t want that long drawn-out [fundraising] struggle to happen this time. It needed to happen [then]; I don’t think that [Zaneliza] would’ve happened any other way ― especially the scale of it, and the fact that I was able to create it. It was expensive on the pocket, but expensive on my relationships as well. And those are the kind things that I want to avoid this time,” she concludes.

*

Nomzamo, I am burning/ I am burning in the fire made for me/ the feminine goddess is ululating as she rises/ […]/ pain is a coward/ I am not next/ I am not the next candle in the wind/ we are raging, like forest fires, built by the tongue-tied — Msaki

In December, Msaki held a two-night vigil at the Untitled Basement in Johannesburg. The first night felt heavy, in the manner that body odour or unspoken hurts cling to you, anxiously awaiting release. Mounting reports of gender-based violence had rendered activists, pressure groups, and individuals ― women, mostly ― numb. The government stood by the sidelines and paid lip service to a national crisis as and when the cameras and lights switched on. 

Decisive action? Dololo!

It’s in that climate that At Stake was released. The artwork, a graphic-design masterpiece, featured Msaki’s response to a tweet from the official South African government account.

 The state mouthpiece’s missive exhibited grandstanding hallmarks of insincerity through phrases such as “[we are] calling on all women to speak out”, which wrongly supposes that the people at the receiving end of the violence can stop it by simply reporting the incidences to the police. 

Not even level-five lockdown could unlock the superpowers to realise that hollow dream. 

The tweet was a callously worded, insincere flop that reflected the nationwide zeitgeist in as far as urgent, necessary interventions go. 

Msaki opened both nights at the Untitled Basement with Vangile Gantsho’s poem, smallgirl. The delicate piece speaks of the ones who have moths in their mouths; whose vocal chords “[speak] anger in glances,” and who “[know] the dagger of words”.

smallgirl must learn to swallow/ and be pretty,” the poem states.

The second night felt lighter, and naturally lent itself to demonstrations of a release akin to church sermons and purges on the dancefloor. 

Msaki confessed that night: “The reason I was choking on my words earlier was because I was afraid to say the word ‘healing’. I was afraid to say [that word] because I forgot that when people organise, and they sing together, [healing] is almost inevitable. Thank you for singing hope and courage into my heart.”

*

2020

One of the last times Msaki performed in front of people was in March in Soweto with The Brother Moves On. It was a night decorated with sound glitches and an alarm system that wouldn’t keep quiet. Among the many highlights are the effortless back-and-forth glides between her and the band’s lead vocalist Siya Mthembu; as well as witnessing how, despite Msaki’s success in the dance-music market, the people who came to the show came to hear her songs. Zaneliza songs. That realisation was magical.

There were women standing front of centre, singing along to every word. There were guys flanking either end of the performer-audience barrier, rinsing their vluits with roaring “yeahs” whenever the last sip of the liquor made way for more. There were also the bystanders towards the back who took measured pulls out of their blunts, ciggies and hookah pipes while nodding in approval of what was taking place on stage.

In that moment, it was hard to tell that the gig could be the last time we legally gathered en masse to witness magic in the form of live music.

Reflecting on her post-lockdown activities in the podcast referred to earlier, Msaki says that she’s been learning to record and engineer her vocals, and has been dipping her feet into the multiverse that is video editing. 

She says that “everything collapsing into each other has been really hard”, and that she has “struggled with just having enough energy to do family stuff, be present for the kids, meet deadlines, send stuff off and have time to be a present partner. It’s been hard, I don’t wanna lie.”

And perhaps this is what the current moment in time invites: a daring attitude, which inspires a refusal to give in, and rewards the gesture with a dose of energy that keeps one going. 

Maybe.

“Every day is a miracle for me. Getting work done is just … I’m like, ‘Okay, well done’,” she concludes.

Blood, Guns and Revolutions is available on all streaming platforms.

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Tseliso Monaheng
Tseliso Monaheng
Photographer Tseliso Monaheng is currently writing and editing a series on South African hip hop.

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