They say, love can also happen by chance and instantaneously. I encountered Nomzi Kumalo’s music by chance in 2019. Based in Oslo, Norway, Kumalo is a storyteller who has managed to mend my heart with her poetry in song.
I fell deeply in love with the singer and songwriter while trying to navigate Copenhagen, searching for black spaces within the Scandinavian cultural scene. Before that moment of reckoning — faced with an image of a woman who clutched onto the mic with all her being, words pouring out of her — I had been blissfully unaware of the singer until she magically weaved her way into my life.
Who was this woman? Who stepped on to the stage, barefoot, clad in a black dress. From that point, symbolically she occupied my daily sonic experience. Her single, The Truth, was harrowing but was also my salvation. I listened to it religiously and it subsequently helped me grapple with heartbreak during a pandemic.
In The Truth her voice is identifiable with a forlorn sensibility, reminiscent of Joni Mitchell’s song, Both Sides Now, released more than two decades ago. Describing herself as a poet and partly a singer, the words pour out of her heart before she sings: “I don’t care where you’re coming from/ I don’t care what you do/ I want the truth”.
It is no coincidence then, that Kumalo, born and raised in South Africa to a mother from the Eastern Cape and a father from Kimberly, registered on the European music scene as a jazz singer and songwriter.
Now living in Norway, Kumalo speaks of a narrative we are all too familiar with as human beings, that in each of us, we yearn for honest moments in our daily lives.
Kumalo is not an activist, she is simply a songwriter whose songs are of women’s lived experience; the notion of freedom, love and vulnerability. And in this journey, she stands firmly next to the Makebas, Mbulas, Danas and Mazwais of our time.
In the last 28 years, our country has witnessed too many cases of women who have died at the hands of their intimate partners. As a country, we speak of it as a passing topic at dinner tables, in conversations with our dearest friends, listen to news bulletins announce the names of the victims, witness family members swept with shock and tears and yet, the violence persists.
Described as an avant-garde artist in the Scandinavian music landscape, Kumalo continues to transport and transform audiences with her meticulous attention to storytelling. A unique artist whose courage has brought forward a mysterious sense of awakening in me – Kumalo reminds us all to take note of the state of our affairs and that we demand nothing less than an undeniable truth from ourselves and others.
I am a South African woman who affirms her body as it was from birth. I am aware of both the challenges and privileges I have for not having children and a husband at my side. For some of us, like me at age 35, with no kids, no steady relationship and an entirely dysfunctional background to boot, marriage is a rather far-fetched concept.
And yet, much of what women experience is punctuated by the ring on their finger and not how they choose to define themselves. In Kumalo’s songs, it is evident she deems her personal story important, which is how we all ought to feel about our own lives.
In the song, For Love, one of the earlier works by Kumalo, she describes much of my journey with love. Most of my peers have been married for some time, some are single parents, while some are newly hitched to long-term partners.
As much as it makes so much sense for a hopeful romantic such as myself to tick all the boxes in favour of marriage, it was not until my 35th birthday that I thought seriously about the idea of being legally bound by law to someone for the rest of my life.
I was also recovering from a real heartbreak, something that completely took me over for close to a year. For Kumalo, songwriting proved to be a cathartic journey, unpacking her move to Europe for love and not having it work out as planned. The undoing of it all has been beautifully captured in her lyrics.
When I found love, I had no idea it would rip me wide open. Opening me up to face my truth. A date rape eradicated the simple notion of entrusting a romantic partner with my life. Whenever I’m with a potential partner, ready to take on a relationship, I end up with immense anxiety and zigzag between doubt and fear, remembering older women from my childhood warning me to never get married.
I also remember my upbringing and the dysfunctional relationship between my mother and father, who had a beautiful wedding that ended up in a messy divorce, leaving a definite emotional wound.
With that came stories I’d hear about my maternal grandmother and her mother and her mother too. Most of the women in my family were abused at some point or another. These and other traumas have contributed to my anxiety about whether I truly believe in marriage or whether my fear is a case of not wanting to do something that writer Alain de Botton says, “is the tendency in our adult lives, to subconsciously and innocuously mirror what is familiar to us from our childhood”.
Kumalo has managed to remind me — through her music — that a woman’s life belongs to her and no one else. That love is complex and painful at times, yet truth must be a constant if love is to provide a space of safety.
My own healing and deep selection of memories were prompted by Nomzi Kumalo, hoping to uncover myself from the pain of unrequited love.
Kumalo released another single, ‘Go, Don’t Leave’ in 2021, composed and released under her own record label, Kumalo Records. You can follow her journey on Instagram @nomzikumalo