Next up in our Women to Watch series leading up to the SAMAs is Thandiswa Mazwai. The talented singer already has a number of SAMAs under her belt. You will know Thandiswa for her huge success as the lead singer of Bongo Maffin and her solo work, both of which are characterised by the rich tone of her voice and the political themes of her lyrics.
Thandiswa was born in the same year as the Soweto Uprising and grew up in Soweto. It’s no surprise that Thandiswa’s music has always had a political message. Her parents, Belede and Thami, were both anti-apartheid activists and her mother was a journalist for The Star, the headquarters of which Thandiswa remembers spending time at as a child. When she was sixteen Thandiswa’s mother passed away, an event that she describes as a major turning point in her life along with the birth of her daughter.
The Bongo Maffin story
After taking part in the talent show Road To Fame, in which she didn’t make it to the semi-finals, Thandiswa was discovered by one of the founding fathers of kwaito, Don Laka. He asked her to be a part of a project, she said yes, and Bongo Maffin was born. The band became a trailblazer of Kwaito music and soon became well-known for their political messages paired with danceable tunes. Thandiswa and the band went on to tour the world, performing with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Skunk Anansie and members of the Marley family. Bongo Maffin themselves won three SAMAs during their prime including Best Pop Album for their debut album Concerto.
Thandiswa’s first solo album Zabalaza went double platinum and winning the SAMA for Best African Contemporary Album. In November 2017, after a seven year hiatus from releasing music, Thandiswa put out something a little different: a jazz album. Belede, named after and inspired by her late mother, is a collection of jazz covers, a chance for Thandiswa to ‘revisit’ a few of her favourite South African jazz songs. The artists covered include Miriam Makeba (who Thandiswa herself has often been compared to), Hugh Masekela and Letta Mbulu. Thandiswa chose these artists for their rebellious nature, another nod to the spirit of her mother.
And it wouldn’t be a Thandiswa album without a political message: “I’ve reimagined these songs for a new space and time, and what’s interesting is that even though a lot of these songs were written as rebel music against Apartheid, they still make sense in South Africa now. They still have the same impact, ask the same questions and evoke the same actions,” she said. The Letta Mbulu cover, Jikijela, for example, is performed beautifully by Thandiswa and includes sound clips of students from the #FeesMustFall movement.
The song Jikijela is done in honour of the #FeesMustFall movement and the brave students who continue to fight✊🏾 album out soon
— Ahh KingTha (@thandiswamazwai) November 2, 2016
Can her South African jazz album give Thandiswa enough sway to beat out the Queen of Gqom and the other contenders in the Best Female Artist category? We’ll be keeping a close eye on the SAMAs later this month to find out.