James Brown

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11min1970

Songwriters are a special bunch, they have this divine skill of finding inspiration in some of life’s most complex moments. Their ingenuity would have them take on an odd topic like an oedipal relationship and turn that into a beautiful top-charting ditty that throngs connect with. But is there a direct link between the songwriter’s personality and the songs they write?

Artists with a narcissistic character are closed lyric writers. Meaning that they’re more introspective in their music, focusing on self rather than talking to the greater public. While the opposite of that could be writers who are genuine empathetic human beings, who view themselves as conduits relaying a message which most of the time has little to do with them, but a lot with the people who hear the music and their plights.

On one of his sit-downs with Zane Lowe, Kanye West once said “…go listen to all my music, it’s the codes of self-esteem, it’s the codes of who you are. If you’re a Kanye West fan, you’re not a fan of me you’re a fan of yourself. You will believe in yourself. I’m just the expresso, I’m just a shot in the morning to get you going, to make you believe you can overcome that situation that you’re dealing with all the time.” There probably isn’t a more self-absorbed artist of our generation as Mr. West, yet his discography evinces that narcissists have a role to play.

“I believe personality is a lot of what informs the kind of songs you write,” says singer songwriter Zoë Modiga.  “Your personality encompasses the qualities that make you the unique person you are. What you are is what holds value to you, what you think, how you see yourself and the world around you.” Modiga comes-off as a compassionate individual which is further emphasized by her music. Inganekwane, her 2020 critically acclaimed sophomore album remains etched on the souls of her fans and those who knew her not, prior to Inganekwane. In the same way James Brown’s message on Say It Loud, I’m Black & I’m Proud cannot not be misunderstood, so is Modiga’s message on Abantu which is on the album.

ROCK'N IT: Zoe Modiga. Photo by John Baloy
ROCK’N IT: Zoe Modiga. Photo by John Baloy

The track is a candid conversation she has with Bantu people- touching on black on black violence, self-image and poverty but yet leaves one encouraged. “I subscribe more to the idea that I am a vessel for messages to pass through and impact people first. With this being said, being a vessel doesn’t remove you from making music that moves you, it is just an acknowledgment that as much as you have the genius of creating, you know that the creation in and of itself comes from a force bigger than yourself. My music isn’t for me first but the messaging is something that speaks to me on a personal level and something I am proud to stand behind,” Modiga says.

“Yes there is a link between songwriter’s personality and the songs they write, but only to an extent because things like creativity come into play,” singer songwriter Sibusile Xaba says. Xaba who is a folk music singer, began his career as part of a Hip Hop group with childhood friends says song writing can be complex in itself.  “When I started, I use to write rhymes with the gents and [in our music] we spoke about things we hoped would happen. We even wrote for other people. You do this by observing the person you’re writing for, their tone and their personality.”

For his 2017 debut album, Open Letters to Adoniah, Xaba famously said the music came to him through dreams. “But why is it a thing, because we dream always. I think for creatives that happens a lot, even for you as a writer I’m sure things happen subliminally or things might feel like déjà vu or a vision. For me it was quite normal, the only thing I didn’t understand was that it happened in consecutive days.”

HEALING THE PEOPLE: Artist Sibusile Xaba on stage with Neftali on the right. Photo by Sip The Snapper
HEALING THE PEOPLE: Artist Sibusile Xaba on stage with Neftali on the right. Photo by Sip The Snapper

“What I’m thinking I put down. The way I see those thoughts, it’s voices. Like other beings conveying codes or messages that need to be translated or shared with our people.”

“My role is to just pass the code man. How I feel or how a person reacts, I’m beyond that. It’s not about me, it’s about these codes that need come out at this time and now and I believe in the frequency. You’ll hear by how people react whether it’s positive or negative,” says Xaba.

Of her writing process Modiga says “I usually do not remember my creative process because it feels like a trance most times however, the times I do remember involves me writing down words and then music to it or composing a musical sequence that I then write words to,” she says. “In a communal writing session it works a little different. We decide what we wish to write up and take it from there however it flows out of us. There aren’t any rules and there are many ways to build on a song. As long as we are open to that, anything is possible.”

Xaba touches on Modiga’s last point on the music being communal, speaking about how generations before us approached music writing, particularly amahubo (hymns).

“Hymns were communal, there was never one composer because everybody joined in on the hymn. In the fields where our grandparents worked, they sang together. As much as we’re talking about this [songwriters and their personalities] in today’s context, we need to inform our people of its origin. When you belt out a hymn, energy automatically vibrates and taps into other frequencies in the body by singing or humming”

The era where teens would jot the lyrics of some of their favourite songs in scrapbooks seems to have gone by, but being one of those girl who grew up scribbling artists’ lines Modiga gave a nod to that by releasing Inganekwane together with a booklet that has credits, lyrics and translations of the songs written. “That was my way of trying to bring back that culture of appreciating lyrics,” she says.

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12min240324

In the same way a great image paired with an equally potent caption does for an article, so should an artist’s live performance do for an album. It makes it more endearing and grips the audience with a deep sense of engagement. Both artist and listener have been deprived of this exchange for the most part of the year due to the pandemic, settling for the seemingly arduous virtual concerts.

Zoë Modiga’s sophomore album Inganekwane is a body of work that has left many music lovers craving to experience it live since it was released four months ago.  “I miss people buth’wami, there’s nothing like it,” says Zoë.  “I consider myself to be an empath, I really enjoy to feel people’s energy and having that fuel me, where I’m not fuelling myself because virtual performances feel like I’m fuelling myself but the audience doesn’t understand how much of an importance they actually have in creating the world,” she says.

With only a handful of us at Constitution Hill against the women’s prison, mostly made up of the crew capturing performances which are being streamed to thousands, Zoë gave a consistent performance that should’ve been experienced live by many warm bodies at the Blooming Sounds in Joburg. My eyes closed, taking in the music, the sound of her voice is as pure live as it is on record.

“With the virtual space we’re in right now, I suppose me trying to be consistent is the understanding that I know it’s an awkward place for everyone to be in, I know we all like to doll up when we go watch our favourite musicians so I think that consistency is not taking that for granted ukuthi people are gonna be in PJs, they probably don’t want to watch a show in PJs, but they’re gonna tune in anyway and that means something to me. I suppose another thing, it is the music [and] it is the passion but also the product and I feel like if you want to exist in spaces where people respect the brand as well, you need to be able to do it professionally, regardless of the circumstances that you find yourself in,” Zoë tells me after her performance.

Zoe Modiga performing at Constitution Hill, with Banda Banda behind her. Photo by Sip The Snapper
CONNECTING WITH HER PEOPLE: Zoë Modiga performing at Constitution Hill, with Banda Banda behind her. Photo by Sip The Snapper

As Stogie T gets his turn on the Blooming Sounds stage, between the historic walls of Constitution Hill I find a quiet space to talk to Zoë about her work. Inganekwane, a Nguni word for fairy-tale, is a project that’s preceded by adjectives such as ‘moving’ ‘divine’ and ‘healing’. Poignantly released at a time when black youth is enamoured with being woke and is having conversations about what it means to be black in this world- it’s the perfect soundtrack.

Stogie T at Blooming Sounds in Joburg. Photo by Sip The Snapper
SMOKING THA STAGE: DJ P-Kuttah and Stogie T at Blooming Sounds in Joburg. Photo by Sip The Snapper

“This album is about a lot of conversations that I had been having for three years after Yellow The Novel, my debut album was made and released. There’s a lot of conversations about the state of black people and what’s that like. For the longest time I felt I couldn’t express it in my language, but I began to be affirmed by my audience you know, that’s the power that my audience has and that music lovers have, is that sometimes they can cause you to move into spaces that you would not qualify yourself for. So even with the response of the album, it feels the same way. People are qualifying you. It’s such an affirming thing because for me music is a personal thing, but for me the motive I have is to move people’s souls first and foremost before I formally get recognised formally through awards and those kinds of things,” says Zoë.

Zoe having a vibe on stage at Blooming Sounds in Joburg. Photo by Sip The Snapper
KUMNANDI LA: Zoë having a vibe on stage at Blooming Sounds in Joburg. Photo by Sip The Snapper

Her music moves more than just the soul. Her performance of Intsha had the tiny audience dancing, and probably a lot more streaming viewers’ hips swaying. “It always makes me lose my breath and twerk myself into a disaster,” a panting Zoë says while on stage. “It’s a song dedicated to the youth of 1976 and it’s a song that reminds us that young people are always part of watershed moments, we always make big changes.”

As James Brown’s message on Say It Loud, I’m Black & I’m Proud cannot not be misunderstood, so is Zoë’s Abantu. It’s a candid conversation she has with Bantu people- touching on black on black violence, self-image, and poverty but yet the song is mighty reassuring. “This song is dear to my heart because it’s part of all the conversations we’ve been having. It’s a beautiful love letter because it’s a song that puts us in a place of realising that we commit so much violences [sic] amongst ourselves as black bodies and part of that is calling systems into place that have allowed us to think in this way,” she says during her performance.

Zoë doing her thing at Blooming Sounds. Photo by Sip The Snapper
IYAGIDHA INTOMBI: Zoë’s dance moves display how in-shape the artist is. Photo by Sip The Snapper

With her trademark brush-cut, rocking a leather dress and snakeskin print ankle boots Zoë looked elegant. A glimpse of her Instagram page will let you know, that she’s an aesthetically-conscious one, and is comfortable in her style.

The moving imagery from Inganekwane, that takes us back to her childhood.
QUEEN IN THA KRAAL: The moving imagery from Inganekwane, that takes us back to her childhood.

It was her vision that inspired the album cover art, helped by an amazing team of creatives in its execution. “I’m blessed to have people who believe in my visions,” she says.  The idea for her cover stems from a visit to her paternal grandmother as a 5 year-old KwaMpisi, in rural KwaZulu-Natal.  “I’d always have this moment of looking into cows for a long period of time, and she’d [grandmother] always look at me like I was crazy. That’s the power of this record that it’s allowed me to really look back into childhood, look back at what’s made me who I am, right now.”

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9min1981

Every living human being has a soul. In each of us, there’s a something viewed as immortal and defining of our character and who we are. Now what I’m curious about, is whether we as society still think white people do not have soul?

All my life, I’ve observed the rhetoric that white people are lacking when it comes to soul. In the arts and even in sport. I grew up understanding that a white soccer player could not have the same rhythm and be pleasing to watch on the field as Doctor Khumalo or Steve Lekoelea. Yes, they played the beautiful game with more than just there’s limbs but also with soul.

The idea of black people being the gatekeepers of soulfulness stems from the 1950s in the US. Because of artists such Aretha Franklin, who recently demised, James Brown and Sam Cook whose music was highly emotive and equally spiritual. Soulful artists have the conviction of Gospel and the suave and agony of Rhythm and Blues. Most of their voices were moulded at a church somewhere. Incorporated with soul-food, you get a vivid idea that soul and black culture go hand-in-hand. Abo darkie are the archetypal of soul. But in the last few years we’ve seen a growing number Caucasians who have soul.

Tom Misch, JFK, Jamie Isaac, Mac Miller and Jordan Rakei- who will be performing at this year’s DSTV Delicious Festival- are talented artists changing the status quo. J.Cole touched on this in his track Fire Squad.

History repeats itself and thats just how it goes

Same way that these rappers always bite each others flows

Same thing that my nigga Elvis did with Rock n Roll

Justin Timberlake, Eminem, and then Macklemore

While silly niggas argue over who gone snatch the crown

Look around my nigga white people have snatched the sound

This year I’ll prolly go to the awards dappered down

Watch Iggy win a Grammy as I try to crack a smile

I’m just playin’, but all good jokes contain true shit

These are heavy lyrics by Cole which were misunderstood by the public when the song came out. But it leads one to the question, are white people truly snatching black culture? I believe as black people we don’t mind, when other races immerse themselves in our various and interesting cultures-we’re too sharing to be that petty.

What irks us most, is someone who does not give credit to those who created the culture which they love because it has given them so much. Black people want and need to be acknowledged for the great that they are.

It’s no secret that Elvis Presley was the counterfeit King of Rock ’n’ Roll while the original King was Chuck Berry and that Eminem is a great rapper but his whiteness has been a huge contributor to his success.  It’s no problem when someone of Em’s stature gets love and recognition, but it was disappointing when someone who makes gibberish as Macklemore won a Hip Hop Grammy award instead of Kendrick Lamar.

But it was inevitable that things would be like this, since the world is getting smaller and is free of segregation, apartheid and other wack laws which made it difficult for people all over the world to exchange cultures. Should we as black people take offense that other races immerse themselves in black culture? Not at all, we should take pride in it. A case in point is South African music legend Johnny Clegg who made great Mbaqanga music, but could never be compared to one of the gods of the genre Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens. The latter were a collective of a black king and queens who made music for everyone but never, not for one second, lost touch with their blackness. They owned it…and were still cool with Mr Clegg enjoying some of it too.

The likes of RJ Benjamin and Kid Fonque are known for their inclination to music with soul, which people of their own race don’t often appreciate as darkies do.  RJ Benjamin has proved time and time again with his albums, production and the people he’s worked with that he’s a soulful kat whose name you wouldn’t find on a line-up, next to Kurt Darren and Steve Hofmeyr. While Kid Fonque’s show alone, on 5FM would sit well on afropolitan radio station Kaya FM because it’s not limited to the generic electro sound that’s synonymous with white fellas and girls. But his House music is soul satisfying, not just focused on burning my calories on the dance floor.

I know black people who’ll say white people can have all the soul they want, including our dance moves, if they give us all their wealth.  Fortunately things aren’t that simple. We cannot and should not sell ourselves, instead we should own our culture, share it with the rest of the world whilst finding ways to preserve it so that it doesn’t get gentrified and become something we can barely recognise.


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