Bongeziwe Mabandla is finding his voice

Bongeziwe Mabandla is finding his voice

A new album, therapy, and a pandemic have given the South African singer a new lease of life.

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When Bongeziwe Mabandla released his third album, iimini, a day after South Africa went into full lockdown, it was a blessing in disguise. “I’m glad I did that, because people could listen to it without a lot of distractions,” says the award-winning Eastern Cape province-born musician, known for his raw lyrics and personal subject matter, when we link up in Johannesburg on a hot March afternoon — initially at a secluded coffee shop, then at his house later in the day. “People were at home, not doing much. And the album was about love and connection, exactly what people were kind of lacking at that time.”

The experience altered his approach to life, and he started seeing a clinical psychologist, a process he says has helped him understand himself. We’re meeting as he prepares to release his new album, the fourth since his debut, Umlilo, in 2012. Titled amaXesha, Mabandla sees this record as an extension of the love motif that underscored his previous effort. We sat down to discuss his undying love for isiXhosa, the click-heavy language he sings in — and what the characters of the Black Panther movie franchise communicate with in certain scenes; his love for words and why lyrics matter; and how he keeps evolving as an artist.

You sing in isiXhosa primarily. Do you ever find yourself limited, especially because you aren't necessarily communicating in the language every day like you would when you're in the Eastern Cape, for example?

I think it goes back to when I was younger. I would listen to the radio, and everyone was trying to sound American — that was how to be cool. Then I remember hearing Thandiswa Mazwai on [Bongo Muffin’s song ‘Makeba’]. Something shifted in my head; I just thought ‘nah, this is where it’s at, African music is so dope!’ I think I grew up from that influence. And even moving back, when I came to Joburg, Simphiwe Dana’s Zandisile album, Zolani Mahola on Freshlyground’s ‘Nomvula’ and Kwani Experience also influenced me. That’s why I got their vocalist Nosisi on my first album. I was like ‘I gotta have somebody I admire’. My language thing is very influenced by early 2000s Joburg, ‘we’re gonna fight for our culture, we’re gonna grow our hair, we’re gonna wear beads’.

Did you ever have dreads?

Yeah, I had big ass dreads, of course I had dreads! I come from that [militant era], ‘we’re gonna reclaim our culture, and stand up and take back all these things that white people were trying to destroy’.

So it was an age of awakening for you?

Yeah, yeah. It had to be in my own language.

Has the songwriting changed since then?

I think that the more I realised that people understand me and people connect with me, it enabled me to take bigger risks with my writing. I think that my writing is always improving because I feel that there’s an understanding. I think the writing is probably where I put the most focus.


Because songs don’t say anything man.

You mean the music?

Lyrics, mostly. Songs have to say something. That’s why I’ve been inspired by words and songs that make you think. It’s more than melody.

So who are some of the great songwriters that you admire?

Simphiwe Dana, a lot. Her writing is solid.

What about it?

A lot. “Ndilithemba balifela”, just a lyric like that — “I’m the hope that they died for”. “Ndililanga liyaphuma/ndiyingoma yobomi” — “I’m the rising sun, I’m the song that gives life”. Lyrics like that draw on your imagination in a deep way; they are definitely thought-provoking. She has this lyric that goes “ungamanzi endonga”, which is apparently “water at the top of the hill”. This water is very pure, like spring water. So to say that about somebody, you’re saying that they’re pure, they’re clean, they’re undisturbed. I find that kind of song-writing extremely beautiful. I’ve always been a big Lauryn Hill fan, she was it for me when I was growing up. Lyrics like “he’s just like the water, I’ve felt his ways before”. Even ‘Zion’ song — “it can all be so simple, but you’d rather make it hard/loving you is like a battle, but we both end up with scars/tell me who I have to be to get some reciprocity/‘cause no one loves more than me, and no one ever will”. You know?! You could be anywhere in the world, but you can relate.

So does the melody come later for you?

No, I write with the melody in mind. Sometimes when you pen something down, the words don’t fit the melody. I usually write on guitar, with melody in mind.

How do songs come to you, besides during rehearsals? Do you ever dream of them?

No, not really. I think the best songs come when something happens to me. Sometimes I’ll even feel it like, ‘oh shit, this is a freakin’ song!’ It’s when I have a lot of feelings about something. The songs come from true experiences.

Have there been people who've taken offence to the songs?

I have so many people thinking that the song is about them, and I’m like ‘this song is not about you’. The song could be about three different situations wrapped into one.

How do you think your sound has evolved over the past four albums?

I came from a time when the likes of [American singer/songwriter] India Arie and her acoustic sound ruled. I was lucky to get challenged about my sound. And I was also lucky that I listened. What I realised from that is, it’s important to not be stuck in one sound. I think a lot of people are vibing with my music now because it’s in line with the times. It’s a lesson I would share with other artists; it’s important to keep changing. A lot of the things my producer Tiago and I are doing now are not necessarily a ‘South African sound’, it’s what is happening in the world. It’s kept me really current and also relevant without me knowing. I started paying a lot of attention to artists like Solange, Frank Ocean — just understanding the beauty in experimenting.

So how do you evolve as an artist?

I think I focus on something different with each album. With Mangaliso, I focused more on how I play live. I spent less time thinking about how I’m gonna perform during the last album (iimini); I focused more on my imagery. So there’s always something new.

Imagery how?

Photos, stage imagery, videos.

Let's go back to 2013/2014, which his when we first met. Your first label Sony had left you high and dry, you were not in a good space. How did you survive?

That’s before the Mangaliso album, right? That was probably the hardest time in my life. I got to understand what ‘self-destructive’ means. My esteem was so low. I was telling somebody that that was probably the last time that I felt super suicidal in life.

Tell me about the opening song 'Sisahlal-eleni na', from your forthcoming album?

I think it’s a super creative song, the way it’s made. It’s got one verse, it’s a smart song. I also think that a lot of people are going to relate to what it says. The chorus translates to “why are we still here if we’re not happy/what is it that holds us here?” I’d written it after a conversation I had with my therapist about this girl that was doing some heavy Bikram yoga. The instructor says ‘if this gets too much for you, you can leave’. This girl sits in this two-hour class, doing this thing, sweating, and she’s almost dying. And then she asks herself when she gets out, ‘why didn’t I get out?’ My therapist explained that sometimes we put ourselves in situations we can easily get out of, but we sort of just stay. Sometimes a lot of us feel obliged to stay in a situation that’s not working.

How has the experience of therapy been for you?

It’s been great! I find that I do write a lot of music from the sessions, because the stuff is so powerful.

What aspect of your life would you say has completely transformed because of therapy?

I think the way I view myself has changed. I thought that some of the things that I experienced were special or unique. Through therapy, I’ve realised how human I am and how not so different I am from everybody.

Has that made you feel more at ease?

I think so. I think my self-esteem has really started to improve. Just to see myself as an ordinary human being [who makes mistakes, who can forgive], and who’s worthy as well. I think those were the things I was lacking. I was coming from a space of feeling unworthy.

Do you still go to therapy?

She kicked me out.

Are you serious? Were you using it as a crutch?

Maybe. She said ‘I don’t think you need this’. And also ‘you’re very intuitive about your life. You’ve survived so many things by yourself.’ So she gave me the confidence to run my life through my own life.

Have you forgiven your past? The things that were done to you?

I don’t know if I’ve forgiven my past; I think that’s still a gradual move. I definitely understand that — I read something that said, ‘one day you’ll wake up and realise that the cards you were dealt aren’t as bad as you’ve always led yourself to believe’. And I realise that now; as much as my life’s been difficult and hard and filled with darkness, I’ve also been super fortunate in a lot of ways, in ways that I never realised. The fact that I’ve never allowed the darkness to swallow me. The fact that I’ve managed to build a career on my trauma. The fact that I have a career. It’s a blessing.

amaXesha is out now

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