“[Africa] is also my good-for-nothing-man that I need to fix.”
Before those words left Simphiwe Dana’s mouth, I had never heard an African refer to the continent in that way. During a recent interview with Africa.com, the outspoken songstress and African trendsetter described a passionate love and intense frustration that simply made her relationship with Africa complicated. Her response was raw, real and showed intimacy.
These mixed feelings also serve as an inspiration for her music. Shortly after graduating from high school in the late 1990s, Simphiwe moved to Johannesburg to begin her career. In 2004, she released her first album titled “Zandisile,” a fusion of jazz, soul and traditional Xhosa music. The following year, she won “Best Newcomer” at the South African Music Awards. Since her debut, Simphiwe has made other notable additions to her list of accomplishments. She has produced more music, toured internationally and has a growing fan base which includes US artists Jill Scott and Maxwell. And perhaps Simphiwe’s proudest accomplishment? Becoming a mom.
Now in her 30s, Simphiwe hopes to penetrate the US music market with her raspy voice and edgy African sound.
AFRICA.COM: What does Africa mean to you?
SIMPHIWE: Africa is the place of my birth, and it is a place that I feel I’m a mother towards as well. It’s basically my mother, but it’s also my baby to take care of.
I’m very passionate about seeing a much better Africa. I’m trying to change my mindset to see more positives because I think we tend to be too hard on ourselves. We tend to focus on the negative, and it seems to serve the world better when we focus on the negative, and that leaves us incapacitated in a way.
AFRICA.COM: How did you become a leader within the space you operate in?
SIMPHIWE: I’m just doing my thing—musically, creatively. As someone who had the option of doing something else, I still chose music. I had a ready job when I finished studying. When I chose music over that, I also told myself that I would stay true to that music, and I wouldn’t compromise it.
I had been someone who loved to sing all my life, but I didn’t think I had a good voice. I just knew that I loved to sing. I would even stand in front of the mirror in the bathroom and hold a toothbrush.
“I did meet a couple of people who laughed at my voice, but now I’m laughing at them.”
The defining moment was in [school with] the deputy principle of my school, who was also my geography teacher. My friend and I were singing at the valedictory ceremony. We were singing “Its so hard to say goodbye,” and just making a joke of it. Then, he came to me and said, “you know you can make a career of this.” He didn’t say anything else, but for me, he said those words and those words stayed with me.
AFRICA.COM:There are two common narratives: “Africa is Rising” and “Africa Needs Aid”. Which is it, or could it be both?
SIMPHIWE: I don’t think aid has worked. I understand that there are places where Africa is starving, but you know, I just think that we don’t have to if we look at our own solutions. I don’t see that aid has given more than it has gotten out of Africa. When we say ‘yes’ to aid it must come with no strings attached.
I would say Africa is rising, but most of her people are not aware of her capabilities. That is the problem. The feeling of helplessness that is not necessary. No one is going to give you anything.
“If you want it, you go and take it. That is the mentality that we are lacking. Ok so you’re complaining about this and this…ok now go and take it!”
AFRICA.COM:What do you see being the role of the African diaspora living abroad?
SIMPHIWE: Bring money home man! Bring the money home to build infrastructure! The continent needs infrastructure.
You know it’s difficult to travel from South Africa to Kenya? From South Africa to Senegal? Someone can build a railway station. Infrastructure—so that the continent can communicate. And then if we can communicate, then we can do business with each other because we hardly do any business with each other, all our business is with the outside world.
AFRICA.COM: You’re part of what is being called a “new generation of leaders” – what does that mean to you?
I’m scared of being a leader. It’s just too much, too many expectations. I just wanted to make music, speak my truth and help make leaders. Put them there and serve the people right. If they mess up, we’ll just say ‘oo that person is so messed up,’ in a song.
You know? I do see myself, at some point, going into politics later in my life, in my 60s or something. Because of how passionate I am about progress, justice—I can see myself. I get so frustrated. If there was no reason for me to be frustrated, I wouldn’t think about it.
AFRICA.COM:What is your message to young Africans wanting to make a difference, but are not sure where to start?
SIMPHIWE: Be true to your dreams and aspirations. What you feel most strongly about, passionate about focus on that. Do your best and make us proud, and by doing that you have already saved the whole continent.
“You cannot save the world without saving yourself first. You are a microcosm of the whole world. In fact, by saving yourself, you are saving the whole continent.”