She has frequent skirmishes on social media and a catalogue that will leave most feeling inadequate. Phumlani S Langa talks to Simphiwe Dana about her new album, rumours of retirement and the toxic idiosyncrasies of men.
It has been five years since we’ve received new music from Simphiwe Dana, but the outspoken singer, songwriter and actor returns with her fifth studio album, Bamako. Her career spans 16 years of world-class jazz and Afro-soul, and she has been one of the best to run in this lane locally. We speak with the beloved pride of Butterworth, Eastern Cape, who unpacks her new album, her beef with South African men and the rumours that this album could be her last.
A cagey songbird
Many creative people might be struggling with isolation during this period of social distancing owing to the Covid-19 coronavirus. This has been the case for Dana, who is observing the lockdown with her family. “The cabin fever is real, but I’m lucky to be surrounded by family. We are coping as best we can,” she says.
#Trending spoke to Nduduzo Makhathini a few weeks ago about the perils of album sales during the lockdown. He was unfazed, but Dana is a little bit worried, especially as she is quite the live performer. “Yes, there are concerns, but also an understanding that the digital age is here in full force. Which is a challenge as our industry may not be ready to go full-on digital, but also an opportunity as digital opens up new markets when done right.”
This symbol for mercurial artistry doesn’t shy away from confrontation, and on more than one occasion has taken South African men to task for their dismal treatment of women and children. Just this week she trended on Twitter for calling local men gold diggers. “South African women generally date broke men. And we elevate them,” she charged.
Explaining the reception her tweets got, she said: “I really wasn’t surprised as this is not my first foray into these kinds of topics. South African men keep showing themselves to be unrepentant pertaining to how they hold women in contempt.” Her previous release was a celebration of her tenth year in the music industry, a compilation of some of her most bountiful creations. Her career has been one that will be seared into the memories of anyone with a taste for uncontainably unique art, however, the past few years have not been without difficulty.
“The past five years have been tough, both financially and emotionally. It may be that they have been the hardest in my career so far, but we take everything with a dollop of grace.” There were rumours swirling that Bamako would be her last album as the music indusSIMPHIWE’S swan song?try was not proving to bear fruit for the award-winning musician. She told the Herald Live that she was giving thought to hanging up her mic after this release. Is there any truth to this?
“I don’t know what the future holds, so I can neither confirm nor deny if this will be my last album. I find the politics of music exhausting, especially in South Africa.” If the rumours are true, then Dana has chosen to go out in a memorable manner. Bamako was created in collaboration with Afro-pop and jazz sensation Salif Keita from Mali. He’s a big deal and a predator in the studio. Dana says her long-time label and vault of local talent, Gallo, played a big role in lining this up.
Earlier this week, news broke about the piracy of music, which has spiked during the lockdown. I ask her if this is of concern for someone such as her, who has just released an album. “I’m not really sure what I could do about it. With the advent of the digital age, piracy was bound to skyrocket. It may be that the fight against piracy is lost and companies have to find creative ways around it.” Her thoughts of bowing out are fixated on sustainability, which is sad to hear from a top-tier artist. The lockdown has intensified pressures on musicians, with organisations such as the SABC not helping much (see page 3), with their lacklustre approach to playing locally created music on air.
“The industry desperately needs a financial bailout. There have been fewer live shows over the years. It seems the industry can no longer support musicians.” With her mind looking towards greener pastures, our focus shifts to her latest album.