Several weeks ago, i happened to hear a song called, “Maybe I.” The song begins with a piano melody fit for a blockbuster movie score, quickly includes the playful sounds of electronic organ improv, a tough baseline, strings, and a drum rhythm that, i’m certain, has Max Roach and Babatunde Olatunji arguing amongst the ancestors about whose legacy is more pronounced. Then the voice comes in with beauty that almost betrays the underlying critique of patriarchy within the singer’s question: “What in life /makes it all up to he?”
Nomsa Mazwai had me hooked with “Maybe I.” But, the other songs on her EP Nomisupasta ensured that i would not be able to untangle myself from her musical web. Her songs are encouraging to people struggling for a better life, critical of unhealthy relationships, and sonic assaults against capitalist oppression and imperialism without being too “preachy.” Nomisupasta is currently in heavy rotation along with Iyadede, Akua Naru, and Just Jay (to name a few). I can’t get enough of it!
I was fortunate to have a brief conversation with the South African queen of alternative music (she recently won the South African equivalent of a Grammy) who is presently a Fulbright student working on her M.A. in economics at Fordham University. When asked about how she got into music, Nomsa explained that she comes from musical family and has been singing her entire life. Several of her aunts sing in choirs and her sister, Thandiswa Mazwai, is respected as a member of Kwaito group, Bongo Maffin, as well as for her solo work. According to Nomsa, “in terms of South African music, while I’m an ambassador, [Thandiswa’s] like a president.” Another sister, Ntsiki Mazwai is a celebrated poet, singer, entrepreneur, and published writer.
Although many may come to know Nomsa for her musical talent, she claims that her forte is in the realm of politics and economics. While attending the University of Fort Hare in South Africa, Nomsa was the first woman to become president of the student government. She has written articles that were featured in several publications in South Africa. Nomsa has even published a book, called Sai Sai Little Girl. Poetry and music are tools for Nomsa to package her analyses and distribute them to the broader population of working class people with whom she aligns herself.
“Cockroaches Fly” is an example of how Nomsa weaves her observations and critiques of political leaders into her music. The song reminds listeners that even when We think they’ve done their worst, politicians can and will find creative ways to reach unimaginable levels of corruption and oppression. “Cockroaches Fly” also encourages people to participate in their governmental processes. That’s what democracy means to Nomsa; it’s not just about free and fair elections, but long term participation in a people’s government.
“The Emperor,” could be the soundtrack to “The Story of Stuff.” In this song, Nomsa delivers a somewhat comical, though scathing, critique of capitalism and consumerism. While some people are convinced that a consumer culture is acceptable, Nomsa argues that such an existence is not sustainable and brings harm to people in the Third World. “The promise of that lifestyle, all the promises of capitalism must be called out and laughed at by the people… Capitalism is survival of the richest,” not the fittest. She stated further that it’s inhumane to approach the world that way. If people lose their humanity, they will die out like the dinosaurs.
Nomsa has come to these conclusion based on her experiences in South Africa. She explains “what I write is from an international, global perspective… There’s a reality that other people have to face that some of us don’t even know about. And that’s terrible.” From the incredible rates of HIV to the dumping of toxic wastes in Third World countries, Nomsa couldn’t help but question her role as a Black South African women in this world, and how she can contribute to making it better and more humane. Her music is just one of her many tools.
Nomsa, is currently fine tuning her live performances, which she describes as experimental with regard to audiovisual effects and how she rallies crowd participation. Her audience might realize where she has borrowed from Michael Jackson, Prince, and Luther Vandross, as well as several South African performers. She is also working on some new music with South African producer and partner, Mpho Pholo (37MPH), and she recently recorded a song with Black Coffee. Nomsa hopes that her next big project will be with her Sisters, Ntsiki and Thandiswa.