zonke: a love letter

The first time I heard Zonke Dikana was on Groover’s Prayer, Thebe’s kwaito jam that celebrated the party life as he often does. It was in 2005, and kwaito music was still hot. The following year, she would release her debut album, Soulitary, but it wouldn’t quite stick. The year after that, she released Life, Love n Music. Off that album, Ekhaya, would play regularly on SABC 1 after midnight, and I’d catch it if I somehow was awake. On Uzondilinda, she featured Thandiswa Mazwai, who had released her solo album, Zabalaza, three years prior. But it was not yet her time. Only seven years later did the album that would propel her to undeniable stardom come to be. I was 14 years old when Ina Ethe dropped in 2011. One day, in the transport that took me from Gardens Commercial High School to my home in Pelican Park, Cape Town, Jik’izinto came on in the radio. The pain was palpable. Someone whose career had taken so long to substantially take off was determinately singing “mna ndizojik’izinto ngalomculo” – I will turn things around with this music. It evoked a nostalgia within me; for some reason, the song took me back to living in Waterfall, Mthatha, where neighbours would play their music on blast for all to hear. There’s a certain melancholy to Zonke’s singing, the kind that just feels like a memory. You don’t know exactly what you’re remembering, but you’re remembering something so profound. I wish I could name it. Zonke composes music made today, but it evokes hearing Steve Kekana sing “take your love and keep it. I don’t need it anymore.” She sings and you remember the times when Maduvha’s music would play on television and you’d rush to turn the volume all the way up. She sings, and you vaguely remember her surrounded by children in the Ekhaya music video. It was for this feeling that Ina Ethe was the first album I ever went into a store to buy.

Her pen, something she got from her storyteller mother, is undeniable, vulnerable, certain. In many ways, she fills a lyrical space that is unchartered in South African songwriting. I liked Ina Ethe in stages. The month before, Zahara’s iconic debut, Loliwe, had just dropped. In comparison, Ina Ethe felt like a more understated letdown to me – like it had peaked at the single I’d heard on the radio. But the following year, when I moved back to Mthatha, I took the CD with me and I grew to love it. The 15-year-old hopeless romantic in me then latched onto Nameless, a song so innocent and childlike in its admiration that even a teenager could relate to it. “You’re so amazing, yet I don’t even know your name/ See you around here, all I do is hide my face” – oh, the enigmatic, tall matriculant I would sing the song to in my head as I dreamt we’d one day be together. And then I fell in love with Ngomso, where she confronted a lover who’d abandoned her and left her feeling confused. Bilingually gifted as a writer, she sang about how this person broke a promise to her –but she would later reveal that she wasn’t singing about a lover. She was singing about her future that had started to feel elusive and unattainable to her. She personified her career, addressed it head on and demanded an explanation for why it had abandoned her. Zonke Dikana’s songs should live among songs that sing about romantic love, as that has been the main tradition of RnB and soul music. But Zonke exists in her own little corner where she explores life beyond romantic love – she manipulates that RnB heartbreak love song to talk about life outside of romance. All along, I thought “uthe uzobuya ngomso” meant “you said you’d return tomorrow,” but she meant, “you said you’d come back for me, [my] future.” Such is her alchemy.  And when she does sing about love, as she does on Feelings, she sings with a rare dignity that explores beyond the surface romanticism surrounded by love songs. She does not create grand gestures and narratives but instead chooses to explore love’s almost tangible reality: she wants to talk about feelings

  1. Sit
  2. Listen
  3. Tell her you love her like you used to do

A combination of many things (sonic growth, time doing as time does and) this earnestness made Zonke’s Ngomso come to her with that project. Ina Ethe went double platinum and was nominated at the 18th South African Music Awards. And her songs were so big; they were being sung on South African Idols. It only made sense then that when X-Factor did come to South Africa for that one season in 2014, she was hired as one of the judges among Arno Carstens, Toya Delazy and Theo Kgosinkwe. The great mystery now is why Ina Ethe, an album so monumental to her own career, is not available on digital platforms.

Since then, every album she’s released has propelled her to even greater heights and solidified her place in South African music. The next time she’d release an album, in 2015, would be Work of Heart. Unlike the desperation she expressed on Jik’izinto and Ngomso, her success, her newfound certain optimism (embodied on Reach It) here granted her enough freedom to explore more topics. She opened the album with a song about love. But once again, it was not about romantic love. It was about love for a child. Unpretentious, she sang “if we choose to hurt you/ if we choose to ignore you/ we choose to make you cry, then the world will never be as pure as you are, dear child.”The more I think about life, and how we are brought into this world as pure beings who eventually learn impure ways to survive it, the more significant childhood becomes to me. To hear Zonke, an African artist, an African mom, sing so earnestly about loving and listening to children, further reaffirmed for me that she really was on her own plane – and I was right to board it. I will mention again how Zonke’s music always carried this melancholy that took me back to my childhood.

Zonke’s music is sometimes classified as soul, other times contemporary. But when you listen, it is boundless. Her 2010 features, Thinking about You with Mafikizolo’s Theo Kgosinkwe and Black Coffee’s Gardens of Eden, remind us of the ease with which she conquers a house music vocal, much like all those years ago when she sang Ekhaya and Groover’s Prayer. Coming from a musical family – her father Viva, the Legend, was a musician and from a young age, she formed a trio with her deceased sisters Busi and Lulu Dikana- her love for music shines pure. On Funky Lovin’, she adopts Americanisms, where “ask” is twanged, where she sings with American colloquialism, “you wanna be with me, you gotta play my rules” –firmly embracing the funky music in her background and making herself so malleable, that she fits well into the music. On Meet me in my Dreams, a song undoubtedly about her grief for her loved ones who have passed, she endswith the words “here comes the pain that I know so well” – in the same melody as The Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun. An inversion of meaning that would be further proof of her pen game and love for music across genre if indeed truly inspired by The Beatles song.

Finally, in her latest project, the 2018 release, L.O.V.E, Zonke sings almost solely about romantic love! And it is more meaningful, more well-rounded, because we can place her outside of romantic love as well. On Intliziyo, she sings about a relationship in trouble, and in the title song, she sings realistically about the ebbs and flows of romantic love. It is her ability to tap into pain caused by romance without whining about it that makes her most formidable. Even when she is in love and in pain, she has authority. “Yhini lento unje? Yhini lento undona?” she challenges the lover in Intliziyo. In 2018, I was a bridesmaid at a wedding where the bride’s entrance song into the reception was Tonight – there is no better testament to her arrival, and the power that her music and her message has.

Perhaps my favorite thing about her music is how she makes me feel seen as a dreamy, romantic Xhosa girl with an affinity with the English language. An affinity that, natural as it may seem, is often very confusing to live with as we cannot detach it from how it represents colonial legacy. But Zonke will also sing with conviction about her Xhosa identity: going back to her roots on Mzi kaPhalo and she’ll sing her Mpondo identity on Ndilimpondo. Of course, there’s nothing new about a South African artist singing in two different languages… But there’s something about how she does it.