This year, the 6th of September marked ten years of Zahara’s debut album, Loliwe’s, release. Pains me to see that it was crickets on such an iconic moment in recent South African music history. Briefly, the album was put on streaming platforms this year and then removed; something to do with her claim that she has not been receiving royalties for that album.
At the beginning of the year, I reached out to Lindokuhle Nkosi about doing a tribute piece to this album. But I wanted it to be huge, right? Maybe like an oral history of the making of the album like Rolling Stone did with The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Maybe a regular longform essay with a whole section dedicated to investigating why the hell Loliwe isn’t on streaming platforms and the exploitation that Zahara has suffered from TS Records. As you can see, that has not happened.
Dear reader, I have been trying to write about Zahara as an artist for years. When she came out in 2019 to say that she had been struggling with alcoholism, I started a draft on a series called “The Mad Artist” where I would explore South African artists and their relationships with mental illness and substance abuse. As the inspiration, Zahara was to be the first artist. But there is something that has been so incredibly elusive about trying to capture the essence of her music and being as we see it in the public. It is a strong personal struggle that I have been trying to conquer. But as the year comes to an end, I find that I want something about Zahara’s brilliant album to exist on my blog, terribly imperfect as it will be. So I am going to briefly explain to you the quality that made this album what it became:
Forget the song Loliwe. Do you ever remember how you felt when Zahara belted out, “only God knows how long it will take for me to reach my destiny!”?
She had opened Destiny with the most soulful chords she could open a song up with. Ringo Madlingozi was gone. Ntando Bangani’s power was waning. Sliq Angel hadn’t taken off in the way we’d hoped. Zonke was still only on her way, with Ina Ethe being released the month after Loliwe was released (since it was also crickets on this ten year anniversary, find my love letter to Zonke here). It had been four years since Siphokazi released Ubuntu Bar. She wasn’t quite doing what Simphiwe Dana was doing. Or Camagwini. Or Thandiswa Mazwai. Zahara was something of the same but entirely different. Nine chords. Percussion drums. Some people live their dreams, someday Destiny pass them by. Tell me the reason why nothing ever stays the same!
The album cost R89; it had a big red SALE sticker on it when I bought it. Quality sounded a bit unrefined. What they call raw talent. People fight it, but that soulful, folky guitar strumming, that deep voice: she was invoking memories of Tracy ‘Talkin ‘Bout a Revolution’ Chapman.
The original, acoustic version of Lengoma was taken over by its remix with DJ Sbu. I’d wished people had sat with the words of the song more. The lyrics were simple. We would have called them cheesy and overdone had anybody else written them. But the earnestness in her voice, and the unwavering hope, was primal. Zahara’s message was simple; she was going to thrive. And she was going to encourage you to do the same; ingoma yakhe izaw’vuselel’umphefumlo wakho. But she wasn’t aggressively telling you to think positive thoughts only. She was meeting you exactly where you were – just igniting something that let you imagine you could be healed (something she literally chants on My Guitar: you’ll heal. You will be healed). And the way she was able to do this, the thing that set her apart from so many singers before her, was her vulnerability. All throughout the album, Zahara was singing struggle, but it didn’t hit you in the whiny-arme-skepsel way that, say, Nathi Mankayi’s struggle singing would later hit you. There was little performance of pain, and it was a far more inward exploration of suffering. Zahara was having an internal dialogue. Sometimes between her and herself, other times between herself and God, and she was merely inviting us into it. That made all the difference.
I believe in suffering in the light. It doesn’t matter to me whether the world catches or condemns you for the painful extent to which you are human, but I believe it is suffering in the light that reaches out to heal the suffering parts of all those who seek their healing. That’s where Zahara’s Loliwe touched us. And that surrender to suffering resonated everywhere – at least according to the 100 000 units sold within 17 days. ( Side bar: if you want to think about how well Zahara mirrors pain, think about when she came out and said she sought help because she would regularly finish a bottle of wine by herself and folk on social media ridiculed her instead of asking themselves questions about their own drinking habits). Maybe why it has been such a struggle to write about Zahara is because I would have to see myself clearly to see her.
I am a healer. My Gobela has taught me that each “client” I work to heal is about me. What am I healing in myself by healing this person? It’s an exercise in seeing what the external world can mirror about you if you’re paying attention. We are often told not to make things about ourselves, and that line is stranger to toe when you’re a writer. But Joni Mitchell once said that the communication with an artist’s work is not complete until you have begun to see yourself in the work. It is 2021. I am in training to fully become. The pain can only be recognised by those who have either suffered from The Calling, or seen their loved ones go through it. I play Zahara as I cook in the kitchen. I refuse assistance from my fellow initiates; I want to be alone with my sorrow. “Ndizawubuya! Ndikuphathel’ intliziyo yam. Uzuyenze msulwa yona” I bellow through my tears. I’ll return. And bring you my heart. May you make it pure. I think about the many times I beg God to spare my soul — to help me maintain the light in my heart even though so much of my pain and anger at what I have seen in this world wants me to be hateful. The communication is complete.