Shungudzo is a Zimbabwean-American singer/songwriter based in Los Angeles. Her journey through the American pop music industry has been both an education and a challenge. As she learned to comply with the limitations and rules of the songwriting profession, she also bristled at them. In June 2021, Shungudzo will debut an album that she feels finally pulls together the strands of her unique life in her own way, including an embrace of social and political engagement. The album is called I’m Not A Mother, But I Have Children.
Afropop’s Banning Eyre spoke with Shungudzo over Zoom, knowing very little about her. By the end, they had found a good deal of common ground, laughed a lot and shared their love of dogs. Shungudzo’s pitbull interjected occasionally [not transcribed here]. Here’s their conversation.
Banning Eyre: Shungudzo, where am I finding you?
Shungudzo: I am in Van Nuys, California, where it's trying to be summer, which is a little bit concerning.
Here in Connecticut, it’s trying to be spring. But let's start at the beginning. Tell me about yourself.
Well, I grew up in Zimbabwe. I was born in the States. My dad is Zimbabwean, and my parents previously had lived in Zimbabwe prior to having me and had come back to the U.S. for graduate school and so that my mom could have a child in the U.S. medical system. She's really tiny and they were worried about complications. I was born in State College, Pennsylvania. And then when I was very little, we moved back to Zimbabwe, to Harare.
When was that?
It was before I can have memories. In the politics, it was sort of the end of the golden era, the early ’90s.
I've actually been to Zimbabwe five times. I wrote a book about Thomas Mapfumo, and spent about 20 years immersed in that story.
Wow. How amazing.
The book dealt a lot with the politics of Zimbabwe. So I'm familiar with the key events.
This is so exciting. I don't really get to talk to many people who are familiar at all with anything that's happened in Zimbabwe.
Right. That has been an obstacle to selling my book. But it's a great story. I love Zimbabwe. It's been through so much tragedy but it’s such a wonderful country at the same time. So your family moved back here right when things were starting to get tense in the ‘90s.
Yes. It was the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, right before the AIDS epidemic started to hit and the economy started to seriously plummet, and right before I think people truly came to the understanding of what a terrible dictatorship they were living under.
What was it like for you being so young and experiencing that?
I was there until I was about 10 or so. It was a lot of things. First, it was one of the most beautiful places, maybe the most beautiful place I've ever lived. That’s definitely where I would call home over America in the sense that I feel like my morals and my values and my cultural and spiritual beliefs are very much Zimbabwean. But at the same time, it was really hard to fit in as a mixed-race person. For example, at school I was one of the lightest skinned people, and I was being bullied for being white, and then I would go to dance ballet at a Greek school that was sort of in the next neighborhood over, a whiter neighborhood, and there I would get beat up for being Black. So one side sees me as white and sort of the oppressor or the enemy, and the other side sees me as Black and therefore as inferior, and also the enemy.
There were plenty of people in between too. I have some wonderful friends of all races, but it was very clear that racial tension still existed, the tension that was brought on by colonialism.
So you were quite aware of this even as a very young girl. Well, I guess if people are beating you up, that tends to get your attention.
Yes. I've also always been a really deep thinker. I started first grade when I was three. I tested into second grade, but they wouldn't let me advance; they thought it would be emotionally damaging. But being in first grade was pretty tough too. I started writing poetry very young and really contextualizing my feelings beyond just observation.
Tell me about your name, Shungudzo.
It means “to be determined.” And you can put a verb after it. So when I was a dancer my dad would call me Shungudzo mutamba, which means determined to dance. And he recently turned it to Shungudzo kuyimba, determined to sing. It's my middle name, but it's what I go by. It's a cool name because I feel like it changes with you, it goes with you. I knew my dad had really come to… Well, “accept” is a strong word for his feeling about me being a musician. But at least he wasn't going to fight it anymore when he called me Shungudzo kuyimba, determined to sing.
Coming back to racism, you know, I have visited a lot of African countries in my work with Afropop. And I have to say that Zimbabwe stands out for having a heightened sense of race consciousness. When I was living there in the late ‘90s, I was on occasion stunned by the blatant racism that would come out of Robert Mugabe’s mouth. I can well imagine that it would be difficult to be a mixed-race person in that society.
It really was. Being mixed is called “colored” there. When I was growing up, there were a lot of communities of colored people specifically. Being mixed was, or is, a race of its own. Mixed people tended to hang out with mixed people. But my did is a Black Zimbabwean, and we didn't live in a neighborhood with many other people who were mixed. But it was interesting. Even at that age, I could comprehend that the racism I was experiencing had nothing to do with me. There were much deeper forces at play that were causing people who should have been my friends and my accomplices in fun to shun me. I noticed that specifically because in gymnastics and ballet, I could see and hear the parents telling their kids to bully me, including the parents of these girls who were definitely mixed, but passing as white. They were bullying me to affirm their whiteness.
That’s crazy. You would actually hear the parent saying these things?
Yeah. They would encourage them. But I have to say that my parents, my mom in particular, did a very good job of explaining to me what was really going on. She was a really good advocate for me in that scenario. And the way that I saw her advocate for me and stand up against racism really helped become the person and activist that I am today.
But despite all of this, you say that your moral and spiritual nature is Zimbabwe. How does that work? Tell me a bit more about that.
It's so interesting because I feel like oftentimes when we get into conversations about Africa with people in general, or even when I'm discussing Zimbabwe, it's so easy to get into conversations about the tougher stuff like the racism and the economic disparities and the AIDS epidemic—all of these terrible things. But there are also a lot of really beautiful, great things, as you know. I was in my dad's family and my family are people who have a strong connection with nature. My dad grew up growing everything he ate, and hunting for the food that he couldn't grow, and that sort of closeness with nature and knowledge how to live in harmony with it, rather than destroy it, was really important to me growing up. I think that formed a lot of who I am, and my understanding of the importance how we affect this earth. Sometimes it's so lame that we’re still talking about racism.
I hear you on that. I grew up during the 1960s and I can't believe we here are still having to talk about it so often. But sadly, we still have to. That's interesting about your dad. So he grew up in a rural setting. Where exactly?
He grew up in Bikita, a super rural area. My grandma—or grandmas—lived in huts, on farms. That was a really beautiful life. It's quite interesting and odd to see rural areas change due to technology. On the one hand, everybody should have electricity and internet for the purposes of education and communication. But on the other hand, there are so many beautiful people and cultures that have never had those things, and that's part of what makes them so beautiful. I’m really conflicted about all that.
I experienced rural life in Zimbabwe when I was there, and it makes sense to me that you would've come across strong values in that way. Where are your parents now?
My mom recently moved back to America. My dad came here when we came here, but then when the kids were out of the house, he moved back to Zimbabwe. I think my mom in so many ways embraced being Zimbabwe more than my dad. Because my dad grew up in Zimbabwe wanting to be American, and my mom grew up in America wanting to get out.
That's fascinating. So your dad is still there?
No. My dad is in Pennsylvania.
Let's talk now about music. You said that you wrote poetry from a very young age, but how did you become a musician?
It's so odd, because so many of my friends who make music sort of knew their whole lives that that's what they would end up doing. That's what they always wanted to do, whereas I always knew I loved writing and poetry, and I really wanted to be a writer, but I also really respected my parents. I would say that that is also a very Zimbabwean thing as well.
Sure. Respecting elders.
Yes. Respecting your elders, which I still have. I think that the older you get, the more respect that you should have, because you've lived longer life and have more information to share, whether I agree or disagree with that information. So I really cared about what my parents thought of me and cared about being a good daughter. And they really pushed education on me. Like I said, I started first grade when I was three. And in my time off, I would do more class with my dad. Playing with my dad was doing science experiments. They really incorporated education into play. So I grew up just thinking that math was fun and school was fun. And my parents were happy when I was doing well at school.
So when it came to choosing between doing something like creative writing or studying civil engineering, I chose engineering just because that's what my parents wanted me to do. I went to school for civil engineering in California, at Stanford. But I found myself extremely sad, for many reasons. I think it was really hard for me to be away from family. I think that I was starting to feel the hardships… I had always felt them, but now I had to really comprehend what had actually happened in my life time with my family, and within Zimbabwe—all these things I had experienced but I couldn't contextualize fully, particularly in terms of how they affected my mental well-being.
I just started having a really hard time and it was making music that pulled me out of that hard time. It came really clear to me. I just had an instinct. I bought a keyboard; I bought a microphone; I bought a little program to record myself. And I just went from essentially writing poems, and maybe singing to myself sometimes, to producing tracks and recording vocals. That's how I learned. From the moment I started intentionally making music, I was recording myself and producing too.
So making music helped me through a hard time, and it became clear to me that I had spent so much of my life doing things because they were perceived to be the right thing to do. I understand that education had saved my father's life. And my mother's too. She was living in a trailer park in Massachusetts and education changed her life. So I understand where they were coming from. But it became very apparent to me that what I needed to do—and I've known this all along—was to be a writer and now, a songwriter.
You were writing poetry, so this was a natural extension. But tell me about singing. Did you used to sing in Zimbabwe? I think everybody sings in Zimbabwe.
I think that Zimbabwean people are so inherently musical. In the village, in church, there is only song, only voices and instruments. And joy. And my dad, he's never not whistling or humming or doing a little dance while he does things. He's a very musical person even though he's not a musician. As a kid you learn so many instruments without being told you can be a musician. I played mbira and marimba. You just sort of do. So yeah, I would say that there's a certain musicality ingrained in me, also through ballet and gymnastics, which I did both in Zimbabwe and in America. I learned a lot of musicality from that. And the poems? I would say that lyricism is one of my stronger traits as a musician, and that came from writing poems.
So how did you take the leap from something you were doing essentially as therapy, to an art that you wanted to have a career in?
When I quit school. [Laughs]
That would do it. Wait. You quit Stanford midway?
I quit right before graduating. I was going to have to take more classes because I was a little bit behind, partially due to not going to class and making music all of the time. I was using MySpace at the time to find engineers and producers. I figured reaching out to my favorite artists made no sense because they had so many fans, but if I reached out to the people who helped make the music, I might be able to connect with people. So I recorded a bunch of demos and put them online and kind of reached out to many, many producers. And in some of my free time—I had some money from working—I would fly to Texas or these random places to meet up with producers, which wasn't necessarily the safest thing. But I really did vet them. I encountered a lot of creepy people to whom I had to say, "Even though you're a highly established producer, I am not coming to work with you."
Because you're too creepy. Good for you. But going back to your favorite artists, who were some of them?
It's so interesting to be asked that question. The stages of my music listening have been really weird. Because growing up, we had only whatever was put onto the radio and TV by the government, the Zimbabwe government. Outside of that, there was nothing. There was nothing else to listen to, so I listened to a lot of Zimbabwean music, and then the few American artists who the government believed were going to motivate the desire for freedom. So I didn't have a really diverse listening experience, although it was very rich in its own way.
Then when I moved to the U.S., it didn't really occur to me that I could just access any music I wanted—any artist, any genre—and so I spent a lot of time, especially in the early stages, making music but not being so much of a music listener, aside from a few things that I heard on top 40 radio or CDs that my friends burned for me. Like a friend burned me an Alicia Keys CD that I really, really loved. I loved Lauren Hill. I loved Tracy Chapman. I really loved black women who were speaking about what was happening in their lives and in their societies, and also who were breaking genre molds. Like Tracy Chapman is a folk artist and a soul singer, but she's breaking the stereotype of what a black artist is supposed to be, which I think I've encountered along the way too, like the pressure to be an r&b singer, the pressure to be one genre and not another because of the color of my skin.
It's interesting what you say about media in Zimbabwe. One of the things I dealt with in writing my book was the strange limitation of media in Zimbabwe, the way the state controlled access to things. For Mapfumo, of course, it was always a fight against playing too much foreign music. But I used to marvel at the fact that Harare looked like such a modern, late 20th-century city. But if you turned on the radio or the TV, suddenly it was the 1950s. So I find it interesting that it just wasn't in your head that you could have all those choices.
Right. You are just used to having it given to you. So I came here with this idea that, “Oh, this is what's on the one radio station." Of course now, I'm into Bjork and Radiohead, Massive Attack. And I love Nigerian music from the ‘60s to the ‘80s. I feel that was a magical time. And I'm also trying to explore the Zimbabwe music of that time, the things I didn't get to hear. Like Wells Fargo, that political protest rock band that was very much censored when they were making music in the ‘70s, I believe. There's so much music specifically speaking through Africa that's been pushed aside by governments and culture. So I'm really enjoying exploring African music specifically.
You were talk about vetting producers. Was there a breakthrough moment in that process?
Oh my gosh, it's been such a journey. Right out of college I had already been going to and from different producers’ places in the summer and making music. Not anything that really stuck, but right before I quit, I met Kerry Brothers, who goes by the name Krucial and who produced a lot of Alicia Keys's first big songs. I met him on MySpace. He wound up flying me to L.A. to work with him and this amazing mixer and engineer who is now doing all of Beyoncé’s stuff, Stuart White. At that time, we were both learning, but he's always been really brilliant, and I just wanted to make a bunch of songs with him. At the time, Kerry had access to all these phenomenal, legendary instrumentalists like Wah Wah Watson and who helped shape the sound of music in many ways. He would bring these phenomenal musicians and allow me to sort of produce my songs, to communicate with these musicians what I was hearing and what I wanted.
I would sit there while Stuart would work late into the night and mix everything, even the really bad songs, just for the sake of practicing mixing. And I would just watch him and listen to what he did and I learned a lot about what to listen for in a song. How to make it sound the way you want it to sound.
So I went back and forth between L.A. and school in the Bay Area, and it was always on weekends. And then one Sunday, Kerry said, "Do you want to just stay?" And I never went back to school. I just met this group of people who really allowed me to learn. I guess that would be considered a development phase, which a lot of artists don't get these days. I just got to show up every day and write songs and record and produce them, not necessarily with the goal of putting them out, but just with the idea of getting better.
Did you put any of them out?
I did. It's so interesting because I had always wanted to be a political musician, a socio-political musician, sort of write about what people are going through both here and in Zimbabwe. I feel like it's very important to speak for people who either can't speak because they're not granted freedom of speech by the government, or people who don't yet know how to, who haven't found their voice. So I was writing all these political songs, including one called "Hey Millionaire." I listen to it now, and it's so aligned with what I'm doing these days.
But I was pressured a bit to release pop songs, so I wrote a bunch of them. They were all making fun of pop culture I guess, but if you didn't pick up on it, they just sounded like pop songs. Those came out, but I wouldn't say those are particularly the songs I wanted to have released. I was just doing what I was told. I realized this was a phenomenal situation to learn in, but not the place where I would be able to actually accomplish the things that I was hoping to as a musician. I wasn't even sure I wanted to be a musician. I had only seen a very small pocket of the music industry. I was isolated, and I wasn't sure it was for me. So after awhile, I quit and I went into journalism.
Wow. What did that look like?
I started working for the nonprofit sector of MTV, writing articles about different ways that people who we perceive us just musicians or actors were contributing to philanthropy. That was cool. That paid the bills. But it eventually transitioned me into being the editor-in-chief of a company called Riot, which is now a very successful documentary-making company. I had a big role there and I was able to learn a lot about journalism and writing, but I quit that too because, after a while, as editor-in-chief, it was my job to wake up every day and look up all the terrible things that happened in the world and decide which ones were the most important and assign them to my writers. That really started to break my heart. I felt like I was in the business of profiting off of other people's losses, the business of really selling tragedy, which is what a lot of the news is. It's business, and it's entertainment, but for a lot of people it is desensitizing and polarizing.
My intentions in getting into journalism were good. I wanted to tell stories about what was happening in the world and to open people's eyes to the fact that people are suffering, and hopefully motivate them to want to help. But instead I felt that I was just contributing to division and grief, so I started writing songs again at night. I had a boyfriend at the time who knew how sad I was, because I was working from five a.m. until midnight, selling tragedies. I was so sad and tired, too tired to write a song. But my boyfriend said, “Maybe now's the time to do what you love. Maybe that will help this other part of your life feel like less of a burden.”
So I bought a keyboard again, and a microphone—[Laughs]—and rather than getting all the sleep that I needed to show up for my journalism job, I started writing songs in my free time. And it was amazing how, just as it had done for me in school, these songs actually energized me. I was not getting enough sleep, but I was showing up to work with more energy and more enthusiasm and hope. So I made a rule for myself that as soon as I wrote, produced and mixed a song that I felt I could play before or after any song I really loved, that I would quit my job and go for it in music.
There was this one week period in which I made a few songs that I really loved, and I was already feeling so terrible about the job that I had, and this was perfect time to quit, so I quit. I did this essentially not knowing anyone in the music industry except for the one or two people I had worked with many years prior. I knew that I needed to be working with someone different, so I started from zero again. It's now been six years since I quit my job. I've learned a lot. There have been a lot of hard times, a lot of great times, and now I finally feel like I'm doing what I set out to do many years ago when I tried music in the first place, which is to make songs about what's happening in the world.
That is quite a story. I've only heard a limited selection of your music, just two songs. But have you released albums? Singles with videos? How have you been getting music out there during the six years?
I spent the majority of those years signed as an artist, but I got sucked into the Los Angeles songwriting scene, which I think a lot of people push artists into because they view it as a more guaranteed path to making money. I had a different team than I have now, but the first team I worked with, their priorities really laid in making me a songwriter, and not an artist—in spite of signing me as an artist.
That’s interesting. So you were basically creating demos for other people to record?
Yes. Every day showing up to a session with other writers and producers and making songs. And at the end of the year I would have hundreds of songs that I'd written, of which a handful would've come out. I did that for a few years. And really, to be honest, I loved a lot of the experiences and the things that I was able to learn and some of the artists I was able to work for, but I was not accomplishing my purpose of making music to talk about what is happening in the world. Instead I was trying to write generic pop songs for any one of 10 people, and sending them to multiple labels and hoping an artist sings it.
When you're writing without an artist, you almost have to water everything down so that anybody could possibly relate to or want to sing that song. So I found that to be fun and informative and educational, but really not my purpose musically. But it's also really hard to step out of it once you're paying your bills with songwriting. It's hard to walk away and take a risk on yourself. I think so many people can relate, musicians or not. It is terrifying to take a risk when you also want to have a roof over your head. And it's why so many people aren't able to take risk or pursue their passions, which is really sad. It would be wonderful if everyone could at least try.
But along the way over those six years, I did encounter some phenomenal artists like Jessie Ware, who I love, or Angelique Kidjo. So along the way, I started focusing my intentions on not writing so much wishy-washy pop and finding and connecting with artists who wanted to make a statement. And I was really enthused about writing for artists like that because I felt like me. Multiple stories need to be told to get a full picture of what's happening in the world. My story is just one story, and another artist’s story is just one story, and we need all these voices to create a well-balanced and rounded picture of what the world is, which is what I think the duty of an artist is. At any point in time, you should be able to look back at the songs of a generation and you know what life was like. It's an opinion.
Makes sense to me.
So I started working with this amazing artist, Jessie Ware. I did a lot of work on her most recent album which was just nominated for a Britt Award, which is amazing. That was an inspiring moment for me because Jessie Ware and Little Mix is a girl group, well, a woman group now. These are women who really know what they want to talk about and what they want to put into their music, so I found that to be inspiring, and that kind of encouraged me to work with more artists who are sharing their stories, their politics and their truth in their songs.
I also found a new team who are really supportive of me being an artist. You can say you want to be an artist all you want, but I was still just writing. So I found this phenomenal team who really understood and grasped what I wanted to do and were highly supportive. Then when quarantine happened, it to me felt like the perfect opportunity to make my own music. Up until that point, I had done a lot of features, a lot of collaborations, and I had music out there, and if you delved through all of it, you would see there's some me, but some of it was definitely me writing for someone else's project.
So quarantine hit and I thought, "Now is the time to make an album. Why don't I just take this time, cancel everything I have scheduled for other people's projects, and use this time for myself?" So my co-host and I wrote a 16-song album, I think the songs you've heard are off of it.
Let's talk about the songs that I've heard, starting with "It's a Good Day to Fight the System." I love this song because it's really catchy, but it’s also a call to action. How did you write that song?
There was so much happening at once. Not that people haven't been protesting forever, but I felt like in the moment that the Black Lives Matter movement became news, it was one of the first times if not the first time in my life when I really felt a collective shift in the importance placed upon the desire for justice and equality. Before that, in my circles, I was the only one talking about that, usually annoying my friends a bit. It was a buzz kill for them. "Hey guys, I'm the only black person here. The only non-American. And I'd like to point out that life is not all mansions in Malibu." [Laughs]
Buzz kill. Jeez!
Yes. Some people who were once my acquaintances called talking about what is happening in the world "getting Shuned,” using my name to describe this. Getting Shuned! I would say, “You know? There are a lot of people in the world who want to talk about this stuff, who need to talk about this stuff, because it's our lives." But for a while, especially within the pop songwriting world, which is very white and very privileged, I felt really alone in trying to have these conversations.
But last year in the spring and summer, I started finding people who wanted to have these chats, and felt it was necessary to have these chats. It felt like an awakening. And awaking doesn't mean instant change, but that people are willing to have conversations that they previously deemed to be difficult or uncomfortable. I wrote "It's a Good Day to Fight the System” out of excitement about that, and also excitement about the Zimbabwean Lives Matter movement, Because as you know, Zimbabwean people do not really have freedom of speech. You can tweet at tge Zimbabwe government, “Life's been really hard and we need your help, where are you?" And they can arrest you for that.
One man was on a bus and complained about bus fares being too high, and they arrested him for that, because the government is in charge of bus fares. There is such a lack of freedom of speech there, and for much of my life, a lack of protest. So to see this movement happening in Zimbabwe, I can't even imagine how terrifying that must be to be a Zimbabwean person there and to have that bravery. I really wanted to write a song that celebrated that bravery, and also reminded people that there's so much work we have to do for freedom, for justice and equity. That work is going to be hard and in Zimbabwe, a lot of people are being punished for doing it, but what we’re actually fighting for and working towards is a beautiful thing. So I wanted to give people a wake-up reminder that it's hard work, but it's awesome work, and there's joy in it. When I see protests, I feel sad about the reasons that people have to protest, but I feel enthusiastic about the fact that they are doing it.
You know, I've seen so many ups and downs in the hopes and despairs in Zimbabwe. Seeing a lot of it through Mapfumo's eyes, I guess I've become a little cynical. I think he's kind of weary of the fight at this point. He's been in it so long.
I bet. I think a lot of people are, especially from my mother's generation. There are a lot of people who maintain hope, and then there are a lot of people who are like, "Really? We were protesting this stuff before you were born.” But I feel like it's every younger person's responsibility to pick up where things left off, and I do think that although things haven’t changed completely, society as a whole is doing a lot of changing. It may be slow, but it's happening, but that's all we can do and all we can hope for. I don't expect to die in a perfect world. It would be lovely, but I'm not sitting here thinking, "I'm writing political music and as a result racism will be over!" [Laughs] It's not that simple, but every step we take is helpful.
I like what you said about being excited when you wrote that song, because of course that's what each new generation can bring, that fresh energy for old struggles. You have another song that's about interactions between men and women, "To Be Me." This is more personal politics. Talk about that.
Well, first, I like to write songs about things I don't really hear people speaking about in music. I understand for example why someone wouldn't want to speak about sexual assault in a song. I also understand why labels, people on the business side, wouldn't necessarily want to put out such songs. Where's the money?
Right. It sounds like you have the experience to understand that perspective.
Music can be escapism and fun. I love escapism. I love forgetting about everything that stresses me out via music. But I think something beautiful we can also get from music is realism. I wanted to talk about the female experience and the Black experience, but more personally I wanted to talk about my experiences with sexual assault and my experiences of almost daily of fear while taking a walk. I was hoping obviously that people who have ever felt unsafe in their bodies—and you don't have to be a woman to feel unsafe—would relate. But I was also hoping that maybe some of the people who commit these offenses would hear it. More specifically, the guys who, when I'm taking a walk, will drive past and then turn around and then re-approach me slowly from behind with the window down and maybe say something nice. They either do or don't know that that is terrifying. It makes me feel like at any time, someone could just grab you and take you into their car.
When I am in scenarios like that, I feel obligated to be kind, because you don't know if someone's intentions are good or bad. They might just want to give you a compliment. It's creepy, but maybe that's all it is. And some people might have worse intentions, and it's scary to tell someone to “F&$# off.”
Because now you’re escalating.
Yes. So you're almost obligated to being nice to someone who is making you fear for your life. And that's a very annoying and stressful situation to be in, and so many people experience this on a regular basis. In this case, I had taken a walk to the 7- Eleven about four blocks from my house. I wanted some candy or something not good for me, a nice treat. So while I was walking, this happened again. I got home and I had just had it. I needed to write a song about this. That song really wrote itself. It took about 10 minutes. It was just many years of experiences that I had never been brave enough to talk about.
Does this reality have anything to do with the reason you have a big dog?
Partially. Yes, to be honest. Now, I know [Whispers] he is not scary at all. But other people to see him that way.
Sure. People don’t want to take chances with dogs.
He has a really loud bark but he has no bite in him at all. But yeah, definitely I feel a lot safer when I have him with me.
I also have a dog that looks a lot scarier than she is. I know that works.
I am such an advocate for pit bulls. I feel like they get a really bad reputation for no good reason. They are very sweet. [Dog barks]
There he goes. He knows you're talking about him.
Pit bulls are also the cuddliest dogs. They love to cuddle, which can be a little off-putting, when a 100-pound pit bull sits in your lap. But now that I'm very close to the breed, I fully comprehend how wonderful they are.
Well it's wonderful to meet you. I look forward to hearing the rest of the album and to staying in touch.
I'm already working on my next album. We'll see what travel is possible, but I want to do songs inspired by traditional music in Zimbabwe. There’s this thing I love so much in a lot of music, but very much in African music, where sad and difficult subjects can still be made to seem uplifting and happy. Like the other day I was tending to my tomato plants with Fela Kuti on. It sounds so relaxing, but if you listen then you're like…
I too love that quality. Bob Marley epitomized it. “Total destruction the only solution.”
Exactly. So I'm making an album like that with a lot of African musicians. This album that's coming out, I’m Not a Mother But I Have Children, also has six other Zimbabwean people playing. I thought it was important to hire and bring in Zimbabwean musicians, rather than having my already privileged bass player friend who lives in Malibu played bass on my song. I was like, “Why don't I reach out to Zimbabwe on the internet and see if someone would like to play on the album?”
Good for you. You know that Mapfumo lives just up the coast from you in Oregon. And he’s still active. A lot of what you say about the need for music to address serious issues deeply resonates with his philosophy. He used to say, “We don’t need songs about bedroom love!” He’s an interesting combination of radical and conservative, having grown up in the time that he did, but also being someone who likes to kick up a fuss with powerful people.
It is so important. When I am having a bad day, I feel like music is really self-indulgent. Really? I'm sitting here thinking I can make a difference in the world with these songs. Like how conceited and silly is that?
It's not. There's history there. Look at Fela. Songs make a difference.
Well, we're all just chipping away. We all need to do our little part to chip away, so the music is my way of chipping away at it. I don't expect to push it over, although that would be nice.
You’re doing your part.
And a lot of artists are. I just finished working with Angelique Kidjo on her next album. I sing on four songs and one I am featured.
That's fantastic. Angelique is a force of nature, and an old friend.
It was such a dream come true. I thought, now my dad will believe in my songs.
Where did you do that work? In New York? Los Angeles?
Just remotely. I finished it a few weeks ago, just from here. We spoke on Zoom. And I sent some stuff back and forth. It was so inspiring. For me, the mission as someone who is both African and American, is to be active politically in both places. But when I look at where I am from, when I look at Zimbabwe, and I really comprehend the fact that what I am doing for a living could be illegal there, it makes it glaringly important that I need to put my focus on this.
It is hard for Zimbabwean artists to have any political profile now, for the reasons you gave. Angelique is such an interesting figure. She's a bridge in so many ways. I like the way she's acting as a generational bridge in a time when it's kind of hard to do that in African music. Because African music really changed very dramatically about 15 years ago. A lot of people of Mapfumo's generation have a pretty hard time understanding what African artists are doing now. They see it as too apolitical, too light, too derivative. But then there is Angelique, working with Yemi Alade and now you. She's in the moment, and of course she’s a monster talent. She has such a big vision of what music can be.
I think that no matter what country in the world you go to, you will find artists of every genre and intention. It's just that what gets propelled to the forefront, in the mainstream, isn't reflective of what everybody is doing. You just have to dig a little deeper. There are many Zimbabwean artists for whom Thomas Mapfumo is the inspiration.
True. I hear from some of them.
But I've been writing political songs for over 10 years, and now people think it's cool. Ten years ago, people were like, "That's so cute."
I guess the reason artists are taking things seriously now is a reflection of how screwed up the world has become. But we'll take it. You have to deal with the time you're living in.
I am very excited about the state of the world and the state of music. The fact that we are having this conversation, and the fact that artist that never even considered making political songs are making political songs now because they feel like they have to.
We did a program about new Nigerian music last fall, during the heat of the EndSARS movement against police violence. As am sure you know, there's a lot of pressure on young artists not to be political, because they're often being funded by state corporations and government-connected entities. Nobody wants to rock the boat. We also heard often that the political songs aren't the ones that sell. But, that EndSARS moment nudged a lot of artists into that arena. As you say, there's a kind of pressure. And that's not a bad thing.
So true. Thank you so much for the great chat.