The New South African Superstar

Ten seconds before the New Year’s midnight in a Johannesburg night club the dancing slows down. The patrons are counting down the end of 2011. I am watching all this on SABC 1, the most popular TV channel in South Africa. Once it’s officially a new year, the show cuts into a music video: the first song of 2012. The house beat starts playing. This could be the intro of any South African house song – they differ particularly little from each other. In a black and white video, the South African super star DJ Sbu drives around miming to smooth female vocals. This song is called “Lengoma” and it wasn’t originally a dance song but now it has been remixed by this jovial looking driver. The vocals are sung by Zahara – the new favorite of South African record buying audiences.

It’s not that surprising that Zahara should ceremoniously kick off 2012 since she has been dominating 2011 with her song and album “Loliwe.” Even the DJ Sbu remix of “Lengoma” won Hit Single of the Year in 2011 Metro FM Awards. Zahara has become the top pop artist in South Africa in a fairly short time but curiously enough, for the media, she has remained something of an enigma because she doesn’t appear to have any obvious unique selling points beside her talent.

When she’s being written about there aren’t any scandals and eccentricities available to be dwelled upon to describe her personality. What we get to read are comparisons – we need to understand everything through comparisons, it seems. Or at least that’s what the music journalist seem to think. The comparisons roughly fall into two main categories often depending on the depth of the article in question: those made by journalists who compare her to someone else because they are lazy or on a tight deadline and those comparisons made by journalists who in a self-congratulatory manner are showing off their vast musical knowledge. Neither one of these are particularly helpful in gaining any understanding on anything but the music journalism itself.

Her style is effortless. No weave or bikinis, but a tied afro and an acoustic guitar. Perhaps the familiarity Zahara has doesn’t remind us of someone famous. She is much more like someone regular with an enormous amount of talent — the media doesn’t get tired of talking about just how down to earth she is. It has become her public image. In interviews she resembles more an athlete than a performer, but curiously enough the media has spun her down-to-earthness into something out of this world. I can only imagine this to be awkward for her, but I guess it comes with the package they call success.

Zahara’s Afropop sound is organic. I don’t know Zahara personally, so I can’t say what she thinks, but I am left with a distinct sense that she’s content with her position in the lineage of the tradition. She doesn’t try hard to revive something old, but rather actively lives and manifests the point where that tradition of Afropop is at today. She is like no one and everyone at the same time, and her music is all very simple. Very catchy. It’s what pop music is all about.

But to assume that being able to make catchy songs and perform them is enough to be featured on the cover of the South African Rolling Stone magazine (cover above), as she has been, and enjoy seemingly never-pausing airplay is very naïve. A young woman from the Eastern Cape doesn’t get airplay because of herself but because of the people in whose interest her success is. TS Records, to which Zahara is signed, is a South African label that has a distribution deal with multinational major record corporation EMI through CCP records. It is owned and run by TK Nciza (who ‘discovered’ Zahara) and hit maker DJ Sbu.

Regardless of Zahara’s ‘imageless image,’ her image is looked after by TK’s wife, the former Mafikizolo singer and now solo artist Nhlanhla Nciza. These are well connected people. They make Zahara a success. They give her the credibility that sells. They are, as American music author Nelson George would say, the permanent business, who will be there whether the follow-up sells or not. They are the ones who make her a business.

None of this to be cynical though – these are standard practices in music industries and they are hardly Zahara’s fault. Perhaps they are no one’s fault, but that depends on your views on music as commerce as well as culture; and it is both of those things. None of this is to take anything away from Zahara’s undeniable talent and appeal. While her album is produced very professionally by Robbie Malinga, an artist himself, Zahara doesn’t rely on technology to sound good. Just with her presence and guitar she is able to put up a show that is fit for kings. It’s just to say that there are numerous talented individuals and groups out there who never get the big breakthrough in the traditional sense of the word. Some of them enjoy varying degrees of local stardom and many perhaps go and get another job as the music doesn’t pay the bills. The South African music industry model – to a large extent due to the country’s slow and expensive internet connections – rarely, if ever, allows artists without some capital and infrastructure behind them to be nationally known. Yet.

Zahara’s “Loliwe” album has sold well over 300 000 copies, which in South Africa is a huge achievement. Not all artists and albums by TS Records reach that point. Not many albums from any label do this well so no one can deny the role that the talent plays here. Perhaps the relationship between Zahara’s cultural aesthetics and her labels business acumen and connections are symbiotic in a fairly equal manner, but much more than a Cinderella story this is music business as usual. Only this time, they have found something other than sex, booze or affluence to market.* Zahara is not trying to artificially enhance herself and the fact that this sells records – more than anything else – is a very promising sign indeed.

* Not surprisingly, some South African bloggers compare her unfavorably to other performers who in the bloggers’ estimation appear more at ease with their sexuality.



Mikko Kapanen

Mikko Kapanen is a radio producer, blogger and photographer based in Finland.

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you for being able to put my feelings into words. As much as I am excited about Rolling Stone SA, I refuse to buy the second issue because I feel that Zahara has not earned it.

  2. I was also baffled at seeing her on the second cover of Rolling Stone SA – especially after first cover had Hugh Masekela on it. Eish – tough act to follow…

  3. I saw her perform in Cape Town late last year and found her music and stage presence bland. Nothing to write home about. But the crowd surely loved her and the music, and there was a real connection.

  4. Long time reader, first time commenter…

    I think you get off to an inauspicious start when you say that the intro to “Lengoma” could be the intro to any house track, and that they “differ particularly little from one another.” If they all sound the same to you, it probably says less about the genre than it does about your familiarity with it (and thus your ability to write incisively about it). Sbu is not Black Coffee is not Culoe De Song, et al. Unless you have a specific critique of the genre and its failure to break new ground?

    Same with your reading of Zahara. The alternative to comparisons, it seems to me, is to actually say something about her style — the distinctive quality of her voice, her playing, whatever. But instead we get generic placeholders: her style is “effortless,” “organic,” “simple,” “catchy,” “Afropop.” How is this any better, or more interesting, than comparisons to other artists? It tells us nothing specific about her music. Is she “like no one and everyone at the same time?” Not really. Zahara is not Thandiswa is not Simphiwe Dana, et al. I’ll take Thandiswa over Zahara, but there /is/ something distinctive about the latter’s voice and style.

    On another note, thank goodness that it was “Lengoma” ringing in the New Year on SABC 1 rather than Cleo’s “Facebook” or Big Nuz’s “Serious!”

    I’m really not trying to be a hater here. I just think that we should set the bar a little bit higher in terms of music criticism (and I’m saying this as someone who doesn’t have the knowledge or the vocabulary to do the kind of criticism I am asking for).

  5. Hi Diliza,

    Thanks for the comment.

    I’ll be the first to admit that I am neither the biggest fan nor the expert when it comes to South African house and therefore in the beginning of this post, where I use more personal narrative, I say what I say about it. This piece isn’t about house music, South African or otherwise, but I’d still go on the record to say that in my opinion it is a genre that has evolved particularly little in the last decade. On Es’khaleni vol. 1 Cleo samples ringtones and now he talks about Facebook. It really is the social and technological context that has changed more than the music itself although I may be wrong. Again, this is my opinion and the quality of music is always a value judgement anyway, so none of that matters too much.

    This is a fairly short piece and I wasn’t trying to have an in depth description of Zahara or her music but rather to provide some context since not all the blog readers are South African or know much about her. This article, however, is not really about Zahara as a singer, but Zahara the phenomenon and that is why it touches on media and music industries. It’s more about the business that Zahara is; whether to sell records or magazines.

    Lastly, I agree 100% with you that this was the best possible song they could’ve played on that New Year’s spot. I like Zahara’s album and like I conclude my piece I think it’s great that this kind of thing is marketable to this degree in South Africa. She’s one of the most positive role models in mainstream music in a long time.

  6. Bingo and Dylan,

    I don’t hold Rolling Stone in any particular position as a publication and as they are commercial, they’ll publish what sells. So I am not surprised that she is on the cover. Also, I quite like Zahara. It seems that many people think I am dissing her. I am not, although I might be quite cynical about some of the business structures around her. But as an artist she looks like a very positive role model and I like the album – not ashamed to say that at all : )

  7. I’ll come out and say it: Mikko, thanks for a great post. Of those here at AIAC I am probably the most cynical and not a fan of Zahara’s music for what I think she represents politically, maybe inadvertently (my daughter loves the remix btw). I enjoyed Mikko’s discussion of the business of Zahara.

    But back to what she represents visually and sonically.

    The video for “Loliwe” is a case in point. Shot with filters, in an empty park, with bikes and a food basket. I don’t know where this is going. Then she offers flowers to some homeless men she invites to the picnic. They’ll eat flowers.

    (BTW, her love interest interestingly is played by South Africa’s representative in the most recent version of Big Brother Africa, a show about whose politics I’ve written here

  8. Sean,

    It’s interesting that you mention the video; as someone who has always focused more on radio I didn’t look too much into her videos as text. We have been listening to the album (from Spotify) so my focus has been on the sounds for the most part. It is true that the videos vary between nothingy and embarrassing, but that seems to be the trademark of her label. Actually on our holiday in SA I was watching Nhanhla’s live show from TV and the production standard was distinctly poor. In the end I noticed that it was in-house production. Afropop is not my music of choice, so for me the ‘easier’ and more ‘obvious’ stuff works probably better, but besides the fact that these songs are catchy, I also enjoyed the reactions they created amongst people especially in the Eastern Cape. As I concluded my piece, I think it’s really great that this type of stuff sells because as naïve (or innocent?) as it may be sometimes, it is fairly positive.

  9. “Her Afropop is organic”!!!! Zahara rocks! I have never fallen in love with a South African artist this much after the late Lucky Dube. Zahara is a star!

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