NATIVE Exclusive: Nobuhle’s Music is a Conduit for the Physical & the Spiritual
“I am bringing House to home. I am bringing House to healing.”
“I am bringing House to home. I am bringing House to healing.”
A trip through Nobuhle’s music uncovers a deep sense of place and reverence for heritage and spirituality. The singer, songwriter and performer has spent years chiselling her ideas and views as a South African woman through the hearts of her audiences. There’s the bible scripture-inspired invocations on “Eloyi” with Black Motion, the musings of perseverance on “Wela” or the recalling of memories about home on “Emakhaya.” Across her two albums—2021’s ‘IMVULA’ and 2022’s ‘Indlela’—and a slew of singles and guest appearances, Nobuhle ensures that she’s a conduit for her listeners’ spirit, soul and body.
“I think the most important thing my grandmother said when I was six years old is you can never go anywhere and not remember home. Home is where the heart is, even when you are tired of being everywhere. Home will always remain,” Nobuhle tells the NATIVE. “[My music] is me paying homage to roots, to the blood, to the songs, to the dance that was given to me at a very young age. And now, I’m able to use that and share it with the world. Not only am I known for just my voice but people can realize that something is coming from somewhere and that is important because there’s a root in what I write; it has to accommodate listeners but also I want people to feel like this is taking them somewhere. That is always the aim with me.”
Born in Nkandla in KwaZulu-Natal, Nobuhle was raised by her late grandmother who was a spiritual healer. Her childhood is filled with memories of trips to the river to fetch water, sharing songs about the rain with her siblings and the dances showcased during cultural ceremonies. In fifth grade, Nobuhle’s teachers noticed her talent for singing and put her in a choir of older people. Later, she became the lead singer for her school’s choir and when she moved with her family to Durban for high school, she was a part of a poetry group that ran awareness campaigns in communities about drug abuse and teenage pregnancy. For Nobuhle, her path as a creative was possible due to the mentoring of her grandmother.
“There were certain ceremonies that were done at home almost every week, which included dance and basically celebrating our culture and tradition,” she says. “It was a way to remember our ancestral bloodline and also to enhance the spirit of healing within our community and our family. It would be the sounds of drums and the clapping hands and the music and the singing, and the drinking of African beer, Umqombothi, and it kind of instilled [in me] that music is how we remember who we are.”
Nobuhle’s debut on the South African music scene was on Sun-El Musician’s “Never Never,” which she reveals resulted from memories of her grandmother. “I would ask her why she gets so emotional when she sings and she will say that whenever she sings, she remembers a place that is unknown to us, the living,” Nobuhle says. “[That] she travels to another world where she’s free, a place where all her dreams are coming true.” It was that influence from her grandmother that convinced Nobuhle that she wanted to pursue music professionally so she went to study music at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and then returned for a second degree in dramatic arts, with a specialisation in directing.
Nobuhle prides herself as a musical descendant of a generation of impactful South African women. She grew up listening to the music of Busi Mhlongo, a legendary performer who Nobuhle says carried an ancestral aura whenever she went on stage; there was Thandiswa Mazwai, whose flawless delivery awed a young Nobuhle; Simphiwe Dana was an intriguing figure who Nobuhle believes carried an “ancestral Xhosa spirit within her, her voice, her tone, everything.” There were also Brenda Fassie and Izingane Zoma who left indelible marks on Nobuhle’s artistry.
All the years Nobuhle spent at UKZN were fundamental to shaping her into the artist that she is today. Her time in school taught her to be confident in herself, to be comfortable with being vulnerable as an artist and to master the configurations of the music business. “I went out during those university years and did some shows around the city and met other artists and saw what they were doing and learnt different instruments,” she says. Her persistence paid off when she got invited to Johannesburg, where she snagged a deal with Redbox Entertainment, a sub-label of Sun-El Musician’s El World Music.
Nobuhle was in Johannesburg working with Nduduzo Makhathini on a project when she reached out to Sun-El Musician on Instagram, requesting that they work together. Sun-El Musician agreed and the next day, he and Nobuhle were in the studio together where they worked on “Never Never.” Nobuhle describes the experience as a spiritual one ordained by the gods. She and Sun-El Musician would work extensively on her debut album ‘IMVULA,’ which was inspired by Nobuhle’s grandmother. “He’s just an easy producer to work with,” Nobuhle says about Sun-El Musician. “He’s really able to teach you what to do if you don’t know what to do because I came in not knowing what to do. So he has patience and he has a very easy heart with new talent. He loves new talent, he works very well with new talent. And that is very interesting to anybody who’s looking to make it into this industry.”
For Nobuhle, music transcends the physical realm. It’s why she usually needs to hear the beat before penning words to it; the instruments and the sounds they create are what evoke the feelings that give birth to the words. On her second album ‘Indlela’, Nobuhle deepens her grasp of her spirit-led sonics with rumbling African drums and percussions with dashes of elements from pop to electro. It also signalled a rise in her profile as she worked with established names in the likes of Kabza De Small, De Mthuda, Josiah De Disciple and Mpumi Mzobe, among others. Both ‘Indlela’ and ‘IMVULA,’ which Nobuhle delivers in IsiZulu and smatterings of Xhosa and English, hold a special place in the singer’s heart.
“I think every time I look at them, they are reminders that everything has led to this point,” she says. “And that my prayers are valid and my dreams are valid and there is still a long journey to go. For a person who’s coming from a very far, rural area, there’s nobody who has done what I’ve been able to do, which is to really fly and be that person who is doing something nobody has ever done in your community. I think that it makes me feel very proud that I have been able to stand on my ground and trust that I’m on the right path.”
The South African music space is a huge industry dominating its airwaves as well as those of other countries around the world. From Kwaito to Gqom to the current sensation of Amapiano, South African artists have found expressions in these sounds as a means to document and share their personal and cultural viewpoints. Nobuhle is one of the artists utilising House music and its variants. With her branding, she portrays an unapologetically African image with fashion choices—clothing, hairstyle and jewellery. It’s a deliberate act from Nobuhle to distinguish herself in the crowd of superstars and ensure that identity and purpose are communicated from a glance before she even opens her mouth to speak or sing. She also derives an advantage from her inclination to seek what is underneath the surface of her listeners’ minds.
“I’m bringing House to Africa. I am bringing House to home. I am bringing House to healing. Those are my three points,” she reveals. “And mostly I would always say I’m bringing House to healing. I want people to dance but to [also] have that space of healing within the dance because we are always going through a lot. I take House to spirit and I take House to my roots.”
While Nobuhle understands the need to differentiate herself from the competition, she also acknowledges the talent currently working that inspires her to be a better version of herself. Ami Faku, Bongeziwe Mabandla and Makhadzi are some of the names she mentions. Outside South Africa, she has taken note of the impacts of Tiwa Savage, Aṣa, Yemi Alade, Ayra Starr, and Angélique Kidjo, who Nobuhle says reminds her of her grandmother because of her grace and the way that she moves on stage. “She moves like she has hundreds of ancestors carrying her and when she opens her voice, there’s just this easiness and this proudness of being African and it’s something that I always pray for, to be alive until when I’m at her age, to be able to stand until that time and be remembered.”
Nobuhle’s latest single “Imali” features Master KG and Casswell P. A similarly titled song dropped in 2020, which Nobuhle and her team had missed until the release of the current “Imali.” The earlier one was Nobuhle’s prayer to her ancestors, soliciting their assistance in providing money for a better, comfortable lifestyle. The latest one is broader, tackling social and political issues in South Africa while urging listeners anywhere in the world to go out and create the lives they dream about. Nobuhle revealed that she had reached out to Master KG on Instagram and that it was an example of her certainty in her craft to move with intention and determination. It’s this mode of operation that Nobuhle carries in the present and hopes to replicate in the future.
“‘Imali’ is my last release for the year. I’m going home to relax and spend time with my family,” she says. “Next year, I’m going to do a live album project, hopefully; if it doesn’t turn into a live album, it’s going to be a very different type of album, which I’m hoping to feature Samthing Soweto.” In all, Nobuhle’s music is an assemblage of home, family, memories and experiences. “I am just a woman now who is living to narrate stories of my childhood and where I come from and where I could be going with my craft.”
Featured image credits/NATIVE