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Zaki Ibrahim’s eyes darted from left to right, her pupils dancing in the club’s light. Behind her, a pair of women who looked more like Muammar Gaddafi’s Amazonian Guard than back-up singers stood still in a military-like stance. Parts of Ibrahim’s face were hidden by a black cloth, but once her eyes were fixed firmly on the crowd, she finally let her black veil fall from her head to reveal a fresh face and spiky hair.
That night, standing on the makeshift stage at the Waiting Room as the headliner at the monthly Kool Out Lounge in Cape Town gig, was, in a sense, Ibrahim’s coming-out party.
She performed a few songs off her new album, Every Opposite (released on her birthday this month), and the packed club could have paid more attention, but that can be hard to do when the only time bodies aren’t standing shoulder to shoulder is when someone walks from the bar and parts the sea of partygoers like Moses with glasses of beer in hand.
After the Shö: Iqra In Orange EP and Eclectica: Episodes In Purple album, the Canadian-born SA singer chose to put the colour palette aside to paint a new picture. One that even comes with a sci-fi screenplay. But first, what’s with the name of the sound?
“This is a concept album,” she says about Every Opposite, which has been released by her own Iqra imprint and Tumi Molekane’s Motif Records.
“In explaining a whole, you have to show both or all sides of it. The opposite sides. In a holistic sense, Every Opposite represents a freedom to see from all sides.The concept and content of the album tell a story,” she shares.
“I’ve already written the story and it’s a screenplay in the works, but the film isn’t made yet, so I can’t really talk about it. The main character of my story is influenced by deep personal experiences and the things others tell me which I feel empathetic and compassionate towards. The character is a woman living in the year 2052 in post-apocalyptic Africa.”
Here, ideas that usually sit at polar opposites are explored. Like the idea that a woman – a house-wife at that – could be tasked with saving the free world.
Back at the Waiting Room, Ibrahim sheds the black veil of the character’s past and becomes a sort of sonic saviour. A force to be reckoned with.
In the club, she and her back-up singers, Nonku Phiri and Tumi Mpye – introduced as Dr Feelgood and General Electric, respectively – opened with the hauntingly beautiful The Do. The chorus tells us “The Do came and it went away again”, but what exactly is it?
Ibrahim says: “The Do is a part of the story where in 2052, people have been put into concentration camps because they are capable of thinking. This woman forms an underground rebel group and has the ability to astral-travel and gather information so she can see every opposite of everything.
“She used to be a housewife and a mother, but now she has this calling – similar to one a sangoma has. This calling, The Do, doesn’t just show up one day, it comes in waves and eventually ‘snap’, you’ve become this raging truth-spewer!”
Truth and standing up for her beliefs have always been at the core of Ibrahim’s music and she laments that she doesn’t “want favours, I do not like government” (in Draw The Line).
She also tells Miriam Makeba, Assata Shakur and Pablo Picasso that “the reason we live (is) because you lived your truth” in The Brave Ones, a song inspired by SA poet, novelist and writer James David Matthews’s Flames and Flowers – production by Tiago Correira-Paulo (of 340ml), Catalist and more.
Ibrahim’s sincerity in her CDs may be one of the reasons artist Kudzanai Chiurai chose her to play The President in a multimedia part of his State of the Nation exhibition.
“Kudzi said that when I perform I go into a trance and that presence is powerful so he saw that as the kind of charisma a leader would have,” she explains. “I asked him: ‘But why would the president look the way I do? Why would the president be a female?’ And he said because that would be the new nation and it makes sense.”
Maybe it’s because she’s so different from the typical singer-songwriters we’ve seen emerge in the past few years, I wonder aloud, to which Ibrahim responds: “It’s not necessarily on purpose. I’ve come to peace that this is the way I am; I’m not trying to be different, I think I just am.”
Raised in Canada, the daughter of radio legend Zane Ibrahim, ZakBird, as he calls her, had to deal with the “different” label all her life. It’s this childhood experience of being “other” that inspired the infectious song The Kids Are Talking, off Every Opposite. But perhaps in a world where every singer has to follow a blueprint drawn up by a singer with thick thighs and blonde hair to be called successful, an opposite is needed. Good thing Ibrahim is every opposite of the blueprint.
• Zaki Ibrahim’s Every Opposite is now in stores.
Ahead of Youth Day, we quizzed Zaki Ibrahim on a few youth matters:
Q: Who is your role model?
A: Aside from the everyday people around me, I don’t think I have one. I’ve been compared to Sade before, so maybe her. I admire the perception of her career. She seems humble, like a classy lady and a great artist.
Q: Do we have enough public role models, and if we do, name three and why?
A: No, we don’t. I can’t even name one.
Q: Do young people care about their destiny, or is it just about the bling-bling?
A: It’s tough. Hopefully, the two can be separated because who we are in our soul is not how we look on the outside. I’m going to go ahead and quote that smart woman (laughs), Jennifer Lopez and say: “Don’t be fooled by the rocks that I got, I’m still Jenny from the block.”