Zonke. Picture: Nhlanhla Phillips/ANA

Her latest offering, L.O.V.E or Living Out Various Emotions, is a different one for her in that it’s the first of her five albums that features a collaboration and it’s an album purely about love, in all its shapes and forms. 

In L.O.V.E , Dikana pulls no punches; it’s an all-out street fight of bold vocals, a bassline that’s very present and noticeable, and every note is deliberate.

To produce something like this, Zonke acknowledged that it was a matter of her state of mind: “All of the songs that I’ve written on this album are about love. When I was writing this album, I remember saying to my friend, Lukho: ‘Oh my goodness. This is the second or third song and its centred around love.’ He said: ‘Let it go. Let it be. Don’t fight it.’

“So those various emotions are that I’d write a song and I’d be complaining about love, or I’d write a song and I’m loving love, so it was a rollercoaster of various emotions hence the title L.O.V.E, “ she said.

The first form of love she explores on the album is that of self and community, with the opening track being Ndilimpondo, an ode to her people and the place of her origin, the Eastern Cape.

“I think love starts from loving yourself. And I wanted to show love to my clan, my people, where I come from. So, listening to the album and deciding on the running order, I thought this was the perfect song to open the album with. It shows self-appreciation first; before I can love anybody, I need to love myself,” she said.

Zonke. Picture: Nhlanhla Phillips/ANA

The album’s nine tracks all have in common very rhythmic, yet strong basslines. Something that Zonke admitted to loving.

“I really do love the bass. It’s the bass,” she laughed. “To me, if the bass is not good, then the all other instruments kind of fall apart. If the bass is strong, everything falls into place. I really just wanted, with this album, to have solid basslines that are to the point. The changes are vocal on this album. I made sure of it.”

The deliberateness of the basslines suggests a perfectionist nature we have come to expect of Zonke. The soulful singer credits insomnia and drive for the beautiful madness of her albums.

“I’m an insomniac, I really don’t sleep and that helps with the process of writing, because then I’m able to get up and just record my music. Almost every time my songs will start with a bassline. I’ll have this bassline that doesn’t want to leave my mind and when I open my mouth to sing, somehow everything happens simultaneously. The lyrics, the melody, comes out at once.”

Zonke. Picture: Nhlanhla Phillips/ANA

She added: “I work with very talented musicians who come and mimic what I’ve already recorded. I love my music. It’s very close to me and I always want what I’ve dreamed about to be represented thoroughly. So I never let musicians come into my session and say: ‘How about this, how about that.’ I want you to copy everything to the T. Every ad lib of the bass; I’m very particular about my music, she said.

Another facet we have come to appreciate about Zonke is her unique artistry in an industry that’s saturated with people who are only concerned about quantity versus quality. For her the absence of a unique musical footprint is the doing in half measures of what she lives for.

“As an artist I think it’s important for you to be unique. I think the minute someone can say: ‘You remind me of Bani Ban,’ then you need to go back to the drawing board. I don’t always know what sound to put out, because I don’t always know what people want to hear. I don’t concern myself with that.

“Music isn’t about what you want to hear; it’s about what I have to offer you. It’s what I feel inside. If I love it, I hope and pray you will too,” she said.

L.O.V.E is unique for Zonke, because of her collaboration with an artist on a track. Over the course of five albums, Soul to Keep is one of the songs that features hip hop artist Kwesta, something that she decided to do after years of admiring the rapper.

“I really love Kwesta and I wanted a collaboration that felt natural, nothing forced. I hardly ever feature people on my albums. I’m excited about this feature. When he came into the studio, he said he didn’t care what the song sounded like; all he had as references was my previous work from Ina Ethe and Work of Heart. When I played him the song, he nearly fell off his chair. He loved the groove so much and I loved his reaction to it because his contribution would be real. It was so amazing. He was also shocked that I produced the music,” she said.

“He was an easy choice. As much as I live in a bubble, I have my ear on the ground. He’s down to earth. When he came into studio, I was like: ‘Wow, where are your people? You guys always move around in packs. I wouldn’t have minded an entourage, but it said a lot about his work ethic. That he felt he couldn’t impose like that. I’ve always loved and respected him. He’s very talented,” she added.

She said she allowed Kwesta the space to produce a verse that would showcase his flair. “As possessive as I am of my music, it’s only of the parts that I’m responsible for. If I’m going to have a feature, I respect what you have to offer. It’s like asking Michael Jackson to come onto my album and then telling him what to do. I could never do that. I respect artists. He’s a great rapper, a great writer and I got him onto the project to bring that.”

For her, songwriting comes as easy as breathing, with Zonke mentioning on average it takes her 20 minutes to write a song. Music from L.O.V.E took her almost two years, from the time of the release of Work of Heart.

Zonke. Picture: Nhlanhla Phillips/ANA

One thing that’s highlighted once again about Zonke is that her music speaks for her. This is a trick that Dikana says she learned by observing internationally renowned musician, Sade. Her private life is exactly that, private, yet her relevance never wanes.

“Relevance, is not something I worry about. Staying true to myself is the best form of relevance. The reason I never feature anybody on my albums, is because ... it’s me trying to prove a point to myself that I can do this. It’s not me trying to tap into his market. He did said in future he’d come to me for beats. So maybe one day there’ll be a hip hop song produced by me,” she said.

As things change, they also stay the same. Her album cover is black and white, again, and Zonke played around with the symbolism of the door being opened by her.

“The album cover I wanted it to be as simple as possible. If you look in my eyes, there’s something there that’s piercing, at the same time very inviting.

“That’s what love does. You open yourself up. In this album I’m opening the door. Letting love in,” she said.

While the album explores love of family, pain in love, love for God and accepting that she’s indeed ready to put down her baggage, the single that’s been used to market this album prior to its release date is Tonight, which reminds her to live in the present.

It’s currently her favourite song on the album. “I write music but I never go back to listen to it.With Tonight it’s a song I wrote after we released Work of Heart. I love this song because it reminds me it’s something I have to do, to live in the moment. I am my harshest critic,” she said.

The death of her sister, jazz vocalist Lulu Dikana, left a palatable mark on Zonke, but, the blessing of family has allowed her to let the rest of their siblings into her creative process. They listen and are willing to provide feedback. While they absolutely love this body of work, they have no obligation to love it. Just to gently let her know if they are not quite vibing with it.

Zonke. Picture: Nhlanhla Phillips/ANA

The honesty with which she deals with these various emotions on this album, speaks of a woman who has emerged on the other side of being hurt, to share a playful, lighter, yet sexy sound. It doesn’t lack the depth that we have come to love Zonke for, it’s just packaged a little differently. Something that Dikana all puts down to the power of time.

“Time has healed me tremendously. When you listen to this album and Work of Heart, you can tell the difference. I’m tired of being sad, of having sad songs about someone. It was starting to seem as though the trend is that every time I have to release an album I lose someone in my family. It would force me as a musician to tap into that and write that sad song.

“This time around none of that happened and I’m so grateful to God. Time has healed me. I made the decision to be happy, to write a healthier, upbeat album where I can let go,” she said.

* L.O.V.E, Zonke’s fifth studio album, is now available at all reputable music outlets, as well as digital music platforms.