After I’ve washed my hands, I ask the artist who was born Bulelwa Mkutukana what she’s doing. “Oh, I’m just writing my album launch guest list,” she says with a smile as we head to the lounge.
We’re meeting at a hotel suite overlooking construction in Johannesburg, but we’re not here to talk about that. We’re together to unpack the blueprint of this award-winning afro-soul songstress’s rise in the music industry and her fourth album, Mgodi.
The title of the album means “hole”, but to Zahara it’s so much more. She tells me: “I remember just sitting and thinking: ‘I was born alone in my village in Phumlani (just outside East London). It’s not like I was made by people here in Joburg. No man is an island - you need a team - but they can never be you.”
“So Mgodi is all about my journey. You know when you’re feeling like people are chasing you? Like how journalists chase me for nothing,” she cackles. “Mgodi is about people chasing you. People can be chased in many ways. So you just run and find a place to hide, but in that hole what you don’t calculate is you didn’t bring a rope with you. How are you going to climb out?”
She continues: “Eventually, you will get out of that hole. God knows his children and he always takes care of them.” Having gone gold in just six hours with this album, I’m inclined to agree with her statement. Over 12 tracks, Mgodi sees Zahara sing about her faith on God in the Valley. She sings about late, great South African musicians on Tribute (which is the only song she didn’t write).
“My dream was to inspire people,” she says. “If you go gold in six hours and platinum in 20 hours, how many people have you inspired already? As people, we need to know who we are and what we have in our hands. It’s not about making hits.
“Do I still have to prove to people that I can sing? Do you think I still have to explain to people that I write songs? Do you think I still have to explain to people that I’m a record-breaker? I had to break my own records.”
So then, is she bored of chasing the records set by the woman in the mirror? “Well, that’s why I have to go to America, girl” she says with a teasing twang.
Zahara has inked an international deal with Warner Music and hopes that she will represent not just Mzansi but the continent when she tours the States in March. Speaking of the land of Trump, veteran American saxophonist Kirk Whalum is featured on two songs on Mgodi. Zahara recalls how Whalum wound up on Umfazi and Ina Mvula.
“Kirk Whalum flew himself here. He asked me if he could be on my album,” she says matter-of-factly. “At first, he just wanted to do a project with me. Then he heard I was doing an album and he just asked if he could be a part of it. He even said I shouldn’t pay him.
“It was a trade because he just asked that, in exchange, I write two songs for his next album. I’m going to go to LA for two weeks, soon, to write two songs for him.” In Xhosa, I ask. “Yes, I’ll write them in Xhosa and English. They must know! He loves me singing in Xhosa,” she shrugs then laughs.
While she’s talking to me about this, Mojalefa “Mjakes” Thebe - the afro-pop maverick who produced this album and has worked with Zahara on her previous work - walks into the suite. Zahara is happy to have him join us for the interview and watching them talk like siblings is quite funny.
I ask Mjakes about their working process and he shares: “From the Loliwe album, we would record the song and some of the questions would only come after we’ve recorded. I’d say: ‘Zahara, you must confess. (This sounds like) you’ve been through a lot!’
“Zahara and I have come to a place of understanding. Before the first album, I sat with her and we were just laying down ideas. It’s easy to connect because I know the kind of person she is, how she writes and how to interpret what she writes. That’s why you’ll see that people say: ‘yoh! This song gets me so emotional’. A part of me knows how to get that emotion out of her.”
So what’s the secret, I ask Mjakes. “The secret is: I want to feel those emotions before the people out there can. With some songs, I’d be so near to tears.”
“Ja,” Zahara interjects. “You used to cry! You cry a lot,” she laughs.
Depending on your disposition, Mgodi is the kind of album that could make you shed a tear or two. Zahara is content if it means you can relate.
“For me,” she says as she places a hand on her chest, “it’s not about fame. It’s not about hits. It’s about telling my story. Do you want to hear my story or not? It’s up to you. I’m telling a story from track one to 12 and maybe you’ll find your story in one of those songs.”
Zahara’s new album, Mgodi, is in stores and online.