Interviews with Kelly Khumalo are always a fascinating affair. Having watched and read many of her conversations with the country’s top journalists, a large number of them revolving around the controversies in her love life, this year it was finally my turn to sit down and quiz the musician and create a complete picture of who Kelly is for myself.
Having interviewed some of the biggest artists in Africa for Moziak Magazine already this year, 2020 would have felt incomplete if I didn’t get to speak to one of the most fascinating musicians of our generation. This year Kelly Khumalo released a brand new album which saw her making headlines for the very thing we came to know her for: her music.
Inspired by Africa and determined to make an emphatic statement, Kelly Khumalo’s The Voice of Africa has proven to be a beautiful record filled with tales from across the continent. The album was produced by Mondli Ngcobo and although Kelly didn’t write anything on this record (the first time that she has handed over the writing reigns completely), she still proved herself to be a riveting storyteller as she used her voice to drive an important narrative aimed at empowering African women and uniting the continent.
I phoned Kelly Khumalo during the height of lockdown in South Africa and at a time when the country was down in the doldrums, her upbeat replies raised my energy in much the same way that her album raised the country’s.
A conversation with The Voice of Africa
2020 will go down in history for all the wrong reasons. How has this year been for you so far?
You know what, It’s been a busy one and for that I am grateful. My first ever reality series released for streaming on Showmax and I feel as if it did extremely well, it was great to bring that all to life and show that side of me.
On the music front, of course I released two singles (Empini and Esphambanweni) before eventually releasing my new album, The Voice of Africa. I am grateful to have had work during 2020.
The singles were received especially well, did that make you feel confident about the album itself?
It’s always nice to see your work do well, but I didn’t think of it like ‘if the singles do XYZ then that means the album will be XYZ’. Some people have their preferences, others might relate to different songs on the album. I was pleased, but I knew there was still more to come on the full album.
Tell us about The Voice of Africa, what made you choose to theme your album around the continent?
This album was rooted in Africa. Anybody who knows me knows I am proudly African and I always encourage Africans to embrace their roots, to unite and to learn about our respective cultures.
The Voice of Africa was really me paying homage to African women, African people and telling authentic African stories using my gift – my voice. Hence the title, The Voice of Africa came about. There are a lot of negative stereotypes about a lot of African things; from our unique spiritual practices, to our medicinal practices, even down to how we view other Africans, so this album for me was also about educating my listeners about this beautiful place we come from.
At a time when a lot of artists were delaying releases, what made you continue to go ahead with your plans?
Well to be honest, most of my album was recorded before lockdown so I wouldn’t say I experienced any delays. One of the songs, Esphambanweni, the vocalists (myself and Hlengiwe Mhlaba) recorded it at separate venues but aside from that, everything else was all done. The only thing left once lockdown began was mixing and mastering and once that was done, we planned a release date and thankfully, we were able to go ahead with it.
For me, I consider myself to be an artist rather than just a musician, and once I complete a body of art I send it out to the world and see what the reaction will be.
Speaking of art, are you never worried that some people will misinterpret your message, like what happened with the Empini music video where people accused you of Blackface?
Can I tell you something? I knew there would be something like that. I knew that despite all the research I had done, and the historical background behind the role I was portraying (the Egyption goddess Bastet), there was going to be someone who looked for the negative in it. So I was prepared for those blackface comments and when they came about, I simply explained my reasoning for the video. Art is always subjective, it can be controversial but only if you don’t have the context. Context is everything.
Do you ever think that the media and some people in the country are just looking for an excuse to paint you in a bad light?
I mean, what can I say? I’m not going to sit here and pretend to be a victim and cry over every bad thing people have said about me. I understand the life I lead and what comes with it and I have grown thick skin over the years and learnt to deal with it.
Yes, sometimes it hurts, sometimes it cuts deep, but for the most part I have learnt to leave them to it. There will always be doubters and detractors.
With the country closed (again!) do you miss performing live in front of an audience?
I miss it so much, I miss the electricity of the stage but at the same time I understand why things are the way they are. These are not normal times that we are living in.
Once things open up across the globe, what is the one iconic venue you would love to perform at?
Oh wow! You’re putting me on the spot here. There are so many that come to mind, I think I would love to do some venues across the continent. I would love to perform in West and East Africa, as well as other parts of Southern Africa. If I have to choose one “iconic venue” … maybe Madison Square Garden in New York City.
That’s the perfect venue for a singer such as yourself. I have to ask about your skills as a vocalist, how did you become such a powerful singer?
Thank you! I have always said that I grew up as a gospel singer, I grew up singing in the church. When you sing in church, you learn so much about music and vocals and you have to have a powerful voice to command that pulpit. So my church background definitely helped, then the rest I guess is just my natural gift.
But to be honest, I’ve been thinking of getting a vocal coach and it’s something I want to work on soon.
Are you joking? Shouldn’t you be the vocal coach?
[Laughs] As much as I think I am a great singer, I believe a coach could help me become even better and even more purposeful with my voice. Even Beyonce had a vocal coach. No matter how good you are, someone out there can still take you to the next level.
Well we’ve seen you sing everything from Afropop to gospel and even RnB. As you expand your range, could we ever see you doing some of SA’s current mainstream genres like amapiano and gqom?
NO! No, not me. [Laughs] Don’t get me wrong for one second, I love both of those genres, and I am not saying there is anything wrong with gqom vocalists or amapiano singers at all. It’s just not really suited for my voice unless, I don’t know, if it’s possible to slow it down or something.
…But there are some soulful amapiano songs!
Okay, true. Let me say that I probably won’t do a gqom song, but if it was a smooth and soulful, loungey amapiano song then maybe.
Any message to the country ahead of 2021?
It’s been a long year and I know that we are all tired right now but we still need to remain strong, remain disciplined for some of the months ahead. It hasn’t been easy but part of me believes the worst is behind us. Let’s just try our best to remain strong, remain diligent for these next few weeks or months until we have finally won this battle.