In a cramped studio in Cape Town, a small audience sits captivated. The blistering summer sun penetrates the space, creating a muggy, uncomfortable air – but nobody moves. A lone fan whirrs lazily in the corner, turned down to its lowest setting. Its soft sounds are rendered barely audible by the distinctive, raspy vocals of Simphiwe Dana. The warmth and sophistication of her voice is mesmerising and – for a few minutes – everyone in the room is hers. As she sings the final chord, her silky voice releases its grasp on the hearts of her listeners, leaving them pleasantly dazed.
Sitting before the camera – her glorious afro-curls adorned with brass jewellery, fringed garments draping her shoulders – it’s difficult to find a more appropriate word to describe Simphiwe than regal. No stranger to having her portrait taken, she follows direction with aplomb. A few minutes in and her headdress falls to the side. She barely registers it, her sole concern remaining the task at hand. Fiercely focused, it’s a trait that has certainly contributed to her unparalleled rise to prominence.
As a child she would stand before her mirror – a teaspoon or toothbrush clenched in her fist as a mic – close her eyes and sing for the imagined, enormous crowds. In 2003, ahead of the release of her first album, Zandisile, she became doubtful that listeners would take to her sound. Inspired by the music of Dorothy Masuka, Dolly Rathebe and Hugh Masekela – as well as the lilting melodies of Marabi – she had crafted a style so unique, fears that people wouldn’t ‘get’ it plagued her. “It was just so different,” she explains.
While Kwaito acts like Bongo Maffin and Boom Shaka were still dominating South African charts, House music was beginning to emerge as the next big thing. In the middle of this musical crossroads, Zandisile dropped. Bursting with a soulfulness that belied its creators mere 24-years, it thrust Simphiwe squarely in the spotlight, and before long she was being touted as her generations answer to Miriam Makeba. Since her debut she has acquired no less than six South African Music Awards, released three more albums, and has cultivated a devoted fanbase, who see her precisely the way she has been styled today – as a queen.
“My father’s side of the family, they come from royalty,” she says. “Disputed royalty, but royalty nevertheless.” She begins a story of how, as a little girl, she packed her suitcase and headed to the taxi rank in search of her royal fortune, inexplicably confident that she knew where she was going. “I felt this so strongly,” she continues. Simphiwe sat down and waited for ‘something’ – but nothing came. That feeling of royalty stayed with her all her life, fuelling her own dreams and ambitions. While she has since found her fortune, at heart, she’s still that little girl from the village of Mayaluleni. “I can be polished in many ways,” she confirms. “But I’ll always be that barefooted village girl.”