Interview: Mzee (Mzilikazi Wa Afrika) - RISE
Updated: Jun 13, 2021
Proud African, record producer, singer, musician, former investigative journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika, known professionally as Mzee, spoke to us about the importance of African traditions, be it musical, cultural, or linguistic, being continued in popular music.
“I don’t need to wait until it’s Africa Month to hear African songs on the radio, I need to hear them every day because when I wake up every day, I’m an African."
Mzee, a staunch Pan-African, was resolute in his belief in the need for African music to have more recognition and airtime. Whilst Mzee’s most recent solo album was released in 2009, he has spent the last decade learning and understanding about his African heritage and the history of the continent and its diaspora, which informs his collaborative work with Rafiki, as well his most recent album which is currently in production, RISE.
The project with Rafiki, the 2016 album Timhamba, was particularly important for the South African musician as it featured collaborations with musicians from 30 different countries and was recorded in ten. A highlight for him was working with renowned Malian singer, the Golden Voice of Africa himself, Salif Keita. He has continued this work ethic on his upcoming album too, working with South African stars Yvonne Chaka Chaka and the Soweto Gospel Choir, whilst also working with some of the best talent from an array of African nations, including Angola, Zimbabwe, and Namibia. Yet for Mzee, it is not just about working with artists from different countries for the sake of it, it is in fact integral to his process to fully demonstrate his comprehension of the beauty within the diversity of African peoples. An example of this would be his decision to make music in several native African languages as opposed to appealing to the masses by singing entirely in English. “The reason we talk in English is because we want the next person to hear. But when I start speaking in any African language and singing and doing a song, I’m calling to my brothers and sisters from wherever and saying here, let’s talk, here is our beautiful language.”
His interest in African history is not only limited to the continent of Africa itself. Mzee was keen on working with Garifuna musicians, after being inspired Umalali’s the Garifuna Women’s Project. The Garifuna, who you can read about here in our review of Andy Palacio and the Garifuna Collective, are a people descended from African slaves who predominantly reside in the Caribbean. “We relate culturally, the way we sing, the way we dance. We relate. We are all Africans, they might be in another part of the world, but we relate in everything that they do.” Despite having met a Garifuna whom he befriended nearly two decades ago, his interest in the culture began in 2009, when a DJ from the Dominican Republic put him onto the music of the Garifuna. Now he has listened to their music extensively. “For me, I am still touched by the Garifuna Women’s Project… it’s smooth, it keeps the culture but brings something new and doesn’t lose the quality of the music and the culture.” Although he has not managed to arrange a collaboration thus far, he is hopeful this, and other collaborations, will materialise on a future project. “I would really love to work with Youssou N’Dour”, he told us. “The other musician I am dying to work with is Tracy Chapman.”
Whilst to the uninitiated listener his music could be house music, Mzee categorises his work as something altogether distinct. Named ancestral tribal music, he sees his purpose as an artist as one that encompasses educating and informing his audience as well as entertaining them. “What I am trying to do is a transition from what I have learned from different tribes and cultures and moving it into the dance scene. Is it dance? Yes. But it is influenced by my culture and different traditions.” This is where his passion for Africa comes to the fore, as well as what he sees as his higher purpose. “I’m trying to preserve our culture and traditions through my music, and also showcase that Africa has beautiful culture,” he stated. “We are united in our diversity. Whether I am Zulu, Sotho or Garifuna as long as we respect each other’s culture, respect each other’s language, respect each other as human beings, we are united in a good way.”
So often people of African descent are encouraged to westernise and even sometimes feel ashamed of their roots, but Mzee’s music can act as a rallying cry for pride in one’s African heritage. Mzee’s Twitter feed is full of images that celebrate the natural beauty and unique culture of Africa’s many countries. “As an African, as a pan African I know where I’m coming from, what our forefathers or forebears started,” he pondered. “I tweet about Africa every day because I am very proud to be African and I am trying to teach my other brothers and sisters and make them proud of who they are and about our culture and traditions.” Mzee sees modern media as a slight imposition on promoting African culture, as so often is the case that many Africans look to the west. In an eloquent exchange, he put it thus: “for me I’m saying we as Africans should be proud of who we are, what we can achieve and what we can do, and we should also therefore teach and pass on that to our kids, so as they grow up they don’t lose the Africa in them because now things are changing. There’s TV, there’s internet, people are losing themselves and end up not knowing who they are or where they come from. But for a man to know where he is going, he needs to understand where he is coming from.”
The South African hopes that his work can be part of a bigger movement that changes the way African music, television, and literature are represented in the media. In the West, even with the progress made by the Black Lives Matter movement and efforts such as Black History Month, we rarely get African culture breaking into the mainstream, but Mzee highlighted that even in South Africa it can be difficult. “We need platforms – not a platform – platforms where we showcase African music 24 hours... We need television, we need channels that will be playing African music 24 hours, we need blogs that will be writing about African music, we need festivals where they’re only showcasing African music... We need those things, but then we don’t have investors because most of [the] people who are rich, who have got all the money, they are looking to the West to please their friends and clients… they might not think investing in a Garifuna project is a good thing, but I believe it is because we are showcasing a culture and tradition to the world. It is like rewriting history through music. You don’t need to sit down and write a book, but through music you are rewriting.”
Mzee takes his music seriously. In fact, his dedication to making music in African languages as well as music that reflects the diversity of Africa and speaks about important issues, such as the crisis in Zimbabwe referenced in the song Zvinosiririsa, Shona language for what a shame, might seem like more than just an artistic preference. It seems more like a calling. Before releasing albums, Mzee was an investigative journalist, whose career ended in controversy that created a national debate about media freedom. Yet, Mzee would argue that he has not changed career path, as when he held a job as a journalist, he saw himself as an artist. “For me, being a journalist is art, being a musician is art, being an author is art, so I believe I’m an artist. I’m an artist who can write books, who can write music and produce music and write stories as a journalist. I don’t see any boundaries; I just think that I’m just artistic.” However, within his art seems to be a sense of responsibility for telling his audience, via whatever medium, what he sees as the truth. This is where a link can be drawn between his music and his writing. “There is more to it than just passion, it becomes a patriotic duty, it is your responsibility to report on certain things that your colleagues in the industry are overlooking or trying to protect.”
Mzee’s career seems to span a myriad of different mediums in an attempt to present his work to different audiences. Scoring for films is his latest ambition. Though he has already experienced some success in this area, having recorded a soundtrack for a South African film named Blessers, his dreams lie further afield – Hollywood. While this may seem hypocritical, he wants to make it in America to get the message of African culture into the mainstream, rather than just becoming a composer. “I want to be an outsider who brings good music to the movie.” He continued to say of Hollywood executives that he “want[s] to give them a song they won’t resist, so when they hear the song, they won’t want to know whether the producer is black or white.” Rather excitingly, Mzee’s dream may be coming true as he is currently working not only on RISE, but also on a soundtrack for a Hollywood film that will be filmed in his village in 2021.
Whilst Mzee is keeping a lot of the details of his upcoming album under wraps, subsequent to our interview he sent across the album artwork. This powerful image once again underlines the important themes Mzee infuses in his work. The image above contains the Pan-African flag designed by Marcus Garvey, and the mask that rather satirically does not just represent the times in which we are living, but rather the ever-present silencing of African voices. We both are eagerly awaiting what Mzee has to offer next, and to see how it will differ from his previous work. He has indicated that unlike previous records, this album is slightly more ‘mature’, even featuring elements of jazz and classical music. This is perhaps an attempt to hark back to his youth, where it all began as an 11-year-old singing in the local church choir, which inspired his first and most recent song writing efforts.