Sometimes, when I’m interviewing for my site, I can’t believe it’s actually me doing the things I’m doing. I’m just an ordinary average person, not affluent and just ‘ordinary’. Yet, music and the arts have the power to make me feel alive! And I believe it’s this that is what appeals the most – to touch and BE touched by the souls who tweak the golden thread of humanity.
More than that, there are some things that would just have been physically impossible just a few years ago. Before the fall of apartheid, it would have been very unlikely if not impossible for me to talk to Yvonne Chaka Chaka!! The Princess of Africa! And I find myself feeling SO GRATEFUL for our freedom, even if we have many challenges facing us today.
Yvonne Chaka Chaka has been in the music business in South Africa since 1985. She is is an internationally recognised and highly respected South African singer, songwriter, entrepreneur, humanitarian and teacher. Among many other successes, the song “Umqombothi” was featured in the opening scene of the 2004 movie Hotel Rwanda.
Even though I have done a number of interviews, I still never fail to feel nervous when I speak to people I hold in such high regard. This interview was no exception, but Yvonne put me at my ease right at the beginning. The reason I’m talking to her is because she’s about to be in a show called “A Night With the Stars” (June 27 and 28) at Joburg Theatre (book here)with the Johannesburg Youth Orchestra and the moment I spoke to her, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that the youngsters will be immediately at their ease and be able to do their very best. And one of the injustices of the past is that Yvonne’s songs simply weren’t played on the so called ‘white stations’. So I thought that a good way to honour this profoundly talented and longstanding lady who makes me proud to be South African would be to let you hear her songs so this post has more videos than pictures (please listen, and DON’T download them from here, go get them from iTunes).
What was your original motivation? What is your motivation now? To get in to and then keep creating music. Do I detect a soul influence, and possibly an influence from 60s / 70s pop bands?
I think it’s influence from the 60s and kind of soul music influences me, I want to think so.
All the stuff in the media about a fire pool made me think of your song I’m Burning Up.
What’s that song about – the video looks so much fun, please tell me about the process of that song and video?
It was actually written for me, when I started singing most of the songs were written for me. I never contributed anything, I just went into the studio and sang. It was only later I started contributing and having a say in everything that I did.
What made you decide to get into that?
When I started singing, music was not something I wanted to do. I always wanted to be an accountant. My mother wanted me to be a lawyer. For me this was a totally new thing. I sang in church and school. But it was not a career that I anticipated. I did not think there was anything in this kind of life so when I got into it, I thought if it’s done well, it looks like there is longevity. So I thought let me try my luck. It’s influenced by the see and feels around you and I started travelling, going to places like Kenya, Tanzania. Experiencing other people’s lives. I wanted to write about the things I saw. Attie van Wyk and all the people that I worked with, they gave me a chance to be able to write about my experiences.
Being an artist of more than 27 years standing, you have seen the best and the worst of South Africa. You have been a wonderful ambassador for South Africa and are one of the people who makes me proud to be South African. Thank you for that, from me. Let’s say you were a teacher (which you are) and South Africa was your student, what would you give us on your report card today, and why?
I’m humbled by that. I really think we as South Africans have come a long way. I’ve been in the music industry for 30 years. I started singing in 1985 and 10 years since I became a UN goodwill ambassador. Being a South African born during apartheid you could only imagine these things. I think to myself I never anticipated this, never thought I would be in New York. You can only imagine some of those things. In 1963 when Miriam Makeba was at the UN talking about what was happening in South Africa and you can only imagine that this was a South African talking at the UN Chambers and now today I say I’m in that position. It can only be something that God has planned. I say to myself being a South African and we look and say so much has happened to us. We are able to talk about it. Today you and me are talking, you’re white and I’m black and we’re talking as equals about our country. Not yours or mine. So for me we’ve come a long way and we’ve learned to tolerate each other. If we write a report we’ve come a long way, we can never be the same, but we can learn from one another. We always paint each other with the same brush, which is terrible.
We have some challenges as South Africans. High levels of crime, high unemployment, levels of dissatisfaction at corruption. What can high profile South Africans, as well as people on the ground, do to help our country from the position we’re in now?
I think what is good now is that freedom of speech is here, people are able to say whatever they want without being scared. People are able to say we don’t like what we see or hear. Ages ago we didn’t know what was happening in our country. Whether there was corruption or whatever, we were not allowed to talk about it. We were not part of the system. There’s even an Ombudsman. So now that we know what our rights and what is corruption, we should not allow it to happen. Our country should be growing not with the slow pace as it is. We can’t afford to retrench people. We need more people being employed. We are getting more young people in Africa so we can’t afford to not empower them. We need to ensure that SMMEs are upskilled and young people are given the skills they need. We can’t wait for government. We need to go back to the drawing board to see that we are able to walk freely to do things we need and get rid of crime and corruption. Am I able to do this or that that I need to do? You need people to be efficient to do ordinary things as if you can’t do ordinary things it becomes cumbersome. We need likeminded people to be able to do things above board.
As I get older I realise more and more that as white South Africans we lived an incredibly sheltered life. I get more and more annoyed about it because it prevented us from mixing with ALL South Africans, from learning their languages, learning their cultures, befriending them, and – listening to their music. Back in the 70s and 80s, what sort of support did you receive from South African radio and TV stations? Could radio and TV have done more to integrate society and break down barriers? Could they do more now?
Well I wish more could have been done. Music becomes a universal language. With music you disseminate information but obviously during those times, we were rebelling and telling the world about the atrocities happening in South Africa. So some of the music was not played because either they did not understand or felt it was not acceptable to them.
Music is universal. When it hits you you get healed. It was sad because there was music for black people and music for white people. It’s sad. I would appreciate my music to be played everywhere, on Radio Five instead of categorising music like a language. I don’t think there’s white or black music. One thing that was advantageous to us is we were forced to speak English and Afrikaans, French and other languages, it was advantageous and white people could only speak English. We could interact very easily with other people.
I started my website because I’m interested in the golden thread of humanity – as singers, artists, writers, etc, people have the ability to touch others across generations, nations, genders, and race. To inspire people. A song you sing today could inspire someone in generations to come – who isn’t even born yet. Is this something that you think about when performing your music?
Everybody does – like you, you may think you’re not, but the fact that you’re going to write, someone is going to pick up your article and be inspired. I really think everybody out there in their way does inspire people. I always think because I’m in the limelight and I travel a lot and I’ve been given my platform by the people who support me. I don’t think I’m a celebrity I don’t call myself one. (we do!) but I always respect people, it doesn’t matter who they are. You learn from different people every day and for me I always love being inspired and learning from others.
Throughout your life and career you’ve been a wonderful ambassador for South Africa and have broken down barriers.
- You were the first black child to appear on South African TV.
Some say I was the second, others say I was the first, it doesn’t matter to me. It was in 1981 when Black TV started, with TV 2 it was only between 6 – 8 and it was just cartoons and there was a programme called The Conquerer, a guy called Bernard Joffe. It was a Talent Search programme which he put together and it was a singing competition. There were young people playing instruments and dancing. I was the first one there, and he paid us. He paid me R500. That was a lot of money then. My mom earned R40 a month and I made more than her. I was walking with my shoulders up there. He paid us so much money. So I think when he packaged that whole programme he put me first. It was just one of those things.
- You’ve performed for HRM Queen Elizabeth II, US President Bill Clinton, South African President Thabo Mbeki and a host of other world leaders. Please tell us about these experiences. How does it feel for a girl from Soweto – the Princess of Africa – to perform for the Queen of England?
Born in Soweto, my father died when I was 11, I never once thought I would travel and see all the faces that I’ve seen or touch them or be amongst them, so for me – to get invited to the White House – perform for Madiba, performing for the Queen, I met Michael Jackson and Whitney. It’s like I kick myself and I think you can never let your background deter you from wanting to be what you want to be. You can never take anything for granted. Everything that you have or that you are has always been planned for you. I constantly say thank you to God. I’m a strong believer, I’m a Christian. I never take anything for granted. I had my feet firm on the ground and worked hard, I never thought I had to be there. I never think like that. You never know. What goes up must come down. I never take anything for granted. I’m grateful for the little I have.
You’ve seen a lot of changes in the music world. From vinyl to cassette to CD, with videos too – to mp3s and the internet. And back to vinyl! Do you find issues like piracy to be a problem – in that it affects your income – and how do you counteract this? Do you think the advent of iTunes and other legal downloading options in South Africa have helped counteract piracy, having made music more accessible?
Oh yes. I really think that’s the biggest problem that we have. When we started singing there is no social media that there is now, which is a great tool to expose music. These young people with music now, there’s so much exposure, that’s very good but on the other hand, other people explored those avenues for bad reasons. I’m on Google Alerts, and in a day I find my name more than 40 times. They put my music there, upload all your stuff there and you don’t even know who uploads all your stuff. Piracy is at its worse. And that’s stealing someone’s livelihood. In some of the other countries rules are being adhered to but in Africa, most of our stuff is being pirated. They’re stealing our intellectual property and that’s why some artists end up dying like paupers. I think it goes back to education. If you are being educated that you are buying something that’s not authentic, it’s stealing.
On 27 and 28 June you are performing in “A Night with the Stars” with the Johannesburg Youth Orchestra Company. What does it mean to be performing with these young people – possibly born after the fall of apartheid – during Youth month?
When they approached me, for me it’s like giving back and actually encouraging these young people. Like me wanting to perform with my idol. I think these young kids; you can have ambition, because they do have the talent. I have a problem when the jobs want people to have experience, where are they to get it if they haven’t worked? I want to say I’m here; you can work with me as well. I’m prepared to come down to your level and you can work with me. I’m putting myself in your shoes and sitting here with you. Whether they make mistakes, I’m saying it’s okay, I’m going to be there with you. If you are going to go up with me, it’s okay. If you are not it’s still okay but this experience means you can say I did perform with Yvonne Chaka Chaka. It’s during Youth Month, for me it’s supporting these young people. Saying we know you’re young but in 5 – 10 years they could be in the main orchestra or whichever. I would like to encourage other stars to avail themselves for the youth. To be there. I say to myself if you don’t give them a chance who will.
Is there anything else that you would like to bring across in this interview?
We need to encourage young people, they need to work hard. I’m here to mentor them and I’m sure I was also mentored. I didn’t just wake up and become what I am. And maybe when they’re older they can do it for others. They have so much talent.