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Simphiwe Dana is nobody’s darling

“Part of what makes Simphiwe Dana so compelling for me, part of why I had to write this book, is that she is almost impossible to govern,” writes Professor Pumla Dineo Gqola in her latest book, A renegade called Simphiwe. This book is a “creative-intellectual portrait” of the public (and private) life of the musician. In this country where our imagination of political liberation has largely focused on the soap-opera like manoeuvres of politicians, Gqola carefully recasts our eyes by showing us the intersection between the creative and the political. While we have been accustomed to colourful politically focused book titles fit for Hollywood blockbusters from Eight Days in September to Mangaung: Kings and Kingmakers, Gqola dares and goes against the grain in this book.

In the book, Gqola tells us that Dana earns her status as a “renegade” because her music and politics “widens people’s senses of what is appropriate and imaginable”. The author insists that Dana’s “rebel” status has much to tell us “about her and about ourselves, collectively, when you pay attention to how we respond to her”. The difficulty one experiences in trying to classify her music is demonstrative of this, for while many can call it purely jazz music her song Ilolo is sure to get you dancing. While it is not gospel, Inkwenkwezi can have you tearing up very quickly forcing you into an immediate existential crisis. And while it is not classic protest music either, the imagery she draws on Bantu Biko Street will sure make you yearn for a politics that values justice beyond mere rhetoric.

Her music, like its singer cannot be neatly boxed into coherent categories for it is all of these things and then some. This is the same woman who sings in the most mesmerising isiXhosa and yet thinks we should adopt isiZulu as our national language! This is the woman who not only sees herself as an artist but has the audacity to think that she can rescue the disaster that is the South African education system. On top of that she dares tell a premier and party leader, Helen Zille, to get off her pedestal. As Gqola posits, Dana is captivating “because she troubles many categories of belonging in the South African imagination in the most remarkable ways”.

In the words of Alice Walker in her poem “Be nobody’s darling”, we can say safely say that Simphiwe is comfortable being uncool and is indeed “pleased to walk alone”.

With that said, however, in a country that has produced musical giants like Miriam Makeba, one would not be faulted to argue that South African history has produced a particular musician whose art is heavily contaminated with the political. Makeba for instance not only used her music as a political tool but went as far as addressing the United Nations in 1963 against apartheid South Africa with as much authority as any of the liberation leaders of the time. However she was not alone for we also have greats likes Dolly Rathebe, Thandi Klaasen, Letta Mbulu, Busi Mhlongo and of course, Brenda Fassie who also engaged the politics of their time through the art they produced. So in some ways, placed through time along a history of renegades, many would say that Dana’s emergence and forceful political presence is unremarkable.

What is remarkable and noteworthy however about Dana’s emergence is South Africa’s evident uneasy reception of artists like her who remind us that making good art in this place comes with the burden of speaking truth to power as part of the work of citizenship. Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani has made the case that to understand the work of citizenship is not to reduce it to simply being entitled to access to resources. Instead Mamdani invites us to see citizenship as entitling one to enter the struggle for resources. Similarly, Melisa Harris-Perry tells us that citizenship is fundamentally a “struggle for recognition”, a “nexus of human identity and national identity”.

Dana and her contemporaries such as Lebogang Mashile, Zanele Muholi, Thandiswa Mazwai and many others come to us as mirrors that remind us of the extent to which we are succeeding and failing in the duties of citizenship. They force us to perpetually ask ourselves to expand the image of the citizen and henceforth “the people”. These artists challenge us to be curious about boundaries of citizens, where the citizen can go, who they can love and how far they can dream. For these artists, the circle can always be bigger.

In a country where there are a generous number of books written about Julius Malema, Jacob Zuma and none written about, for instance, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, I am reminded of the dearth of writing that shifts our eyes from the so-called “Big Man”. We need more books like A renegade called Simphiwe that place at the centre of the political those that are often imagined as mere spectators. I like that this book is written about a living woman who will hopefully continue to disrupt our sensibilities in small and big ways. As we move to the 20th anniversary of democracy, we need more books like this, and many others like Lauretta Ngcobo’s Prodigal Daughters: Stories of South African Women in Exile, that will disturb the dominant narratives of the tales of liberation.

In this political moment when a national leader can reduce a woman to “nopatazana” and still be seen as a principled man of the left, there is need to reclaim the centre as women’s natural dwelling. In this important book, Gqola and Dana are going against the grain and leaving evidence that her voice too has meaning worth hearing. Through this book, and her artistry Dana is proclaiming she is unbowed and that her place is everywhere. She will not be reduced to being someone’s “darling” because she knows too well nguye iqhawe – she is the hero. She is qualified to live among her dead.