Soul, Synth and Rock & Roll, Songstress Shingai Tells Us About Breaking Down Doors And Celebrating Her Zimbabwean Heritage
Interviewed by: Chanté Joseph
Photography: Derrick Kakembo
Words: Bethany Burgoyne
Shingai has been leading a trail of change since she caught the attention of many as the frontwoman and bassist of The Noisettes. The Zimbabwean British artist has a sound and style that, quoting the opening line of her newly released song, Revolutions, is “easy to remember, hard to forget”. Her recognisable vocals that move between rumbling chants to smooth liquid trills, are carried alongside her playful and fun stage presence, topped up with an array of sensational outfits making this artist shine out. That and her game changing attitude which has helped to bend the perceptions and stereotypes that fall on the shoulders of many black women artists.
Influenced by a life growing up in South London, which Shingai describes as “a melting pot of diverse culture”, and attending Brit School was unanimous with the inspiring role her family played in her upbringing. With many of her Uncles being musicians plus her Mother who “has an amazing record collection”, Shingai notes the way both backgrounds have fed into her musical identity today. “I'm definitely a product of my culture, it’s almost like a remix. There’s a London sound that I got whilst growing up around Garage and Grime plus these connections to African culture through food and music. I’m a result of all those different vibrations.”
Having spent a decade performing with The Noisettes, Shingai’s latest project sees the release of her debut solo record, Ancient Futures. It is an energetically mesmerising mix of dance club anthems that reference African beats, jazzy pop and synthy bass. A celebration of her Zimbabwean heritage is most notable in the track, Coming Home, where Shingai samples her Uncle, Thomas Mapfumo’s tune, Gwindingew Rine Shumba. Mapfumo’s fundamental role in the progression of Zimbabwean Pop Music during the 1970s led to a legendary status during the Civil War against white minority rule, playing his music known as Chimurenga, “music of struggle” despite governmental attempts to silence him. These strong connections to Shingai’s own cultural heritage have played a large part in her development as a musician. “Growing up with your mum’s records and your mum’s food, it’s only when you move away from home or to another country, when you can’t get those records or the food anymore, you recognise how important that is. Going back to Zimbabwe was a massive eye opener, going on tour, touring the states, meant I met all these amazing, inspirational people who are just living in their truth and doing what they wanted to do. And I think it’s only then that I realised "Man! My Uncle would have had to work so hard - touring is hard, making records is hard, let alone doing it as a female. I definitely feel, with Ancient Futures, that I’m saying thank you for that inspiration and paying homage to my Uncle, to that culture. I feel it’s my way of reminding people that you can make something beautiful, something Pop that’s played on the radio, that is still channelling authenticity.”
Shingai’s unintimidated nature to be fun and playful on stage is hypnotically genuine yet she recognises this may have been different had she not been part of a band to start with. “I feel that maybe had I gone into it as a solo artist, it would have been even more difficult for me to play the music I wanted to play. But because I was in a band, and I had an instrument, I was protected from a lot of the stereotypes that were expected of a young black woman going into music; to perform in a different way, often in that space of RnB, purism, with a lot of the visuals that seem to be about stimulating the male gaze and I wasn't that kind of artist. I’m fun, playful, I like theatrical stuff, and I love outfits, I love performing, I love giving people experiences, so they go home with something that they've seen once in their life.”
What originally started as a covers band with fellow musician, Dan Smith, developed into The Noisettes. “Becoming a three-piece band is what a lot of people attributed to changing the game. A lot of people hadn't seen a female of colour playing bass, lead vocals and cartwheeling around and putting heart and soul into every gig. Still up to this day I wouldn't be able to categorise what style of music we made. I know its heartfelt and there's nothing else like it: whatever ceilings and stereotypes that the music industry thought were firmly in place, we came and chucked it all up into the air. I think we really challenged a lot of people who thought or felt they knew what music was.”
Much of the work Shingai put into breaking certain confinements of the music industry came through having to respond to journalist’s questions such as “’What does it feel like to play white man’s music?’ I really had to do a lot of drawn out interviews with music experts who seemed to have forgotten that the journey of rock and roll and punk comes from Africa anyway. From the rhythm and the scales that a lot of the slaves brought with them when they were forcibly taken to other lands and how that led to Gospel and Blues and Jazz and RnB. In fact, most of the music we love and enjoy, the spine of it, the back bone can be traced to African rhythms, African ways of singing and scales. I felt like I had to be the nerdy person who had to explain that this music doesn't belong to that person and that music doesn't belong to this person.” It is through such conversations as well as her presence on the music scene that Shingai is helping to educate through entertainment whilst presenting an essential role model for younger generations to look up to.
The way that Shingai carefully uses a mix of influences is what appears so positively throughout all her work. From the lyrics she sings to the creative direction she gives her music videos, her wonderfully performative nature to the intricacies of her outfits, each element pours out the tales of her own identity, a celebration of who she is and where she and her family have come from. A trait which she credits her Grandmother for. “As a kid, I spent time with my Grandmother in Malawi. She was very flamboyant, eccentric and she carried herself so beautifully. She was always making these outfits and clothes for the whole village; I was her little assistant as the end of the sewing machine. She encouraged me to approach creativity in a way that meant you didn't have to copy anybody else”. However, this sense of independent self-assurance wasn’t always so easy for Shingai growing up. “When you’re trying to form yourself as a teenager, it can be difficult because sometimes, certain parts of you don’t feel welcome in certain spaces, and you feel you have to suppress that or tone it down. You might go to some institution where you have to follow a certain social code and that can be anything, even from the way you wear your hair.”
Shingai reflects on how she rebalanced a sense of self whilst being in these, sometimes, stifling societies.“If you're growing up in a place that isn't necessarily your natural environment, you're going to need to get nourishment from what you're comprised of; your baselines, your rice and peas, certain herbs and spices; it’s like comfort food.” Reconnecting with her African roots was a big part of fuelling Shingai’s sense of identity “It was important to go and get sunshine, be in spaces where I wasn’t always the person who was the odd one out. To get a top up of those vibrations and then come back and be able to evolve more, in a European kind of space. I think that if you are a multifaceted person of colour you need to get that nourishment. It’s good to find our tribe, find your people. We are dynamic, we are a dynamic group of people who have been through such tough experiences. We need a space to be our dynamic selves. To evolve dynamically.”
The way Shingai can still see the silver lining in these universal challenges reflects her caring and optimistic nature “Ultimately, it’s a positive thing, as a result of being a multifaceted fabulous woman of colour. I have had to be strong. It’s made me more creative and I’m continuing to learn. I remember thinking, what kind of a world are we creating when we're telling people they can't be themselves? I decided I was going to make the kind of music where everyone feels welcome to the gig, vowing to never make music that was only for a certain group of people”. Despite Shingai never leaving the music scene, it feels right to welcome her back under her solo status. Allowing the many millennials influenced by The Noisettes to cherish and celebrate what Shingai did for the UK music scene and what she will continue to do.
Shingai’s new EP Ancient Sounds is out now. Follow her on Instagram @shingai