I was born on a farm in northern South Africa. My parents moved nearer to Johannesburg when I was still a baby. They have a photograph of me at maybe six months old, asleep inside my dad’s guitar case. Just picturing it in my mind makes me feel safe. I can hear my dad playing.
When I feel overwhelmed, I need something I can listen to on loop. Not just for hours, but for days, sometimes weeks. I think of these tracks as an aural hood. They hold my head together.
This year, I found Uwrongo by Ami Faku, the Afro-soul singer who came to prominence on the 2017 South African version of The Voice. Released in 2020, Uwrongo is actually a Prince Kaybee single, which Barack Obama included on his fabled annual playlist last Christmas and also featuring Black Motion and DJ Shimza. But for me, its staying power is all Faku, one of South Africa’s brightest lights.
Uwrongo is a landscape in my mind. The opening beat that rattles like loose rings on the tines of a kalimba. The driving keyboard bassline, the syncopated drums. That splash and spray and sweep that good house DJs wield so well. The guitar that could only be South African. And Faku’s voice, this steady hand.
Where you’re from, and what you are, are not always straightforward questions. As a shortcut to account for my own mixedness, I often tell people I’m half-French, half-South African. I feel more French than anything else, but we moved to France when I was 12, and for some people, I’ll probably always be a foreigner there. At the same time, being white and African, for me, means a constant unblinking reckoning with what colonialism and apartheid wrought. Those ills are in my bones just as South Africa’s many languages are in my ears.
I learned (some) Afrikaans and isiZulu before I did French. Faku is Xhosa but, like most black (but far fewer white) South Africans, speaks several languages fluently. Before we speak, I want to make sure I understand what she’s singing about. I get in touch with an isiXhosa tutor I follow on Instagram who translates Uwrongo’s lyrics for me – they’re mostly in isiZulu, with some lines in isiXhosa. She gets to the few words I’d understood – uhamba and ekhaya, “go” and “home” – and laughs.
“So this is a song about someone who is refusing to get broken up with,” she says.
It strikes me as funny that I’ve spent 12 months of the pandemic obsessively listening to the line, “This is not working, go home”. But also, suddenly I am 14 again, in France, a teenager living in a language I’ve newly inhabited. Google tells me we’re exactly 11,884km (7,384 miles) away from “home” by way of the Trans-Sahara Highway. But we could be on the moon. I need music not to be something I have to parse for meaning (with my background and temperament, exegesis is force of habit) but something closer to night swimming. Something into which I can recede from words.
“So now I know you’re singing about a breakup,” I say to Faku over Zoom.
“Exactly,” she says, laughing. “You are jamming to a breakup song!”
Even when listeners don’t understand her lyrics, they respond to the melody, which she qualifies as “very church”, and to the emotion. It’s because the writing comes from a true place, she says.
Faku grew up singing in church. Her father, like mine, is a pastor. He and her mother have beautiful, low voices. Did that background shape her approach to music, to being quiet or being full of sound?
“It took time for me to understand that there’s a connection there,” she says. She mixed in the other sounds she loved: hip-hop, R&B, Caiphus Semenya’s soft melodies, Brenda Fassie’s high energy.
Faku doesn’t write with images in mind. Her process is all feeling. In the studio, she’ll hear melodies in beats that other people won’t detect.
She once told an interviewer that she hoped to do an international collaboration singing in isiXhosa. “In South Africa, we have a unique sound,” she says. “I want a child listening to me to be proud of whatever culture they fit in.”
Does Faku have a favourite sound? “I’m not technical about it,” she says, “but I am a minimalist.” This, too, she pegs to the pared-down nature of ecclesiastic song, sung in the round.
“Do you sing a lot at home?”
“Well, I never sang for my family,” she says. “I don’t know. I just didn’t think that …”
She trails off.
“Coming from Ezinyoka, which is a small township in Port Elizabeth, being an artist or a musician isn’t in our space. It’s not a reality for us. So I’m always low key. But when I’m alone, what I do more than anything is I listen more than I sing. I listen more. I listen more.”
I listen back to this part of our interview several times. The repetition is beautiful.