Artist Stories, Stories

Bongeziwe Mabandla’s Reimagination of Identity, Language and Spirit

Bongeziwe Mabandla Mangaliso Kent Andreasen
Image cropped from Portrait by Kent Andreasen / courtesy of the artist.

As the myth of the Rainbow Nation dissipates and young people begin to interrogate their identity and its context in South Africa, as well as in the world, the relationship between arts and culture becomes one of preservation.

For all their diversity and attempts at preserving history, big cities lack roots. They are quick to commodify the aesthetics that they lack, and struggle to capture who we truly are and where we’ve been. We see this in the scuffles over memorialisation – whether its street names, commemorative statues or architecture. Who and what is remembered says quite a bit about who we are, and who we want to be.

In an urbanised and incredibly overwhelming place like Johannesburg, there are those who come to the city in search of opportunity and good fortune, who bring with them a cultural influence that is evident and unshakeable, whose identity is a kind of novelty. One such person is singer and songwriter Bongeziwe Mabandla, born and raised in the town of Tsolo in the Eastern Cape, and inclined from childhood to become an artist.

Bongeziwe Mabandla Mangaliso Kent Andreasen

Portrait by Kent Andreasen

Having studied at Lady Gray Arts Academy, Bongeziwe was initially interested in the rich realm of fine art. In high-school, he became interested in what black creativity looked like, and it was only after learning about South African artists such as Gerard Sekoto, Gibson Kente and Mbongeni Ngema, that Mabandla began to question the lack of representation of blackness in academia and mainstream art. In our interview, Bongeziwe expressed that it was from this point that he understood the need to create art that was specific and transitionally South African, describing it as “an urbanised representation of who we are.”

When he decided to move to Johannesburg in the early 2000’s, the initial plan was to study acting at AFDA. But upon arrival in Joburg, Mabandla found himself submerged in the city’s vibrant music landscape.

“One of my sub-majors was music, and when I came to Joburg there was a big music scene. I began to think that music was really cool. Simphiwe Dana and Thandiswa Mazwai had just released their albums, and I was staying in the same block of flats as MXO. Kwani Experience were also making waves at the time, and the music culture of that time was attractive and familiar to me.’’

After the resistance of kwaito and hip hop in the 90’s, the early 2000’s suggested the quest for a different kind of declaration: the declaration and reclamation of cultural identity through music, a process that was already well underway. A new group of unapologetically African musicians that embraced the fact that they were urban had emerged. These musicians used fashion and music to express and reclaim themselves culturally, shedding shells of superficiality to rediscover and reimagine their roots, much like the afore-mentioned Thandiswa Mazwai sheds her old clothes for traditional Xhosa garments in Bongo Maffin’s iconic video for their 2001 hit, ‘The Way Kungakhona’.

Following suit and calling on the musical and oral traditions of amaXhosa, Bongeziwe uses language as a tool of cultural preservation. By singing in isiXhosa and encompassing the influences of his upbringing and culture, he shares with us not just his talent but his cultural identity as well.

After the 2012 release of his debut album Umlilo, Mabandla has often found himself pigeon holed into the term “afro-folk artist”. He cautions the danger of subscribing to one specific genre, saying that “people say my music’s world music and I definitely didn’t make my music with the intention of it being world music, it’s music I grew up around and being influenced by.” That being said, the singer songwriter says he understands the association of his music with the term ‘folk.’ “My music is based on storytelling, and I think that’s the biggest element or the main attraction for people who listen and engage with it. It’s very story-driven, and that’s what folk is about. [It’s] stories about where you come from, or the environment you find yourself in.”

Five years since the release of his debut album, Mabandla has been working to expand his own idea of identity and what it means both culturally and spiritually. Working with producer and former 340ml guitarist Tiago Correia-Paulo, Bongeziwe’s latest album, Mangaliso (meaning miracle in isiXhosa), explores a more spiritual side of the singer songwriter.

A prayer and praise, Mangaliso is a meditation on music’s ability to uplift, teach and heal. Lacking the vocabulary and doctrine of most mainstream religious faiths, Bongeziwe notes that, ‘‘spirituality, or things that revolve around spirituality, are hard to articulate and put into words, which is what was so special about this album because I think I took a very intimate and private part of myself and put it into the songs. I was going through a lot of things and thinking about putting together an album, trying to write new music and I wrote this one song called ‘Wena’, which was quite a spiritual song, and that sparked this need to create a spiritual album. That opened me up to the relation between music and spirituality.”

As a second generation resident of Johannesburg, growing up in the multicultural township of Soweto, Bongeziwe’s story resonates with me in a different way. Like much of my generation, we thought we fulfilled the dream of democracy by attending multiracial schools, and as such, a lot of my cultural influences, from language to spirituality, have been somewhat distilled. Big cities lack the practicality and opportunity for Ubuntu and for those of us for whom big cities have been our only homes, the ways in which we reclaim our cultural identity requires some reimagining.

This is why artists like Bongeziwe Mabandla are so important. They offer healing by asking us to re-examine and re-imagine our relationships to identity, language and spirituality. Affirming why healers are named after song, Mangaliso invites us all to keep exploring and re-shaping our identity, to form our futures from the guidance of those before us.

Grab Mangaliso on iTunes here and watch the Popsicle Studio Session video for lead single ‘Ndokulandela’ below the following tour dates:

20 May – Cafe Roux – Cape Town

21 May – Sunday Edition w/ Petite Noir at The Old Biscuit Mill – Cape Town

26 May – Kitcheners – Johannesburg

27 May – Zakifo Music Festival – Durban

3-4 June – Sakifo Music Festival – Reunion Island

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