In The Lab: Shekhinah Is Working On A South African R&B Album That Could Change The Game

We hang out with Durban-born singer Shekhinah as she works on her debut album.

SOUTH AFRICA—“Back To The Beach,” the collaboration between two Durban singers Kyle Deutsch and Shekhinah and the producer Sketchy Bongo, was a serious summer hit in 2015. 

It was a perfect summer song, about taking a break from the hustle and bustle of city life, and taking to the beach. It merged soul, pop, R&B and electronic music without even trying. The song won the artists a Best Pop/Alternative award at the 2016 MTV Africa Music Awards

When we meet, the 23-year-old Shekhinah is on her phone and sipping a cup of tea in her apartment in Bryanston, in the north side of Johannesburg, during a studio break. She tells me how she feels her breakout single came too soon.

“I thought maybe this year, when I finish my degree I will get that one song on radio that will be great,” says the AFDA arts and live performance graduate, who goes on to explain how her life changed in college after the song became big. “But it happened before I was ready. That's why everything has been so delayed,” she continues.

Shekhinah and her band listen to a playback of her take. Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela

Shekhinah is currently holed up in her apartment, where her studio is, working on her debut album. She's currently six songs deep and needs to submit the master to SONY, the label which is releasing it, soon.

“We don’t have a lot of time,” she says, taking a sip of tea as she enjoys the afternoon sun rays which proliferate through her living room window. “There are a lot of breaks in between, as we have to sometimes stop to work and make money. Just like this weekend, starting from Friday, we have gigs, so we can’t really do any studio. I’m also going to Kenya for a week, so I just try to lay down as much vocals as I can, so the boys can do work without me.”

Shekhinah takes a tea break. Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela

Even though she has exactly a month to record six more songs, and a hectic schedule, she is determined to not have any delays, because she wants to strike while the iron's still hot. “If I push it back, the demand will become irrelevant,” she notes.

Even though she has no album out, Shekhinah's been able to headline shows all over the country. “Studying performance allowed me to be able to structure my shows cleverly around ‘Back To The Beach’ when I still didn’t have many songs out,” she says.

Angelique Anthony records backing vocals. Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela

With serious hits like “Let You Know,” which she worked on with Sketchy Bongo, and “On It,” on which she’s featured by DJ Sliqe, the singer has successfully eluded the dreaded one-hit wonder label. Her versatility, alongside her natural voice, is one of her strongest traits. While “Back To The Beach” was more laid back, “Let You Know” is a festival-ready EDM banger. On “On It” she sings over a cloud trap instrumental with sinewy synth and pad squelches. “Your Eyes,” her collaboration with Black Coffee, sees her give your favorite house vocalist a run for their money.

Shekhinah and Michale Morare cheerAngelique on. Photo by Sabelo MKhabela

Asked if the success of “Back To The Beach” initially exerted pressure on her, her answer is a resounding “yes.”  “We had pressure to deliver—me, Sketchy and Kyle,” she says, “when that was just an organic collaboration. Then we had to go back into studio and think about the white kids, black kids, coloured kids, Indian kids... that were effected by the song, and try and include them in the next single, which became difficult, but not so difficult because we had to do what we felt.”

Shekhinah in the booth. Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela

If what the songs she’s working on with her band right now are anything to go by, those kids are in for a treat when her album drops. I watch her producer, Theo Seretse, go through vocals Shekhinah just recorded. “I need to add more vocals,” she says, getting closer to the microphone, which is next to the window. “We are just stacking up these vocals, it’s more work for you when you mix,” says Theo to Luthando Phihlela, the sound engineer. “It’s fine,” Luthando chuckles. They are all huddled around Luthando’s computer where all the work is taking place.  

Shekhinah and Mfundo Mbuli share a moment of laughter. Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela

Mfundo Mbuli, who plays the piano, but doesn’t have much to do in this session, is going through his Instagram feed, and is discussing with his mates why blocking your partner on Instagram is a good idea.

“They are wanted by everyone,” Shekhinah says about her band, “Their phones are being blown up by your favorite celebrities.” The singer met the band while she was still studying at AFDA. The guys were studying at the SABC College. “It’s been a great synergy ever since. It’s been interesting watching it grow from it just being a school thing to being a real thing.”

Shekhinah takes a selfie in the booth. Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela

Apart from her band, Shekhinah is working with different producers for her upcoming album. She has enlisted the likes of Sketchy Bongo, Main Major (Tinashe, Rouge, Da L.E.S), DJ Maphorisa (Kwesta “Ngud’,” Drake “One Dance”), Lunatik (K.O. “CaraCara”), among others. She’s also producing one song, which she will be recording in a separate studio this evening. Even though she’s keeping collaborations to a minimum, she has interesting features such as singers Amanda Black and Mariechan from the group Jamali, and a fellow Durbanite, the rapper Nasty C. “I’ve tried to avoid collaborations on this album because that’s what I'm known for,” she says.

The full band: Michael Morare (lead), Mfundo Mbuli (piano), Shekhinah Donnell, Angelique Anthony (backing vocals), Luthando Phihlela (sound engineer), and Theo Seretse (producer). Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela

“It’s very special,” she says when asked about the name of the album, which she can’t share yet. “I'm hoping it can be an R&B/pop album from Africa that actually stands out everywhere. I'm just trying to do everything as systematically as I can. If I'm not recording at Sketchy’s then it’s here, and I want to do everything at home so that I'm most comfortable.”

But even when she’s working away from home, Shekhinah is still comfortable, as she is always in the company of her bandmates, who she has enviable chemistry with. There are a lot of chuckles and laughter in-between takes and playbacks. A serious conversation can ensue in-between the jokes, too.

Mfundo Mbuli messing around on the piano. Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela

The crew’s second studio session for the day, which takes place at a studio in Randburg, is for the only song that was recorded with full live instrumentation. There are also two backing vocalists—Angelique Anthony and pianist Mfundo Mbuli. Reno Zeelie, who runs the studio which doubles as a rehearsal space for bands, is the recording engineer for the session.  

And the studio selfie. Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela

Shekhinah and the rest of the band are giving tips and cheering Angelique on as she lays down her backing vocals. Michael Morare, who plays the lead guitar, is improvising on a ukulele, on the mixing desk side of the studio as the vocals are being recorded. It’s all an easy and fun process. Shekhinah high-fives Angelique upon leaving the recording booth.

The song has a jazz influence, but is still not far off from the pop and R&B sound Shekhinah is gunning for. She tells me earlier: “I managed to incorporate the working sound, the one that’s familiar to the people that know me. It exists, and the first single is definitely like that. But I kind of, like, want to cater for everyone. So if you like one song on the album, I'm happy with that. I'm just hoping that there’s a song for every emotion.”

With the two songs she’s working on today, you are guaranteed to have at least one favorite.

Listen to some of Shekhinah's hits below, and follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela.

Nadia Nakai Explains Why She Never Used to Work With Women Rappers

"Because I would have never shined as Nadia Nakai. I would have shined as another female rapper."

South African rapper Nadia Nakai is gearing to release her debut album. She recently did an interview with the website Slikour On Life in which she spoke about, among other things, squashing beef, the work behind her album and the importance of dressing up for her performances.

She also spoke about why she has always been opposed to all-female collaborations, especially those whose selling point is that they are all-girl collaborations.

"There's a reason why I did what I did when I didn't do those female remixes, when I didn't jump on those songs, when I was okay that I wasn't on the 'Baddest' remix," she told Slikour.

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Photo: courtesy of Natsai Audrey Chieza

100 Women: Natsai Audrey Chieza is Changing the World One Petri Dish at a Time

Her interdisciplinary approach to biology and fashion has sparked conversation about the future of sustainability and pollution in textile manufacturing.

The bold jewel tones of OkayAfrica 100 Women honoree Natsai Audrey Chieza's silk scarves aren't the product of hazardous chemicals or silkscreen printing. Instead, they are the product of bacteria. Specifically coelicolor, a strain of bacteria found in soil that happens to excellently synthesize organic chemical compounds. Working in the trade for six years, the Zimbabwean materials designer quickly came to understand why the textile industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world. Knowing that the most harm occurs during the process of dyeing fabrics, she decided to take action.

Chieza has worked with leading brands such as Microsoft, Nissan, and Unilever to usher in a new approach to science and design. Through her creative R&D; studio Faber Futures, the design innovator uses the process of creating with bacteria to assist in moving mankind away from our fossil fuel dependency. As the biopigment expert put it [last year during her TED talk "Fashion has a pollution problem—can biology fix it?"], in the future we must make sure that we are not "mirroring the destructive legacies of the oil age."

Her interdisciplinary approach to biology and fashion has sparked spirited conversation about the future of sustainability and pollution in textiles. Here, Chieza expounds on her start, the pros and cons of creating something new and the urgency of change.

The following has been edited for length and clarity

Akinyi Ochieng for OkayAfrica: STEM and the arts are often conceptualized as separate worlds. However, in your career, you've managed to find the overlap. How did you, a materials designer, end up dabbling in biotechnology?

Natsai Audrey Chieza: I've always really wanted to work within the creative field. I used to work in architecture where I really enjoyed my education in a systems approach to designs and designing for multiple contexts. But I wanted to explore a different side of the design world, so I began exploring the skill and context of material flows, and how technology and futures fits within this framework of how we design.

For my own work and my practice, not having a scientific background made me try things based on what I understood about materials and what I understood about the interactions in which those materials existed in society. I'm interested in a political lens, an economic lens, and how textiles perform in reality. That's not necessarily the approach that a scientist would have taken. Now that's not to say that science isn't important—it's vital. But innovation can occur in that intersection.

Did you go into this thinking, "Oh, I'll figure it out. There must be a path to make this work"?

To be honest, when I started off, the field was not defined. I think I found something really interesting, which was about how biology was becoming a realm of design, and I just explored that as best as I knew how as a designer and non-scientist. It just so happened that around me there was a context that was imagined but enabled me six years later to say, "That's the industry where this work belongs" and stakeholders who give me a space to further my work in a creative and experimental. The path was never anything clear at all. I learned as I grew.

There's a phrase that is often repeated today: "You can't be what you can't see." But you have really created a niche for yourself. What are the benefits of entering an emerging space?

I think what's amazing is not having anyone or anything telling you that what you think is impossible. If you're carving a new territory then you must trust in your instinct and vision to effectively push where the work can be and where it exists. You're not asking permission to do anything. Of course the flip side of that is you have to bring people with you, and so part of you being able to do the work is convincing people that your vision has legitimacy and it's worth exploring, worth taking a risk to look outside of that box.

It's often quite challenging to figure out how to find the strength to push something that hasn't been done before. There's no precedent or rulebook to my work, but sometimes it's really nice to have a rulebook. [Laughs] However, I think it's made me a person who doesn't see challenges as obstacles that are in the way, but more as problems that can be solved. And I think that's the good thing.

Much of your work is about biopigments. What color excites you?

It's not really the colors that excite me. It's color as a cultural context that really fascinates me. I'm really interested in if a microbe is almost like this living factory that produces this pigment, and the technology can be shared and deployed with people as to how you work with it across the world, then what are the cultural interventions that can happen in South Africa versus in Argentina versus in the United Kingdom, based on this common microbe. I think that's always been what interests me the most, the context in which our materials exist. I think a really good example is indigo, and how from Japan to West Africa, indigo is just this really, really rich material, and the process and the craftsmanship that goes into it. I'm interested to see how the future ecology of making arises in response to biotechnologies across the world.

Where do you see yourself and your work evolving in the near or long term?

I'm sort of going through that growth moment where you've been working toward something and then you've arrived at that and you're like, "Right, what's next?" I think I'm fundamentally somebody that wants to use design as a discursive tool to understand how our technologies proliferate. My focus is really on the imagined life sciences and how they're going to become very much a part of all of our lived experiences, and particularly in the context of really urgent changes that are happening from a local level to a global level. From global warming and climate change to resource scarcity across regions, our response to what I think being able to design with living systems, can afford us in the future. So my work really is about understanding how to engage stakeholders across different sectors to grow a consensus around how we're going to leverage these sorts of technologies so that they can be technologies for good. That's really where this is going.

This article appears as part of OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2018—a project highlighting the impactful work done by African women across the globe. Throughout March, we will be publishing a series of profiles, videos, interviews and feature stories on these inspirational women.

Click here to see the entire list of 2018 honorees.

Maia & The Big Sky LP cover.

Start Your Week Off Right With This Soulful Kenyan Collaboration

Maia & the Big Sky connect with Blinky Bill for "Pawa."

Maia & the Big Sky's music routinely blends soul and funk influences with the coastal rhythms of Kenya and features singing in both English and Kiswahili.

Maia's recently tapped into the vinyl revival wave as her 11-song Maia & the Big Sky LP is reportedly the first Kenyan album released on vinyl since the 1970s.

The Nairobi-based artist is now sharing the new music video for "Pawa," the album's leading track, which we're premiering here today. Directed by Chris King, the beautiful new clip sees Maia & the Big Sky taking over the TV airwaves and minds of all of those watching, freeing them from the "power" that controls them.

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