Interview
Courtesy of Amanda Black.

In Conversation with Amanda Black: 'I've grown incredibly from the girl who wrote 'Amazulu''

The South African artist speaks about what she learnt from her debut album, being back in the studio and her challenge to South Africans this Women's Month.

Amanda Black burst onto the South African music scene with her debut album, Amazulu, back in 2016. The Afrosoul album, which included the hit songs "Amazulu", "Kahle" and "Sinazo", did incredibly well, and four years after its release, is still one of the highest streamed albums in South Africa. Then 23-years-old, Amanda Black sent shockwaves throughout the music industry with her seamless ability to create relatable anthems to which the whole country was singing along.

Following the release of her debut album, she went on to collaborate with a number of South African musicians including Sjava and Vusi Nova. "I do", the laid-back and dreamy track which she worked on with LaSauce, had South Africans undeniably in their feels for months on end. At the 2017 South African Music Awards (SAMAs), Amanda Black showed everyone that she'd been in top form the previous year and went on to take home the awards for "Album of the Year", "Best Newcomer of the Year," "Best Female Artist of the Year" and "Best R&B Soul/Reggae Album." She was also nominated for BET's "Viewers' Choice: Best International Act" in the same year.

Amanda Black has set her sights not only on becoming a musician of note in the country or on the continent, but the world as well. Earlier this year in February, she dropped the single "Thandwa Ndim" ahead of her upcoming album, Power, which drops at the beginning of October. Alongside the likes Shekhinah, Sho Madjozi, Lady Zamar and Simmy, Amanda Black is currently one of the most streamed women artists in South Africa and has been highlighted by Apple Music as part of their Visionary Women campaign.

We caught up with her to talk about her upcoming album, the inevitable pressure that comes with releasing a sophomore album as successful as its predecessor and what changes fans can expect in her new music.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


You've had a tremendous amount of success with your debut album Amazulu. Close to three years later, what would you say about that body of work?

I put a lot of my heart into it. I remember when I was making the project and telling some of my stories, I had to relive some of the things that I went through. I had to go back in my mind and try and remember certain feelings. I had to try and remember how I felt when I got my heart broken, but at the same time, the journey songs were also where I had to remember where I was coming from, and my hopes and dreams before that. So I was really, really proud. I'm still so proud of Amazulu. I never actually anticipated the success that came with it. I had no expectations once, because it was my first project. My only hope was that people would like it.

What are some of the current musical projects that you're working on?

I'm actually working on my sophomore album and that is going to be released later this year. It's dropping on the fourth of October. I have a date already. The title of the album is Power.

Is there any pressure to produce an album that is as successful as Amazulu?

Yeah, like a lot. I've heard a lot about the sophomore slump. I've felt a lot of pressure because of the success of Amazulu. I've had people coming to me and saying, "How are you going to top Amazulu?". I'm like, "Please guys, can I just make music?" I had to remove myself from that so I can make the music, you know? There's always that pressure of making the next big song, but I've had to remove myself from it so that I can make the music that I want to make.

Amanda Black - Amazulu (Official Video) www.youtube.com

Besides the success of your debut album, what would you say has been different with you being back in the studio and working on the second album?

I'm different, for one. Even the way I write is different. It's not like completely different, but I just feel like I've grown. Three years later, as a twenty-three-year-old, who was experiencing and writing Amazulu. I've grown from that girl. I've grown from that person. As much as people will compare, I'm also comparing myself to myself. Like yeah, "Okay, that one was great. How did I make that one?", and then the self-doubt creeps in. I listen to those choruses and think, "Can I even write anymore?" I did the whole thing of being in album mode. It puts so much mental pressure on you and the challenge is now literally going through the writing block. That's one of the challenges that I have encountered.

Would you say that your sound has stayed the same or do you sense an evolution?

I've experienced new things, new challenges and new emotions as I'm going along so the sound has evolved but has also stayed Amanda Black. Music changes, music evolves, music grows—grows really fast these days. The times are also changing, you know? What people are listening to, the sound that I'm also influenced by, are not necessarily the same sounds I was influenced by three years ago. When you hear the next project, you will hear the difference and the growth as well.

Amanda Black - Thandwa Ndim www.youtube.com

What are some of the artists that you're looking forward to working with in the future?

There's a lot of people who I respect right now, respecting their artistry and them just being genuine people. I'm like, "Yes, I want to work with them". Definitely Anatii, I'm really loving his vibe right now. Shekhinah as well, I love her. Africa is like crazy with talent. I love what's happening in the music space, where we are all now collaborating with each other and basically just becoming one. It's incredible.

Apple Music has highlighted you as one of the most streamed women artists in South Africa. How does that acknowledgement feel?

It's incredible. Some people may know what I've been through, where I live and the challenges that I've been through in the past two years during this sort of quiet time. A lot has been happening emotionally and psychologically when I wasn't releasing anything. I felt I was being quiet and feeling a little bit forgotten. I was incredibly overwhelmed seeing Apple releasing the most streamed album in four years and I was there; Amazulu was there. For me, that was such validation. That's what I take away from it. I'm like, "Yeah, I'm here, I'm still here". So that was incredible. I'm so overwhelmed by that, being among such great women who I respect and admire like Shekhinah, for instance.

You've created a playlist for Apple Music. Tell us about that.

I have a couple of new songs and new artists that I really love to listen to and who also inspire me. They're all the friends that I grew up listening to, the songs that inspired me to do what I'm now doing. The playlist has a couple of my favorite songs from women who I really adore.

Listen to Amanda Black's playlist on Apple Music.

South African women are in crisis in this country. Personally, and as an artist, what do you want to be the focus for this Women's Month?

I feel a month is just not enough. I think what's also part of the problem and hypocritical of us to do is to simply wait for August to celebrate women while also not actually implementing changes in terms of gender-based violence and stuff that South African women are going through. We just make it so pretty, everything is pink. In my space, there are so many shows that are named after women, but the money doesn't even go to women or women initiatives.

"Women in the country need to be a priority and I feel, they sort of come after a lot of things."

That's my opinion. But I'm also actively, like I said, trying to help. A year ago, I started trying to do a pad drive where I donate pads to schools. At the moment, I'm still pretty much doing it on my own, and I'm in the process of planning to get sponsorship and doing it on a larger scale and more frequently. There is a problem and there are people who have the power to just basically fix the problem, but it's going to take a long time for us to get there.

What are you looking forward to most at this point in your music career?

Musically, I obviously want to grow. I want to become a continental songwriter and vocalist. I'm also just working on myself, basically to become a better musician. I also want to take my music globally. I want to be the voice of the voiceless because I do believe my music speaks for people that can't speak for themselves.

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Photo courtesy of Sam Soko.

Interview: Sam Soko is the Kenyan Director Behind Sundance Hit, 'Softie'

We meet filmmaker Sam Soko who has made a stirring documentary about the Kenyan protest leader Boniface Mwangi

Filmmaker Sam Soko didn't intend on making a documentary about Kenyan photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi.

The original idea he had was to make a manual of sorts, a short video guide, on how to protest, the do's and don't's. Soko, himself an activist artist who cut his teeth convincing friends to let him create political music videos for their apolitical songs, knew Mwangi's experience on the streets both photographing protests and staging them meant he had a lot to share with others.

But then came the blood. A thousand litres of it, to be precise. And the pigs. Dozens of them, with words like MPigs written on them. Like the graphic photos Mwangi had become known for taking—it was a sight you couldn't look away from. It was a protest Mwangi organized, in 2013, to decry corrupt members of the Kenyan parliament who had decided to increase their salaries, 2 months after taking office. And at his side, through the thick red liquid of it all, was Mwangi's wife, Njeri, ready to be arrested with him.

"Once I was witness to his relationship, I started seeing him as a family man," Soko tells OkayAfrica. "Because he's planning a protest and all, but when you look at the footage, you start seeing the kids and you start seeing Njeri. That's when it started hitting me, in the sense, that she was with him in such a crazy space."

Soko met Mwangi through the creative and activist hub he created called PAWA 254, as they became part of the groundswell demanding democratic reforms in a country still left scarred from the division sewed between Kikuyu and Luo people by British colonizers. "We had a new Constitution at the time, and there was this hope that we finally could picket without being tear-gassed or being beaten, Like, our civil liberties could be held up." Instead, the government strengthened its police force into a notorious organization condemned by human rights activists. "That's very salient in the film," says Soko. "If you see how the police dress, for instance, at the beginning, it's very different; they become more militant towards the end."

Soko's debut feature-length documentary, Softie, which became the first Kenyan film to ever premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, earlier this year, is at once a love story between Mwangi and his wife and their three children, but also between Mwangi and his beloved Kenya, under president Uhuru Kenyatta. Central to the film is the tussle between how these different loves bump up against each other: what comes first — love of country or love of family?

We spoke to the Nairobi-based director about making the film, which opens in virtual cinemas, starting this Friday, September 18th.

Boniface Mwangi with his wife Photo courtesy of Sam Soko


OA: Early on in the film, we learn how steadfast Boniface Mwangi is — he talks about being willing to die for the ideals he believes in, which made me think of Nelson Mandela and his Rivonia Treason Trial speech. Boniface is someone in the present day who still shares this belief?

When we were working on the edit, and kind of crafting and thinking about what the story was going to be, something that we found that was really, really interesting is, with a lot of the stories, like the story of Nelson Mandela, you'd never see the other side. That's something we see later, up ahead, as a retrospective. We'd hear about Martin Luther King and then we'd read about Coretta Scott in, I think, 1990, like, 'Oh, this his was her struggle.' That sort of thing. But for me, Boniface and Njeri represented a present day reality struggle that showcases what Mandela was going through, what Martin Luther was going through. That was kind of like unravelling the curtain; when you see Martin Luther marching, Coretta's at home, trying to help their kids do their homework. And this is the reality.

OA: And the film poses that question of love for your country versus love for your family, and which one should come first?

Exactly. They see it in different ways. Boniface sees it that if you improve the country, you improve the lives of those who you love. Njeri's like, you have to have your family's back first. And that means everything else comes second. And she's right; she's not wrong. And he's not wrong.

OA: The film really is privy to some really private moments in Mwangi's life — how did you gain his trust?

When we started filming the short video, he was really involved with the protests, and we started doing the protests with him. So we were—quote, unquote—in the trenches with him in the protests, and somehow that's how he kind of welcomed us to his home. When you've been with someone in the streets, and you're tear-gassed together more than once, you already have a common bond. But then I started developing a relationship with him that was beyond the streets. Just checking up on him and asking, what's going on, what's taking place? That sort of thing. I think it took a while. And I think even from Njeri, we kind of developed a kind of camaraderie that was separate from my relationship with Boniface, because I would actually be like, 'Hey, he said that, how does that make you feel?' And not necessarily on camera. But over time, he kind of accepted us to be there with a camera. At some point, I kind of felt like they were talking to me, and not necessarily the camera; like, the camera is kind of this thing that's there, but not there. That kind of trust, again, was built on a respect that I have for them and their values and what they're doing. I think that's something they saw. It made them trust me with their story and trust me with their family.

You're the director of the film, but you're also producer, writer and cinematographer. Did Boniface's own style as a photojournalist influence you in any way?

The film has more than one cinematographer, and a lot of my cinematography is within the intimate moments, because that's when they would only engage with someone they trust. But him being a photographer actually, to a point, made the work a bit hard because he's constantly looking at how you're doing it. He's in your face about the angle. He's like, 'Hey, why are you standing there, you should be there.' But in some places he did help 'cause he's been filming in the streets and filming protests for a very long time. So when you're there filming, he'll easily tell you, 'Dude, don't stand there. They're about to start tear-gassing. Go to the other side.' And it's weird, when you're on the other side and you're filming, and all of a sudden you see tear gas, you wonder, 'How the hell did he know?' You do that 234 times and you start knowing yourself, 'Oh, this is how,' and he was really helpful in that sense.

I can imagine that filming during the protests must have been one of the big challenges of making this film but what else did you struggle with? There were death threats for Mwangi, did that happen to you as well?

It's so funny, when you're filming and when you're in the protests, it's adrenaline talking. So you're not really thinking about whether you're going to be okay. This one time, I got arrested because the cop said I was a spy for the protesters. [We had everything] from cameras breaking to sound equipment messing up, but when it became a more political story, with death threats, it became scary even for editing the film. Because you don't know who's watching you. This one time, I was with him in the car, filming, and we were being followed. So we kind of had to be very careful who we are telling about the story. It was a very deep secret that we were making this film and there are people who are watching it now asking, 'How could you keep this from us from all these years?' Because we had to do that. Especially when the family was in the US. We had to do that for the sake of safety for him, Boniface, for his family but also the film team. I remember doing the pitches with different names. But then we were also lucky that we had our co-producing partner in Canada, Eye Steel Film, so they were able to house the edit there. I went to Canada to edit and that kind of also gives you a kind of freedom to think and work and create. That was the reality, and now I think we have PTSD from the film. I can't film another protest. I'm sorry. I'm out. Like, it tapped me out.

There are similarities to the Black Lives Matter protests here in the US, against police brutality and violence but the slogan takes on a different resonance in places like Kenya, where the police force is particularly heavy-handed. How do you see these protests as being similar but also different?

There are two things that you learn with the film. One, our voices can never be silenced. They will try, but I think humanity is like a pressure cooker. The more you boil us, the more you put that heat, the more explosive we become. And through people like Boniface's life, you see that there are human beings who exist, who do extraordinary things.

The other thing is the idea of activism doesn't necessarily just speak to the person who's on the street. It doesn't necessarily speak to the person who's holding the placard. An activist is someone like Njeri and her life, and her family. And Khadija [Mohamed, Mwangi's campaign manager]. She's such a strong and powerful activist in her own right. She was Boniface's campaign manager for free. The work they did was so powerful. And you have these other people in the background who are doing such incredible things. The sum total of what they've done is [to] instigate… We have an election next year, but I am so sure that we are going to have so many candidates who are going to be like, 'We want you to donate to our campaign. We have these values and beliefs; this is what we want to do.' That is how we need to go about change or add on to the conversations of change.

The same thing that's happening with the Black Lives Matters movement. Yes, there are people going to the street and we should keep going to the street. But we need to push people to engage in policy and make sure these policy changes are made.

We need to stand for what we believe in, as filmmakers in spaces where we feel oppression exists. Like the rules that have come out with the Academy Awards, these are rules that should be celebrated because they add on to that conversation of diversity and representation. All these things—that sum total—is what makes the difference. It's going beyond the streets and going beyond our Tweets, going beyond our Facebook messages, making films and sharing films. We just need to keep pumping up the volume, keeping the heat up, keep pushing. It's gonna take a while, but we'll get there.


Photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi during a protest in Nairobi, Kenya Photo courtesy of Sam Soko


That's where you as a filmmaker come in—this film was the first Kenyan film to get into Sundance, where it won a special editing prize.

There's another film I'm producing and, and, yes, I had my film at Sundance, that's great. But there's this other filmmaker who's making another film, and it's so cool, and this is the thing—we need to keep bouncing off this energy and this light and this vibe, and just keep pushing and making sure that the wheels keep turning. That's what we're all about.

How do you renew your strength, as a filmmaker but also as a Kenyan and as an African?

Being a Kenyan is hard. I think being an African is hard. Like, it's hard. There's a line I heard Boniface say once: 'I love my country, but I am afraid of my government.' But the way in which, personally, I find energy is when I meet new filmmakers, or you know, people who are like starting out and they want to make films that sound totally crazy. And they believe that they can do it. And I'm like, 'yes, yes, keep going!' We are planning to do a premiere. We have not confirmed the date yet but we're thinking it's around going to be early October in Kenya, because Kenyans haven't watched it. The government gave us an adult rating.

This is the same government that banned Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki because of its homosexual theme…

Exactly, that's what we're getting but the lemonade that we've made out of all this is, 'Guess what? This is cinema!' We're going to take it to a cinema. People are going to come to watch it in a cinema or watch it at home or watch it in the best way possible. And the people who've watched it have appreciated it as a film and a story, and their story. They've seen a reflection of themselves. That gives me so much joy because the Kenyans who've watched it, when they give you feedback, they say, this is truth; this is our truth. And they don't see just an activist. They see a couple struggling with love. They see our history in the last 10 years. And they're like, 'What the hell, we lived this?' and they see the things that are unresolved — and many things are unresolved. Seeing that reaction gives me so much strength and hope. But it's hard. It's very hard. Because, you know, you have to wake up and see the policeman getting a bribe. And you're like, 'Homie??'


"SOFTIE" Movie Poster



Watch the trailer for Softie here.

Softie | Official Trailer | A film by Sam Soko www.youtube.com

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