Interview
Courtesy of Lady Zamar

In Conversation with Lady Zamar: "I'm still in the process of creating my best work."

The South African singer and songwriter talks about her new album 'Monarch', Africans embracing their royal lineage and finding strength in vulnerability.

Lady Zamar, born Yamikani Janet Banda, is one of the biggest singer-songwriters in South Africa's dance or house genre. The 2015 joint album Cotton Candy between her and fellow musician Junior Taurus, showed off her soulful vocals and lyrical skill for the first time. The duo's flawless melodies in songs such as Mamelodi, Run Away and Pitori had South African music lovers beside themselves.

Fast forward to 2017 and Lady Zamar released her first solo project, King Zamar which recently went double platinum. Last year, she took the award for Best Dance Album of the Year at the South African Music Awards (SAMAs) and also scooped up the Highest Airplay Song of the Year and Composers Highest Airplay awards this year. After successfully debuting as a solo artist, Lady Zamar recently dropped her sophomore album, Monarch.

She promised to lay her soul bare in this 20-track project and boy was she not playing. I'd even go out on a limb and say that in many ways, Monarch is to Lady Zamar what Lemonade was to Beyoncé—it's raw, vulnerable and bold. As Kendrick Lamar puts it in "Loyalty", she puts her "lyric and lifeline on the line".

We sat down with Lady Zamar to discuss her new album, the lessons the creative process behind it taught her and what she hopes listeners will take from it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your last album was entitled King Zamar, and this year's album is entitled Monarch. Would I be correct in picking up on the theme of royalty in your music?

The royalty theme, for me, is very integral to the human race, especially Black people. We come from a lineage of kings of queens and we don't take it seriously enough. We look at the entire world and how Americans, Europeans and Asians are celebrated but Africa is hardly ever celebrated for having good things. And yet, we are founders of almost everything that is good.

Looking at the fact that we were once rulers and kings, I want to reinstate that type of confidence in women and in people. There is no shame in being great. There is literally no shame in saying, "I am goodness, I am royal." I want young girls and young boys all over Africa to relate to that theme, and to not shy away from it.

Artists talk about how the final version of a body of work is somehow a step removed from what they initially envisioned. Would you that this body of work is exactly as you envisioned it?

I couldn't have envisioned it. I had an idea. I'm the type of person that allows things to take shape. For example, with King Zamar, the very first thing about it that comes off as disjointed, is that there was no time left to go through each and every song after the additional music had been added. I had to stick to the confines of the time limits that had been given to me by my label.

With Monarch, I think I have better executed that because I was well aware of the faults of the previous album. This time I was more meticulous, I was more present, and I allowed myself enough time.

In light of that, would you say that this is your best work thus far?

Never. I'm still in the process of creating my best work. I think this is a great step in the right direction, and this is exactly what I need right now to get to the next level. As I'm making music and as I'm living in this space, there's a lot I'm creating so there's no way that this is my best work. This is better work than before, yes, but it's not my best. One day, I will release a magnum opus album, and then that will be like, "Yes."

In terms of the reception from your fans, and you personally, where do you think this album is situated compared to your previous albums?

My previous bodies of work were very introductory and very conforming in certain aspects. Not in the individual songs, but in the presentation, in the fitting into the industry, very unassuming. With Monarch, I just wanted to go big on everything. I mean, the artwork itself, just that single photograph with that butterfly, has accumulated costs that equal to over 100k.

Courtesy of Lady Zamar

There's a risk around deciding to go so big and investing so much. Did you have any anxiety around this?

All the time. What are you talking about? I'm still anxious. And obviously I shouldn't be because from a biblical principle, you shouldn't be anxious. But this entire project, from the get-go, was draining. It took a lot. It needed me to focus because making a body of work that is this intentional needs your absolute undivided attention. In the life that we're living today, it's very hard to have undivided attention.

There were a lot of personal decisions I had to make regarding my life in order for me to execute this album properly. There's that and the anxiety never goes away because day by day, your fans are human beings that change and morph and so you're always on your toes like, "What's happening? Are they getting it still? Are they still understanding? Is this narrative relatable to them?" So the anxiety never really goes away.

You wrote "Destiny" a long time ago. What made you feel that this album, and this moment, was the right moment to include it in this body of work?

"Destiny" is a story about deep-seated loss, a loss that felt like without that loss, you would not have become the person that you are.

"When I'm much older, I'll put out a memoir and tell the story of "Destiny"."

I think the reason why people gravitate towards "Destiny" is because, in and among the lyrics and the beat, you feel that there's a deeper sense of something there. I decided on including it in this album because the people wanted it and I also got the right producers for it. Why not include it? It kind of helps the narrative as well.

You described "Be Mine" as one of your favorite tracks. Why is that?

I'm a bit naughty sometimes. Another artist made a song that I felt I could do better. So "Be Mine" was born from that. I heard this artist's song and I was like, "This is not nice." And that's where the song started. There's this person I met that I believed was my entire life—my be-all and end-all. I imagined we would grow old together.

The story kind of stemmed from there. Imagine how beautiful it would have been to be these two people that buy a car together and make a life out of this mess: Bonny and Clyde. But instead of ending up in heartbreak, they actually grow up, and they get married.

Monarch displays a tremendous sense of vulnerability. Did the level of vulnerability that you displayed in this particular work surprise even you?

Yes. I'm not one to open up to people who don't know me from a bar of soap. "Dangerous Love" was one of the most personal songs in terms of me putting an entire relationship in one song. I explain how I think. And I think the first verse is actually sarcasm. You know, like, "Maybe I need to calm, maybe my heart shouldn't beat then, maybe I wouldn't feel blood rush, aches in my body, my vein stream."

And then there's a song like "More and More" where, for the past couple of years, I've been trying to figure out what I want. And I've dated so many weird folks, and I've dated some hella hectic people that have derailed me in many ways from who I am. When I wrote that song I started crying in studio. And when I recorded it, it was so emotional, and when I got home, I listened to it again. I feel like crying right now as I speak. But I listened to it again, and I was like, "This is what I want." I want a love that lasts.

Courtesy of Lady Zamar

What would you say was particularly liberating about this entire creative process?

That I could even do it.

Did you doubt that you could?

Yes. I'm a human being. Doubt is part of our nature. In many ways, I doubted that I could make another album that would match or even surpass King Zamar. I thought, "Maybe it is beginners luck." I didn't know how to go back to making another King Zamar, but I also could not figure out how to make a Monarch. So when it was done, I remember I got sick for two months because my body was tired. I had been fighting this war. To a lot of people it's entertainment. To me, this is my life. You understand?

It was a really challenging project because I didn't know I could supersede myself. Being compared to every single woman in the industry that comes up. Every time there's a new woman who's doing that music, you've got to compare me to her. It's exhausting sometimes.

Listen to Monarch on Apple Music and Spotify.



Interview
Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF


This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF


You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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