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 ZamarThere'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.