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In Conversation: Mafikizolo Speaks on a Legacy of Creating Unforgettable African Anthems

The South African duo talks about their big break, their smash hits, and what the next decade looks like.

Mafikizolo is the iconic South African duo comprising Nhlanhla Ncize and Theo Kgosinkwe. After bursting onto the scene back in the late 90s under the tutelage of veteran artist and record producer Oskido, the Afro-pop duo has given South Africans (and Africans) unforgettable anthems over the past two decades. It's indisputable that their wildly successful 2003 hit "Emlanjeni" set the standard for African love songs while their 2007 hit "Ndihamba Nawe" has become a staple at almost every wedding celebration across the continent.

With nine studio albums under their belt, and another album set to be released next year, the duo continues to produce hit records with an ever-evolving sound. For them, it's about creating a lasting musical legacy that will remain relevant and endearing long after they've left the music scene. Their collaborations with equally incredible artists including Tresor, DJ Maphorisa and Davido (to name but a few), are a testament to that legacy.

However, the duo admits that it wasn't an easy journey. It took three albums for them to start becoming a household name in South Africa and even that was almost cut short after they were involved in a horrific road accident in the early 2000s.

Following a string of awards, like the South African Music Awards (SAMAs) and MTV Africa Music Awards (MAMAs), to name a few, Mafikizolo have their sights set on even bigger musical feats for the coming decade. We sat down with them at Universal Studios to talk about their careers first as individual artists and hen as a duo, their musical journey thus far and what they still have in store for their fans.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


How did Mafizikolo first come together?

Theo: Both Nhlanhla and myself are from the same township. I think a love and interest for music is what brought us together after we met at a township concert. She was always traveling with the parents who were her managers. I approached her one day, and I said, "Look, I saw you doing your own thing and performing. Come join our crew. We can do this so let's start something together."

Our record CEO then said to us, "How about I put another guy, maybe in the middle and then you become Mafikizolo?" That's how we started out. They introduced Tebogo to us and that's when we started recording together.

Why did you decide to continue as a duo after your third member Tebogo Madingoane passed away?

Nhlanhla: In the early years of Mafikizolo, we struggled very hard. Then, when the doors were opening for us and success was coming, we lost a member. It was very difficult for us because we struggled together and now that we were achieving, one of us was gone. It was quite a difficult decision to make, but we felt like we didn't want to replace him. I think even the record label felt the same; we all took the unanimous decision that weren't replacing Tebogo. I think his legacy is living through us. I feel like if there was another member, it would have erased his legacy.

Your 1997 track "Lotto" became a national sensation but you reportedly weren't fans of the song. Why?

Nhlanhla: I wasn't. I think for me, at the time I felt like, "Why are we singing this one line throughout the song?" It didn't make sense to me. I felt like we are so much more than just one line, it just didn't make sense for me. I love singing and I love beautiful melodies, and I felt like there were better songs in the album, like "Majika" for instance.

Theo: I was a fan of it because I love the African sound. For me it wasn't about the lyrics because I think the lottery system was just starting in South Africa and we were all excited about it. As someone who writes and listens to music, I was very excited about it despite the lyrics. I liked the beat, the drums, the melody and the chants on that song.

MAFIKIZOLO - Lotto www.youtube.com

When would you say Mafikizolo officially broke into the music industry?

Theo: It's a spiritual thing and a spiritual moment that led us to our success. We just came back from a performance and I think at that time, we were very busy and very excited.

Nhlanhla: We were young. We were having fun.

Theo: We were young, we were having fun, we were all over the place. I guess somehow God said, "Stop."

Nhlanhla: You need to calm down.

Theo: We were driving on our way to another show and we got into a huge accident that almost took our lives. The car rolled over and they had to use the jaws of life to remove certain members from the car. Immediately after the accident, we kept on visiting each other. Sometimes it was a struggle, sometimes I would go see her with my neck in a brace.

But on this one day, God gave me a song and I sang it to a friend. And then we performed it for Nhlanhla because she's the one who authorizes the songs. So when we finally got to the studio, our producers gave us the freedom for the first time to compose music for ourselves. That freedom led to the success. That's why we named the album Sibongile meaning "God, we are grateful for what you have done for us."

I realized that on that particular album, Sibongile, we changed our image as well because we had struggled with that for some time.

In 2003, you come up with "Emlanjeni". Did the success of that song surprise you?

Nhlanhla: The song picked up so nicely. It almost didn't and we were shocked. We were surprised. But to date, the surprise is that it's still one of the biggest songs. You know, it's actually the song that won the Metro FM "Song of the Decade." It competed with so many other amazing songs and won, which was just amazing. It did take us all by surprise though.

Emlanjeni Mafikizolo (Meet Me At the River) www.youtube.com

There have been many South African bands: Boom Shaka, TKZee, Trompies and Malika. What do you think has been the major key to your longevity as Mafikizolo?

Nhlanhla: I would definitely say, first of all, like you said, we struggled for so many years, that at times we thought of doing something else outside of music. Our parents were like, "We can't afford to support you anymore". During that time, we had the opportunity of traveling with other bands and other artists. So in a way, we got to see how the industry works and we got to learn from other artists: their successes, the mistakes they made. During those years we saw people becoming big superstars and people falling through those years as well.

So I feel like God was preparing us for something big, but he wanted us to learn and to respect the craft first. We learned to respect the industry. We learned to respect each other also.

"We learned that it's important if you're in a band to respect each other because egos don't work at all."

We've seen bands breaking up even back then because of egos. Also what kept us going was the belief that our producers had, especially Oskido. He always said, "Maybe it's not your time now, but your time is going to come."

In 2013, you release "Khona". There was something very distinctive sound-wise about that song. Would you say it was intentional or would you say it was just a natural evolution for Mafikizolo?

Nhlanhla: Everything that we do is not always planned. Some of the things happened whilst we were in studio and were just like, "Oh let's do this". What I can tell you and what people don't know is that we've actually always loved the West African sound.

One night, we were like, "Let's listen to what we've done so far." The songs were very good. But you know when you kind of feel that you don't have that song but you don't want to admit it because you don't want to bring people's spirits down? Our producer then pressed a song by mistake and we were like, "Go back to that song." We listened to this song and were blown away. We recorded the song and little did we know that the song was going to become an African anthem.

Official MAFIKIZOLO ft Uhuru KHONA www.youtube.com

What would you say has been your best work thus far?

Theo: I think I'll still go back to Sibongile because it was one of our best albums and a classic album. No album can replace that album; even today it's years and years afterwards and we get so humbled that people are still dancing to "Ndihamba Nawe". People in Australia are even dancing to "Ndihamba Nawe", whether they're getting married or whether they're doing any kind of celebration really. It's a classic song. It's a forever song. Yes, "Emlanjeni" is big, "Khona" is big, but I always say our best work will always be "Ndihamba Nawe".

Nhlanhla: I think for me, I would say "Ngeke Balunge", our current single, simply because we've both, in our personal capacities been through so much. We've also been through so much together as a band, and I feel like it really does take a special person to still be here and still be standing. Through life's hardships, and the obstacles and challenges of everyday life and everything that we've been through, I feel like this song speaks about that because it's a victorious song. It really speaks about the wins and the challenges, but at the end of the day, it says you are victorious.

Ndihamba Nawe www.youtube.com

What would you say the next 10 to 20 years look like for you?

Theo: We love music and it's difficult to leave music. Even if we retire from our music, I will probably do something around music, I just don't know what. The reality is that there will come a time where we will say, "We've done everything now, let's produce other artists. Let's open doors for other artists as well."

It's always nice to retire on that high note and do our final shows like Mafikizolo doing an African tour. There are other things that are involved as you grow up. You've got kids, you've got a family, you've got other things that you now need to take care of, and you'll continue to celebrate music and your legacy in a good way.

Nhlanhla: The most important thing for us has always been helping and developing young people of our country, so we will be continuing to play that role and helping in the way that we can. It's about just making sure that we give them the chance or the platform that we were given and support them and their dreams just as much as ours were supported.

Interview
Photo: Shawn Theodore via Schure Media Group/Roc Nation

Interview: Buju Banton Is a Lyrical Purveyor of African Truth

A candid conversation with the Jamaican icon about his new album, Upside Down 2020, his influence on afrobeats, and the new generation of dancehall.

Devout fans of reggae music have been longing for new musical offerings from Mark Anthony Myrie, widely-known as the iconic reggae superstar Buju Banton. A shining son of Jamaican soil, with humble beginnings as one of 15 siblings in the close-knit community of Salt Lane, Kingston, the 46-year-old musician is now a legend in his own right.

Buju Banton has 12 albums under his belt, one Grammy Award win for Best Reggae Album, numerous classic hits and a 30-year domination of the industry. His larger-than-life persona, however, is more than just the string of accolades that follow in the shadows of his career. It is his dutiful, authentic style of Caribbean storytelling that has captured the minds and hearts of those who have joined him on this long career ride.

The current socio-economic climate of uncertainty that the COVID-19 pandemic has thrusted onto the world, coupled with the intensified fight against racism throughout the diaspora, have taken centre stage within the last few months. Indubitably, this makes Buju—and by extension, his new album—a timely and familiar voice of reason in a revolution that has called for creative evolution.

With his highly-anticipated album, Upside Down 2020, the stage is set for Gargamel. The title of this latest discography feels nothing short of serendipitous, and with tracks such as "Memories" featuring John Legend and the follow-up dancehall single "Blessed," it's clear that this latest body of work is a rare gem that speaks truth to vision and celebrates our polylithic African heritage in its rich fullness and complexities.

Having had an exclusive listen to some other tracks on the album back in April, our candid one-on-one conversation with Buju Banton journeys through his inspiration, collaboration and direction for Upside Down 2020, African cultural linkages and the next generational wave of dancehall and reggae.

This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.

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