The Liberation of Shungudzo
Photo: Yazz Alali.

The Liberation of Shungudzo

We speak with the Zimbabwean-born artist about growing up and the activist core of her latest album, I'm not a mother, but I have children.

As a young bi-racial child growing up in Mugabe's Zimbabwe, Shungudzo faced adversity. It mostly came from black pupils who considered her too white, and white gymnasts who thought her too black, but also from teachers who often encouraged her peers to laugh at her while they beat her for inexplicable reasons. Speaking over a Zoom call, Shungudzo calmly dissects her childhood response to these traumatic experiences of growing up in a society consumed by post-independence racial struggles. "The thing I had to learn was that nobody was actually angry at me, they were angry at oppression or their own lives and were looking for an outlet to let go of that energy," she says. "So, from a young age, the way I processed it was to think that it wasn't about me or anything I'd done."

While Shungudzo was having these experiences, Zimbabwe was also rapidly falling into the throes of corruption and the stifling of civil liberties, which left her disheartened. Moving to America years later did not lift the burden of her despair; if anything, it laid it bare. "When we moved to America, I expected to move to a place that didn't have any of the problems of discrimination or dictatorship," she says. "It has the same problems, it just does a better job of hiding it. At least, in Zimbabwe, alongside that corruption, there was joy and a communal sense of sharing that does not exist in the U.S."

But in America, she also made the decision to follow music wholeheartedly, breaking with parental expectations and choosing her own path. In the 10 years since she made that decision, Shungudzo has written for a number of pop stars on both sides of the Atlantic, but she was still pining to make music in the ilk of her childhood heroes, music that meditated on the state of the world and dared to imagine a better place.

Last year, in the thick of the global pandemic, Shungudzo started writing songs that touched on some of the issues that meant the most to her, reflecting on racism, sexism, gender inequality, and all their intersections. The product of that process resulted in June's I'm not a mother, but I have children, a collection of 16 songs punctuated by spoken words and traditional interludes that distill Shungudzo's thoughts on saving the earth, black bodies, women, and, ultimately, ourselves into hauntingly beautiful music.

Below Shungudzo talks about growing up and putting together her album.

Photo: Yazz Alali

What does your name mean?

Shungudzo was given to me on the day I was born by my aunt in Zimbabwe because, when I was born, I wasn't breathing and the doctors told my mum that I wasn't going to make it. At the very last minute, they put an injection into my foot and it curled up and it meant my brain was responsive. So, my dad got on the phone with my aunt and told her that I made it. So, she called me Shungudzo which means "to be determined."

Describe Zimbabwe in one word?


What are your strongest memories of being young?

I was always, and still am, very observant. So much about how I think about the world and my values were formed in Zimbabwe. It was the closest thing to home that I'd ever had. I've yet to find my home in the United States. I spent all of my time outside and I think it's something kids in America don't do so much. I learned a lot about kindness and activism and giving. In spite of Zimbabwe being the most beautiful place I've ever been in, I remember being stunned by the concept that some people had and others didn't have as a child. I was also stunned by the racism that existed there and still exists. It was close to independence and there was a lot of friction between white people and black people. I found it hard to fit in wherever I went and just learned all these differentiations between people whether it was economically or racially. Of course, we were living in a dictatorship too and from a young age, we were taught not to speak about the government. When we moved to America, I expected to move to a place that didn't have any of that it had the same problem, it just does a better of hiding it. At least, in Zimbabwe, alongside that corruption, there was joy and a communal sense of sharing that does not exist in the U.S.

What music shaped you?

I've always been moved by and drawn to artists who used their voices to speak about what was happening in society with the intention of trying to do some good. So artists like Thomas Mapfumo. I love Nigerian music, I love the Lijadu Sisters because they talked so deeply about what was happening in society but in a really loving, warm way. I loved William Onyeabor, his song, "Tomorrow," is one of my favorite songs and it has gotten me through a lot of tough times. On the American side, I love so much of the music that came out around the Vietnam War. It was a time when music that was socio-political was allowed to be on the radio. Mainstream music was about what was happening all around us, it wasn't considered alternative or indie to talk about the world around us.

Shungudzo - Already free (official video)

You collaborated with Angelique Kidjo on her last album, Mother Nature, how did that come about and what was the process like for you?

It was a dream come true because I've written for American artists and artists from the UK, and that experience has been amazing, but it was the first time working with someone I grew up admiring and listening to. Someone whose consistency, power, and grace through the decades has been so phenomenal. It was an honor to be asked to participate in the album process. It came about through a member of her team who reached out and asked if I'd be willing to help finish some songs and send in some ideas. Obviously, I said yes and it was such a remarkable experience. Obviously, the messaging within the album was great because I think it's so important that young African people hear these messages of togetherness, activism, how important it is to protect the earth, and being the best that you can be for your community.

What's one thing you do every morning without fail?

Every morning, I stretch my body out as long as possible and yawn freely and loudly like a hatching dinosaur.

What song do you have on repeat right now?

Floating Points, Pharaoh Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra — "Movement 8."

What's your favorite meal?

Sadza and cow stomach. Aside from that, any meal shared with somebody I love or hope to love someday.

What gets you out of bed?

The knowledge that every new day is an opportunity to fix what I couldn't fix, grow how I couldn't grow, and love like I couldn't love yesterday.

Shungudzo - It's a good day (to fight the system) [official video]

When did you first have the idea for I'm not a mother, but I have children, and what was the process of bringing the album to life like?

Since I started writing songs with my little sister when I was 11 or 12, we always wrote about what was happening in the world. In my first poems too, I've always used words as a tool for requesting change. So, since I started making music, it was always based in activism. It's been about 10 years since I left school to pursue music and I was trying to make activist music then, but my team wanted me to make pop music and I didn't know that I had a choice. I didn't know that I could say firmly that it wasn't what I wanted. I spent a lot of years doing as I was told, listening to people who had been making music for longer than I had. I kept consistently saying what I wanted to do and hoped people would get it. When the pandemic began and I was at home by myself, I realized that it wasn't enough to tell people what I wanted and do songs here and there hoping people would see the big picture. I had to show people, so I decided that I would make the album on my own at home. I told everyone on my team that they had to wait until the album was almost finished before I played it for them. I told them to cancel everything that was paying my bills. I realized that I had to take a risk letting go of the comfort and security of doing what I usually did in order to do what I do love. I've always wanted to make this album, but when I found myself with a lot of time, I finally had the time and the courage to see it all the way through.

What was it like making this project without a safety net?

I've found that all of the most fulfilling things in my life came with me taking a risk and removing the safety net. It's come from refusing to give in to that fear and realizing that I had been giving into that fear for a long time and that I wasn't happy. I would be doing the most logical thing and be so unhappy. So, inspite of all the fear I had around making my own music, I knew that when I had made those kinds of decisions in the past, it always led me down a more fulfilling path. It doesn't mean I'm making more money, it's choosing for money to not be the thing that guides me but rather fulfillment and being of service to my community. The process of making this album really helped me to believe in myself: the voice in my head saying, "You can't do this," on many days and then floating through it. Just allowing myself to exist in it helped heal a lot of my insecurities and a lot of my doubts.

The album is anchored by folk influences and your voice, was it a deliberate decision, or did it take shape as you made the project?

It was both a decision and a non-decision. When it all came together, it was like that but the process of making it was guided by my words and feelings. I had a note in which I wrote each feeling I wanted to express and, as soon as I wrote a song that I thought expressed that feeling as best as I could, I would check that off and look for the other feelings, from hope to joy and optimism and frustration. So, I just ticked off feelings and the music interpreted it. Even in terms of the music I produced for each song, I produced for the feeling rather than saying it had to sound like the other songs. I wanted each song to be a true expression of the emotion behind it.

What do you think the central message of I'm not a mother, but I have children is?

I think the message is that that time, whether you want it or not, will always hand you this torch. And the torch symbolizes that it is now your turn to build the kind of world you wish to live in and that you'd wish for future generations to grow up in. We're at this point in our lives where life has given us this torch and it's our responsibility to decide what happens next. I find the thoughts of our generation holding this torch to be an honor. It doesn't make me scared, it makes me grateful and I hope that through listening to this album, people feel their inner power, their inner strength, and can come to acknowledge that they have been handed this torch. You don't even get to decide, time does.