Msaki's New Album Is a Bold, Complex Conversation Between Protest & Love
Photo: Trevor Stuurman.

Msaki's New Album Is a Bold, Complex Conversation Between Protest & Love

Msaki didn't set out to create a double album for her sophomore release. But in manifesting the ambitious project, the South African singer shares so much more of the courageous way she sees the world.

One afternoon earlier this year, Msaki found herself in an Uber in Cape Town, with anxiety mounting in her chest. She'd just seen her friend and producer Neo Muyanga off at the airport, after a long session of working on songs for her next album — a protest album. They were taking a break after spending a week getting deeper into the string arrangements for the new songs; a week of going deeper into the emotions brought up by writing about gender-based violence and racial inequality in South Africa.

"I'd been consumed by a stream of acidic songs, spinning out of a haze of confusion and anger, processing the heartbreak of realising there had never been a rainbow," she says. "Nor was it safe to be black or poor or a woman here [in this country]."

The track "Born in a Taxi" happened to come over the radio — a track Muyanga had written with his Malawian-born Blk Sonshine bandmate, Masauko Chipembere, some 20 years ago. In that moment, Msaki heard it for what it was: "a love song, an attempt to stay supple." It was the start of her heart cracking open, the beginning of what would become the second part of her sophomore album — the love songs part.

When Msaki later figured out "Born in a Taxi" on the guitar and sang it, she gave herself permission to feel more than what she'd been feeling before. "I wasn't expecting for a song that [Neo] wrote when he was 19 to be the one that opened me up to remember there is a softness in all this, we can still find some kind of gentleness," she tells OkayAfrica over Zoom from Johannesburg. "That's the main thing, fighting so that the heart doesn't become completely numb and sink to the bottom of the ocean. We still need to be able to feel, even though we're disillusioned sometimes, disappointed sometimes, and that song miraculously turned me around."

Born in a

Not an artist who typically does covers, Msaki released it as a single, giving listeners the chance to re-experience the joy it first brought when it was released all those years ago. "Born in a Taxi" takes its place among the 13 tracks and interludes on the second disc of her new double album, which is called Platinumb Heart Open. While that disc may have come about by an unpredicted nudge from Blk Sonshine, the first disc, Platinumb Heart Beating, an ode to house music, resulted from a gentle push by Sun-El Musician, her collaborator on the hit single "Ubomi Abumanga."

"I didn't see myself as a valid commentator to have my own electronic projects," says Msaki. From her early days as a musician, through 2013's Nalithemba EP and her debut album, Zaneliza: How the Water Moves in 2016, she established herself as a folk singer with touches of pop and soul infused into her music. Over recent years though, collaborations with Sun-El Musician and Prince Kaybee brought out Msaki's dance music sensibilities, while attracting both awards and acclaim.

"Sun-El was the one that was like, 'You need to release your own electronic album,' from the first time I met him. I just didn't see it. I was like, 'No, I'm good being a visitor. You guys just keep calling me out to sing and then leave me go back to my world with my guitar.'" When she actually stood back to realize the number of songs she could play in the DJ sets she was getting asked to play, Msaki realized she did, in fact, have a strong repertoire of electronic music. "It was just me understanding that everything is at a different pace, but at the soul of the song, it's still the same cryptic poems coming from my journal, and that I can actually still be myself in this world that I've come to fall in love with."

Photo: Trevor Stuurman

Something else Msaki has learned, along with embracing different parts of her music capabilities, is how to extend the vision of what she creates with others. Before she hears the songs that come to her, she sees them. The singer, who studied fine art in Grahamstown before becoming the beloved musician she is today, experiences the sounds of her music as shapes and forms — a kind of synesthesia where one sense is interchanged for another. It seemed fitting, then, that to mark the occasion of her sophomore release Msaki would create an art exhibition to go along with it.

"I'm always keeping some kind of journal or sketchbook near me," she says. For Msaki, even lyrics sometimes still fall short of what she's trying to describe. "Whereas in an installation, I can insert a feeling," she says. "I can put a warm glow of light. I can give you a sense that you're not going to hear in a song or see or sense in a 2D work. I'm interested in building atmospheres."

Msaki's been in artist residency at Nirox Sculpture Park for the past two and a half months, where she's been working on an exhibition to accompany the album's release, titled Platinumb Heart, Of Love in Protest. It's allowed her to go back to ideas she's had and flesh them out into a physical experience of her new material, "spaces where people can walk into the music and they're not just listening, and it's a spatial experience." Sometimes it's with drawings, sometimes it's with videos. Many times, it's a combination of these things. "But, to be sure, she adds, "sound is definitely the star of the show."

And what stars they are. The two albums, Platinumb Heart Beating and Platinumb Heart Open, orbit around each other, illuminating Msaki's world of house music and folk songs. Love and protest. Rage and release. Exasperation, but exuberance, too.

The exhibition has been postponed to January, on account of bad weather headed to Nirox, where Msaki's exhibition takes place mostly outdoors. But when it is staged fans of Msaki's work, and her musings on social media, will get to immerse themselves in the full extent of the conversation her new work is creating, with both the past and the present.

When she released one of the albums' singles, "Blood Guns And Revolutions," last year, to commemorate the Marikana mine massacre in which 34 men were killed, Msaki spoke of the artistic references she found in the work of the late Dumile Feni and Thami Mnyele, who often captured protest in their work. "I remember being quite shocked that my drawing style is quite similar to those protest illustrators," she says. "As someone who loves design and is interested in negative space and how they used it, I found it fascinating. The synergies are there, there are so many guides."

She sees her work, the music and the visual art, as a continuation of what's come before - a well-spring of hope she perhaps hadn't always understood. "We're not starting anything from scratch. We really are continuing a language that is such a rich cultural heritage, in so many different art forms," she says. "We've got so much to move forward. I don't feel like I'm starting anything but I'm in a privileged position to join a conversation, just like I'm joining my grandfather's song (for the track "Tiram," which reworks an old Lawrence Lusaseni composition), just like I'm drawing from Dumile Feni, just like I'm reimagining Neo Muyanga's song. There's a lot for us here."