The South African singer talks about the "Jerusalema" phenomenon, releasing her debut album, and giving back.
During her first trip to the United States, Nomcebo Zikode was handed the keys to the city of Miami by commissioners Joe Carollo and Jeffery Watson. It was a moment that left the South African singer and songwriter somewhat taken aback. "They said, 'We are so proud of you. You made us all motivated during a difficult time," she recalls to OkayAfrica. "I was thinking I made Africans proud, but I didn't know that even Americans, white people, are proud of me too. It's just shown me that in life, if you hold onto something, if you have dreams and never give up on them, they are going to become reality."
35-year-old Zikode had always wanted to share her voice with others. Born in Hammarsdale, Kwazulu Natal, now based in Johannesburg, she was captivated by local singers when she was a child. "From a young age, I was listening to South African music like Brenda Fassie, Rebecca Malope and I also used to love Whitney Houston with all my heart. I used to make a lot of noise singing that song, 'I Will Always Love You,' and my neighbors used to say I was too loud. But I wasn't disrespecting them when I was singing. I was just a happy child who loved singing and dancing. And I wanted to make others happy."
"Jerusalema" — and its monumental success — certainly has made people happy. On the back of the song's widespread acclaim, which Zikode worked on with Master KG, she has been traveling through Europe and the US, performing to audiences that got to know the song through the lockdown brought about by the pandemic. The story of the song's global rise -- sparked by a viral video of Angolans dancing to the uplifting Gospel-inspired track -- is well known. For Zikode, the story of what comes next is still being written.
Nomcebo Zikode - Xola Moya Wam' [Feat. Master KG] (Official Video) www.youtube.com
The song has been a gift that's opened doors to cities she's never even been to before. It's something Zikode had long been hoping for, even if she hadn't always been sure it would come. "When I wrote the lyrics to 'Jerusalema,' I wasn't in a happy space," she says. After years of being a backing vocalist for the likes of Deborah Fraser and Nhlanhla Nciza, her hit single with DJ Ganyani, "Emazulwin" had led her to a recording deal with Open Mic. She'd been eager to make and release her first album, but things had been slow moving and obstacles kept arising that prevented her from realizing her goal.
Zikode finally released her debut album, titled Xola Moya Wam, last September, in the wake of "Jerusalema"'s success. "It's been amazing, because people were singing along with me from the first song until the last song," she says. "Even though the album is not as big as the track 'Jerusalema,' I'm not complaining, because it went double platinum in South Africa. I appreciate everything that God is doing for me. And now I'm looking forward to releasing the new album."
She won't say when it's coming, but Zikode does say she's finished recording it. In the meantime, she's been traveling to Spain, Switzerland, New York and, of course, Miami, performing her songs. "I've been traveling a lot in Africa — Togo, Botswana, Mozambique," she says. "Honestly speaking, in the US, I was scared that maybe they won't understand my music or what I'm saying. But they've been loving me all the way. Even whites," she says.
While the song has been a phenomenon, it hasn't been without controversy. In July this year, Zikode publicly revealed she hasn't been paid by Open Mic for the song's royalties. It led to statements being released by both Master KG and Open Mic, which claimed Zikode was asking for more than 50% of the split that had originally been settled upon. She says that isn't the case and not only has she still not been paid, she's also seen that Master KG has been performing the song with another singer from the label. "I don't have a problem with him," says Zikode. "Maybe we can still do a song together one day. But I'm not concentrating on that," she says. "This song, the way I see it, isn't great because I'm a great singer or because I'm a great songwriter, or because Master KG is a great beatmaker. I just believe that God gave us this song together, to share with others."
She believes what it's done has been bigger than both her and Master KG. "We thank God every day," she says. "And I'm hoping that the young kids, they do see that it doesn't matter where you come from. We just need young ones to focus more, to also understand that drugs are not the way. There's so much that we can achieve if we can really put our dreams into action"
To that end, she has set up the Nomcebo Zikode Foundation, which helps those affected by gender-based violence and also sends children in need to school. She aims for the foundation to grow into places where children can learn to play instruments that will be opened in various African countries. "I was also raised by a single mother, so I really know how it feels not to have anything and to go to school with a hungry stomach or maybe without shoes. That's why I was like, I really want to do something to give back — and not just to my own country."