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.

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