OkayAfrica's 100 Women
Image courtesy of Upile Chisala.

100 Women: Upile Chisala Is the Malawian Writer Offering Black Women Solace Through Poetry

For the first feature in our OkayAfrica 100 Women series, we speak with Malawian poet Upile Chisala about the healing power of her words and her commitment to championing African women's narratives.

"African women own the best stories," the 23 year-old Malawian poet Upile Chisala tells me, when asked why she intentionally and uncompromisingly writes for other black women.

There's absolutely no argument to be had there. Especially when you read either of her self-published works Soft Magic and Nectar—or that of the countless African woman writers before her who've documented our existences with care.

The words of Chisala's most recent offering, Nectar are comforting in a way that I'm certain only another young, black woman writer's words could be—like, "darling, don't fold too much for people. It could break you." Upon reading them, I felt pity, sadness even, for those who may never be able to connect with a piece of literature on a level as visceral as what I experienced with Nectar.

For African women, storytelling is a lifeline, a treasured source of guidance, knowledge, healing and sisterhood that arises from the uninhibited expression of our shared experiences. It's in women like Chisala, who possess this audacious command over our stories, that one can readily recognize her own power, her own "soft magic." Her voice encourages internal confrontation to take place. And there, grappling with the pain, love, anxiety, optimism, anger, elation and generational trauma that has struck many of our lives, an unexpected strength is discovered. Upile braves all of these subjects for her readers, with pithy yet compassionate reassurances that serve as remedies each time they're revisited.

In conversation with the poet, she shares her journey to becoming a writer, the ways in which her Malawian upbringing shaped her storytelling, how she is learning to accept the gravity of her words, and why, she too, is in love with the writings of African women.

Image courtesy of Upile Chisala.

Is there a specific event that occurred in your life that led you to start writing poetry?

When I was younger I struggled with the fact that I'd only ever be able to experience life as this one character, Upile. To satiate this need to live life as someone else I gave all my dolls these elaborate life stories.

Eventually, I started writing these stories down and forcing everyone around me to read them. I remember my father pointing out that he'd never read a story about me and that he'd really like to. That became my struggle—writing about myself or people who looked like me. When I moved from Malawi to New Mexico for college at 17, I quickly grew tired of all the ignorant questions and assumptions [about me]. So, I decided I'd finally take on the challenge of telling my story my way. There, I found poetry and prose, and these two loves have carried my story since.

Why is it so important for you to write poems specifically for black women?

The lessons in self-hate that target black girls are ongoing, overwhelming, overt and subtle. I always want my writing to be a place where black girls and black womxn feel safe and celebrated.

When I decided to start unpacking all the self-hate I'd been handed throughout my life it was writing by black womxn where I found refuge and love. Black womxn have always lifted me. Writing about them and for them is important to me because it's my little way of lifting them as well.

Your poems are like therapy. I hear the word "healing" used a lot when describing your work. Do you think of them in that way when you're creating them?

It's never not surprising to me when someone says my work helped them. I have always thought of my writing as healing—for myself that is. I am trying to shake this habit of underestimating my impact. In the meantime, though, every message I receive appreciating my work gives me this joy and that never gets less exciting. I don't know how many times I've opened my inbox and wept. People share so much of their lives with me and I'm humbled by it and softer because of it.

Image courtesy of Upile Chisala.

Are there any particular authors whose works have had this same therapeutic effect on you?

I read Ntozake Shange's work and weep, every time. Yrsa-Daley-Ward's work makes me ugly-cry and I always come out the other side of her book Bone feeling new. I deeply love Sandra Cisneros, Q. Gibson, Mary Oliver, Koleka Putuma, and Sharon Olds. There are so many more names and so few names for the gifts their writing has given me.

Where do you find the inspiration to constantly mold and shape words into poems that hold so much meaning?

Sometimes I go months without writing. I struggle with being intentional about my craft and sticking to a routine. It's not a kind thing to do to myself. Writing has always been therapeutic for me so if I am not writing I am bottling things up until eventually I sit down at my computer and pour. What I write is what I find from just living in this black body and all the intersections of my existence. While writing Soft Magic I was going through a period of self-discovery and so the poems came as they came. And as I wrote Nectar I was looking backwards at my upbringing in Malawi and making meaning of its impact on my present. Inspiration is all around us, I just have to work on being more disciplined about making use of it.

It's clear that you also have a real appreciation for visual aesthetics. I love going through your Instagram account and taking in the color and looks. Where do writing, visual art and style intersect for you?

A short while ago I started calling myself a storyteller rather than a writer or a poet because I think it's more fitting. Photos can carry so many stories at once and mean different things to different people. Every time I am involved in creating an image I hope to honor the girls who look like me—the darker skinned, the curly haired, the fuller lipped, the thicker "thighed" and wider "hipped." For me, it's bigger than just putting on a fancy dress and smiling wide for the camera. It's about seeing myself as beautiful and celebrated and creating images that I wish I'd seen as a child. In this way, through photography I tell a story and my dream is that the right people don't just see me in those pictures but they see themselves.

Image courtesy of Upile Chisala.

What role does sisterhood play in your life and work?

I have so many sisters beyond my three immediate ones. Womxn are the lights of my life. I depend on womxn both in my life and in my work and have had the privilege of seeing how far-reaching true sisterhood can be. More womxn than men buy my books and invite me to read and endorse my work just because. Womxn keep me sane and keep a roof over my head.

If you absolutely had to pick, which of your poems is your favorite?

Easy.

"There is danger in letting people misname you.

If you are a fire, do not answer when they call you a spark."

(Nectar, page 2)

How does your Malawian heritage impact your work?

I always carry bits of my "Malawianness" into my writing. For many years Malawi was the only home I knew and so when I want to write about familiar things I unpack my memories from growing up in Zomba, to the weekends spent in Blantyre, and to my visits to my village in Likoma. I also find that being Malawian has in the past impacted what I write about negatively. I have this fear of writing about sex or sexuality or mental illness or dysfunction in the family because of that Malawian heritage and the taboo surrounding these themes. But I am working on it. I am working on being comfortable with making people uncomfortable.

What was the process of self-publishing your work?

I used Amazon's Createspace platform to self-publish. All the technical bits were straightforward, it was the writing and editing that hurt. In my mother's apartment in Baltimore, I wrote and edited both books myself, hence all the grammatical errors. I probably would have benefited from the pressure and support of a publishing house but doing it on my own has been an experience I needed. I have had to forego my shyness to sell my work to people wherever I go. I have had to be my biggest fan.

How did you come up with the titles of your books, Soft Magic and Nectar?

The title Soft Magic came to me when I was depressed and looking for little bits of joy. I would ride the train in Baltimore and just watch people perform sweet acts like smiling at each other or holding the door for strangers. 'Soft magic' is those subtle instances of joy that make life and living beautiful. When I was thinking about my journey and how I wanted to use my growth to help others the title Nectar came to me. Nectar is important for bees in the process of making honey and for me nectar refers to that essential part in our journeys to blooming. I stick with the gardening theme throughout the book and my only hope is that it's not cheesy.

Why do you think the art of writing is such a powerful tool for African women?

African womxn own the best stories and we are far from monolithic; writing gives us a chance to share them on our terms. The exclusive nature of the publishing industry and academia and the film industry make it hard for us to be visible but we're here and every day we are kicking down doors and demanding to be counted in. I also think the celebrating should start at home and we don't have to wait on the West for validation.

I am so in love with the writing of African womxn, we all need more of it in our lives.

Image courtesy of Upile Chisala.

Upile breaks down two of her poems for us:

Pray for the creatives whose vulnerability amuses us,

whose pain reminds us of our own,

who had to feel something again and again for our sake.

"Often we romanticize sad poetry and prose. We repost it and leaves comments like "I can relate" or "I feel this". But we forget that a lot of writers write from real experiences and have to capitalize off of their hurt. They make their pain look pretty and we have something to use as a screensaver. I wrote this as a reminder to check up on your creatives."

Darling,

Have you ever not pulled things from the wreckage?

Who left the healing up to you?

The mending?

The restoring?

The making things whole again?

Are you tired?

Do your arms hurt?

Who offers you honey when you need it?

Who lets you rest?

(Nectar, page 9)

"I am convinced that worry has sent so many of the womxn in my family to early graves. This poem was for them. I wish they'd gotten more rest whilst they were living. They were always healing others and taking on burdens even as their backs weakened. I think worry weighs heavily on the body. In my grandmother's last years she used two walking sticks. In her illness she was still worrying about other people. Often women carry the brunt of it, they carry their share and our shares and then some."

Follow Upile Chisala on Instagram and Twitter. You can keep up with her new releases and purchase her previous works via her website. She is currently writing a collection of poems tentatively titled "Homeward," and is the co-founder of a craft making company called Khaya Means Home.

*

This article appears as part of OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2018—a project highlighting the impactful work done by African women across the globe. Throughout March, we will be publishing a series of profiles, videos, interviews and feature stories on these inspirational women.

Click here to see the entire list of 2018 honorees.

Op-Ed
Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela.

Op-Ed: Who Will Introduce South Africa’s Amapiano to The World?

The South African genre amapiano could get introduced to the world by Nigerian and Ghanaian artists.

In Rema's new single "Women", one picks up elements of the popular South African house music subgenre amapiano. The song is however produced by Ozedikus and Burssbrain, not South African producers as one would expect. Neither does "Women" feature a South African artist.

Nigerian producer, DJ and artist Kiddominant's latest single "eWallet" borrows from amapiano and has birthed a new genre that he has coined as "South Afrobeats". The song features Cassper Nyovest, and is inspired by the South African lifestyle. Kiddominant has spent some time in South Africa and produced "Fela In Versace" and "Jika" for AKA.

Rising to mainstream prominence in 2018, amapiano, which is the most loved sound in South Africa at the moment, has been co-opted by some of the country's biggest stars (DJ Maphorisa, Cassper Nyovest, Busiswa, Oskido etc.) and gave birth to more stars (Kabza De Small, Sha Sha, MFR Souls etc.).

In 2019, DJ Maphorisa joined forces with Kabza De Small — one of the subgenre's pioneers—to form the duo Scorpion Kings. Their self-titled debut album earned them eight nominations at the South African Music Awards, the country's biggest award show. The duo managed to win the Best Produced Album award alongside, Vigro Deep and MFR Souls, who co-produced a few songs on the Scorpion Kings' self-titled album.

Samthing Soweto's critically acclaimed album Isiphithiphithi consist of a reasonable number of amapiano songs, and it earned him eight nominations at the SAMAs, including the prestigious Record of The Year nod for his song "Akulaleki" featuring Sha Sha, DJ Maphorisa and Kabza De Small. He walked away with the award for Best Afro Pop album.

MFR Souls's breakthrough single, "Love You Tonight" featuring Sha Sha, Kabza De Small and DJ Maphorisa, has gone gold in South Africa (an excess of 10 000 units sold). The duo is credited as one of the pioneers of the subgenre.

Apple Music recently announced that Kabza's double-disc album I Am the King of Amapiano Sweet & Dust is the biggest South African album in terms of first day and first week numbers. It is important to note that this is the first album from him (and Scorpion Kings) that was released straight to streaming platforms instead of free music sharing sites first.

There have been a notable number of songs that incorporate amapiano, such as Dr Peppa's "What It Is" and Focalistic's "Christian Dior" — which merge amapiano with hip-hop.

From Alex to Lagos

Ampiano's influence doesn't stop in South Africa. The sound that originated from the South African townships of Johannesburg and Pretoria (Alexandra, Vosloorus, Katlehong, Mamelodi and Atteridgeville) has traveled far beyond the borders of the country and is being embraced by the rest of Africa.

As South Africans, we can't really hog a sound. However, what's worrisome is thinking how the global markets could get introduced to amapiano. Will they get treated to the real deal produced in South Africa or the hybridized version of it that contains elements of other genres?

Read: 5 Essential Bolobedu House Tracks to Check Out If You Love 'Jerusalema' by Master KG

Rema is one of the most promising young artists from Nigeria right now, and he is on his way to global stardom—he has an unreleased "sick song" in the tuck with Drake, as per the Toronto pop star's Instagram live from April in which he played Rema's "Dumebi".

The global audience could potentially be introduced to amapiano via Nigerian artists, the same way the rest of the world got introduced to the Ghanaian pon pon sound via Tekno and Mr Eazi. To the latter's defense, he has spent some time in Ghana and his earlier songs were produced by Juls and Guilty Beatz, who are both of Ghanaian descent.

The pon pon sound eventually became the "new" Afrobeats sound and South African Afro pop acts were also influenced by it and started producing songs that were leaning towards "Afrobeats". Examples include Mafikizolo's "Love Potion", Mlindo The Vocalist's "AmaBlesser", Thabsie's "African Queen" and Bucie's "Thando Lwethu".


Soweto Blues www.youtube.com


WizKid and Burna Boy are featured on I Am the King of Amapiano: Sweet & Dust, the new album by Kabza De Small, the front runner of amapiano. The song "Sponono", a standout on the album, features both of the aforementioned artists, and it was trending in both South Africa and Nigeria on the day of release.

Davido, while doing an interview with the South African arts and culture website Zkhiphani earlier this year, expressed interest in doing some amapiano records.

Wizkid, Burna Boy and Davido are the biggest African global exports at the moment and they all have albums slated to come out this year. If any of them has an amapiano song on their albums then they might break the subgenre to global markets. One could say it's already happening—Davido is featured on the amapiano-inspired "Won Le Ba" by frequent collaborator Shizzi, which also features the rapper Wale.

The musicians mentioned above are not the only artists outside of South Africa that have been influenced and inspired by the subgenre. "Equipment" by Nigerian artists Masterkraft and Flavour is a straight-up amapiano song. Guilty Beatz's "Uthando" from his Different EP is also an amapiano song. Juls has also jumped on the wave via "Soweto Blues" featuring Busiswa and "Tembisa" featuring Aymos. Niniola's latest single, "Addicted" also borrows from amapiano.

Amapiano elements can be heard on "Of Lagos" by Nigerian artist Mayorkun. "Amapiano is Mayorkun's lockdown love, and he's recorded enough of them to make albums. It's experimental stuff, mixed in with highlife, and other genres for individuality," expressed Nigerian music journalist Joey Akan in an interview he did recently with the artist.

The list of West African artists' songs that reference amapiano is long. There is a possibility of these artists being the ones to introduce the subgenre to audiences in their respective countries, as Mayorkun's "Of Lagos" is already a local hit. Nigerians have even jokingly started to claim amapiano as their own.

Besides Nigerian and Ghanaian artists and producers, the genre has spread out and influenced producers in other southern African countries, namely Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. There's also a growing amapiano movement in Japan and they have started to produce their own songs. Even American artists like Dreamville's Bas and Soulection's Sango Beats have shown an interest in the subgenre.



Amapiano lost out on a chance to get introduced to the world through South African/Zimbabwean artist Sha Sha a few months ago. The predominantly amapiano vocalist, who appears on some of the genre's biggest hits, recently won a BET award for Viewers' Choice: Best New International Act beating Rema, Celeste and Young T & Bugsey from the UK, and Hatik and Sracy from France. Due to the pandemic, however, the award ceremony was held virtually .

Attending the ceremony physically could have been a great opportunity for Sha Sha to build networks and introduce amapiano to the American audience. Her win is a good look for the genre, and can be seen an indicator of what the outside markets are checking for. Besides her, Vigro Deep and Kabza de Small have also played shows in Europe.


The amapiano scene is disorganised

From its inception, the pioneers of the subgenre were independent and underground artists. They lacked "the machine" that comes with being signed to a record label. They were not getting much airplay and their content was sometimes not tailor made for radio or mass consumption as it included uncensored explicit and inappropriate lyrics, and some songs were not formally registered or available on streaming platforms (this is still true for some artists).

Read: This Is What It Takes for South African Musicians to Succeed Abroad

For the more established artists, what perhaps has hindered the crossing over can be attributed to not only vulgar lyrics, but also the lack of artist development—an artist can have a viral video, and the next day get thrown into a studio.

The small number of South Africans in the diaspora is one factor we can't shy away from every time we speak about the crossing over of SA modern sounds. Through a DIY approach, some artists are managed by managers who may not be fully knowledgeable and not possess certain skills that are needed to manoeuvre the music industry. There are also the disorganised and haphazard releases from the artists with minimal promotion beyond social media.

Some of the subgenre's biggest acts have flooded the market with back-to-back releases. In the past year alone, the Scorpion Kings (Kabza de Small and DJ Maphorisa) have released five projects (collectively and solo) and worked on several songs for other artists. The duo JazziDisciples have released three projects (collectively and solo) in the past seven months. The rapid releases could be as a result of how the subgenre used to operate in its infancy and how this managed to help its spread.

When you have spent time being unheard or being the underdog, there is sometimes a strong desire to put out more work even if there are no proper plans or distribution channels in place.

Lessons from gqom and other genres

Such similarities can be drawn to the subgenre gqom and how it managed to travel to Europe, North America and Asia around 2016 through fans sharing songs and links on social media. Gqom has achieved placements in movies (Black Panther) and soundtracks (Black Panther and The Lion King: The Gift). Documentation of the gqom scene helped propel it to the heights it's currently on—artists getting international bookings, associated dance moves going viral globally and artists signing international deals.

Moonchild Sanelly on stage at Cotton Fest 2019. Moonchild Sanelly is one of a handful of South African artists who managed to expand their brands into European and American markets. Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela.


The same trajectory can be anticipated for amapiano. The world is always watching.

Placements in playlists like Apple Music's Africa Now, which is currently the platform's largest African playlist, could mean amapiano artists stand a chance of being discovered by audiences in other parts of the world. Recently, we have seen artists such as Black Coffee, Nasty C, DJ Lag, Moonchild Sanelly and Sho Madjozi cross over as a result of having international agents and management that ensure that these brands are marketed abroad. Amapiano acts can follow the same blueprint.

The producers should collaborate with other artists that are already popular within other genres. DJ Sumbody's Cassper Nyovest-assisted "Monate Mpolaye" had elements of amapiano and the song contributed to the rise of the subgenre in the mainstream. Nyovest's performance of the song at the Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100 in 2018 is still one of his most memorable performances. Around the same time, Nyovest and DJ Sumbody released another 'piano song "Remote Control". Fusing amapiano with other recognisable genres could also assist in introducing people who do not necessarily listen to dance music and also ensure that the sound is not monotonous.

Nigerian superstar, Tiwa Savage recently released remixes of her single "Dangerous Love", which has been treated to amapiano remixes from South African producers DJ Ganyani & De Mogul and De Mthuda, respectively. Collaborations of this nature should be a norm to ensure that the subgenre is exported in its authentic form.

Amapiano undoubtedly has commercial viability and crossover potential. Now, it's up to all players involved to ensure that the crossover becomes a reality and that they are credited for exporting it, before artists and people from other regions do that on their behalf.

Click here for more amapiano coverage on OkayAfrica.

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