Soulful singer Zonke Dikana on how time has moulded her to be the best version of herself
“Time does its job, whether you like it or not.” This statement from South African soul singer and songwriter Zonke Dikana covers so many facets of this award-winning artist’s life.
Raised by her musician father, Viva Dikana, Zonke’s musical clock started ticking more than 20 years ago when she left Port Elizabeth for the City of Gold. She credits him for not only teaching her about the theory of music composition, but also the softer skills: how the industry operates; how it’s all about who you know; and, most importantly, to trust her gut.
It would be a long time after that when she would rely on these heavily.
Zonke started off her career by writing and co-writing for SA musical icons like Bongo Maffin, TK, Winnie Khumalo Thebe and iconic house DJ and producer, Oskido. This was in the Nineties when kwaito was the sound of the township and if you were not part of this wave, it was difficult to be acknowledged as a talented performer.
It was a particularly testing time for her, spending a lot of time recording advertising jingles and being a session vocalist for a number of other established artists who weren’t necessarily making her kind of music.
“I had to pay my dues during that time,” she acknowledges. “A kwaito track like Groover’s Prayer, which I did with Thebe, was a huge hit and it helped to raise my profile, even though I had a dream to make more soulful music. I always knew that it was only a matter of time till I would be able to make the type of music that I had in my heart.”
Time came to her rescue in 2003 when she recorded a demo with German jazz-pop producer, York. The track resulted in Zonke being the lead singer of an electronic-funk band called Culture Clan, based in Germany. This was closer to the sound she saw herself making and this led her to release her first album, Soulitary.
“I toured Germany performing my Afro-European sound and saw it as an opportunity to learn what being a solo artist was like. Time did its thing again and I found myself wanting to be appreciated at home. After a while, I started losing my ‘South Africaness’ and I knew I had to go back home.”
“It took some time before I could release my second album, Life, Love ‘n Music, but it was underpinned by kwaito and house beats, which took me back to a time when I was not quite doing what I was comfortable with,” she notes, about the album that nevertheless earned four South African Music Awards nominations in 2008.
However, Zonke remained true to herself and endured and in good time, she took the brave step of taking things into her own hands by producing her album “Ina Ethe” in 2011.
“This is when I really could be as sultry and soulful as much as I wanted to, but I also knew that time would once again be the true test, to see if I made the right decision or not. A year later, thanks to neo-soul tracks such as Feelings and Jik’Zinto, the heart-warming offering went double gold, and then to triple platinum (album sales of over 120 000) in the following months.”
Just as she thought she had finally learnt all of time’s lessons, she had to contend with understanding that time can also heal. Zonke lost her sister and fellow artist Lulu Dikana in 2014, due to a respiratory ailment.
“At the time Lulu passed on, I felt terrible, and I allowed myself to feel what I had to. She was such a huge part of my life and it affected every part of me. But whether I liked it or not, time did its job. I soon accepted what happened and from this, I used my life to pen some of my most impactful songs,” she says.
What has always ensured Zonke’s heartfelt tunes resonate with so many South Africans is how she interweaves life’s ups-and-downs into her lyrics, evidenced on her latest album, L.O.V.E.,released last year. This has also been her secret to longevity in an industry dominated by similar-sounding one-hit wonders.
“We all go through grief, loss, love, achievements and that is why I sing about the topics I do. God works differently in all of us, as some were meant to make music for now. Not me,” she asserts.
“I live in a bubble where I quite frankly do not care about today’s sound and what is trending. I make music that will be relevant decades from now. I simply put on paper what is on my heart, and that will always speak to my fans.”
“It does not matter to me that some people might not get what I do, as this is okay. For these people, a song has to have a dance music beat for them to like it, but that is not me at all. I make music that is influenced by the past, but celebrates being alive today. What is exciting me is that time has allowed me to not only sing, but also to produce my own songs as well. That could only have happened in time!”
WORDS Sbu Mkwanazi