Lungi Naidoo’s first project since 2016 finds her at her most brave – and most authentic. Her career has been filled with several highs; she released two albums independently before being signed to a major label, when she released her third album, 2016’s “Black Diamond”, and its breakout singles “Falling”, a collaboration with Black Coffee, and “I Will”. Success didn’t come without its challenges, though. “I got to a point where I was worried; I was scared”, she tells Apple Music. “Because I’d been been performing, I’d been putting music out, I’d been doing everything by the book. I’d even signed with a major record label, but still, it wasn’t hitting that mark I needed it to.”
From trials both professional and personal, she’s learned to find a renewed desire to share her talents with the world once again. “I wanted to give up, and I had given up,” she explains, “and it took so much courage to say, ‘Maybe this time don’t do it for the industry; don’t do it to try to fit in — maybe this time, just do it because you love music. Write about things that actually matter to you. That’s the difference with this EP. I’m just in a good place and that’s why the music comes out the way it did. And I made a conscious decision that even though my confidence was knocked down, and even though I lost so many battles in the industry, and then COVID hit, what the world really needs now is positive energy. And even if I have it or don’t have it, my job is to put it out.”
Courage serves as a reintroduction to an artist who’s freed herself from external pressures and expectations; to one who fully celebrates her multifaceted heritage (her father is Indian, her mother is Zulu, and her grandfather was from Mozambique); to one who’s free to experiment with Afropop and Afrobeats—and even a new look, showcased on the stripped-back album artwork. “This was done so deliberately,” she confirms. “Why is there no weave? Why is the makeup so low? You’re not getting fancy clothes—and I did it on purpose. I was celebrating my Africanism. As much as I love weaves and makeup and all that, I decided let to be brave. For this EP I just needed to be in the space that I wrote the music, and be honest with the visuals too.” Here she takes us through the EP, track by track.
“When we wrote ‘Duro’, we had a meeting and we were going to write, and I was sick that week and we had to reschedule [the session]. I don’t know if we were struggling that day, but we were going through it and we had the song, [Nigerian-British producer and EP cowriter, Dantae Johnson] stopped the session and said, ‘You know what Lungi? Can we just start a new song, can we quit the song we’re doing? Let’s start it with just vocals, like a capella.’ And he started giving me references; and then he asked, ‘What are we writing about? Where are you for real?’ And I was pregnant at the time. And I said to him, ‘I’m happy because I’m pregnant.’ I was excited because he was the first person I’d told outside my family. I wanted to get to a point where I could hear the baby’s heartbeat. So ‘Duro’ was written based on the baby. And the baby’s name was Lusakhanya. We lost the baby couple of weeks after that, but we’d named the baby Lusakhanya, so that name is in the song. I had told Dante I wanted to add a bit of African language, but I didn’t want it to be isiZulu. I asked Dantae what you say in Yoruba for ‘wait’ or ‘stay with me’, and ‘duro’ is what you say. It went from being a song to celebrate the baby to being a tribute to the baby.”
“When ‘Addicted’ started, it was about drugs. That’s one of the first songs sent to me by Tega, who’s a producer from Nigeria. When Tega sent me that song, I loved it, but the chorus was about references to drugs. It was still beautiful but I was like, I have an NGO; I loved the song but I cannot be out here promoting any kind of bad habit. I tried to replace the reference with something else, but it wasn’t happening. So we shelved it. And we just shelved it until February , and I called Tega back and I said ‘That song is still with me; can we revisit it? I’m going to rewrite it; I’m in that space now’. He had almost given the song to another artist. So Dantae and I wrote it, and this song was special to me from the first moment I heard it. It just talks about being in love and that level of love where it’s almost like you’re addicted to the person, in a good way. You know in the beginning of a relationship, when it’s nice nice—that’s addictive.”
“I wrote this deliberately in celebration of being South African and being African. When we wrote ‘Azania’, we had already chosen six tracks for the EP, and we had some difficulties with one of the co-writers on one song. They wanted the song [a certain] way, and it was not going to work for the plans that I had. So I let the song go. Dante had another producer in the studio with him that day, and he asked me what kind of song I wanted. I felt I was missing a song that celebrates Africanism—and the one thing that Africans love is dancing. I wanted a song that’s going to celebrate us as a people. And he asked if i wanted house, or what I wanted the drum to do, and I said, ‘I want sangomas—that beat that if I had to shoot a video, sangomas would dance to it’. I sent them videos of what I was talking about, and an hour later they had the skeleton of the song. Dantae is Nigerian, and in Nigeria they celebrate Fela Kuti’s song, ‘Zombie’. So the chorus of ‘Azania’ literally says, ‘Samba’, which is a dance that is loved in Africa; ‘tutu’, as in the African tutus, because in Mozambique the tribal outfits they wear are like tutus; and then we say ‘zombie’. The underlying meaning is that as African people, we’ve lived as zombies in Africa, because we were controlled so much. And we need to snap out of that zombie mentality, and understand that this is our land, and this is a place where we need to teach our children that Africanism, while celebrating it at the same time. I hope when people hear it, outside of just dancing, people understand when we say ‘Azania, we will never fade’, meaning our people our culture, our lineage, will never fade, no matter how Westernised we get—as long as we tell the stories and teach our children, we can’t fade as people.”
“‘About You’ is about my man. My man and I have been friends for 22 years, real friends in the industry. I have a lot of industry friends, but he has been the person who would call and check up. I met him when I was 23 and entered a singing competition; and we just remained friends. He was would check up [on me], like, ‘I heard your new song; how amazing; how are you doing?’, and we just remained friends. Never in my mind ever did I think that one day, we’d have a phone call, we’d both be in places in our lives where—you know when you come to a place where, you’ve made peace with your life? That’s where I was. I didn’t need anybody; I’ve made peace. And we collided right at the point in my life when I was healed up from my past, I was okay, and he was now back in South Africa, and it was like, ‘This was meant to be’. I’ve never really written a song about love on a personal capacity, as in, ‘And it was good’—it was always negative. So for the first time I could really sing about love and be in love. ‘About You’ is about him. It’s about being in love and realising it’s not just true love, it’s ‘I’ve grown up, and I understand what love is’. It’s not just the idea of it – I’m in a relationship with this person, and this person understands me. I had fallen in love with myself and understood what I wanted and what I didn’t want, and I was just at peace with my life. And I understood what love was, because my entire life, I’d lived thinking that to be in love meant that you’d love somebody so much that you couldn’t breathe. And it’s true—you can’t breathe because you’re suffocating. You need to love yourself first in order for you to understand how it feels when somebody else loves you. How are you going to know if you’ve never given yourself that love? And that’s exactly where I was when we actually ended up dating.”
“There’s something about this song that spoke to my past, my present and my future. Everything about the song was what I’d been through in the music industry, from what I’d gone through, how I lost my confidence and didn’t think I was a good singer, and how I was afraid to be on stage, and how I dealt with everything about myself—to [saying], ‘Okay, let me gather myself and let me prove, to myself not to anyone else, that this talent that God has given me is valid.’ I need to take it seriously so that whatever purpose that God wants me to have on this planet, I see it through. But I can’t see it through while I’m standing in doubt. [Those doubts] killed the artist in me. And if I feel this way, there’s no way that I’m the only person who feels this way. Let alone as an artist—as just a person in your job. You might feel useless, but if you’re there, you’re there for a reason. I need to have something else in my mind that’s louder than the doubt. And I think that’s what ‘Feel Good’ does for me. And when the chorus comes in in and says, ‘Thank god for the money in the bank,’ [maybe] I don’t have money in the bank, I don’t have clothes on my back, but I’m going to say it so it can happen. And it’s just giving praise in abundance, and then God’s plan can’t be undone. It’s not just about feeling good, but it’s more of a revival for anybody who feels unworthy. And it was a revival for myself. It was not more about [Ghanaian producer] GuiltyBeatz—yes, it played a very big role that he produced it—but it was more about what the song was saying to me. And I felt like after not being in the industry for five years, if you listen to this song knowing who I am, you’ll get it—that I’m celebrating in advance. GuiltyBeatz has worked with Beyoncé and Tems and all these amazing female artists; when God times it the way he wants to time it, you dont’ know that you’re waiting; you don’t actually know you’re in it and you’re being patient until it happens.”
“The instrumental reminds me of Mozambique so much, when we would go down to Mozambique with my mom, and it just gave me that warm warm feeling of my grandfather. And when we started doing the song, we wrote about the word ‘colours’. You know that whole idea of the EP being about happiness and just joy. The word ‘colours’ just kept coming up when we were writing it. And there’s a line that says ‘KwaDukuza to Cape Town’– I’m from KwaDukuza in KZN; it’s a tiny little village. We wrote that line and I was explaining to the guys in London what my hometown means to me, and what it means to me to come from home, and what home means to me. And the flip side of it is in celebrating colours—as in, yourself, no matter what race you come from, no matter what gender you are, no matter what your choices in life are, to just celebrate your colours. It’s also a reference to me being three nationalities, and I want to celebrate all of them. It celebrates so many different things in one song. We’re still not there as a people about being open with gender and being open with our kids. I want to shoot a video where I showcase people celebrating themselves in totality: being gay, being lesbian, being queer, and celebrating it and not being scared. Because where I’m from that’s not yet celebrated, we’re not teaching our kids yet that ‘It’s okay to be you, whoever you want to be. It’s okay. I’m not going to judge you.’ As a society we really need to get with it. We sleep on things and when we wake up, sometimes, it’s too late. And it’s celebrating the fact that I’m Indian, and that I’m Zulu and that my grandfather’s from Mozambique, and celebrating the fact that I’m all of these people, and I’m an artist, and I’m a mother who had a kid when she was 17, and celebrating all of these things–those are my colours, and I want you to see my colours, all of them. Sometimes you write a song thinking you wrote it for yourself, and then you realise after you’ve written it, that this song is going to change somebody’s life. I want everyone to really celebrate their colours. We are never one thing; we are so many different things. We must celebrate that.”
Access Lungi Naidoo’s music albums on Apple Music. Also catch her on Chai 101.9FM (or stream live from https://www.chaifm.com) this Sunday from 17h00 to 19h00 on my jazz programme, Sunset Serenade, as I’ll be playing some of her songs.