An interview with South African superstar Nomfusi

Connecting two worlds through stories and sound

Since South African pop-soul singer Nomfusi was discovered in 2007, she’s been a rising star in the South African music industry. Accompanied by her back-up band, The Lucky Charms, she fuses soulful sounds and vibes reminiscent of 1960s Sophiatown with the excitement of Motown.

It wasn’t always glitz and glamour for this young musican though. Nomfusi grew up under poor circumstances in the township of KwaZhakele in the Eastern Cape. When she was 12 year old, she lost her mother to AIDS while her father was in prison. Despite the harsh conditions of her childhood though, her music is full of joy – quite an extraordinary feat. 

And most importantly, she draws inspiration from everything in her life; from her time in the townships to the striking contrast of everyday living in Cape Town. In fact, this ‘living between two worlds’ (as she calls it), is arguably the most influential force behind her music. 

Her first album, “Kwazibani”, was a tribute to her mother’s life and was written in Xhosa. Her second album (which she’s currently working on), on the other hand, will contain English songs too. With this new album she wants to head in a new direction, and she wants her music to reach and to speak to a bigger crowd. However, as a proud South African with a sparkling personality, there’s no doubt that no matter the language in which she sings, her tracks will be as colourful as her heritage.

We sat down with the Nomfusi for an in-depth interview about her upcoming album, Cape Town and the deeper meaning of love.

Get a great taste of Nomfusi’s music with this video: What have you been working on recently?

Nomfusi: Well, I have been working on my new album. I have been writing a couple of songs and I’ve been working together with different guys. One of them is Ringo Madlingozi, he’s a musician who’s quite big in South Africa. How is your new album different from your first album?

Nomfusi: My first album kind of introduced me to the industry and to the world. I toured through Germany, I went to Canada, I did Africa Day, and I had my own show in Munich. 

This tour was very overwhelming for me, and I was immediately associated with the world music genre, the category that musicians like Hugh Masekela are put into. It was such an honour for me to be under that wing, but with this new album I want to reach a bigger crowd, especially internationally. My previous album was completely in Xhosa, and people immediately classified my music as world music, so for the new album I am also writing English songs. What are the topics addressed by your new album?

Nomfusi: I wrote a song about love. I truly believe that loving yourself is the primary and the best love ever. I’ve heard so many songs about romance, but I got to a point in my life where I felt that even that type of love, the romantic love, is not enough if you don’t have love for yourself. I think that if you love yourself enough, you can love unconditionally and can be content with that. I know that the world out there is promoting the romantic type of love, and I think that there is nothing wrong with that, but with my music, I want to approach love in a different way. How would you describe your music genre? 

Nomfusi: What I always want with my music is to fuse two beautiful genres, or even, say, two worlds. I want to fuse the Motown world and Sophiatown music, and I want to try and make it modern. Sophiatown is the place where my musical inspiration comes from. Even in the times of Apartheid, it was a place where people met and played music together.

What I really love about this music is that it’s very soulful. I think when soul music talks about a very serious topic, it manages to separate out the harshness of the topic and to put a positive sound in it. So, when I started my project, I wanted to fuse the two worlds with that type of music. Which of your songs are you most connected to?

Nomfusi: From the old album I would probably say ‘Nontsokolo’, because the song was telling a story to so many South Africans. Most black South Africans know poverty, and that is the meaning of the song. Every time I sing this song, I get people raising their fists, because they know what I am talking about, because they know poverty. 

I didn’t approach this song in a way of lacking basic needs, but I was approaching it in a sense of the poverty of the mind. I feel that the most dangerous poverty is being poor in your mind, and that kind of have-not can kill you more completely than a poverty that has to do with lacking food, clothing or shelter. With this song I was bringing awareness, and at the same time, I was connecting with so many people. 

There is also a song on my new album I wrote, which is not finished yet, but I love the lyrics. It says: ‘Thank you for my life and thank you for your love.’ 

You can take those words and say them to anyone, but for me it’s a higher authority, it’s like a god. I think in life you need that voice that says ‘I am great’ ‘ I am able’ ‘I am wise’; A voice assuring yourself you can do it, because you’re going through so many things in life that you sometimes forget who you are. When I wrote those lyrics, I wanted to communicate that. Are there South African musicians that have influenced your music?

Nomfusi: I think Simphiwe Dana’s music is totally amazing. I love her lyrics. I would also name the young musician Siphokazi – she is one of those artists who I listen to and think ‘wow’. She is probably around my age, and I love the quality of her voice. Thandiswa Mazwai has also influenced me. It is very special how she makes traditional music modern. The traditional elements in her music remind me of where I come from. What has been your most memorable moment in your music career so far?

Nomfusi: First of all, you must truly understand that I never envisioned I would be performing for a big crowd or even getting out of South African to tour the world, especially because of where I come from. 

Specifically though, when I performed at the opening of the One&Only hotel in the V&A Waterfront. 

There were famous musicians, like Bebe Winans and Hugh Masekela, at that opening, and I was just fresh into the music. For me to perform with Hugh Masekela and the South African guitarist Jonathan Butler and to be amongst famous people, like Mariah Cary and Bebe Winans, was amazing. Is there an area of Cape Town that has influenced your music? 

Nomfusi: I grew up in Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape and in the townships of Cape Town, which is an area that’s quite different compared to other areas in Cape Town. What I’ve noticed in my life is that most South African townships are the same, the design and structure. So, when I moved from the Port Elizabeth township to Khayelitsha township in Cape Town, I found the same elements, the same problems. It was easy for me to write, because I wrote about what I’ve experienced and what I was still experiencing as a young South African in a township. If your city were a song it would be… 

Nomfusi: The weird thing about Cape Town is that the city is like two worlds. When you come to Cape Town you see the town and the tourists, but when you drive some kilometres you see the townships –which are VERY different. Cape Town is very perse, and since I am caught up in both worlds, I spend my days in town and my weekends in the townships. Even the weather is different. If I would write about Cape Town, I would probably name the song ‘My Two Worlds’. What’s your favourite place in Cape Town to play?

Nomfusi: Cape Town Festival is really nice, because you get to see the culture of Cape Town. If you come here during that time the streets are full of people dressed up in bright colours. It is a really beautiful sight. A place to go on a first date in Cape Town would be…

Nomfusi: There is a place that I love, it’s called Stardust – a restaurant in Rondebosch. They serve delicious Moroccan and Mediterranean food, and have great performances. Most of the people who work there study jazz or something else at UCT. If you love music and entertainment, you should definitely go to Stardust. What goals do you have going forward in life? 

Nomfusi: First of all, I want to develop my music skills. I also have a dream to teach music part-time in the townships. I know townships don’t have a music curriculum yet, and therefore it is hard for a young black person, coming from township schools to enrol in a music education course at UCT or somewhere similar. The person wouldn’t have the right music theory background. So, I would love to start a programme like that in the future. Who are your heroes in life and why?

Nomfusi: I would truly say I don’t have a particular hero. Rather I take my inspiration from everything: from community church to a young woman looking good and walking down the street. All these people are my heroes, and when I go to township schools I motivate people by telling them that everyone can be a role model to someone else. I know from my own experience that my heroes were not  lone inpiduals, but different inpiduals, some directly and others indirectly, in my life. 


By Karin Willemsen for the Cape Town Music Series. The Cape Town Music Series is a project highlighting musicians, bands and DJs based in Cape Town and the Western Cape.


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