On June 18th, Shungudzo released her debut album – “I’m not a mother, but I have children”.
Written and primarily produced on her own, the 16 track album can only best be described as an unapologetically raw dialogue on humanity. A Zimbabwean-American singer/songwriter based in Los Angeles, Shungudzo is a captivating storyteller. Her music is a direct confrontation with race, carefully unpicking its origins from societal prejudices to the fetishisation of people of colour.
A journey of both internal and external human experiences, Shungudzo’s voice is compassionate yet frustrated, lyrically filled with hope yet built on the rock of sorrow. Admittedly I had not been aware of her previous material and this was my first foray into her work but when given the opportunity to speak with her, I had to take it. I left the interview with an intimate portrait of Shungudzo and a new perspective on the meaning of – pessimism.
Your family has a nickname for you – Shungudzo kuyimba, what does it mean?
The name Shungudzo was given to me by my aunt after I survived a very hard birth. The doctors had trouble getting me to breathe, and at one point prepared my mother for my death. When I survived, they told her that due to the lack of oxygen to my brain, I would most likely be severely mentally impaired. My Zimbabwean aunt gave me the name Shungudzo because it means, “To be determined.” It’s my middle name, but I use it as my first name as I feel so attached to its meaning and the reason I have it — because I survived! “Shungudzo Kuyimba” means, “To be determined to sing.”
You have often spoken about not wanting to seem ‘ungrateful’ for the sacrifices your parents made and following the ‘traditional path’, what made you finally take that leap in becoming a full-time musician?
I recognize the great sacrifices that both of my parents made in order to give me a phenomenal education, so it was very internally and externally hard for me to stray from the path they planned for me. However, as I grew up, I learned the difference between doing things because you can, or because you’re good at them, and doing things because you love them. Just because a path appears cleared for us doesn’t mean it’s the one we’re supposed to take. Sometimes it’s the uncleared, or the nonexistent, path that we must forge through to find our inner peace and happiness, and as a result the ability to share our best selves with others. Sometimes the long and hard path is the most fulfilling way forward. That’s what music represents to me. This is not to say that all things should be hard, but rather that some hard things are worth it.
Would you agree that the greatest risks carry the most life-changing moments?
Some risks are not worth taking, because they involve self-sabotage or straying from my truest self. But any risk that involves being as true to myself and my moral compass as possible has always paid off. Not always in the monetary sense, but in terms of my growth and fulfillment.
Let’s talk about your new album – ‘I’m not a mother, but I have children’. What is the inspiration behind the album title?
“I’m not a mother, but I have children” isn’t about the future babies we may or may not have. It’s about perceiving our every word and action as having an impact on future generations of all living things. It’s about the great power we have to create a world in which people don’t have to suffer like we have, and the Earth doesn’t have to suffer like it has.
The album feels like a journey of both internal and external human experiences, what was the creative process like when planning on the album?
To make the album, I made a list of experiences, observations, emotions and thoughts that had been running through my head for a long time — some for a lifetime. When I had touched on each of those things, the album was finished!
A key topic I noticed on the project was race, would you say the racial unrest of 2020 played an influence especially on tracks – Black Breath and How Many More Lives?
I’ve been writing sociopolitical songs for as long as I’ve been writing music. I wouldn’t say that the racial unrest of 2020 is why I wrote my album, as I’d been visualizing this particular album for years; however, everything that happened last year helped me contextualize my lifelong thoughts and artistic goals in terms of current events. I felt like I was finally ready to write the album of my dreams, and that the world was finally ready to hear it.
You’ve often spoken about seeing segregation back in Zimbabwe as a child, Mixed people tended to hang out only with the mixed community, Whites with whites and so forth, did these experiences play a hand in the track – White Parents?
“White parents” is about how sad it is that, in this day and age, racial and cultural differences and misunderstandings can still keep people who love each other from having successful relationships. I’ve experienced the loss of many loves — romances and friendships — simply due to being born and experiencing the world, differently. I think it’s tragic that we’ve still not figured out how to completely come together — as communities and individuals, within politics and within our families — having had so many lifetimes to figure it out.
Oftentimes a lot of artists have expressed wanting to add their political viewpoints in their music but are scared of the pressure that comes with it. As someone already well versed in that area, was this a challenge you have faced?
Of course, it’s scary to express one’s political beliefs publicly. Because, if we know anything, it’s that we don’t all agree on politics. Expressing ourselves fully, in any way, opens us up to being disliked or disagreed with, and that can be really terrifying and painful. In my case, I had to weigh the magnitude of my fears with the benefits of expressing myself, and I realized that sharing my art was the only way to go for me in spite of how terrifying it is to put oneself out there.
One of my favorite quotes from you is ‘pessimism is optimistic, if you’re pessimistic it’s because you’re certain that life could be better’ could you expand on this a bit more?
Every single person we encounter — be it online or in person, be it a friend or a stranger on the street — is optimistic, because they have chosen life. Even when we spend our days crying in bed or complaining about this and that, we are optimistic. Because, ultimately, we have decided to live through life’s hardships in hopes that something will change for the better. And if you are aware that things can and should change for the better, aren’t you inherently an optimist?
You’re very gifted with words. What is the difference for you between poetry and a song? Is it hard to go from one to the other or does it just flow naturally?
To me, songs are poetry dressed in melody, and poems are words in their most naked form. The difference between a poem and a song for me is usually whether I set out to write a poem or a song; however, I’m trying to put less barriers between the two and let one become the other if it feels right, or necessary.
And thank you, for complimenting the way I use words. I think we’re all gifted with words, and that anybody who can think can write if they can get past the barrier of insecurity that divides thought from expression. Sometimes these barriers were actually built by formal education — by being told you’re not good at something, or as good at something as someone else. I think that the way we judge good versus bad writers is often quite discriminatory against people who haven’t had the privilege of formal education, or the ability to thrive in formal classrooms. We often label people with good grammar “good” writers and speakers, rather than looking further into the intention behind the words. I hope that we can equalize the playing field when it comes to writing so that no brilliant writer is overlooked simply because they don’t write the way the system teaches us to.