Johannesburg - When R&B and Afro-soul singer Zonke Dikana enters the room, everything stops. It could be because of her striking features or her uncanny energy that calms her surroundings. I’ve seen this happen plenty of times over the span of her twenty-year career, which I’ve followed. But it was no different on this particular morning when I met the warm Zonke and her team while she got glammed for her album cover photoshoot. Her latest work is called L. O. V. E – which stands for Living Out Various Emotions. “I’ve never worried myself with themes but this time around I made a conscious decision to just be happy and light – especially coming out of Work of Heart. When we started to record the album, my sister Lulu passed away, so naturally I gravitated towards that painful side,” she says while a nail technician mends what looks like a painful break.
“This time around I thought that I just want to be happy and I am happy so let me write songs that say exactly where I am. Therefore the theme is love – L. O. V. E – Living Out Various Emotions. The album takes you on a journey; whether you are happy or annoyed in your relationships, you’ll find a song on this album. There are different emotions love takes you on.”
Growing up in Port Elizabeth, Zonke has become known for her captivating and soulful vocals on tracks from those such as Viva The Legend (dedicated to her late father Vuyisile Viva Dikana), Jik’izinto, Feelings and Say Now, all the way to kwaito artist Thebe’s Groover’s Prayer. She has long been one of the most accomplished songwriters on the local music scene. She has written and co-written hits for dance artist Winnie Khumalo, Thebe and the late R&B star TK, and also worked with legends such as Bongo Maffin and Oskido. “I write songs almost every day, I can have an album that is being released but still continue to write and collect songs. This album, I’d say, took me two years.” One such song is her latest single to be released on Friday 20 April, called Tonight. “I wrote it just after Work of Heart was released – I just had this melody and bassline in my head, so I put the song down. I’ve been listening to that song ever since and it’s going to be my first single. That makes it about two years old.”
She adds: “Tonight is an unexpected single and takes me back to my early days in the industry when I first started at Kalawa Jazmee Records. It’s upbeat and I’m not going to say happy, as if all my other songs aren’t happy, but I think we associate tempo when it’s up with happiness and when it’s slow we associate it with sadness. Tempo is everything. It’s happy and young. It shows people she’s still kind of young-ish.”
There was never a time that one would not see Zonke and her singer sister Lulu without each other. Whether just on a casual night out or at one another’s performances; somewhere one of the Dikana sisters was cheering the other one, jumping, clapping, smiling, laughing – one way or the other they were always communicating with each other. When asked about the moment she thought it was time to return to music and be that Zonke she was with Lulu, she answers: “I think the person I was grieving over helped, I always remembered her words. This is the one person that would want me to shake it off. We had lost family before and I remember the things she would say while we were going through those losses and I thought to myself, no man, this applies to her as well. She would want me to be happy, to continue living my life, to choose happiness because she’s the one who would always say ‘Zonke, happiness is a choice no matter what’s going on, happiness is a choice.’ So I thought to myself, why should I feel guilty, my sister wouldn’t want me to be sad.”
With a unique path to the top of the South African R&B heap, her fourth studio album, Work of Heart, saw a career of dedication and commitment continue with another assured work of talent and creative genius. “My father Viva Dikana was a musician, and I’d always said I wanted to be an artist,” she says.
Zonke says her father taught her most of what she knows about music – the theory of composition, but also how the industry works. He inspired her to become not just a successful artist, but a creative force and a successful business person in a highly competitive industry. “Luckily for me my parents were already in the industry – my dad, and my stepmom was a musician as well, so they took me around a lot when I first came to Joburg. Zonke’s stepmom is Anneline Malebo, famous for being a member of Joy, the group behind one of South Africa’s pop anthems, Paradise Road. “I learnt from them and they kept me safe and if there were any meetings they were always there. I was happy to have that, where I couldn’t be taken advantage of. Maybe that’s why things took longer, other kids aren’t accompanied by their parents so things happen quickly but not necessarily in the right way.”
Her memories of the long journey she’s taken since arriving in Johannesburg in the late nineties, looking to break into the music industry, aren’t all easy. When #Trending asks her what the most significant song she has written is, she says: “I’m proud of all my songs, but there is one, Jik’izinto. I wrote it for my album Ina Ethe; it was the first single, released three months before the album came out. You know, when you take time to speak to yourself, you want to turn things around in your career. The song speaks of my career in particular, where I felt not appreciated, I felt like the record company that I was with at the time wasn’t delivering. And then I realised that no, stop blaming other people, what are you doing to change things for yourself?”
“I remembered my sister said the power of life and death lies in the tongue. If you say this is going to happen, good or bad, it’s going to happen. So I thought if I write a song about what I want to change and believe it, then certainly it will change things. Funny enough, the song is called Jik’izinto – meaning turn things around – I wrote the song and it just became so big. It changed my life. I put that theory to the test – okay, if I am positive about my own life then let’s see what happens. Exactly that happened and everything turned around. The album went triple platinum. It didn’t happen overnight, but it happened.”
The mother to six-year-old Noah and 16-year-old Milani says that when she started her career she was a kid but she has now grown into a mom, producer, songwriter and composer – completely in charge of what she is known and celebrated for. “All I cared about was getting that deal, being on stage and impressing someone with my voice. Now I love what I do and I take it so seriously, to the point that it’s all I care for. It’s what I put forth and what I’m known for and everything else for me doesn’t matter. But looking back now, I never really was the person to put myself before the music. It has always been about the music. It’s just that now as a mom it’s important what I write about, what I wear even more. I have always been that person but it matters even more now.” Fans can also look forward to Zonke’s first single since her 2007 Kalawa Jazzmee days, as she collaborates with one of her favourite artists, Kwesta, on Soul To Keep.
“I’m always the writer, doing my own backings, my own producing, arranging and composing. It’s always important for me to feature someone that I genuinely respect and whose music I enjoy. The Kwesta feature was something that I had thought of two/three years ago. For me this was not just a feature because it’s fashionable – I genuinely like him and he is such a cool person. Did I mention that he showed up on his own at the recording? He didn’t have an entourage, not that it’s an issue, but that’s how respectable he is. And he was even two hours early! I just wanted it to be natural and make sense – and Kwesta makes a lot of sense.”
L. O. V. E will be released June 14
(Photos: Supplied by City Press)