How can we go forward if we don’t make peace with our past?

Skin Deep’s Nkenna Akunna meets Shingai to have an honest conversation about growing up, ancient civilizations and dealing with grief.

Shingai’s contribution to Black British art is both significant and overlooked.  I caught up with the front-woman of The Noisettes early last month to hear more about her story, just in time for her headline concert at the Jazz Cafe which is taking place this Wednesday. The following is our lightly edited conversation.

N: To start, can you tell us a bit about your background?

S: I’m south London born and bred: Peckham, New Cross, Deptford, Camberwell, Brixton.  My heritage is a sort of bantu remix. There’s Zimbabwean mainly, but there’s also Malawi on my grandmother’s side and Mozambique from my grandfather on my mum’s side. The first time I went to Zim was when I was about five or six with my mum and sister, which was amazing. Then my father passed away when I was nine. You know when your African parents tell you you’re ‘going  on holiday’? We ‘went on holiday’ (read: moved to Malawi), but do you know what? It was the best thing that could’ve happened to me.

N: In what way?

S: We thought we were bad because we had our Nike tracksuits, you know? And you get there and it’s like, can you even climb this tree? Do you know how to find the juiciest mango? We realised we actually had zero skills. The first month was really difficult because they just laughed at us. ‘These mzungus that’ve come from London thinking they’re special!’ Always wiping your Huaraches because you don’t want to get your trainers dirty. That year with Gogo though…

N: Who’s Gogo?

S: That’s what we say for grandmother, in Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and parts of South Africa. My mum’s mum Elizabeth was a massive inspiration to me. She was the village dressmaker, the designer, and she used to sew up everybody’s problems – sew up broken hearts. ‘Oh my god, he’s cheating on me!’, they’d say.  ‘Bring me your favourite piece of cloth.’ Then they’d come back a week later like, ‘I can’t get him off me!’

N: Magic.

S: I grew up with these really amazing, formidable characters, and so when we got back I decided to move into creative stuff. At school, I was really into Literature and Drama and I wanted to do Music, but I went to a posh school where you had to be at a Grade 5 Classical level to get in. So my outlet for singing was in church. Outside of that, I had to imagine a place for myself. We would use cameras to take pictures, develop the film at Bonus Print, then cut out our images to make magazines because we didn’t see ourselves in any of the magazines being sold. Being a person from a certain background, in a society where the depiction of what is standard is far removed from you, really stimulates your imagination and you’re forced to be creative.

N: It sounds like a lot of the components that built your later career were cemented early on during your childhood.

S: I don’t know if you’ve experienced childhood grief, but you really go into your imagination. You go into your head to counteract a lot of the sadness. When our families moved here to the UK, they were first generation and probably going through a lot: working two jobs, going to uni, raising children and being in a community that’s diverse and dynamic, and at the same time a bit rough and ready. So with that backdrop, if you experience trauma or grief, most children find a way through it. As a black child part of your job is to entertain your family, anyway, so we used to put on shows.

N: That’s so true.

S: Dance! Sing!

N: You could be crying and they’re still like [clap] [clap].

S: Keep going! We used to put on little concerts at the weekends when mum would have parties. We’d show them our latest dance moves.

N: Around the tiny living room…

S: Around the tiny living room! I wanted to make my family happy all the time. I wanted to entertain people and uplift them. I was obsessed with Whitney Houston, singing with a wooden spoon. It was so bad I used to get sent down to Hilly Fields Park to practice, or as my mum would say, ‘to work on my singing.’ She would say, ‘You can sing as loud as you want in the park.’

N: Just to get you out the house! And were you thinking about being an artist as a career when you were younger?  

S: African children get assigned careers at like five. If one day you put a plaster on your brother, “EY, DOCTOR” [laughter]. So I was already assigned a career because I broke up a fight between my cousins once, and that was it. I was going to be a lawyer.

I went to The Brit School and did Drama and Theatre, and that’s where I met all these guitar players, including Dan Smith who was part of the Noisettes. They were in the music department, which was so much more exciting than the being with the thespians. I ended up singing in a covers band with Dan’s dad and we did a lot of blues, jazz, soul, Motown, and classic rock stuff. After a while, I didn’t think it was right to only sing other people’s songs – it felt weird. I think it’s really important to develop your own repertoire as a singer, so we started writing original songs. The first band that Dan and I were in was called Sonarfly and we did this really amazing psychedelic funk jazz. Imagine Steam Down but with more guitars and me playing bass.

N: Wow.

S: The music we made was out there, so cosmic and soulful. And then there was a second band I was in called Chrome Hoof which was amazing death metal, heavy jazz, very psychedelic… Then we formed The Noisettes, and ended up getting signed to Motown. I remember L.A. Reid flew us out on a private jet just to perform at P. Diddy’s White Party. Going from being 18 years old, living in my own council flat just off Brixton Road where I was paying my own bills to being signed by Motown.

N: That’s a real shift. Had you been paying your bills through music?

S: Yeah. Originally I tried to do government jobs, but there was this one incident… I was 17 or 18 and working in Harrods on the 4th floor. How long have you been natural for?

N: Since 2011.

S: Amazing. After I stopped relaxing my hair, I really wanted to grow it out. So I put in extension braids for protection. I went into work and I got marched off the shop floor by the head of my department and someone from ‘Grooming.’ I was like 17 and I was being told that my hair “might be off-putting to clients.” They said, “You’ve got two options: you either go to Grooming and take it out or you can go home.” So I went home and I never came back. When I got to the corner, I cried. I was so upset, I called my mum. It’s deep because that was clearly racism, but it was before you could really call it what it was.

N: It’s belittling.

S: I think that’s the last time I actually had a normal job. I’ve managed to make a living creatively, and luckily my mum and my family were always really supportive, but it was really challenging at times. That’s why I have always wanted to make music that I felt was going to give people some sort of experience or sustenance. I can’t do middle-of-the-road, dry, my-boyfriend-left-me kind of music. For a long time, if you were a woman, you were expected to write the kind of song that makes you look like a small person.

N: Do you feel like you had the freedom to make the music you wanted when you were signed?

S: You find a way, and do it subliminally. I reckon one day someone will unpack the lyrics of the songs on my first album, and if you know what I’m saying, you know what I’m saying. It’s fun to know that you can be rebellious within that, and actually get some deep issues into a song that might seem really, really fluffy.

N: Do you feel like there are people doing that now?

S: I feel like there are a lot more women of colour doing that now, and I think that’s important because back then a lot of them felt like they had to be passive, or beholden to male scrutiny. You should be doing roller coasters over your songs, and your songs should give you life.

I’d like to hope that my contribution to music has meant that a lot more women of colour can write about a wider range of themes. I’ve had some musicians thanking me because [what we did] was like a breath of fresh air – no one was singing about what we were singing about in the way that we were. I was really, really lucky to have Dan, a bandmate as well as a friend, who understood me musically and always pushed me.

N: You exist and create in a way that is so refreshing for a lot of young black women. I think industry-wise, or through a normative lens, people want to call that ‘alternative.’ Or there are these phrases like, ‘black nerds,’ or ‘black weirdos.’ As someone who’s been about doing this kind of work, did finding a community that sees you for who you are, within your own community of women and black people, ever feel difficult?

S: A community has been hard to grow, actually. There was a time when I was playing to thousands of people at Glastonbury, Coachella, and maybe 3% were black and brown people. The music that I’m making is for all of us and people need to be reminded that at the heart of most of the music we enjoy today, whether its pop, soul, R&B, jazz, funk, rock and roll, punk, reggae, jungle, hip-hop, drum and bass, is us. So to go and do shows and to not see brown people is heartbreaking. I wanted to be able to take us, take them, with me. The whole thing is about raising each other up.

What’s so amazing about being someone of African heritage is that there’s so much much biodiversity within us. Why would you want to have just one uniform way of being? Rather than policing those of us that are trying to expand and learn, we need to re-learn ourselves, explore and enjoy all of that beauty because it’s our inheritance.

N: With that energy in mind, let’s talk about the new EP.

S: Ahh, I see what you did there! Ancient Futures is about celebrating the fact that there are so many pivotal moments in our histories. Modern civilization is based on incredible ancient civilizations that are systematically discredited. I’m really excited about evolution: evolving as a woman, as a human, and as an artist. I feel like in order to have the future we want, especially in this tense moment for the world, we need to learn from many ancient civilizations. The western world erased a lot of that history, and there’s just so much magic there, man.

N: Can you talk me through some of the civilisations or figures from history that you’ve been thinking about?

S: Hatshepsut, one of the first female pharaohs who was one of the most prolific architects of Nubian and Egyptian archaeology from Kemet, using stone that was from Aswan [a city on the Nile River]. She was trading with the Queen of Punt. Punt was a kingdom which is likely to be where modern day, Sudan and Somalia are.

I was also thinking about the impact of [the Ethiopian empire], known as Abyssinia. You wouldn’t have had the Roman Empire, or the Grecian Empire without Abyssinia. The West doesn’t recognise its influence – that lack of recognition is getting a little bit stale now. People are missing out on really valuable information. All these civilisations had a rise and a fall. If we want to have a future, we probably shouldn’t repeat their mistakes. Ancient Futures is asking how can we go forward if we don’t make peace with our past?

N: There’s power in melding those sounds and ideas with the culture that exists here. I’m thinking about this generation of Black British people. We have been here for ages, but it feels like this generation can’t be erased. The music that’s coming out right now that includes sounds from different parts of Africa, but also from the many different kinds of people you find in a city like this.

S: Yes, and it makes for a very powerful kind of music, a power that just can’t be denied. That’s why for me, even just something like Annie Mac calling Coming Home ‘bonkers pop music’ is important.

N: It’s time to reframe what we consider popular.

N: How are you feeling now, in this creative moment, with all this refreshing new work being produced and your project being a part of that landscape?

S: I’m feel excited about being a creative person right now. It’s been a challenging journey but I wouldn’t change any of it because it’s been character-building. It’s bare jokes to talk about those challenges; I got stories for days. But there’s still a lot to do. There’s power in community, in people coming together and creating their own platforms to support each other. It’s a great time to be an international artist, and to be unapologetically embracing my heritage. It’s brilliant and I feel a bit unstoppable at the moment! Just got to try and be humble, init.

Grab the last remaining tickets for Shingai’s show at the Jazz cafe tonight, before it sells out.

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