South African R&B and Afro-soul singer Zonke has carved out a distinctive position in the musical landscape. She’s one of the country’s biggest stars but also the only female hitmaker in the game.
Unlike almost every other female singer on the vibrant SA music scene, Zonke not only plays to thousands and releases multi-platinum albums, she also writes and produces her own material.
Zonke Dikana has long been one of the most accomplished songwriters on the SA music scene. She has written and co-written hits for dance artist Winnie Khumalo, kwaito rapper Thebe, late R&B star TK and also worked with legends like Bongo Maffin and Oskido.
Zonke has had a unique path to the top of the South African R&B heap. Her fourth studio album, Work Of Heart, sees a career of dedication and commitment continue with another assured work of talent and creative genius. It is destined to become another South African classic.
It’s been a long journey since Port Elizabeth-raised Zonke arrived in Johannesburg in the late Nineties, looking to break into the music industry.
“My father Viva Dikana was a musician, and I’d always said I wanted to be an artist,” she says.
Viva taught her much 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. Zonke honours her dad on her classic track, Viva The Legend from the Ina Ethe album.
The teachers at Masiphatisani High in Motherwell township outside PE were mildly disappointed when their favourite pupil expressed dreams of a career in music. “You want to be an artist?” they’d say. “Pity.”
“But that just made me more determined to make a success of it,” says Zonke. “To prove them wrong. I knew I was going to build a career in this industry, no matter how long it took me.”
Her initial break proved elusive, and she spent several years as a session vocalist on the Johannesburg scene, recording tracks for advertising jingles and singing backing on songs by established artists.
“My step-mom, Anneline Malebo, took me under her wing,” she says. Malebo had been a big star – singing on Joy’s SA pop anthem Paradise Road. But she was also well schooled in the music-scene hustle.
“Every day we’d take a taxi from our flat in Berea. We’d go out to sessions and record backing vocals for artists like Letta Mbulu, Rebecca and Chicco Twala. We’d just hang around the studio, and then when they needed us, we’d have to step into the booth and do the vocal in a few minutes.”
This proved excellent training, and Zonke became known as the 20-minute girl when it came to song composition. Today she is still able to write some of her hit songs – from coming up with lyrics, to composing a melody to laying down the vocal track – in less than half an hour.
Zonke’s first break came in 2003 when Joburg engineer Leon Erasmus asked her to record demo vocals on a cultural-exchange project with German jazz-pop producer York. York liked what he heard, and within weeks Zonke was fronting a group called Culture Clan, fusing electronic grooves with raps and Zonke’s super-smooth hooks.
They travelled to Germany to record two albums, which led to a Zonke solo album – Soulitary. Zonke found herself based in Germany for several years, recording and touring her Afro-European, electro-pop sound.
“But after a while I started to miss home. I wanted to be known in South Africa, and I craved that local sound, local audiences. I also started wondering whether I was losing my South African mojo. Maybe I’d missed my chance to make it here!”
With three albums on major international labels under her belt, she returned to Mzansi.
After a while trying to find a local distributor for Soulitary, it became clear that its sound was “too international” and she would have to start from scratch making a name for herself.
But, ever humble, Zonke shrugged and got to work. She sang for Bongo Maffin, provided the hook on Thebe classic Groover’s Prayer, and wrote for Mafikizolo and TK. She soon came to the attention of kwaito/house godfather Oskido, who signed her to his Kalawa Jazzmee label.
The resulting album, Life, Love ‘n’ Music, was a strong musical statement, underpinned by the trademark Kalawa house beats, earning her four Sama nominations in 2008 and producing the hit Ekhaya. But Zonke had an idea for a purer R&B, Afro-soul style. She wanted to produce her own records, and to do that, she needed to move away from Kalawa’s dance sound.
“I asked Oskido if I could produce my own tracks,” she recalls. The commercially minded music boss was convinced she was committing career suicide – “How will you eat?” Zonke remembers him asking her. But she had to remain true to her vision.
It was the last throw of the dice for Zonke. After flitting across continents and genres for more than a decade, now was the time to front up and show what she could do. She moved down to Cape Town, and spent four months crafting a sultry, strings-laden, self-produced masterpiece.
“I decided to approach the album boldly, to say, ‘This is what I’m doing, take it or leave it’. It was titled Ina Ethe (“Give and take”) and it finally appeared in 2011.
This was the album she’d always known she was capable of – and the album discerning music fans had been waiting for. They lapped it up, taking Ina Ethe double gold within 12 months and then to triple platinum sales of 120 000 and beyond. A Sama Award for Best Contemporary Album soon followed, while singles Feelings and Jik’Izinto (“Turn things around”) became radio smashes.
Finally, after more than a decade of struggle, Zonke had arrived where she belonged, at the pinnacle of the SA music industry. Now the challenge was to stay there. “The South African music scene is strange,” she notes, “Few artists have sustained success. If you win big, you’re a trend. The background is the township culture of sharing. It’s almost like we’re saying, ‘We’ve struggled enough, so we must each have a turn.’”
But Zonke would subvert this trend with her follow-up, the super-successful Give And Take – Live. The album, and the accompanying live DVD, each went gold – another platinum sale for the combined package.
The album also earned her another two SA music awards and launched a period of solid touring and live appearances as one of South Africa’s most in- demand artists – both locally and internationally.
Then, just as Zonke was finally ready to start work on another album, her sister and fellow artist Lulu Dikana was struck down with a respiratory ailment and passed away in December 2014.
For Zonke, rediscovering her inspiration after such a blow took months, but early in 2015, her muse started to return.
Within minutes of re-entering the studio, she was improvising a musical tribute to Lulu. The track, Meet Me In My Dreams will be a centrepiece of the new album –
due out in September.
“Despite the pain, there was no self-destruct option. I don’t even drink or smoke, so falling apart was never on the cards. I’m strong. I come from strong parents. I always land on my feet.”
That strength is on full display on Work Of Heart. It is the work of a grown, assured singer-songwriter and producer, one of the reigning queens of Afro-soul, an R&B star in the full flower of her abilities. The album is written and produced by Zonke, with string arrangements by composer Mike Campbell.
“For me, the music and the lyrics come at the same time,” she says. “I write in quite a different way. “I open my mouth, and the words and the melody are there.”
Being an instinctive, improvising songwriter comes with its own stresses, but Zonke wouldn’t have it any other way. “I love the pressure of going into the studio and not knowing what ideas are going to come.”
What is not in dispute is the strength and resilience of this African superstar, she has risen above pain and hardship more times than she cares to remember, always emerging better, stronger, a more talented, more spectacular version of herself.
“Changes make you stronger,” Zonke says. “No matter what happens, I don’t have it in me to lie down and give up. There is always a way. For me, music is that way. Music is goodness.”