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Humanitarian and singer Yvonne Chaka Chaka talks women's rights, Nelson Mandela


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South African singer Yvonne Chaka Chaka rose to pop superstardom on the African continent during the 1980s. Inspired by the noble heroics of Nelson Mandela, Chaka Chaka channeled her fame into a voice for the African people. Chaka Chaka has been a strong voice in the fight to stop AIDS, TB and malaria. She's also been an advocate for the rights of women and children across the globe.

It's Chaka Chaka's role as a humanitarian that will bring her to Indianapolis this week. Chaka Chaka will be speaking at IUPUI's forum on Women's Empowerment and Gender-Based Abuse on Monday afternoon of October 12. And on Tuesday evening of October 13 she'll be participating in the Hope Rising awards gala at The Ritz Charles in Carmel for the SOHO organization (Saving Orphans through Healthcare Outreach).

I spoke with Chaka Chaka via phone from Johannesburg, South Africa in advance of her trip to Indiana.

NUVO: You were born into the famous Soweto township of Johannesburg, South Africa in 1965. You came of age during Apartheid rule in South Africa. Can you give us a feeling for what life was like growing up in South Africa during the Apartheid era?

Yvonne Chaka Chaka: First I'd just like to greet everyone in Indiana. It's so humbling to know someone out there is talking to me.

Growing up in Soweto during Apartheid wasn't easy at all. It was very difficult. But what I liked was that we in the townships looked out for each other. We were a close-knit family in our community because we knew exactly who the enemy was and unfortunately at that time it was the police. We as a community looked out for each other and protected each other.

The minus was that we were put in the townships without our will. People were removed from where they stayed and put in the townships.

NUVO: You were restricted in your movements as well. You couldn't go to certain territories without a government pass and everything you did was monitored by the Apartheid government, correct?

Chaka Chaka: Absolutely, things were monitored. There was a state of emergency. When you left the township you had to have a pass. Things were so terrible. There were so many restrictions. As a Black person the color of your skin made you feel worthless. We never voted. We never know who our political representatives were. We were like a community that didn't exist. It was very, very sad.

NUVO: Even beyond the racial separation of Apartheid it's my understanding that within the Black culture of South Africa people were separated along cultural, tribal and linguistic lines. For instance the Zulu would be separated from the Sotho, and so on.

Chaka Chaka: In South Africa we had different homelands. We had the KwaNdebele Homeland. We had the Limpopo Homeland where the Northern Sotho people stayed. We had the Xhosa in the Transkei and Ciskei. There were different perceptions being created in the minds of the people. For instance the Shangaan were the darkest people and they were made to believe they were the lowest class. It was so terrible what had been done to us. The government should have said, "You are all Black people and human beings, mingle among yourselves". I'm a very cultural person and I respect culture very much. For people to want to make me feel inferior because of my culture — I thought that was unfair.

NUVO: You were born with an incredible instrument. At what point did you realize you had this amazing voice and talent for singing?

Chaka Chaka: I think every Black child in South Africa had some kind of talent. What was difficult is that no one was there to unleash the talent. We had no recreation centers. We had nothing. As a young child in Soweto we used to sing and dance. We played hop-scotch. We played something like jump rope. We would compete among ourselves in the streets. By the age nine or ten I realized I really liked singing. I sang at church and school. It was a great feeling to know I could use my voice to sing.

My father died when I was 11 years old. The white government took our house from my mother because she was a Black and single woman. It was a terrible time. But there was a lady who even today I think was ahead of her time. She was the wife of a priest, an elderly woman. She used to get all of us children around the community to come to her church after school. She had a small library in her church and she would insist that all of us read. We would sing and she would teach us about the world.

She was an amazing woman and I'm very grateful to her today, because I look back and think if it wasn't for her I would not have been so inquisitive to wonder what was happening in the world and I may not have known I had a talent for singing.

NUVO: You are recognized internationally as a pop music superstar. The records you made in South Africa spread across the African continent and eventually the globe. Can you talk about the legacy of your music in South Africa?

Chaka Chaka: I think for me when I was given a chance to start singing at age 19, it was for me a great platform to articulate my story as a South African. I wanted to tell the world about my story.

When I was much younger my father had records from Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and Dorothy Masuka. I listened to all that music and when I eventually got a chance to sing, I did not perform to become popular. It was a platform that I was given to say there are atrocities in my country. I started traveling all over Africa and I saw faces and different places. I learned about different cultures. All those things educated me and I could only articulate it in the form of music.

Today South Africa has its freedom. But when I travel the world, I see that there are so many atrocities and I use my voice to talk about these things to the world. I work with the U.N. as a goodwill ambassador. There's malnutrition, poverty and displaced people, I say to myself how do I use this voice to benefit the people? So music can be a very universal language.


NUVO: During the 1980s when you began recording, it's my understanding that there was very aggressive censorship from the Apartheid government. Did you struggle with that? Was your music being censored?

Chaka Chaka: A couple of my songs were never played by the SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation.) Songs like "Africa Cries" or songs like "Nabahamba Bazobuya" which said, "Those who left and went into exile will come back home when the storm is gone." Some of those songs were never played.

When we wrote music we had to go to the SABC with a sheet and write the words to all the lyrics and actually explain what we were singing about in these words. I was never in trouble much because I made sure I changed the words.

I remember my song "I'm Winning (My Dear Love)" which was written for Winnie Mandela. The song was supposed to say "Winnie, Winnie Mandela" but we changed the lyric to "I'm winning, winning my dear love." There was another song, written by my composer at the time Chicco Twala, that was called "We Miss You Mandela, Where Are You?", but we changed it to "We Miss You Manelo".

When we did live shows in the townships at the venues available for us Black people, we would sing the songs and tell the people what the song really said. So I constantly say that the regime thought they were smart, but we were actually smarter because we were the creative people.

NUVO: I wanted to get your thoughts on a few of your famous songs. "Umqombothi" is such a joyful and universal song.

Chaka Chaka: "Umqombothi" was one of my favorite songs and one of my most popular. In fact it was featured on the soundtrack of the movie Hotel Rwanda. I sang about things that involved the community. Umqombothi is a traditional African beer that you drink from a calabash. When there are funerals or weddings people make umqombothi. When people drink umqombothi together they all drink from the same calabash and pass it around. It shows the communal togetherness of the culture.

It was recorded in 1987 but even today when I perform, it could be in Germany, New York, or Kenya, the people still want me to sing that song.

NUVO: Another famous anthem of yours is "Motherland".

Chaka Chaka: I never even thought the SABC would play that song. "Motherland" was recorded in 1989 and fortunately by 1990 things were getting better. That was the year Nelson Mandela was released. It was a rebel song because I'd been told that because I'm Black, I'm a nobody in South Africa. I recorded that song out of rebellion to say "this is my home, my roots are here, so who is that man calling me stranger? I am not a stranger, I am an African. Who gets the right to say I'm not part of the continent?" "Motherland" was recorded out of rebellion and cheekiness. It is a jolly song, but it's also an angry song. I was fortunate that it became one of my biggest hits.

NUVO: The music you made helped to introduce electronic music into the popular culture of South Africa. Did you realize you were creating this very new and different sound that would influence the development of contemporary South African electronic music styles like kwaito or Shangaan electro?

Chaka Chaka: Not really. When you create music you just think well this is the "in" sound. It's very funny because one of the producers I worked with was Attie van Wyk who was a white Afrikaner. So it was a combination of myself, Chicco Twala and Attie Van Wyk that made this kind of music which became very popular.

NUVO: You've managed to have a remarkable presence in two very different fields of endeavor. In addition to your legendary work in music you've also become a great humanitarian. It's my understanding that you first became encouraged to pursue humanitarian work through the great Nelson Mandela.

Chaka Chaka: Yes, I was quite lucky that Mr. Mandela came and visited me at home when he was released from jail. He asked me to campaign for the ANC (African National Congress). At that stage you could not have said no to Mr. Mandela. For him to come visit me at my home, I had butterflies. It was so incredible.

The man had so much humility. He'd been incarcerated for 27 years. When he was released some people thought he would tell us to kill all the white people and remove them from South Africa. But he never did. All he asked us was to respect one another, to learn from one another and to live together.

I had so many interactions with Mr. Mandela and his humility and selflessness made me want to be more selfless and do things for others as well.

NUVO: I've heard that while he was imprisoned Mr. Mandela smuggled a letter to you communicating that your songs helped sustain his spirit during his time of incarceration.

Chaka Chaka: I was quite shocked in 1987 when someone contacted me and said Winnie Mandela would like to see you. I thought "What have I done? I'm not a politician."

There was this note that Mama Winnie Mandela gave to me. The note came from Mr. Mandela. It said, "Your music keeps us alive in jail." I could not believe it. I was so taken aback. But I was also scared. I had to tear that note and chew it because I didn't know if it was the right thing for me to have it. I look back today and I wish I'd kept that letter.

NUVO: You literally ate the note to destroy the evidence because you could have possibly been imprisoned for being caught with this communication?

Chaka Chaka: Precisely.

NUVO: You work with so many organizations around the world from the United Nations to the World Health Organization. Can you give us an outline of what your humanitarian work consists of?

Chaka Chaka: In 2004 I was invited to perform in Gabon. Something happened to me there that I believe was planned by God. When I went to Gabon little did I know that one my musicians would contract malaria and when we came back to South Africa she died from malaria. I was quite upset. I didn't know what to do. I called different people's offices, I even called Mr. Mandela. All he said was, "Darling, you have a voice. You can change things." 

I started researching malaria. It is curable and preventable, yet so many children and pregnant women were dying from malaria. I thought I needed to do something about malaria. A few months later I was invited to Ethiopia and I was asked to be a UNICEF goodwill ambassador.

NUVO: In addition to your work in public health, you're also an advocate for women's rights.

Chaka Chaka: When I grew up in the township of Soweto I'd see women being harassed by the police. Women were being raped. Children were being abused. I'd seen so many bad things happening to women. Women had been disenfranchised and segregated. My mother was also abused by the government. They took her house away and made her sleep in the street. I said to myself when I grow up I want to be an advocate for women and children.

I was quite lucky when my father died that I had this strong woman as a mother. I look back and think I'm very grateful to my mother. I had two elder sisters, so after my father's death we became a family of girls only. You can imagine with three girls and a mother we were vulnerable. But I had a strong mother who protected us. No man was allowed to come to our house. During the time of Apartheid when we were very poor she could have prostituted us. She could've said, "Girls go find a man and make the ends meet." But she never did. All she ever wanted for us was to be educated. She said, "I don't want you girls to end up being a domestic worker like me. All I can ever give you is education. That will free you from being at anyone's mercy - let alone white people or any man."

That's why today I advocate for women's education and women's issues. Women have to work 10 times harder to show their ability. I will continuing fighting for girl's rights. And boy's rights too, as I'm a mother of four boys. When you have your education no one can ever take you for a ride.

NUVO: Did your mother live to see your amazing success as an artist?

Chaka Chaka: Fortunately my mother only passed away seven years ago and she was my biggest fan. Even after 20 years when she saw me in a magazine she would buy the magazine and call me. She really was my biggest fan.

When I started singing at the age of 19 she wasn't happy because she wanted me to go to university. I had to do all the recordings behind her back because she would not have allowed me.

NUVO: Before I let you go Miss Chaka Chaka, I wondered if you'd like to tell our readers how you acquired the title "Princess of Africa".

Chaka Chaka: Well, [laughs] I went to Uganda in 1990 and when I got there the promoter said, "We have 5,000 people waiting for you at the airport and they've come to see their princess." I said "I'm from Soweto, we don't believe in princes or kings. In Soweto we are all equal. We don't have queens and princesses." He was laughing and when I came out of the airport I saw people had made placards that read "we love you Yvonne Chaka Chaka, you are our princess of Africa." The name started there and it stuck all these years.

I'm so grateful to the people of Uganda, It is a very big title and I guess that's why I am doing the work I do in Africa and all over the world. These are the people who buy my music and support me and have elevated me. That's why I'm doing the work I do. It's how I give back to my community. I'm lucky that I have access to ministers of health, or the first lady of a particular country, or even presidents. I'm able to take people from different institutions and grass roots organizations to go talk about their problems with their leaders. I'm so grateful that I'm able to do that for my people.

NUVO: Finally Miss Chaka Chaka you have two appearances coming up in Indianapolis. First you will be speaking at IUPUI's forum on Women's Empowerment and Gender-Based Abuse on Monday afternoon on October 12. On Tuesday evening, October 13 you will be participating in the Hope Rising awards gala at The Ritz Charles in Carmel. That event is being organized by Cynthia Prime and the SOHO organization (Saving Orphans through Healthcare Outreach) who focus on providing outreach to orphans in the Southern African nation of Swaziland.

Any thoughts you'd like to share on these programs?

Chaka Chaka: I'm quite excited. This is my first trip to this part of America. I'm very grateful to SOHO and Cynthia and her team. It took people from Indianapolis to come to Swaziland to come and reach young people and empower them. I'm so grateful that people who don't even know the children of Swaziland would raise funds for them and make sure that those children who do not have homes are well looked after and taken to school. Can you imagine supporting people you don't even know? It demonstrates that we as human beings are good people and we are here for a purpose.


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