Charting a new course
The New Pioneers
A musician, a poet, a novelist, a television presenter. But their abilities defy a singular description, excelling and growing in their creative crafts while constantly reinventing themselves in pursuit of their passions - passion with purpose.
By Sesihle Manzini
29 August 2020
Young, gifted and black. These new pioneers are among the vanguard of black female creatives owning their space and breaking new ground. They don't come from privileged backgrounds, notorious or affluent families who gave them a leg up over everyone else. They have built their careers and continue to author their stories through sheer grit and talent, and they’re quick to acknowledge the women around them who’ve paved their way, and on whose shoulders they stand on.
“Whatever path that I’m on is not a new path. It was set up by people who came before me, and I’m just kind of stepping into it.” says jazz virtuoso and UCT Bsocsci graduate Naledi Masilo. Expressive, opinionated and insightful, she is the founder of The Dreaming Girls Foundation, a mentorship and advocacy organization aimed at equipping female artists to be catalysts for social development and change.
To call Naledi an over-achiever would be an understatement. At just 23, she has worn multiple hats - from student organising and teaching, to conference host and all-round musician, performing on many local and now international stages. Underpinning all of these undertakings are her three passions - music, development and women.
“I've always felt torn, because I didn’t want to become a musician and just put on concerts and write songs. I still want to sit in these rooms, I still want to do things that are impactful”. By ‘these rooms’, she’s alluding to her time at Model UN, an educational programme she was involved in from high school. That experience saw her on youth policy committees and working with the South African Institute of International affairs in developing initiatives aimed at creating opportunities for youth, particularly girls. With access to “important rooms, speaking to important people about important issues” affecting women and girls, from a youth perspective, the dream for The Dreaming Girls Foundation was birthed, an initiative that seeks to “find that bridge between what art is - is it entertainment, or can we actually put it in social development and have artists part of that conversation?”.
"It's not about being on stage, dropping dope bars and getting clicks...Its artistic interventions"
Her sentiments are similar to Siphokazi Jonas, writer, producer and poet. When she spoke to AD mid-July, her heart-wrenching poetry and theatre production, We Are Dying Here had just wrapped up its limited online screening. The production - directed and conceptualised by Jonas herself, with writing credits shared with Hope Netshivhambe and Babalwa Makwetu who both star in the production, wowed local and international audiences alike, drawing viewers in from across Africa, Asia, North and South America.
The production - incorporating spoken word, poetry and music - intricately exposes the horrors of Gender Based Violence and femicide in South Africa, unmasking the daily realities and impossibility of women struggling to survive men everyday, while remaining safe.
“It's not about being on stage, dropping dope bars and getting clicks” she says. “Its artistic interventions.” Like Naledi, she’s into macro, systems change. “I'd love to see We Are Dying Here become a proper resource in schools, the kind of resource that can influence policy.” She talks enthusiastically about a webinar she’s about to have with Life Orientation teachers in the Western Cape, “I’m influencing teaching practise!”
It's evident that for these creative powerhouses, their craft is just a tool, an inspired spark to set the world aflame by uprooting dominant narratives and upending cultural assumptions.
“It's about counternarratives” Siphokazi asserts. And sometimes that means going against the grain, and doing things unconventionally. “For me it's about more than the art. The art has to serve the mission rather than the other way around. It's difficult though because if you’re being judged on that [artistic] level, then you’re always falling short”.
But it's part of the work of pioneering, that of taking the road less travelled. To the establishment, it will always sound like fingernails on a chalkboard, but music to the ears of the excluded being heralded in.
"It's a less romantic sense of pioneering - its not starting cutting edge operations, buts it's about bringing human dignity"
That’s how finance graduate and novelist Ijangolet Ogwang, views her pioneering work. “When I hear pioneering, for me it's seeking out new ways of being, largely from the perspective of human dignity.”
A Global Shaper (that was her actual title for the 2015 World Economic Forum initiative), Ijangolet’s keen human observation and incredible range in a variety of domains is fuelling her excellence in all her pioneering pursuits. Her 2018 debut novel ‘An image in a Mirror’, crafted while she was juggling a demanding day job as a Post Investment Analyst at an impact investing firm, was an acute window into her sharp perceptiveness for centering complex narratives of the unknown. Inspired by the lack of literature centering the experience of African migrants within the African continent, An image in a Mirror beautifully crafted the mosaic tale of identity, growth and Africanness in our modern age.
Buried beneath the animated stories of two identical twins separated at birth and living in vastly different worlds was astute political and social commentary, an intentional act inspired by two of her favourite writers - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Paolo Coelho.
When we speak, she’s in the middle of writing her dissertation and starting a new internship in London, where she is completing her MSc in Development Studies from SOAS University. “I’m actually busy with novel two” she announces gleefully. She’s been heralded as one of the new voices of fiction, so the pressure is on to add to her already compelling piece of work. How is the writing going?
Slowly, she admits, but the work is being done. Without giving too much away, she reveals that her new offering will span three generations, an ode to black women highlighting the stories of a grandmother, mother and daughter. “That in itself feels like a piece of pioneering work. When I'm writing this novel I feel like it's a love-letter. A nuanced appreciation of black women is what I hope I can achieve with it”.
Indeed, there’s a sense of wonder and discovery to be hewn from honouring the beauty and complexities of three generations of African women in literature. This deep work brings to life her fervent desire to bring dignity to people - specifically black people, from whom colonialism took from the most. “It's a less romantic sense of pioneering - it's not starting cutting edge operations, but it's about seeking alternative ways of being largely from the perspective of human dignity”.
In a world still trying to make sense of things in light of a global pandemic, along with the global awakening to the danger posed against black bodies in a white supremacist world, it would seem that the world is ready to reimagine. Whether or not it will last remains to be seen, but suspending cynicism, we hope.
Our insular institutions have been exposed. Our fragile social structures and unbridled consumption has been called into question. Some are starting to take seriously the alternative models of business and being that will centre people and their welfare at the core.
“We can no longer think of certain people as important and others not in the way of developing solutions.” Ijangolet adds, hinting at her new expertise gleaned from her pivot to development from finance. Here, she sees firsthand the power dynamics shaping policy and development globally.
“The reality is a lot of where the decisions in development get made is not even on the [African] continent. A lot of these decisions are being made at the headquarters - in London, New York, wherever.” Is that why she chose to further her studies at a Western development institute, rather than a local one? “I wouldn't say one is better than the other. But my thought process was largely acknowledging that, given the way power structures work, having a masters from SOAS university of London holds weight, within the global development sector. It's all about increasing my optionality”. And as a black woman charting her own course in this expansive field, who can blame her?
Like Ijangolet, Naledi Masilo decided to hone her craft further afield. Profoundly dedicated to her art, she chose to pursue her jazz studies at NEC, The New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. This after being accepted in five American universities - including NYU music school. Her cool calm, rigorous discipline and intense poise - honed from years of ballet training - masks the quiet, unstoppable force she’s wielded in her journey of finding, honing and pursuing her craft. At home in the pressured environment that comes with studying music at one of the most prestigious music conservatories in the world, and learning with some of the best in their age group, Naledi finally feels like she’s at a point in her journey when all of her passions have converged, the first tell-tale signs of an exciting future bursting with endless possibilities.
“I spent a lot of time feeling like I have my hands in a lot of different places”. An artist, thinker, Christian and black woman, she always felt like she couldn’t be and feed into all of these things at the same time. Now fully focused on her music, with the benefit of being able to attend classes which focus on the fusion of the arts with social justice, her three core passions seamlessly collide. With an entrepreneurial musicianship grant from her music school, she was able to host The Dreaming Girls conference last year, itself a pioneering project that sought to bring young female musicians with veteran industry leaders to create networks, provide sustainable resources and empower women to change the face of society. As the whole world pivots to digital, she continues to gather women from all over the globe and across the diaspora at all intersections of the arts, to share learnings and stories about their art, their journeys, dreams and hopes.
Like Ijangolet, Naledi Masilo decided to hone her craft further afield. Profoundly dedicated to her art, she chose to pursue her jazz studies at NEC, The New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. This after being accepted in five American universities - including NYU music school.
Her cool calm, rigorous discipline and intense poise - honed from years of ballet training - masks the quiet, unstoppable force she’s wielded in her journey of finding, honing and pursuing her craft. At home in the pressured environment that comes with studying at one of the most prestigious music conservatories in the world, and learning with some of the best in their age group, Naledi finally feels like she’s at a point in her journey when all of her passions have converged, the first tell-tale signs of an exciting future bursting with endless possibilities.
“I spent a lot of time feeling like I have my hands in a lot of different places”. Defining herself as an artist, thinker, Christian and black woman, she always felt like she couldn’t be and feed into all those intersecting identities at the same time. Now fully focused on her music, with the benefit of being able to attend classes which advance the fusion of the arts with social justice, her three core passions seamlessly collide.
With an entrepreneurial musicianship grant from her music school, she was able to host The Dreaming Girls conference last year, itself a pioneering project that sought to bring young female musicians with veteran industry leaders to create networks, provide sustainable resources and empower women to change the face of society.
As the whole world pivots to digital, she continues to gather women from all over the globe and across the diaspora at all intersections of the arts, to share learnings and stories about their art, their journeys, dreams and hopes.
"Part of the work of pioneering is not only embracing failure but anticipating it...So fail epically"
The issue of digital access points to a larger question of how we can make sure our pioneering is accessible to everyone, not shutting people out.
As framed in our pioneering women’s talk, it's urgent that we move away from the typically Western, masculine and individualistic framing of the pioneer - that which seeks to exceptionalise, elevating one person above the collective. These triumphant proclamations of explorations and firsts feed into a history of erasure and exclusion.
“Usually pioneering is about ‘we are here to conquer and plant a flag’,” Siphokazi concurs. “That's been the colonial project, this idea that no one was here until we ‘discovered’ it”.
This means that if we seek to pioneer restorative ways of being, those which champion the collective and include the excluded, we need to constantly check our methodology every step of the way. This requires interrogating our very ideas of success, questioning what they're rooted in and who we’re thinking alongside,. How fundamental are collaboration and participation in our pioneering endeavors?
“It’s about untangling" Siphokazi states, "engaging with what already exists to open up a path to somewhere, though you may not necessarily always know the end.”
And she knows it’s not easy. “Part of the work of pioneering is not only embracing failure but anticipating it. The skills you may need to build are formed in the crucible of failure. So fail epically”.
Like Naledi, Siphokazi didn’t grow up with a strong artistic foundation, that which is usually financed by parental investment in art schools and musical training from a young age. Whilst Naledi had to fight to keep the fire burning, Siphokazi admits "a lot of work came into finding and accepting this path". She didn't know what to study, because - as most African parents believed, you couldn't make a living out of art.
“Growing up eKomani, there were no role models or artists who were successful in their craft. Instead, there were more stories of destitute artists who died penniless.” Long before the Miss Universe shout-outs, she says she was the weird art kid who fumbled her way through academia, skirting around her calling before finally embracing it.
But once she broke through her own ideals, along with the expectations of others, she ran with her calling, giving it everything she had - savings and all.
“All of this was out of pocket.”, she says of her breakthrough project, We Are Dying Here. “I cleared out my savings for us to go to Joburg. I thought, 'I've got enough gigs to earn that back'.”
That was back in December.
How could she have anticipated that a global pandemic would relegate the whole world behind closed doors, halting her vision to tour in universities around the country, and the opportunity to make her money back? But it also became the proverbial blessing in disguise, as COVID glued us to our screens, ready to consume online content.
The We Are Dying Here virtual show has effectively propelled her from the margins of the art and theatre world to the mainstream, landing her all the way to New York City's "Time Out" listings. “We actually filmed it so we could have content to put on social media to pitch the tour for potential funders. Kanti God had other ideas”.
And it has been her belief in God, her robust faith in his supernatural power gently steering her career behind the scenes that has kept her going. “What I love about [the success of her career] is that it never allows me to claim. I have to send the glory to where it belongs.” Despite her love for God, her high impact theatre experience doesn't go easy on the church.
“We critique it. We can't deny the church’s complicity, but what we do understand is Christ being with us in our suffering.” It's not an easy understanding which makes what we go through better, she acknowledges. Quoting Hope’s poem, she holds to the fact that the awareness of the presence of God nonetheless brings healing. “Ultimately, the production is not about solutions or answers” she reminds me.
Still, it's a gripping piece of storytelling that centres the often marginalised stories of South African women, whilst provoking men out of their apathy and indifference about the daily war on women's bodies.
I wonder about the dreams of a dream maker, who can plant vision in your subconscious, and then in due time call it forth like Lazarus until you are forced to open your tombstone eyes and no one can recognise why you seem to see things that no one else can.
Excerpt from The Dream Maker - a poem by Siphokazi Jonas
So what has this whole process taught her about pioneering?
“For me personally, what I’ve learnt is that the dreams we have - especially if they are for the greater good, are God dreams”. She cites a line from her own poem The Dream Maker. “‘I wonder about the dreams of a dream maker, who can plant vision in your subconscious, and then in due time call it forth like Lazarus until you are forced to open your tombstone eyes and no one can recognise why you seem to see things that no one else can.’
I’ve learnt that sometimes the manifestation of things now is God having planted the dream a long time ago. You’re just a conduit for what he’s doing. Pioneering is not even about me and the work that I’m doing. Its God saying ‘now the time is right'. This is harvest for Him.”
And We Are Dying here is a testament to that, all the work she had put in over the years, finally manifesting now. “What I thought was my dream was never really mine.”
Siphokazi's constant deflecting the glory of her work to God is reminiscent of my conversation with Misha Solanga, a multi-hyphenate creative who in less than 5 years in the media industry has done everything from interning at Drum magazine, to modelling and acting. She is now the owner of her own production company, taking the power of storytelling into her own hands through CUMI media. She balances this with her day job as the bubbly presenter of a popular South African youth show, Hectic-Nine 9, which airs daily on the South African broadcaster.
Constantly in our 40 minute conversation, she drops Bible verses and fiery encouragement not unlike a passionate preacher, which she actually is. “I was supposed to have my ordination in April, but because of lockdown”, she sighs, it couldn't happen. But she’s already living it, embodying the life of a messenger who's daily activities are only significant because of the greater story they are a part of. This, despite her admitting that she was running away from it initially.
She frequently posts faith-inspired encouragement to her 4000+ Instagram followers, and has a podcast and Youtube channel solely dedicated to her passion of motivating young people towards seeking Christ.
“We don't have a lot of young, outspoken people who believe in Christ and are willing to stand on their social media platforms and say this is what it is,” she says, beaming with energy. “What we are seeing now is more young people rising up and being confident, and saying this is who I am, I’m not ashamed, and I love to see it”.
So how did it all start for Misha Solanga? A journalism graduate who loves to tell stories, she’s also quick to give God all the glory in her journey to become a media powerhouse. “Over the years it [her career] unfolded and God kept layering back. He was like, you’ll go to journalism school, graduate and think that you’re going to be a content producer for a magazine, low and behold, the following year you're going to become an actress. And then once that's done, I’m not done. And you’re like, ‘but God, I’ve never done that before’ and God is like, ‘it's not about you. It's about what I can do through you. So lets go’”. She smiles widely, the confident charm of a woman whose achievements are not lost on her.
What’s the heart behind her production company, and what she’s trying to build?
“The main purpose and mission of CUMI media more than anything is to launch people into their purpose. Helping them find who God created them to be within their talents, whether it be filmmaking, acting, writing, administration, producing.”
Her entrepreneurial spirit is what fuels her to create opportunities for other people, with youth unemployment being one of the social ills she hopes to tackle with her business. She admits that she never thought she would take the leap and start her own production company, and credits the people around her who helped push her to start.
“I've been blessed to be surrounded by people who believed in me and what is in me. That's so important, because some people are able to see something you’re not able to see in yourself. So finding those people who believe in you is everything”.
She echoes the same sentiments as Ijangolet on the importance of anchoring our pioneering in something greater than ourselves. “You need to have a clean heart, making moves that create access for everyone. So you need to introspect and ask ‘why are we doing what we’re doing?'”.
We reach forward to bring part of that glorious other kingdom into the present - a future grounded on a restorative alternative
Similarly, when it comes to creating access and making our circles bigger, Ijangolet says “One of the immediate things that needs to happen is to ask; who’s in the room? If you look at a lot of development firms and agencies, largely white individuals are in the room. That in and of itself - when you’re solving issues for black individuals - is a problem. How do we bring people in the room who can understand academic theory, but can also integrate that with lived experience and proximity? In order to create any solutions that work, you need an interaction of both.”
Our conversation is a reminder that as pioneers shaping new terrain or entering into existing spaces, we need to question the foundations on which we stand. How does our chosen domain deconstruct or feed into the current reality? What worldview are words like development and modernization rooted in? Who’s doing development and who is it being done to?
We know that a huge reason why things are the way they are is because of the way things were. So our pioneering is a constant loop, turning to look back and charging forward with a reimagined alternative. We look back to uncover the foundations which gave birth to our current reality, unafraid to deconstruct and shake the status quo, asking the hard questions and boldly tearing down assumed assumptions - the limitations of culture and our own.
We look back, but we also look forward, staring the future down. We reach forward to bring part of that glorious other kingdom into the present - a future grounded on a restorative alternative, embracing distinctive ways of being which dignifies the human and centres the marginalised.
Now that is the work of the new pioneers.