Album Review: A revolutionary Firebrand?

By Thato Magano (@ThatoMagano)

As an ardent devotee of the ‘Dana Ministry of Social Commentary’ since the days of the ‘One Love Movement’, Thato Magano feels ‘Firebrand’ signals that the activist-artist has left us behind. He feels disappointed by the album which he feels offers little ‘revolution’ beyond the pain of Marikana captured in ‘Nzima’, the relevance of ‘Chibok’ and the lament for the violence meted out on the Black female body in ‘Sarah’.

Remember Kelly Rowland’s line from that Destiny’s Child hit ‘Survivor’

I’m not gonna hail you on the radio

I’m not gonna compromise my Christianity

I’m not gonna diss you on the internet

‘cause my momma taught me better than that

Yep, me too. Literally! Those words have kept me silent for the past three weeks. There’s something I’ve wanted to say since last November but, increasingly over the past three weeks, the urge has grown uncontainable. Each time I almost say the words, that hook kept running its loop. But I can’t anymore. It has to be said. THIS IS IT: I am not a fan of ‘Firebrand’, activist artist Simphiwe Dana’s fourth album release.

Now that I’ve said it, let me give you context for why this is such a big thing for me. Since ‘Zandisile’, Dana’s debut, among my group of friends, I have been the lone voice venerating her talents. I have a copy of all her albums as well as the live DVD recording at The Lyric which I was in the audience for. I was in the audience at the State Theatre when African-American womanist author Alice Walker was reading and Simphiwe was the musical item, resplendent in burgundy suede. In her debut, she inspired us to be ready uku ndiza on ‘Ndiredi’ and to build a ‘Tribe’ that will come along on the quest for the truth of who we are as Africans. This quest, to discover why, as Black people, we have been given amaphiko but haven’t been able to really fly because we are bogged down by systems that have no interest in our prosperity, has been a consistent theme in her music and was solidified in her third release ‘Kulture Noir’, which I will address in a bit.

When art critic Bongani Madondo scathingly reviewed ‘the one love movement on bantu biko street’, Dana accused us, South Africans, of not loving her when the rest of the continent and the world were receptive to her message. She went to the rest of the world and received the love she felt wasn’t here at home. But not us the disciples, we were listening. ‘One love movement’ was a dissection of the oppressed lives we lead. ‘Sizophum’ elokishini’ spoke to the cruel nature of township living, how they were never meant to be our homes. On ‘The one love movement: umthandazo wase afrika part 2 – naphakade’ (it remains my favourite track on the album to this day), she interceded on our behalf, offering a prayer to those that have gone before us, the guardians of the Afrikanness that eludes us and we now have reference to reclaiming in the vanguard’s of Black thought such as Bantu Biko.

It was also an affirmation that we are enough and that we have purpose by heralding our strength in ‘Injongo’, ‘Sebenzile’ and Iiliwa lam’. ‘Zundiqondisise’, a simple song accompanied by percussions and keyboard holds the ultimate message of the album, that we as a people, have our own way of being, our own way of doing that does not need endorsement from them. So impactful is this song that I have since held the belief that every oppressed person must give it a listen at least once in their lifetime.

When the dust was settling around ‘The one love movement’, she went underground and reached into the darkest recesses of her pain and produced the marvel that is ‘Kulture Noir’, an album just as dark in prose as it is in styling. It felt like it was curated for the ultimate seeker, the questioner, those who are spirit twins with Ms Dana, those who carried the torch and the heavy burden of the struggle.

When ‘ilolo’ hit the airwaves, reflect our lostness as a people and the resultant search for identity, it laid bare the cumulative ache of the Black conscious persons. On the nostalgic ‘Umzali wam’ in memory of her mother, the merriment of ‘fela’s azania’ or the haunting ‘Undishiyile’ with an artist unknown at the time, Mthwakazi, lamenting a lost love, and the equally painfully powerful ‘Mayine’ or her weeping on our behalf asking woyeka nin’ ukuzizonda, ophola nin’ amanxeba, ndiva bethi bangcono kunawe on ‘zobuya nin’ inkomo’, Simphiwe gave us an album woven with a darkness that still beseeched undinikelani amaphiko xa ungafuni ndiwasebenzise? as its central theme.

In the period between ‘Kulture Noir’ and ‘Firebrand’, there was the house experimental ‘Nzima’ with Oscar Mdlongwa, an homage to the Marikana massacre of 2012, which at the time led me to believe that we were in for another interrogation on the state of Blackness. In the wake of Firebrand’s release, she gave us ‘My Light’ and I wasn’t particularly taken with the new sound. In a review, I acknowledged that perhaps the artist was transitioning and exploring her artistry in lighter, different ways. And that is how intimate a history I have had with the activist-artist through her catalogue. It was the activist, more than the artist that I responded to and fascinated me.

Now with ‘Firebrand’, which I’ve listened to for the past three weeks, after my friend Panashe, the editor of Vanguard solicited a signed copy from Ms Dana herself, after letting her know what a fan I am, I struggle to be as captivated. The delight of ‘Firebrand’ is the pain of ‘Nzinga’, the relevance of ‘Chibok’ and a lament on the violence subjected to Saartjie Baartman and the Black body in ‘Sarah’.

However, in as much as the title track is a powerful primer to the album, I am challenged by its self laudatory nature. It suggests a self satisfaction with being, rather than grappling along with the rest of us to figure out how to be the very firebrands that she invokes or what we should be agitating for if we are. To me, a devotee at the ‘Dana Ministry of Social Commentary’, ‘Firebrand’ feels as though the activist-artist has left us behind. I have tolerance for literally just the first five songs of the fourteen track album. The rest of it I cannot. I find it repetitive and weak.

As an artist, Ms Dana is entitled her right to explore new sounds, however, as an activist, when she has created a vangaurdian narrative with her sound, I as a follower, a disciple, cannot look at ‘Firebrand’ in a vacuum. Thematically, it feels clumsy, without a singularity of message and sound. It is too far a deviation from the Afrofuturistic soul that has characterised her music. Its imagery is too contemporary, too commercial, too now and lacking mysticism; an unusual departure from the distinct futurism of all three albums prior.

Having paid as close attention to the nuance of Ms Dana’s imagery, even the bolding and capitalising of the sleeve and track listing is a deviation from the sentence case of all three albums before. The inherent symbolism of that detail communicated an artist conscious of herself (ala feminist author bell hooks), making herself small and not bigger than the movement, the pain of the oppression but a part of, is something that was not lost on me. Even the English lyrics feel a betrayal – something she left behind in ‘Zandisile’ – when one has gotten used to feasting on the unapologetic celebration that is the poetic disposition of isiXhosa.

In previous interviews, she has spoken to her growth and finally giving herself permission to be ‘girly’. I wonder if that is not exactly why I dislike this album. That the tormented activist who found a voice through music has found happiness within the malaise, a way to navigate the violence and pain of oppression and not be as engulfed in the idea that the only way to cope was to exorcise it through song. That she hasn’t exhibited the same intensity of pain. That now, perhaps, she wants to be just a talented singer. That she has left us circling the violence and pain by ourselves without a way out and without a fortifier to be found in her lyrics and music.

Like all people, especially Black people, I wish for Ms Dana all of the happiness. However, I cannot help but wish that it wouldn’t be at the expense of the activist-artist if ‘Firebrand’ is the result for a diehard Dana-ite like myself and those who have expressed disappointment with this album. To be fair, it is a nice listen on a Sunday afternoon but it just refuses to stick in the way of ‘Ndiredi’ or ‘Ilolo’. If only unbearable pain wasn’t a precursor to transformative happiness!

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