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It’s a woman's world for Moonchild Sanelly
© Phatstoki

It’s a woman's world for Moonchild Sanelly

The South African star wants you to respect all kinds of women, from the badass rebels to the soft-hearted romantics. PAM had a chat with the world’s queen in the making about her upcoming album Phases.

For a long time, Moonchild Sanelly has been a walking scandal. Even if she has signed some of South Africa’s biggest hits of the decade; even if she has toured all over the world; even if Beyoncé herself invited her on The Lion King album (2019); for a long time, her name would mostly make headlines for topics unrelated to music, accompanied by words like “outrageous”, “shocking” or “speechless”. These headlines would often be related to the singer’s appearance or sexuality: while male rappers, Afropop artists or popstars mention it regularly in their songs, it seems like for a woman, artist or not, being open about sex is still an issue for certain people. However, from the first minutes of our interview, it is clear that Sanelly, born Sanelisiwe Twisha, will not be bothered by the latter. “This happens because there’s a lot of men and men are taught that women are servers, to provide babies”, she says after taking a deep breath in, with the tone of someone used to repeating herself. “And women are told to be ladies, and ladies are not supposed to know where the clitoris is, ladies are not supposed to say how they want it, to have a voice in the bedroom. At this point, I’m becoming the person I wish I had when I was a kid. Because If I had a song on radio that told me about the pleasures of sex, I would have questionned the times where I was being sexually harrassed and molested. A song that makes me feel good about my body size, a song that makes me question when I’m being violated, and all that. I’m a lady, and I own my body, and it takes nothing away from being a lady.

Through impish songs like « Where De Dee Kat » and suggestive videos like “Online”, Sanelly has become used to shocking. “I love the fact that I shake everybody and everything all the time”, she even admits with a shameless smile.  A habit she already had in university when, on her way to becoming the “future ghetto funk” ambassador, she would perform poetry recitals and happily make her audience cringe. To her, the shocking is just a side effect from “owning of the narrative”, an expression she will use frequently in our discussion. She makes it a point to say that this confidence comes first and foremost from her own life experiences; yet, it also stems from two important feminine figures. The first one is South African 80s pop icon Brenda Fassie, known for her groundbreaking music and activism as well as for her shattering private life. “Her music was around me and really affected me”, Sanelly explains. “When I was four, we did a music session and I chose her song. When I meet people that met her in person, they’re always like ‘your similarity is not only a music thing, it’s also your personality, how you don’t give a fuck and you just do you and the world adapts to you’”. The second one is her mother, who passed away shortly after sending her away from Port Elizabeth to Durban for her studies. “She was absolutely different from the ladies of her age”, she recalls laughing. “The ladies of her time would look at her like they are looking at me now. My mom was a baddie. Everyone had husbands and she didn’t! You’d never see me in the streets, in a corner with a boy or doing anything consuming my time: my mom was very conscious and she put me on stage when I was 6 months. I made our existence worth it.

DJ Vitoto – Online [Feat. Moonchild Sanelly] (Official Music Video)

Moonchild’s mother had predicted that her daughter was soon going to be too big for Port Elizabeth (now Gqeberha): in 2016, following a rather alternative debut (Rabulapha!) and a solid reputation in the local creative scene, the singer broke into the mainstream with huge hits like “Makhe”, “Midnight Starring” and “iWalk Ye Phara”. “It was all intentional”, she says. “I had started doing shows overseas, but I wanted more. I had reached my top in the alternative scene, it got to a point where I was the only Black girl on every Afrikaans stage. Then, I realized that the people who were breaking out of the country were not necessarily commercially successful in South Africa. And I wanted all of it, because I want my Grammy!” She soon added her own particular twist to the gqom wave shaking the country at the time, collaborating with pillars of the scene like DJ Tira, DJ Lag, Busiswa or DJ Maphorisa. “With gqom, I love the bass man”, she laughs. “I’m an energetic person and it just lifts me off the wall. The visual I have when I listen to gqom is being on an underground stage filled with people and it’s just… wild, dark”. Yet, she also remained relevant in the alternative sphere by quickly dropping more experimental house or rap music on projects like Nüdes and many featurings. This original positioning led her to be on Beyoncé’s Lion King soundtrack and to be signed by London-based Transgressive Records.

Phases, Moonchild’s new album, is one step further in her world domination quest. Upon first listen, and after looking at the project’s cover and its four mystifying versions of the singer, it is obvious that this set is not tailored for one audience only. “Abso-motherfucking-lutely”, Moonchild confirms. “I just happen to come from SA. I carry them, but they will not hold me back!” This is felt firstly in the music: the tracklist is a clever mix of amapiano and SA house (“Covivi”, “Soyenza”), trap and drill bangers (“Let it rip”, “Uli”, “Strip Club”), new rave electronic music (“Over you”, “Bad bitch budget”, “Money tree”), delirious fast techno-infused bumpers (“Chicken”) and nostalgic ballads (“Too late”, “Bird so bad”). Secondly, this is also reflected in the album’s main thread: a universal and inclusive celebration of womanhood, be it Brenda Fassie’s, Sanelly’s mom’s or any other. “I try to represent different types of women, different from the society standard of successful women”, she explains. That’s why I’ve got “Strip Club”: I’m celebrating girls taking their money and having fun! I’ve got a song about a side chick choosing her position, knocking on a married man. She doesn’t want any ownership, she just wants to be on his schedule. I’ve got my “Undumpable”: you’re not gonna dump me after everything I’ve invested in this relationship – that’s my crazy women! We all deserve respect.” A big part of the album is also directed towards relationships. To explore this topic in the best way possible, like a true scientist, the singer decided to stay in a very toxic one in the final recording phases. “Just to finish the album up!”, she laughs. I needed more emotions. Some people mack for ego, I mack for content…

While bringing the different shapes of Moonchild Sanelly together, this album also unveils a layer we didn’t know from the artist. “Bird so Bad”, for example, is a shocking song, but not in the way Moonchild shocks usually: here, we are surprised to see a sorrowful and unguarded singer, singing about a difficult heartbreak. Is the queen of future ghetto funk getting weak? Quite the opposite. “This time, I was comfortable and strong enough to do this”, she says. “I definitely felt like being a bird, escaping my situation, and talking about it didn’t take away from my power, it didn’t breach me from celebrating women. The power in vulnerability is that you can own your emotions. It’s powerful: it’s me acknowledging my own. In all her different phases.

Phases, available now.

Moonchild Sanelly – Cute (ft. Trillary Banks) (Official Video)