Back in 2015 on the Boomtown stage at the Durban July, I had the privilege of experiencing first hand the magic that informs the staying power that has sustained Mafikizolo’s chart dominance since they first entered the music scene, with their bhujwa swag, in the late 90’s.
Midway through the performance of their #1 hit Khona, Nhlanhla’s shoelaces started coming off, threatening to set in motion a devastating series of events that would have seen her take a tumble and plunge into the crowd.
Instead, what happened next would become a watershed moment that can school any formation about the power of authentic synergy. Theo quickly went down on his knees to tighten the shoelaces without disrupting the flow of their energetic delivery.
All this was done without missing a beat.
It’s this laser sharp focus and a display of teamwork that would see one of South Africa’s best selling music acts of all time cultivate not only a discography like no other, but also the rare ability to stay relevant for more than two decades.
“We don’t want to limit ourselves based on our past victories.”
And while we are sure the iconic duo, consisting of Nhlanhla Nciza and Theo Kgosinkwe, can publish several books detailing the trade secrets that have given them more than nine lives, humility and maintaining respect for one’s craft are the keys behind Mafikizolo’s success.
“We never feel like we’ve arrived”, says Nhlanhla, despite the duo’s global success, which includes their work being displayed at Grammy Museum alongside the likes of Micheal Jackson, Elton John and Elvis Presley.
Despite the unprecedented milestones, their blockbuster catalogue and their status as one of Africa’s most celebrated living legends, Mafikizolo are plotting their next move. We caught up with the duo as they distilled their 22 years of unleashing street anthems while influencing the soundscape through their multiple reinventions.
Congrats on the new single, ‘Ngeke Balunge’. How did the song come about?
Theo: We collaborated with Mondli Ngcobo on this track. He produced it. I think it’s because we’ve always had a relationship with him. He’s always wanted to write something for us a long time ago. I guess he’s always wanted to write that one particular song.
He’s always said, “I want to work with you guys but I want to write that perfect song for you.” So I think the timing is perfect. He’s actually got two songs for us. He came to Joburg and presented the two songs. We recorded the songs and we chose this one as the first single. That’s how it all came about. I think it’s because he’s been following Mafikizolo for a long time. He’s been our fan and we’ve been fans of his work.
From the songs, how did you decide on this one to be the first single?
Nhlanhla: Well, we knew definitely that we wanted to go back to our original sound. We missed the days of Emlanjeni, Mas’thokoze, Ubahlula Bonke… you know? The days of ballads. I mean, we know and understand that there’s Gqom, there’s House and Amapiano that have taken over. Still, we wanted something that will be different from what everyone else is doing. We loved the two tracks that he presented to us but the first single is the one that blew everyone away. It blew us away!
What’s funny is that the track – because every time I get a track I would just go around and play for people – I played the two tracks to see which one they loved the most. And funny enough, even the younger people… because we thought we are targeting the older audience, but even the younger people are crazy about the song. So it was really easy for us to decide.
Real talk, it’s such a beautiful song…
Theo: Indeed! And just adding on Nhlanhla and what she was saying. You know, when Khona came out… there’s something about the song that you don’t know what it is about it that makes people move. It’s a spiritual thing because you don’t know what it is about the song that moves you so much… you can’t figure it out. Because, I thought when we were busy posting the song, I thought ‘Ah this is an urban Zulu song.’ And then you get people from Zambia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe singing and posting the song! They love the song. They might not understand it, but they love it. They’ve been saying, ‘What a spiritual song!’
Nhlanhla: Even South Africans are like, ‘thing song does somethings to me, emotionally. I get so emotional and sometimes I wanna cry when I listen to the song.’ That was not even our intention, we just wanted to do a love song. Some people don’t even know that it’s actually a love song. They are thinking it’s like… impi (war).
Theo: Let me add to this. If they don’t miss out on this, this song could be a perfect song for Amabhokobhoko (The Springboks). It’s a perfect victory song for them because they can say… (sings) ’Abadede impela, kufike izingwazi’. It’s got that chant!
So if you had to choose a perfect song that is relevant for the victory that we brought as South Africa and Amabhokobhoko. It might be a love song, but it’s one that unites. (Breaks into song again) Angeke bas’xelele abayeke umona. It unites and at the same time it’s about love and celebration. I’m punting the song to be the official theme. If anyone is looking for a song to celebrate Amabhokobhoko, this is the song!
Nhlanhla: Or any victory! Even you as a person. You can say, I’m trying do this and there are people around me who are not rooting for me and are negative towards what I’m trying to do. You are saying ‘Ngeke balunge’, you know? Ngeke bangiqede. Abadede! Its a victory song more than anything
With the victory theme, I got a sense that the song paid homage to how resilient Mafikizolo has been. As people who’ve worked together for so long, how have you managed to continue working together well for this long?
Theo: I think the dream of success never really died. We don’t want to limit ourselves based on our past victories because there are new challenges to be won and new goals to be reached. We keep reinventing ourselves and wanting to work with different producers who can bring a different sound. On our previous album, we worked with DJ Maphorisa. This time around we were blessed to work with Mondli Ngcobo and as we plan for our album next year, we plan to work with other emerging producers and songwriters. We love reinventing ourselves.
For us to have this staying power, it’s because we love reinvention. We always challenge ourselves and be like, ‘What can we come with that can be new without losing ourselves?’ Even though it might be a new sound to our fans, but we don’t lose our core as Mafikizolo. Like I said, there are a lot of challenges. We still have victories to win. We want to conquer Africa, we want to conquer Europe and the world.
Nhlanhla: Also being open to learning. Always! We never feel like we’ve arrived. We’ve never, even when we’ve had some of the biggest songs previously. We are always open to learning to better ourselves and our sound, which is the most important thing. Also, when I quote the Bible, God says, ‘Lift yourself up and I shall humble you. Humble yourself and I should lift you up.’ I think for a younger person it may like ‘Oh, abantu abadala.’ But it really goes a long way – being humble, respecting your craft and respecting fans, and yourself, and remaining humble no matter what you become.
It is a distinct sound… There’s that Mafikizolo element, but it certainly sounds elevated. Does this now inform the sound of the new era, with the new album coming out next year?
Theo: We never really want to box ourselves around a particular sound and it’s always been like that from day one. Since we started recording with Kalawa in 1997, we’ve never said, like ‘Okay now, we are doing a love ballad album and we are staying there.’ Or ‘Now, we are doing Afro Pop.’ Like, we gooi! If it sounds good and it’s not totally opposite our sound…
Nhlanhla: Yeah, I mean we are a Pop band so we are very much opening to trying new things and experimenting with new sounds. I think also with this particular song, when we heard it, the influences were many, you know? We’ve always been influenced by musicians from earlier days. Like your Mam’ Letta (Letta Mbuli) and Tat’u Caiphus Semenya and Mama Miriam Makeba. We were always inspired by them. When you listen to Chicco… the Dalom Kids…
You can actually pick these influences that we grew up listening to, but also the old Mafikizolo. So I think it was perfect because we love old songs. But like Theo said, we really love experimenting with new sounds. Even when we heard this song, yes, it has that Mafikizolo touch but there’s something in there we’ve never done before. So we went ahead and did it.
Already, we’ve worked on other songs, which you will get to know about next year, along with the people we’ve worked with. It’s things we’ve never done and people you’d never think we would get to work with. It’s always interesting and it’s a part of reinvention.
What do young artists need to know about staying power?
Theo: I’ll go back to what Nhlanhla said before, and what we always uphold. It’s humility and respect. Humility becomes before honour. We always feel like even if you are a superstar, stay humble. Stay humble and God will lift you up. Don’t let your fame change you. It can be a confusing thing because you’ve just arrived, and you are singing everywhere. People who were never your friends are now your friends. You are getting money you never got. Sadly, the record companies don’t tell you these things. They don’t tell you that you will be famous and have a lot of money, and then these things will start happening to you… save your money, don’t act this way.
They are just excited that you are successful. And then, because no one ever sat you down, spoke to you or coached you about fame, you tend to have the ego thing. You don’t wanna take pictures with people anymore, you don’t respect your craft onstage, you don’t do interviews or you arrive late for them. It can change you and it can be a confusing stage for you. We always say, remain humble, stay passionate about your work. That’s the most important thing, which we always emphasise. Being humble will keep you for a very long time.
What have been the biggest milestone for Mafikizolo so far?
Nhlanhla (Laughs) Yoh! (To Theo…) Do you wanna start? There’s just so, so, so that much has happened. So many bad things have happened as well. Honestly, I can’t just think of one…
Theo: Yes, there’s a few. I think it’s an honour always to perform for people who are in higher places. Like when you have to go and perform for a President, and the President stands up and dances to your song… You feel like ‘wow, we are in the presence of honour’. For us to perform for the 46664 back in the days of our late President, Nelson Mandela… To meet him officially. Not only did we perform in South Africa but we also performed in Norway for him.
And I think for Nhlanhla – the highlight that she might not remember – was when she was dancing with the President of Uganda. Presidents are always stiff (laughs) but… for the first time! People were like, ‘how did you manage to dance with the President!?’ We’ve performed for Presidents… we’ve done the Davos Economic Forum, where all the leaders of the world were there and we had to perform. We had to perform ‘Ndihamba Nawe’.
I remember Mama Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma was also there. They were very proud. They stood up and danced. Other Presidents… from Germany, ambassadors. Everyone stood up and dance. We’ve performed for royalty and we’ve travelled the world. For us it’s been an honour. We’ve shared stages with big international artists. Our work was displayed at the Grammy Museum. The way that we dress and our music was featured next to your Micheal Jacksons, your Elton Johns and your Elvis Presley.
It’s some of the things that our South African people might not know about, but we feel very honoured by the opportunity that God has blessed us with, to be able to touch so many people. When we travel, we have sold out shows. We are like ‘Wow! We are in Canada, sold out! We are in Australia, sold out!’ We have achieved a lot and we feel there’s a lot that still needs to be achieved.
What can fans expect from the upcoming album?
Theo: It’s going to be a beautiful album. I’m glad that we’ve grabbed the attention of our fans who’ve been fans from Emlanjeni. The more mature audience might have felt like we’ve probably lost them, and we thought we probably thought we lost them. They might be like, ‘Hawu, where are they!?” We thought they are gone, but they haven’t left. Even when we released Khona, they were still there. We’ve realised that every time we do a show, most fans who come have been there since the Lotto days. They are very loyal and excited about this single. We promise them beautiful love songs.
The younger audience who has just joined us… we promise them a very versatile album. It’s all about love! We celebrate love all the time! There will be dance tracks, there will be Afro Pop and love ballads on the album. It’s the same Mafikizolo, but on another level.
Ngeke Balunge is out now! Stream it here