A SOLIDER OF LOVE
Zimbabwean-American singer, songwriter, and producer is finally gearing up to release her debut album, “I’m not a mother, but I have children,” which she wrote and produced earlier this summer as protestors were marching for civil rights around across the world.
Monarch: Growing up in Zimbabwe did you face racism?
Shungudzo: My father is a Black Zimbabwean and my mother’s lineage is European and Mi’kmaq, but she grew up in Miami. As a mixed kid in Zimbabwe (where mixed people are called “coloured’s,”) I had trouble fitting in with both Black and white people.
To some of my Black classmates, one drop of white blood made me white, and therefore an oppressor. My most visceral memory, although it’s not the most painful, is of being forced up against a brick wall by a crowd of children and told to say that I was not Zimbabwean. I remember it so clearly because I’m still proud of little me’s response, which was to yell, “I am Zimbabwean!” back at them. I’m proud to be Zimbabwean, and even then I knew that what I experienced at school was not a Zimbabwean problem, but rather the remnants of colonialism — a chain of oppression whose divide and conquer mentality clung to minds like fishing hooks long after the fisherman was gone.
I’d often go straight from school to gymnastics where I was bullied for being Black. There were gyms that wouldn’t allow me to train at them because of the color of my skin, which inspired my mother to show them by training me herself in our back yard. She used tree branches as bars, couch pillows as a vault, and two lines of tape marked four inches apart as a balance beam. I had never been on real equipment until my first competition, where I placed second, thanks to her.
When I was eventually accepted by a gym, my enrollment didn’t change the attitude of many of the other children training. Their parents encouraged them to verbally and physically abuse me. I dreaded snack breaks when a group of my teammates would hit me when they were out of our coach’s sight. When I began to avoid being alone with them, they did things like trap one of my white friends in a nearby shed and beat me up when I came to her rescue.
I came to hate gymnastics, but my mother always reminded me that there had never been a woman of color on the Zimbabwean artistic gymnastics team. So I trained — eventually in America as well — until I made and competed for the team. I quit right after that competition. At that point, I didn’t want to be a great gymnast. I just wanted to open the door for other athletes of color in gymnastics and other sports that, at the time, were purposefully made unreachable for those with brown skin or no money, which is another way of keeping people of color out of things.
Later in life, when I came home from college to visit my mum, men would solicit my sister and I for sex all the time. They’d approach us on the street or even while we were eating at restaurants. I would always reply with some variation of the phrase, ‘Fuck off.’ Even after the harsh no, they’d often follow and intimidate us all the way home. These were non-Black men whose privilege told them that the body of any woman of color was theirs to steal or purchase. I’ve sadly encountered these kinds of men all over the world. Those men can go to hell, but I have never held a grudge towards any of the kids who bullied me — what I am mad at are the systems and the people within them that spread cruelty and discrimination; that eat cake while their people starve; that cause brothers to fight brothers and sisters to harm sisters out of desperation. But so many of the people who tormented me as kid are wonderful people now, which gives me overwhelming faith in the notion that people can change.
I think it’s also important to note that, for every one person who bullied me, there were many with whom I shared a mutual love and understanding. Black Zimbabwean culture is, at its core, loving, generous, and beautifully optimistic in the face of struggle. I think that’s something that Black people around the world have in common.
Monarch: Did your experience or others like it, spark that activist spirit within you? Being an African American, I experienced my fair share of racism. I can’t speak for all Black Americans, but I tend to imagine that there is no racism in Africa. I am wrong. I wonder if you may have felt the same about America?
Shungudzo: The concept that, in any society, there can be “haves and have nots” has been simultaneously breaking my heart and inspiring me to be part of a positive change since I was a kid. I used both moments in which I recognized my privilege and moments of personal or family pain and desperation as motivation to do and be better. Although in my adulthood, I also recognized that I hadn’t come out of those more painful encounters unscathed, and without the potential to scathe others as a result. I took it upon myself to do a lot of therapy and other internal work in order to realize my self-worth, learn to consistently transform my frustration into fuel, and try to break the cycles of poverty and abuse that have plagued my family for too long. It took a long time for me to realize that I couldn’t truly help others until I’d helped myself, internally. It involved stripping some of the negative connotations from the word ‘selfish’ — which in my family is the worst thing you can call someone. It took realizing that there’s bad selfish: a willingness to hurt others for personal gain. And good selfish: lifting oneself up in order to become strong enough to lift others. It also took accepting that I needed therapy and then committing to it. There is no shame in struggling with our mental health, and there are so many (often free) resources out there we can use to break cycles and heal ourselves.
I had an activist’s mind in Zimbabwe, but it wasn’t until my parents brought us back to America and the American dream was shattered for me that I actually became an activist — a doer and not just a thinker. When we found out we were moving, my mother, little sister and I held hands and danced in a circle singing, “Yay! We’re going to USA!” over and over again. But the USA I pictured and the one we landed in were two totally different things. We went from being financially all right in Zimbabwe to shopping with food stamps and having our clothes and Christmas presents delivered to us by charities. I was shocked to see homeless people in America, enslaved people in the land of the free, racism being taught in schools, written into movies, and projected on the evening news! I knew that if stability was hard for my parents, who both had the privilege of education, it was a lot harder for other people. I chose to use the privilege I have — including the privilege of freedom of speech, which Zimbabweans still don’t really have today — to do my part to say and do something about the state of the world.
It’s not any better, but in Zimbabwe, people were straight-up about not liking the color of my skin. In America, I experienced that too, but also this new, almost secret racism that I could feel but not point to. Like a ghost. It’s an evil form of genius — to be racist (or sexist, or any kind of discriminatory) in a way in which the receiver can’t call it out, or else be made to look like the fool. To be met with a condescending, ‘What do you mean? I would never!’ instead of an, ‘I’m sorry.’
I’m glad we’re having more conversations about racism, anti-racism and white privilege today. Not only because it’s helpful to those who have either knowingly or unknowingly been part of the problem, but also because it makes those on the receiving end of any kind of prejudice or abuse feel more empowered to speak up for themselves and not accept gaslighting as a response.
Monarch: You began taking college courses at 12, and educated yourself for your last year of high school. Where did this amazing drive come from?
Shungudzo: I started first grade when I was 3 and began taking supplemental college classes when I was about 12, which might sound remarkable, but actually, for every year I was ahead in school, I was behind in terms of social development. I wouldn’t say that I had academic drive so much as parentally and culturally-instilled discipline, which eventually became discipline I could practice alone. Education saved my father from potentially dying in a war and got my mother out of a trailer park, so to them, it was the only guaranteed path to success. In addition to that, schools in Zimbabwe were really strict, and teachers were allowed to hit you for pretty much anything, including getting an answer wrong. Some of my teachers really had it out for me because of the color of my skin. One made me stand on her desk while she hit me with a meter stick. My classmates counted along with her strikes and laughed. Both at home and in school, it didn’t feel possible to get anything less than an A. To be honest, that pressure lead to my eventual academic downfall. That and discovering music, the first path in life that I chose for myself. I will say this, though: the discipline I learned through education and athletics is what I carried into music. I think school is phenomenal for teaching kids to start and finish things, but education as a whole needs a refreshing so that children are taught real rather than photoshopped history, mental health is prioritized as highly as academic success and minds that are inquisitive beyond the boundaries of a textbook can also be nourished and flourish. And we need to continue to work toward a society in which formal education is not an indicator of intelligence or a requisite for success. There are so many ways to be smart and doing well in school is only one of them. In fact, when it really comes down to it, memorization is not all that remarkable!
Monarch: When did you know you would dedicate your life to being an artist? How did your parents respond to this ambition?
Shungudzo: I always knew I wanted to be an artist, but it was writing that I was most passionate about as a kid. It was a way for me to escape, and perhaps, even create a better reality. But my dream of becoming a writer almost died my junior year of high school when I couldn’t get an A on a paper for the life of me. I was marked down for intentionally breaking grammatical rules. I suppose I was still in the learn-the- rules-so-you-can-break-the-rules phase, but I also think teachers ought to be really careful about extinguishing kids’ dreams for the sake of correctness.
I was also in high school when I realized that my poems were songs. The realization that I could dress my words in music and melody felt like the galaxy in my head expanding into a universe. Still, I didn’t think there was any way I’d be able to pursue a career in the arts due to respecting the sacrifices my parents made so I could get an education. So I went to college intending to become a civil engineer.
I didn’t have access to a lot of music as a kid — the government controlled the radio and albums were really expensive — but Zimbabwean people are musical by nature. My dad couldn’t go a day without whistling or making songs up while trying to find food in the cabinets. “Ancestors, ancestors: bring us peanut butter!” But there was no way he was going to let music shatter his dreams of me winning a Nobel Prize in Physics. When I told him I was pursuing music, he told me not to come home.
On the other side was my mother, who grew up in a phenomenally musical family that sadly turned its back on the industry due to personal tragedy. While encouraging me not to become a musician, she’d always say, “It’s not music that will kill you. It’s the industry.”
For a long time, I pursued music whilst carrying my parents’ fear and disappointment. I even quit music for a while and got an office job in hopes of making them happier. Two years in, I was depressed and found myself turning to music for relief. It was then that I admitted to myself what I’d known but denied all along: I didn’t just want to be an artist; I was an artist. I don’t think you can achieve anything without admitting to yourself that you want to achieve it. At that point, everything becomes possible.
My parents are now either accepting of the fact that I’m a musician or accepting of the fact that I’m not going to quit. I’m cool with it either way. Music is the only thing I’ve ever loved so much that the downs only make we want to try harder. It’s also the best way, at this point in time, for me to use my words to make a difference. I’m not attached to music so much as I’m attached to the idea of doing my small part to leave the world a little better than I found it. If I find a better way to do it, I’ll quit music out of my obligation to future generations.
Monarch: Do you consider yourself a Republican, Democrat, or Independent?
Shungudzo: I voted for Biden/Harris, but I hate the two-party system. It’s a two-headed beast that’s constantly trying to behead itself. Both heads are so busy attacking and defending that the beast can never serve its real purpose — to protect its people. And, by “protect,” I don’t mean buying guns and starting wars. I mean protecting people from hunger, illness, homelessness, hatred, and discrimination. I mean arming all people with the right and means to live and succeed; making the American dream accessible to everyone, and not just those born into privilege. While we’re at it, let’s get politics and religion out of bed with each other — people’s personal lives should be their personal lives and not political. And, hell, if we’re talking dream world, let’s cut the corporate puppet strings from every public servant. So long as money rules our government, our government will not serve us.
I am most hopeful that people will stay engaged in local politics and continue to grow the empowerment they felt this election into an infinite-headed beast whose minds and limbs work together in this ongoing fight for justice and equality.
Monarch: Are there similarities between the Zimbabwean government and the U.S. government?
Shungudzo: From the outside looking in, a lot of people simply see Black-on-Black violence when they look at countries like Zimbabwe. Instead of suffering, they see failure. But much like in America, the root of that suffering is a system that was built by privileged white men. Its purpose: to divide and conquer, and to only benefit the wealthy whose houses are too high in the hills and windows sealed too tightly to hear citizens crying in the streets. For too many people, to become rich is really to become privileged enough to ignore the poor’s problems. I think any government that sells dreams of individual wealth rather than dreams of collective health and happiness is corrupt. And I think Americans would be foolish to think that the American government is no less corrupt than any other.
Monarch: You are about increasing the voice of the people?
Shungudzo: In Zimbabwe, you can be arrested — or worse — for simply Tweeting disappointment in the government. Or complaining about bus fares being too high. In times of protest, the government has been known to restrict or totally shut down the internet in order to stop the spread of information and people from receiving necessary funds from work or loved ones who live elsewhere. These things, to me, mean there is no freedom of speech in Zimbabwe. And it’s why I ask all people with freedom of speech to exercise it, for themselves and for those who aren’t as free. A lot of people are finding their voices right now, and it’s amazing. I think it helps to not feel like the only one speaking up, which is yet another reason why we need to use our voices — to inspire other people to use theirs too. One voice alone can be heard by its neighbors, but our voices together will be heard by the world.
Monarch: How do you deliver a message that speaks honestly to them or for them?
Shungudzo: Although I love fictitious songs, when I’m writing, I strive to tell the most honest stories possible. They first and foremost have to be honest to me. Writing is actually the best way I can check myself. If I think that I feel one way about something, but, upon writing it, realize that my feelings have changed, I also change my words. I think that if a writer believes their own message other people are more likely to believe it as well. In the finishing stages, I try to listen to my songs as if I’m singing to myself. If it’s a protest song, it should motivate me to protest. If it’s a love song, it should motivate me to love. If it’s a sad song, it should make me cry. At the end of the day, I just want to encourage people to feel their own feelings and empathize with the feelings of others.
When I produce my songs, I try to use sounds that either evoke the emotions I want to express or sounds that are so contrasting in emotion, that the words stand out more. I love a harsh lyric enveloped in beautiful melodies. For example, my song “It’s a good day (to fight the system)” is meant to make people feel happy, but also to empower them to fight the systems that oppress them.
Monarch: How did this song come about?
Shungudzo: I wrote and produced “It’s a good day (to fight the system)” during the Black Lives Matter protests that centered around the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. I wanted to create something to remind others that while what we are protesting is painful, what we are striving for is beautiful. I hate that we have to fight the system, but I love doing it knowing that on the other end of this fight is a world in which all people have equal opportunities to survive and thrive. There are elements of the system that all people are fighting, and I hope that we can continue to come together, lift each other up and create something better — hopefully in our lifetime and certainly for future generations. I hope that “It’s a good day (to fight the system)” helps turn some of our collective depression and exhaustion into motivation and joy.
Monarch: Who are some of the artists that influenced you?
Shungudzo: I love African artist-activists like Fela Kuti, the Lijadu Sisters, Thomas Mapfumo, and Wells Fargo — a Zimbabwean psychedelic rock band that wrote protest music in the ’70s. At the time, a lyric in the chorus of their song “Watch Out!” upset the authorities so much that they had to change it from, “Watch Out! Freedom is coming” to “Watch out! Big storm is coming.” I’m influenced by any artist who tells their situation — be it personal or political — like it is, and especially those who are willing to say things that are deemed unacceptable or uncomfortable by the powers that be. These artists show people that real power is our own.
Monarch: What do you believe your musical language is?
Shungudzo: My musical language is love. Not just outright love, but also finding love in the saddest and angriest places. I try to think of emotions as having weight but not direction. Where they go and what we use them for, is up to us. In this way, even the heaviest emotions — the ones that immobilize us or drag us backwards — can be transformed into forward-moving fuel. Even anger can become love if we lead it there and, given its weight, what a powerful love it can be.