Shingai Shoniwa On Finding Independence In The Music Industry As A Black Woman

Shingai Shoniwa is a force — you can sense it in her music and her voice, equal parts Billie Holiday, David Bowie and something of her own. You can sense it in her aesthetics, as seen in her recent music video “We Roll,” unique and celebratory of her London and Zimbabwean roots. And you can sense it in speaking with her, as I did earlier this year over a languid four hours during which, from an isolated bungalow in the Caribbean where she was on lockdown, she talked passionately about her latest project.

The musician, who goes by just Shingai, is the former frontwoman for the U.K. rock band Noisettes, who made a splash on the U.K. charts with their 2009 album “Wild Young Hearts.” Now, 12 years after navigating the belly of the beast that is the music industry, Shingai has released an independently produced solo album, “Too Bold,” an Afrobeat- and soul-infused journey through self-discovery and self-love. The album is, in many ways, the culmination of the artist’s fight to come back to herself after navigating a white- and male-dominated music world that never quite understood her or, perhaps more accurately, never cared to.

In our condensed conversation below, Shingai discusses how the COVID-19 lockdown changed her, healing from post-colonial trauma, and why music is the ultimate tool for connections.

Wow. First of all, I’m just so moved to be asked a real question. For the last decade or so, it’s kind of felt like nobody really, really took the time to get to know me and all the facets of my creativity. I feel that when you read a lot about white, male musicians, you tend to know all the details about them; their music, their songwriting, their process, who their inspirations are, what it is that they’re actually doing this for.

And there’s a whole club. You know, you’re either on the cover of Mojo and Uncut and all those kinds of “rock ‘n’ roll,” Rolling Stone magazines, but you don’t really get pieces that tell you about the inner workings of beings like us, right? Like what makes us tick? What makes us move? What gives us the energy?

Right now you can probably hear the waves in the background. I had to get out of, well, some might say Babylon — or just whatever this Western “lockdown” thing that everyone is experiencing and coping with in different ways. But it really started to take a toll on me and I needed to get out. I needed to get away from all of that concrete. I needed to get away from all of the bricks and the mortar and just all of the energies that were quite sort of fear-based and making everybody feel like they weren’t allowed to connect and really be there for each other.

What does self-care currently look like for you?

Self-care is something that’s a lifelong journey for me. Skinwise I’ve been using an amazing product called Nurture, which is helping me to maintain and heal several scars that I’ve picked up on the battlefield along the way. It’s helping me to embrace my scars, almost mirroring the way that music/creativity help to heal my inner scars. In addition to Nurture I’ve been learning reiki, a healing energy therapy. It’s complementary to yoga and meditation for those exploring alternative self-care pathways. There’s an incredible group of women called the Reiki Flow collective in Grenada that I’ve had the honor of training with, and a growing number of international Black female creatives including Esperanza Spalding are among our alumni.

You’ve released this new solo album “Too Bold” independently, after having released several Noisettes albums via a major label. Can you talk a little bit about the process of creating this album and why was it important for you to put this out on your own?

Wow. That’s a really, really, really good question. Oh, my God, where to start… It’s being talked about more since, not just lockdown, but the whole Black Lives Matter movement, and a lot of creatives have been sharing their truth and their experiences in the music industry, but a lot of it is not what it seems. And I think a lot of Black female musicians, especially ones that are signed to major labels, and are in this sort of machine, face so many challenges with, as you say, being their authentic self and finding their own voices.

So I was signed to a major label with the Noisettes and we did three albums and I had some really amazing experiences in that time. I remember being on tour with Rihanna, taking pictures with her and being like, “Oh, my God, wow. This could really be something special.” And I just felt like as a very unique, young, Black female artist at that time, America was a lot more open to my sound, to my genre, fluidity, ’cause it wasn’t really necessarily a thing, there wasn’t really any type of word for it back then. And definitely in the U.K. it was very much based on rigid genres. I think that if you’re a Black female, it was like you have to sing and, you know, look a certain way and have your hair a certain way, and be a certain complexion, et cetera, et cetera.

So, I had a really rocky time being on the major label. And, you know, I’m so proud of the music that I made, the visuals. I had to fight at every step to make sure I was represented the way that my imagination and spirit was wishing to be represented, but I just didn’t want to have to do that fighting anymore. I just really wanted to not have to always explain and code-switch all the time. It’s up to you what records you want to make and how to sort of tell, see the stories and produce and play the stories and the narratives that you want to show. So I had to become independent for that.

Where were you at the beginning of the lockdown last year?

January [2020] was really, really blessed. It was about finishing the album, recording and getting things locked and coming up with titles. And then February the lockdown happened, and because my mom was down and she’s a breast cancer survivor, my siblings and I decided to all move out of our London flats to the family home in Kent, because you weren’t allowed to go in and out of London. So basically from the middle of March, I ended up living back at the family home again. We were almost there for five months and we all hadn’t lived together since we had been teenagers. So that was a really important shift as well, because, as I said, for the last decade, it’s just been push, push, push, push, push. The tour, tour, tour, tour, tour. And because of the uniqueness of my voice and perhaps the voices of ancestors coming through me, I felt like I kind of had to always … I mean, it’s not just me. I think a lot of people like us feel like we have to work 10 times harder than everyone else.

What was something really difficult you personally had to go through last year? 

April came around and then by May, I just started to feel super, super different. Super, super weak. I started having a secret meltdown, basically [Laughs]. Yeah, having a secret meltdown because when I’m at my mom’s, I’m someone’s niece. I’m someone’s daughter. But I’m also someone’s big sister, I’m someone’s auntie. So obviously I didn’t have my personal space as I would have been used to. Also, I think a part of my identity over the past decade had been built around and strengthened by my ability to roam and to tour and to sing and to create in different places in the world. My axis was always moving, right? Like you know how Jimi Hendrix said, “Axis: Bold as Love”?

So my body was trained to not need. Like my muscles were trained like that. And so I never really had the chance to stop and process all of the thoughts of not just the microaggressions, but the moments of oppression and discrimination that I’ve experienced in the last 10 years. I never really told people what I had been through. I think that this might be something that brown girls go through a lot. We have to internalize and keep it moving, right? Because if we seem to be weak, then we seem to not be out to get the job done. People seem to be intimidated by, or not really able to cope with, a vision of Black female vulnerability and pain.

So the meltdown was really necessary. I think I needed to break down a lot of the stuff that I was carrying. I realized the world is having a really important conversation right now. And we need to have this conversation. We need to hear each other weep or bawl or howl or speak, and support each other.

What’s something really great, like really amazing that happened to you last year?

My niece, my beautiful new niece, being born. Just welcoming a new member of the clan into the family. Basically when I got to sort of hang out with her, I almost could see her say, “Come on, Auntie! You can do it! Make sure you do your best to upgrade this world because I’m coming!”

I’ve always felt that your work, your solo work and your work with the Noisettes, felt very political, even if it wasn’t always explicitly political. But this album, especially, there’s no fear, there’s no obscurity to what you’re saying. You’re being very bold for lack of a better word.

When you look at kind of the consequences of post-colonial trauma and post-colonial slavery, it’s something that we are assuming right now. I kind of feel it’s something that in the U.K., they definitely are just about becoming OK with us being allowed to have a conversation about slavery and their role in it and how they intend to atone within the healing process.

So with this album, I’m not expecting to do millions in a day for me, it’s just about this album reaching that critical mass, right? Reaching that 1% to 10% of people that can feel the vibration and the intention from what I’m seeing in my desire to heal, my desire to see some atonement in my generation, so that our nieces and nephews ― so that history doesn’t keep on repeating itself. I understand the power of art and how powerful qualitative art is and how that can ignite revolutions.

How are you connecting with people?

I had a really, really awful experience in LA in 2016 and ’17, where basically I was stalked and then I was basically supposed to start releasing my new photo material then, but I was basically so unsafe and it was such a brutal experience that I ended up having to basically be in hiding in England while I was going through the courts for almost two years, and my ability to make music and communicate was weaponized against me in the form of his self-defense. So basically, if I was getting cross-examined and I had just done a show or I had been spotted meeting up with some like-minded musicians or artists somewhere in London or out and about, just in the community online and offline, it would be like, “Oh, well, if the defendant, who has been basically stalking her to within an inch of her life, is making her feel suicidal, then how come she was supposed to go up onstage yesterday?”

In 2016 and in 2017, I lost all of my social media handles, because they’d been compromised by the stalker. And I had to almost learn to ― I had to basically opt out, which I did for about a year, because I was so traumatized by it. But then when I came back, I had to become almost quite cunning? Or like, learn how to kind of think in that strategic sort of way. And I learned a lot of the light and the dark sides of social media, that I hadn’t really been, had never really crossed my mind before. I’m the kind of person that literally sees the good in everybody. It’s to the annoyance of my friends and family.

There’s something that I’m making right now. I know it sounds a little bit out of this world, but I really feel like it’s almost fiber-optic, and like a kind of superpower in itself, like the energy and the rhythm and the melodies, that I’ve really, really dug deep in and have allowed myself to be open to, to like, sing. I feel like every note and every bass line is coming from such a celestial and almost electrified kind of place that I feel like that’s doing a lot of communication on my behalf.

What music, books, art, etc. are getting you through this time of isolation? 

I highly recommend “Indaba, My Children.” It loosely translates as “The Affairs of My Children” in most Bantu languages, is an astonishing read. Credo Mutwa’s African allegory weaves together the mythical, factual and celestial tales of the motherland from ancient times, to the near future. An epic read. I’m also partial to indulging in a bit of vintage sci-fi novels by writers such as Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, Michael Moorcock.

The Betty Davis documentary “They Say I’m Different” is a poignant piece about one of my favorite artists. She’s largely written out of the rock ‘n’ roll story but her legacy is undeniable. A must-watch.

Highly recommend reruns of “Desmond’s,” an ’80s-’90s classic comedy series about an iconic barber shop and the charismatic Afro-Caribbean family that run it. I grew up round the corner from Peckham, where it’s set, so it always takes me on a South London safari when I watch it.

Nova Twins bring the fire on their latest album. They also are featured on the all-female remix of my song “Too Bold,” which drops along with a video on International Women’s Day (March 8).

Sha Sha is an Afropop singer and fellow Zimbabwean, killing it on the Amapiano scene in Southern Africa.

Finally got around to watching the M.I.A. documentary. I related to her story, also being the child of revolutionaries that has never fitted into any of the usual boxes and also found it refreshing to see a moving portrait of her creative process.

What are you imagining for 2021 and beyond?

I’ve been consistent in my authenticity and creative values from day one, when it was extremely rare for people to see a woman of color leading a band with the fearless audacity and love for my craft that I still possess. It’s an honor to be regarded as a natural hair and style icon as I feel that the connection between Black expression and adornment go back to the beginning of time, and I love to celebrate this on- and offstage. I’m unmistakably present in my music and breathe life into every bar/lyric.

I believe that bold times call for bold moves, so artists need to step up and earn their positions. With warriors in my ancestry, I’m grateful for the visionaries who paved the way, and am in no hurry to undo the work they did. Things get super challenging, but I feel a sense of duty to take things to the next level and give folks a season of music that will encourage people to rise up. “Too Bold” is my bravest body of work so far, but brave songs need brave ears.

It’s awkward when people, grown-arsed institutions even, are scared of or show resistance to artists who already have so much stacked against them in terms of prejudice. It is perhaps a testament to the inherent power we possess to positively influence others. Artists who inspire people to seek and fight for real liberation have the opportunity to be beacons of light.

There are some great artists coming through now, artists that want to raise the vibrations, change the game for the greater good. Let’s reach out to each other and collaborate more. Surprise them. Surprise ourselves. Let’s strengthen the international community of Black creatives and allies and show the world that we can move as a force.

I also hope that we can be open to investing in and living in future locations where we can be free to live up to our full potential and own our spaces (and ourselves), places where we can cultivate a legacy that we’ll look forward to passing on. We’ve overinvested in the houses of others that were built on rocky ground at best. Houses and institutions propped up by the suffering of others. However, I hope that we can view this moment in time as an opportunity to address and reset any negative agendas at hand, focusing on a heart-led agenda for the greater good, one that starts with us. For, as they say, “The revolution starts from within.”

“Average” artists or those who are still “playing it safe” may need to prepare for more turbulence. It’s harder to cut through the noise and current world events if your creative identity is lackluster, uninspired or underdeveloped. The fact that navigating the industry as it struggles to maintain its rusting facade can also suck the joy out of what was once a great passion for many musicians. Contrastingly, it’s an exciting time to be a game-changing artist if you’re not afraid to rise to the occasion. Read the room.

The artists that are written out of the “general” story of “popular music” are usually the juicy ones. There’s power and gems to be found in the truth of our musical lineage. Discern who the real game-changers are and support them. Write them back in. We might not be staring at you from the front page of your go-to magazine/digital platform. We may not be “A-listed” on the usual commercial radio stations you may rely on to bring you the latest quick fix, but one thing’s for certain. We won’t be written out of the next chapter.

And I’ll bet my axis, as bold as love, on this.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

“Getting Through…” explores the ways in which people from all backgrounds and walks of life — artists, scientists, entertainers, healers, activists, entrepreneurs and “everyday” folks — are processing, connecting and taking care of themselves and others during these wild times. Hopefully, these conversations will serve as a record and a guide for anyone who reads them. Read interviews with author Fariha Roísín, yoga instructor Mominatu, writer and actor Tavi Gevinson and actor Taylour Paige.