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The Big Interview: Talking to “Lady” Shingai ex-Noisettes lead singer ahead of Meltdown

The Big Interview: Talking to “Lady” Shingai ex-Noisettes lead singer ahead of Meltdown

Shingai, the legendary frontwoman and bassist of the Noisettes has been busy writing a new chapter even though more than a decade after the band spun into the charts, their music is enjoying viral success again, on #TikTok. Too Bold is the debut solo album from Shingai, packing a soulful spirit and an effervescent sound. Presenting an album pulling sound from Shingai’s London, Bantu and Zimbabwean heritage, and single ‘No Fear’, made in collaboration with Zimbabwean producer Verseless, takes influence from the South African house sub-genre, Amapiano.

Lyrically the album works with themes of rising above perplexing times, being resilient, standing your ground and confronting the struggle. In short, it’s an invitation to keep the optimist alive within us and be better in every way. ALT caught up with the South London born artist ahead of her performance at Grace Jones’ Meltdown on June 17th.

ALT:   What made you want to become a musician?

Credit: Too Bold Courtesy Zachcraft/Shingai

SHINGAI: I’ve always known that I’m a very creative soul. I just applied my creativity to everything. If I was cooking, if I was playing with my friends, everything would turn into a song, or a dance or a story. I used to really, obviously, growing up as well, in a South London busy African diasporic household, there was always lots of people in the house. And as the girls, often it was our duty to make sure the kitchen was always as it should be. So, after eating, when all the girls, me and my sisters, cousins would go to go to the kitchen and clean, I would get on everyone’s nerves by like, singing with a wooden spoon and the wooden spoon became my microphone. So, my mom was like ah, give her freedom.

Solo Album cover 2020 “Too Bold”

So, she used to sometimes send me to the park with a wooden spoon to practice my singing, because I’m sure at 4, 5, 6, I probably wasn’t as refined in my voice. So, I used to go for loads of really long rides on my bike, and go to the park with my wooden spoon, and just go into my own world, create my little world, and come back and then tried to show the family what I thought at the time sounded good. So, within no time, they actually have all our cousins and sisters. We started putting on shows for the family. And there were quite a lot of ups and downs at that time. Growing up in South London, it was kind of our job, to entertain the family, and to cheer everybody up. So I saw from quite small, how powerful creativity had to uplift and elevate the family. And those aunties, who were the pillars of the family, they were working so hard, a lot of them were working three, four jobs studying, just so that we could have opportunities that they didn’t get to have, because we, most of us are children of freedom fighters, especially in the Southern African areas. It’s been quite recent that our independence has been won. So, yes, with everything that our parents went through us growing up in South London, I thought it was our job to entertain, and uplift, everybody. So that’s why I decided to do.

ALT:     What were some of the musical influences that maybe, inspired your sound growing up?

SHINGAI:   Oh, we were lucky to just grow up with such a spectrum of music. I think that, in addition to people like Miriam Makeba, who was also a revolutionary freedom fighter, an activist and artist, whose story would have been so familiar to people like my mom and my Aunties the fact that she sang and was political in our house she was a hero and people like Fela Kuti, who again, same, they were more than just artists, people like Bob Marley, they came here to do a good job. And although the music was the vehicle, the message was so important, when we used to wash the plates, or dance or sing to, Get Up, Stand Up for Your Rights, we’d sing it at the top of our voices, and it really meant something. And then in addition to people like that, there were so many, like Nina Simone, a lot of jazz, a lot of blues, a lot of reggae. And I guess a lot of pop as well, but not like so much. I guess what we would say is kind of cheesy, fast food pop, so, my mom and my aunties had like the best amazing record collections. They also listened to a lot of guitar music which we loved. So, people like Hendrix and a lot of Congolese guitar music well, Zaire at the time. We were really, really spoiled and I still am and I think that’s why I’ve never really looked at music as a genre, as an art form that’s limited, or should be limited by genre. So yeah, we were really, really lucky, really spoiled. So yeah, that was the kind of artists that I was raised on. But like I said, a lot of those artists were, they stood for something, and so that left a lasting impression on me, which I still feel like, it’s my job to take that baton, and continue their work and take it to a next level.

ALT:    What do you miss most about being part of the Noisettes?

SHINGAI:  To be honest with you, I feel like the music that I’m doing now is it’s a continuation of that the differences to the positive influence of the music, I’m allowing myself and allowed a lot more creative freedom, arguably, I get to write music with producers and artists from such a wide range of backgrounds. There are so many more women producers, that are featured on ancient futures, for example, female producers, who have Dominican heritage, Ghanaian heritage, also, Australian heritage. So yeah, I feel like although there was a lot more infrastructure around me, during the #Noisettes, that obviously, being signed to a major label meant that there was a little bit more help, in terms of, kind of budget and promoting and getting the music out there. But also, in exchange for that, behind the scenes, I think there was also a lot of compromises, and me not feeling like I was being my full self. And that was something that was quite challenging to express to a team that would have been 98%, if not White than identifying as English White. So, yeah, I mean, back in the day, a lot of our albums, most of the time we were recording, and I would be in a room full of people that identified as White straight males, or let’s say, it was very rare for me to be on tour and meet other females who have been supported in being artists, with playing guitars, and being a bass player, that was also something that was quite rare. And so, yeah, I thought that there was a lot of the need for sort of justification of self. And I know, it was, I often felt like, I couldn’t kind of sort of slip up or, make mistakes, whereas a lot of my peers, the drummer was allowed to friggin go on all kinds of rampages. And could potentially, kind of threaten the reputation, but it’s not something that I would have even thought about doing. Also, because I’m not doing this just for me, I’ve got a whole community behind me that I’m always thinking of, whereas I think a lot of musicians that I worked with, back in the day, it was a lot about them, and their gratification, and their, not ego in a negative sense, but like, just them seeing their musical careers it’s all about themselves. Whereas for me, it was quite important to have the noisettes go to Africa and to go to Malawi and to go to Zimbabwe and to go to my village and to experience my musical heritage. And also my cultural heritage and my political heritage, so they could really, really, really see how much bigger this was for me than just like having a song on the radio and like having a nice dress. So, being able to like, get loads of girls on tour or whatever. It was never about that for me. So yes, although I miss a lot of, I don’t miss it, but there was a lot of infrastructural support that like came with that time, that had to be paid for. We have a lot of incidences of micro aggressions and incidences of me, not being heard, but not even feeling like I could tell people really about who I was. And I think that was why it was so beautiful to go to play festivals like Lake of stars in Malawi, and Hifa in Zimbabwe, because they got to see that Shingai is more than just this one person, Shingai is Ubuntu. That’s what I stand for you. And this music is also about creating a sense of liberty, freedom and healing for the lineage that I come from, which is very, very royal, it’s very complex. And it’s not merely defined by the Western media’s portrayal of their negative coverage of post-colonial effected places like Southern Africa. So, it was really important for them to come and see the beauty and the abundance of creativity and the joyfulness, that their friend, or sister, or little sister Shingai came from. And so, yeah, I think I wouldn’t change anything for the world, I’m very proud of what I achieved creatively. But now it’s on another level. I’m saying it’s like, things are kind of upgrading creatively and to the point where, I mean, I still don’t know, if some of the people that I made music with in the noisettes. In the past, maybe they might not resonate with the levels that Shingai is taking the music to now because I feel like I’ve got nothing to lose, it’s we’ve got to dive deeper now. We’re living in a very, very transitional time. It’s really important for them to understand that, like I said, this music is more than just about have playing a song that you like, and having it be on the radio. A girl like me, who’s having the boldness and the bravery to wear her hair natural, and it’s been a natural hair icon, and who comes from such a charged heritage, I can’t just go out there make one dry piece of thing, I’m saying like, for me, it’s got to be as big and fulfilling and inspiring as possible. So, I just hope that whenever I get to work with them again, then it’s going to be, we all kind of meet each other where we are. And I really feel like it’s important for people to evolve. And I feel like we’re all evolving as best as we can individually to benefit the collective.

credit: The Masons

ALT   What does it feel like to be part of the Grace Jones’ Meltdown?

SHINGAI:   It just actually feels so right and so suited just to where I always felt that I have resided creatively. I mean, when I think about the artists, as you said, you asked me about artists that I grew up listening to, she was definitely on the list of somebody who inspired me because, you know, people like Grace Jones, people like Nina Simone, people like Lauryn Hill, they stood up, it was all about more than just the music and I think that what happened was, for some reason, Black female representation in pop became quite marginalized, in the sense that I feel like in the last kind of 10 years, even though you’ve had artists like, myself, and Lianne Havas and Laura Mvula and like Nova Twins, be able to come through, we’ve had to fight very, very hard to not have to sit in this kind of one way representation of how Black women are supposed to express themselves and Black women are very well actually women in general, actually, a lot of women are quite over sexualized and sort of feel, I feel like it’s the way that they are often marketed. The music is pretty much taken a backseat, and you don’t really get to hear about what their views are or like, how they feel about the impact and the power of the positioning that they have. I grew up listening somebody like Grace Jones, or people like Lauren, or Rita Marley, they just had to bring a lot more, there was more vibration, there was more philosophy, there was more dynamics in the way that they were allowed to present themselves. They allowed themselves to channel deeper roots from their country, or from their culture, or from their philosophies that I felt made a lot of the music and the songs that they are working with a lot bolder and a lot braver, I feel like being part of a festival like that, like melt down, where you do also have artists like Skin from Skunk Anansie, who again, it’s such a trailblazer, I actually just wish that more women could actually hear and learn about and be exposed to the creativity of these women more and women like myself, because when I speak to a lot of girls coming up in music, they often say to me that they kind of feel like the music that they’re putting out doesn’t necessarily speak for them that holistically. And it’s still a very, it’s still quite White dominated, kind of a bit of a one stop shop vibe in the music industry at the moment. So, I think it’s really important for Grace Jones and people like Deborah who’s done an incredible job to put this together is important for them to show that there are some, some powerful voices out there. And you may not have heard of these voices, because a lot of the platforms and the mainstream platforms, try that toolkit can appear to try their best to squeeze out voices like myself or Grace Jones. So yeah, having people like, Skunk Anansie and like Nova Twins on this lineup. I think it goes to show you what force we are to be reckoned with, really.

ALT:   So, what can we expect from your performance on the night with any new music?

SHANGAI:    Absolutely, yeah. So, we’ve got a song right now, that’s just come out. It’s really, it’s been a lot inspired by Southern African electronic music culture. I think a lot of people are really beginning to finally, appreciate the powerful influence of like, Afro house and other genres around that. And so, again, I mean, that’s been something that I’ve been inspired to work with a lot of those rhythms and those aesthetics for a while now, like, even since ancient futures, we had songs, like Zimtron where I was really messing around and enjoying to explore, where you can take production, when you kind of blend, the raw elements of Southern African instruments from like Zimbabwe and Malawi and Angola  I mean, people say, I think I think people at the moment, who don’t really know, the history of colonial migration in southern Africa, and how that affected music are very much cooling any electronic music that comes from Southern Africa, South African, but I think it’s really important to note that, I mean, they even call themselves a rainbow nation. And the current music scene and cultural creative scene was pretty much set up by this forced migration of a lot of people that, for example, had to go to the mines, or whose countries and cultures and homelands were wrecked and threatened by the brutality of what the colonial administration was doing. So, what you’ll find is that, like, it’s like this, there’s a song called Stimela, by Hugh Masekela, which I think describes it perfectly. So you had a lot of these men who were coming from Malawi, as I said, Lesotho, Angola, Congo, what then it was, called Zaire at the time. Burundi all the way up to Kenya actually, and a lot of these different cultural groups and clans and families and what they were then called tribes would have to kind of be forced down south on the Zambezian, south of Limpopo and we took our vibes with us into South Africa, so when you go Look at a lot of the incredible production that’s coming out of South Africa. A lot of these producers, their moms and their dads or their uncles are Malawian or Zimbabwean or from somewhere else. And that’s actually, what makes the music so [unclear 20:18] same way that what makes London Vibes music so exciting like things like UK Garage, things like sound system, a lot of the beats that have come out of sound system culture, like Funky House, Grime, there’s so many, Drill. A lot of those have come from the fact that like, in big cities that have benefited from migration, such as Bristol, London, Manchester, Birmingham, etc., etc. It’s actually the migrant cultures that bought their rhythms with them, you know, from the Caribbean, you had the steel pan culture, you had carnival culture, that contributed to sound system culture. And so what you’re seeing now, coming from South Africa, is definitely a result of a lot of beautiful melting pot of cultures down there. So, we’re going to be definitely playing no fear, we’ll have some special guests, we’re going to be definitely involving, I think the audio I mean, I love to involve, I call them the participants from the audience. So we definitely like to involve the audience a lot in what we do in terms of the show, obviously, the outfits and the hair will most definitely be from another planet and off the chain. I’m just welcoming all of the inspirations from my like, Afro centric cosmic ancestors. And then we’ll give it a London twist. So to be honest, I can’t even describe how the show is going to be. But I just know that it’s going to be a really, really, really special night to remember. And, yeah, I’m so excited, I feel like it’s already started already. I can feel because like, when you start preparing for shows, you kind of you’ve already got this vision of like, how you want it to look, and then you’re thinking about my guests, and how you can kind of incorporate them, and you just want to bring out the best and everybody’s talent and everybody’s skill set. And it is a teamwork. Like, even the person who’s doing lights, who’s doing sound, everybody is such an important part of the experience that the audience is going to get, so I’m excited. I can’t wait. I really can’t wait.

ALT:  And what do you like most about being a musician?

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SHINGAI:   That’s a really good question. I think I love that the ability to be able to transcend a traumatic experience or a negative emotion, and reframe it and empower to size it into something positive, and into an experience that allows other people to heal, experience joy, and look at pain in a different way. There’s something about my ability to bring together people of so many different walks of life, that makes me know, I’m here on like, a really unique, special assignment. And never a day goes by, I will not take that for granted. I’m here on a very unique, special assignment. I mean, it’s like being a superhero. But as long as you have the right people around you, good vibes around you, the right team around you. And you keep your ego in check, you just try and do the work. So that like, you got creative balance, spiritual balance around you. And you treat people respectfully as you want to be treated, then the real fun can begin. And it can just be so much fun. Like, literally, it’s so much fun. At the end of an event or a festival, or when people are like, “Wow, that was so transformable. Oh, I met someone that I never probably would have gotten spoken to like at work or at school or at college.” But in your gig, you made us feel like actually, we’re all kind of in this moment together. So, yeah, I think my favorite thing is that ability to how can I say is that ability to get will manifest and transform you know, what was maybe as a stagnant situation to something that’s very vibrant. And that leaves everyone feeling elevated. And the fearlessness it gives you when you are able to achieve that.

ALT:   Where do you call home?

SHINGAI:   I kind of feel that, for a lot of the time when I was growing up, I mean, I’m still very wild, too wild for this world perhaps. But I’ve always sort of stuck out. And I’ve always embraced my uniqueness and my natural features and tried to find a way to allow them to sit in this kind of very much synthesized concrete and steel settings that we find ourselves in. And so, a lot of the times, I never felt at home here, I thought like too raw, too native, too poignant, too poetic for, like, some of the streets that I was rolling around in, but then I would go back to Malawi or Kenya or Zimbabwe or Ghana, and at times for like, because I didn’t really possess the language because the colonial part of my story disenfranchised me from the power of having that language, sometimes, I couldn’t express myself, so, I wasn’t as suitable as they would have liked me to be for that environment. And I think that that’s where the music comes in, the music creates a way for you to create your own home, wherever you are, because this identity is not always so relying on, it’s not relying on an outside space, so much. So I’m still doing that now. You know, like, I just came back from ZIMBAWE. And so many times, I wish I had a better hold of the language, you know, and, and, and understood a lot more about our customs. And cultural things. But at the same time, I know that it’s a journey. And this is something that I have a lifetime to achieve. Home is a place that’s also continually, under construction, if I may say.

ALT:  On this question, which is just out the box, what is your view on the treatment of our girls and schools, young girls being stripped searched, and we just learnt about child Q was that was earlier this year. And now there’s another girl who also happens to be a mixed race girl who’s been stripped search at school?

SHINGAI:   I actually feel like, there’s a much deeper discussion that we have to go into, obviously, a lot more time where what’s not being addressed, actually, is the ease. And I think what’s dangerous about it is that there’s a lack of regard for violation of the Black, divine feminine. I think that’s the root of where it comes to. And this trickles across the ages. I mean, you’ve had women that have been African American women, even since slavery, who have just had their body parts taken and used in stem cell research, and you can still buy their melanin from their womb on the internet. So I think we need to have a massive, wider discussion about this, we need to dive deeper in the patriotic brutality and roots of where this lies. But this idea that it’s okay to violate to touch and to take from Black women and from Black girls. It has much darker, much more sinister roots. And I think that’s where I’m going to have to leave it because I’m actually doing a lot of healing work around this themes right now. But this is something that I’ll definitely be talking about more as we go ahead.

ALT:  Thank you so much for talking to ALT A REVIEW

Fri 17 Jun, 7.45pm BOOK NOW
Part of Grace Jones’ Meltdown
Purcell Room at Queen Elizabeth Hall

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