She is an artist no longer in shackles. That is where Simphiwe Dana is, according to her exclusive interview with City Press. My heart sinks. I love Simphiwe Dana fiercely. Her work reverberates beyond melody and instrument. Her work lives and breathes. It’s not just music, it’s art. So to learn of her unshackling makes me unsettled because the first thing that pops into my head is, how will that affect her work?

The artwork for Simphiwe Dana's new album - Firebrand

In hindsight, I should have seen it coming. Her last instalment before this new one, Kulture Noir, is telling of a progression towards a place of freedom. Her official discography starts off with Zandisile, a marvellous piece of work, raw and pregnant with promise. The promise of life, expressed in a showcase of range and extent, asserting a rebellious talent. It is, to this day, an unapologetic exhibition of song writing and vocal finesse. Her next album, One Love Movement on Bantu Biko Street was dark, heavy and blatant. If it wasn’t commenting on the social landscape, it was heart wrenchingly emotional. It is – note the present tense – a chilling album. Kulture Noir, her 2010 album, was the first few rays of light, intent on consuming the darkness. Poetry with perfect melodies accompanied by rich percussion. For anyone without faith in Simphiwe Dana’s poetry, this album is the source of salvation. It’s a calm explosion that reaches into unchartered lands in your heart and mind. It’s polished and intricately layered. It’s beautiful.

It follows that the next album would be a progression to this place of light. It makes sense in the journey. And reading the interviews Simphiwe Dana has done, Firebrand, which is what the new album is titled, seems to fit the bill – darkness swallowed. That terror kicks in again because I have no idea what this will do to her work. I am scared that it may be sappy and normal. In sappy and normal, there’s a danger of frivolity. And Simphiwe Dana, as I have come to experience her, does not do frivolous or sappy. Hers is substantial work that comes from the depths of her being and expresses the complex narratives that exist there. That’s why and how her work is timeless. That kind of dedication and sacrifice of self is deep, and when you realise and appreciate it, you stop listening to her music and start a fellowship with her art. You become one with a movement. That is how I experience Simphiwe Dana. It’s deep.

The two tracks I have listened to from Firebrand, My Light and Nzima, are anything but frivolous. Maybe I am being a drama king in my yearning for the familiar.

Nzima is gut wrenching, haunting and her voice rests on the arrangement impeccably. Written in tribute to the Marikana victims, you don’t need to understand the lyrics to know that the song is ministry. My Light was written for her son, during those ‘vodka-infused days of hiding.’ It’s a beautiful rendition how love was an escape for her during what was a challenging time for her.

I stop in my otherwise racing thought tracks. Maybe I need not be terrified. Because Simphiwe Dana is not going anywhere.

So, I look forward to Firebrand. The album is already available for preorder on iTunes, due to be out on 24th November 2014. It’s been a long time coming. I ache for it. For that raspy, genre-defying, movement-pioneering voice that is Simphiwe Dana’s. I look forward to her signature flawless execution, to her delicate melodies and the layering of meaning that her work has always carried. I look forward to a reflection of life, to her opinion and to living her experience through her art.

Image from Potentash.com

Firebrand. The album. Image from Potentash.com

Musing on Simphiwe Dana’s new album leaves thinking about good art and state of mind. These are murky waters so bear with me.

There is something about art created in dark places that lends it longevity. Look into the classics that have stood the test of time – there are more songs of heartbreak and hurt than there are about anything else. But that’s not a bad or negative thing. In fact, it’s neither negative or positive. It just is. It’s a revelling of sorts, an indulgent wallowing. And it can be beautiful.

There seems to be much less intensity when art comes from a happy place. The thinking is that when one expresses an emotion, they share the load. To borrow from physics, it’s a transference of energy. So when one is in a sombre place, one’s willingness to share that narrative is a means to share the load, to dissipate the energy. It’s desperate. It’s a means of dispelling the anguish, of freeing oneself, if only for a few minutes.

Happiness on the other hand is a narrative we are not necessarily ready or even desperate to share. So the intensity of art coming from a happy place is bound to be unimpressive. Look at the works of some great artists like Nina Simone, the ‘Born-This-Way Lady Gaga’, James Baldwin, Kabelo Sello Duiker, Maya Angelou, to mention a few; the work came from a desolate place whether it was one of searching, yearning, hoping, fighting, remembering, or reliving. These works, to this day, breathe and live.

So the question is, is it selfish for fans to want artists to remain in those sombre places so they can continue to make good art? Is this taking it too far? Is it too intense? After all, an artist does art for themselves – to purge, and for an audience – to engage. So the art belongs to the audience it as much it does to the artist – not legally but socially. Fans get to engage with the work, appropriate it and in that process, get to own it. So if artists do art for an audience, and the audience requires of them to go to a dark place, should they? For the sake of good art? – See what I mean by good art and the state of mind is murky waters?

Images courtesy of youknowigotsoul.com, 5seasons.co.za, 2.bp.blogspot.com and City Press