Mwanjé is Using Her Imagination to Summon The Diaspora [interview]

Mwanjé is a fountain of knowledge. A polymath in her own right. 

The 23-year-old’s fire is stoked by a determination to share her origins and experience with the world. Even as I write this it is becoming quite apparent that no black and white page of writing could ever capture her full vibrancy. Although there is no doubt she deserves to be seen, so I’ll give it a go.

Any piece of work as graceful and cool as Mwanjé’s “Wild Ones” in fact comes from a great deal of maturity and skill, which can easily go unappreciated. Performed alongside her sister and artist, Sampa The Great, the single cemented her status as a bonafide star. An artist who knows her worth, with only the highest standard of work going into the process behind every release.

“If I get a beat, I love to listen to it first and try to hear the emotions behind it. I try to hear the story behind the beat before I apply a lived experience to it.” The confluence of R&B, neo-soul and spoken word mixed into stories and mythologies is simply spellbinding. Her lyrics evoke anthologies detailing her ancestor’s past with sage nuggets of wisdom dotted here and there. Meanwhile, her vocals act like an enchantment of melody which pulls you closer to her plane of existence; surrounded by otherworldly flora and fauna. 

Call 2 The Diaspora”, filmed in Lusaka, Zambia, begins to convey what Mwanjé’s limitless imagination might look like. Bringing forth a source of great knowledge which grasps the concept of happiness being a verifiable form of rebellion–the video features an unfathomable level of detail: with captions that translate to ‘happiness’ and ‘joy’. Even the setting of her visuals become entirely enveloped in a radiant canopy of movement and music. Talking about “Wild Ones” Mwanjé adds, “I was positive that I wanted to levitate. That was non-negotiable. So it was really about finding someone who could understand the vision, and also elevate it and bring in their own ideas.”  

The dancers seen in the video are performing the Vimbuza healing dance, traditional to the Tumbuka people (Mwanjé’s father’s tribe). Rituals that were once widely known and used in healing quickly became oppressed and subjugated to false narratives. “When you take a step back and look at it through a more positive lens, you can see that a lot of our narratives have not been written by us…” she adds, “A lot of things about us have been demonised, so I took the initiative to just do a bit of research myself”. It wasn’t until after the video was conceptualised that she learned the entire meaning behind the dance. “I just knew that it was a dance that’s done by my father’s tribe. And afterwards, it was a beautiful surprise given the subject matter of the song”.

From moving between Botswana, Australia and Zambia; Mwanjé’s curiosity has been fed by her experiences. Her mind sponged information, as she planted her roots in the ground. “Wherever you go, you learn stuff about yourself or about the world, about the people that you’re with. And that often informs my music, I feel that my music is very true. It’s really a reflection of myself.” 

This is Mwanjé’s phantasmagorical cosmos, and we’re merely the tourists exploring it. Plunge into this conversation below and you’ll see exactly what we mean…


GUAP: You’ve just released “Wild Ones”, talk to me through some of the creative processes behind these magical visuals?

MWANJÉ: I already knew what I wanted… I came with a full-on bespoke mood board kind of thing. I explained the themes, I explained how I wanted to record the progress, I explained what angles I wanted and what kind of shots I wanted. For example, I was positive that I wanted to levitate. That was non-negotiable. So it was really about finding someone who could understand the vision, and also elevate it and bring in their own ideas. And I wanted to see who I’d become compatible with so my manager and I were putting feelers out, getting recommendations, and we would have taken calls until we finally landed with We Are productions. Michael and Taryn, the co-directors, we had multiple conversations with them, and Calvin, the producer and we just went back and forth with the ideas and what I wanted… So that’s what the process was like. Conceptualising always begins when I’m writing the music because I can sort of see in my head what I want… I can see, I can feel, I can just have ideas of what I want. And it’s always just a matter of time of putting the mental picture together. And then finding the inspiration that matches what I’m trying to create. That’s probably one of my favourite parts of creating a video. 

Conceptualising always begins when I’m writing the music because I can sort of see in my head what I want…

So you let it naturally as well, which is I think it really translates in the video. There’s something very organic. 

Thank you! 

You mentioned as well that you’ve just come back from Australia. I’ve noticed you’ve travelled and lived on different continents quite a bit throughout your lifetime. So would you say you see your creative style change and adapt each time you travel?

I think I learn something every time I travel. I’ve lived in Africa, and I’ve lived in Australia. And just like going to Australia and just witnessing the creative freedom that people have… The level of the industry, the resources they have, the different inspirations they tap into, that inspired me to just be a lot more creative and do something that wouldn’t necessarily be considered normal, where I grew up from. But I think it’s just life… Wherever you go, you learn stuff about yourself or about the world, about the people that you’re with. And that often informs my music, I feel that my music is very true. It’s really a reflection of myself. 

And I can see in Botswana there’s this almost intense level of creativity, bursting from the seams. What do you think kind of led to that?

Hmm, I don’t know. I think just just being in an environment where not a lot of people have the opportunity to pursue the creative interests they have. So a lot of ideas circulate. And then people keep building up from there. And just the drive to stamp our identity within the international playing field. We’re very very creative people. And a lot of people just need the opportunity and the exposure really. So I think that’s what makes it so intense.

Definitely. And I can really see that in the “Wild Ones” video. The visuals and message is very powerful and it seems to surround joy intentely as well. I really like that message of positivity and rebellion going hand-in-hand. So what was the story behind that?

Well, the production of the song was very authentic, I was surprised myself, I did not intend on writing a poem-not-poem type-of-song. It was really a reflection of what I was seeing at that time, I was still based in Australia. And I had a lot of connections to the diaspora within Australia. And just after having some of the conversations that we’ve had seeing our differences and similarities, it really inspired me to just make something that highlighted that. So it’s about diasporic bonds, a contrast of Africans on the continent and Africans within the diaspora. It’s about deconstructing false narratives and false perceptions. It’s just a lot of revolutionary things and conversations that I think we are starting to have and we also need to have. It was very healing, the video. I never intended on making a video for this song. I just never really had it in mind, I was just gonna do “Wild Ones” and put that one out. I had just finished “Wild Ones” and there was a tentative date for when everything would be released. But then there was a huge delay, I found myself with all this time, resources that I could use and people that were willing to work with me. And we just made it happen. My cousin is actually a co-director on this– he’s a stylist and creative director as well. So it was a very authentic process as well. I really, really wanted to show where I’m from… I show elements of my father’s side and my mother’s side as well. I show elements of love, of beauty standards, the joy. Yeah, it’s an array of emotions and conversations that to this day, I look at it and I’m like, wow, okay, that’s something I’m very proud of.

It was really a reflection of what I was seeing at that time, I was still based in Australia. And I had a lot of connections to the diaspora within Australia.

It’s a great personification of what you want the world to see.There’s the healing dance which you spotlight as well. This is something that Westernisation has often created a taboo around… Do you think it was something you felt was important to share in your music, to try and change this negative taboo?

I never really intend to be an activist, I still don’t necessarily consider myself an activist per se, even though there is a bit of activism in my music and in my visuals. It’s truly just an honest expression of my world and my surroundings. And given the biases about my culture, it automatically comes up as activism. So it depends on who’s consuming it, how they’re consuming it which lens they’re consuming it through. But it was mostly an expression of culture. And I come from countries that identify as Christian as well. And within the African community, we sort of joke like ‘hahaha, African spirituality…’, we know that it’s considered dark and everything. But when you take a step back and look at it through a more positive lens, you can see that a lot of our narratives have not been written by us. So all the information about us didn’t necessarily come from us. A lot of things about us have been demonised. So I took the initiative to just do a bit of research myself… I’m really curious about elements of my culture that I’ve been taught are not good. And even though it wasn’t exactly my intention, the whole Vimbuza healing dance, that’s something I learned about afterwards. I just knew that it was a dance that was done by my father’s tribe. And afterwards, it was just a beautiful surprise, given the sub the subject matters of the song, like the diaspora bonds and how I wanted to heal and nurture those bonds. And it’s just really crazy how that came to be.

I never really intend to be an activist… Even though there is a bit of activism in my music and in my visuals, it’s truly just an honest expression of my world and my surroundings. And given the biases about my culture, it just automatically comes up as activism.

You’ve mentioned that Zimbuza was a story you heard about later on and you did your research on it… Were there any mythologies that you heard in your childhood that maybe stuck with you?

The only thing I heard about was this masked dancing figure called a Nyau. And if you look at my oldest sister’s music video, “Final Form“, there’s a scene where she’s dancing with someone wearing a mask. That’s what a Nyau is, they are traditional dances and they perform certain rituals. They present during certain rituals. That’s the only thing I ever heard of and growing up, I was terrified. I was terrified of them. And mostly because of, you know, the negative connotation. I really thought it was something scary. Something evil. But when I realised it’s just a person, with a mask on, sort of being a conduit, or just a vessel to express the spiritual exchange between us and our ancestors, then I was like, Okay, it’s definitely something I had to grow up and just grow into understanding and I’m not as terrified anymore.

It’s always scary not knowing something.

Yeah, 100%. And that’s where these false narratives come from. It’s just fear of the unknown.

Most negative things come from fear, and it can’t be denied that dance is healing. As a dancer myself it can get quite emotional talking about it, it helps you channel so much. Would you say you have an exceptional connection to dance and movement?

Well, I did ballet when I was younger. But I didn’t do it for as long as I wanted to. But dance has always been a part of my life. I used to dance with my sister when we perform for our family. I did musical theatre. So that involved dance as well. It’s something that I definitely plan on incorporating into my visuals and performances as well; because I see it also as another just artistic expression and I agree that it’s so spiritual as well. I really respect the craft, even though I haven’t lived in that world for very long, but I do have a bit of history. It’s definitely something I want to explore a bit more.

You talk about elevating your music. That’s a wonderful way to do it because you access so many new avenues of your creativity as well. From your past experiences, is there anything that you still apply to your creativity today? 

It’s an interesting question. I like this question… I was part of my school orchestra when I was in primary school. So that was sort of different from being in the choirs. That’s where the music kind of like expresses the emotions and speaks for itself without any words to literally do that. And that’s part of my songwriting still. If I get a beat, I love to listen to it first and try to hear the emotions behind the beat, I try to hear the story behind the beat before I apply a lived experience to it. So that’s something that I still do. I’ve always had a very vivid imagined imagination as a child. It was kind of scary as a child because it was just so real… I’d often like cried to my mom. And it sounds weird but it was just very, very real. And right now, it’s something that I use to tap in and to help create to these to create these worlds. So when I’m conceptualising, music videos and when I’m writing the music, I’m seeing things. It’s almost like I’m literally seeing things. And that’s something that I try to channel into creating the visuals, which is why I have such a deep, deep love for creative direction, and hopefully, eventually, can direct myself.

See Also

If I get a beat, I love to listen to it first and try to hear the emotions behind the beat, I try to hear the story behind the beat before I apply a lived experience to it.

I can see that link to enlightenment with what you’ve just talked about. Maybe it’s something you wouldn’t say about yourself, but it’s very enlightened to be so tapped into your imagination, especially from a young age. 

It’s an on and off thing for sure.

I guess it can depend on your environment, or the state of the world… do you feel like it comes and goes in the same way creativity can? 

100%. And also just how in touch you feel with yourself as well. I just know that when I am very present and when I feel the most like myself is when I create the best work. It’s when my creativity just flows really smoothly. And it’s when I’m not fully present, or my spirit is feeling troubled. That’s when I have issues. So it’s on and off in that sense.

I guess most of us would define ourselves as spiritual these days as we build our own interpretations of the world. But what does ‘spiritual’ mean to you? 

Now that’s a hard question [laughs]. I just feel like it’s really like the essence of who you are beyond the physical. It’s what enables us to feel emotions that we can’t always describe really intangible things like love. And the connection… the deep connections we have with people. I feel like that’s what ‘the spirit’ is. Now spirituality, I believe is just the exploration and the nurturing of that. And it looks different for everyone and is something that I’m definitely still learning and unpacking through different lenses as well.

It’s what enables us to feel emotions that we can’t always describe really intangible things like love. And the connection… the deep connections we have with people.

For “Call 2 The Diaspora” you say ‘This is not poetry. This is a testimony.’ Which is a really potent message. As mentioned before joy can be the greatest form of rebellion. How do you see the audience receiving this testimony?

I didn’t perceive that, is this is one of the pieces that I definitely did for myself. It was the whole EP is a process of healing. But this song in particular, was me pointing out certain things that I’ve deconstructed myself; that I’m currently healing within myself. And towards the end of it, it’s just a joyous expression of overcoming things or just even enlightenment–even if I’m still going through that process. So hopefully, it serves the same purpose for everybody else. But I just think it’s like that saying, you can’t pour from an empty cup. I truly believe that this was me nurturing myself, my soul, my spirit, and I’m pouring it out to everybody else. And if they’re ready to receive it, or if able to receive it, they do.

I just think it’s like that saying, you can’t pour from an empty cup. I truly believe that this was me nurturing myself, my soul, my spirit, and I’m pouring it out to everybody else.

That’s amazing and feels very forward-looking to put it like that… there’s a lot of nostalgia in music–so there’s something very refreshing about that. Would you say that you feel music is your main avenue to express this sort of healing voice inside of you?

Not at all. I’m very interested in fashion and beauty as forms of creative outlets. So maybe not not so much the history of them, which I feel like, if I truly respect those crafts, I should do a bit more research in. But I’m just in love with humans expressing. And I love to go down those avenues with that in mind. And also, I’m very passionate about mental health as well… I study psychology, and there’s some things I’d like to provide for my community as mental health is very stigmatised. So I would love to provide information, services and resources as well.

Very much a topic that should be brought to the fore. Do you think, coming from a place where you feel strongly about mental health, you feel pressure to share your experiences?

I’m hoping it doesn’t ever affect me in that way. Not yet. As I said, I don’t really identify as being an activist, even though there is activism in my music. If anything, I just like to start conversations. That’s where my mind is at right now. I’m very focused on my journey and healing myself. Because I wouldn’t want to be the face of something when I’m facing certain things in the dark as well. And I wouldn’t want to seem like I’ve overcome everything and be like, ‘you could do it too!’. Like I’m really not enough for that. Yeah, I’m just here to speak my truth. And that’s it.

© 2020 GUAP International LTD. All rights reserved. Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our User Agreement and Privacy Policy. The material on this site may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used, except with prior written permission of GUAP.