You can be winning awards and crying yourself to sleep: Zahara

Megastar Zahara opens up about the pain that drove her to drink, the men who hurt and terrified her, and how she wants to give hope with her music

06 December 2020 - 00:00 By leonie wagner
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Multi-award-winning singer and songwriter Zahara uses her platform to speak out against men attacking women.
Multi-award-winning singer and songwriter Zahara uses her platform to speak out against men attacking women.
Image: Alon Skuy

Semi-deflated rose-gold balloons lie scattered in the lounge. On the table is a half-eaten birthday cake topped with a miniature edible guitar. South African Music Award statuettes in the shape of a Z line the walls. The sound of melodic humming echoes through the house. There’s no mistaking the gravelly voice of the great Zahara.

There are guitars around every corner in her home. The four damaged instruments leaning on a wall have their own stories.

One of these, Zahara says, is her first electric guitar, a gift from a missionary in her village of Phumlani, near East London. It featured in the music video of her breakout album, Loliwe. Another is the pink guitar a six-year-old girl gave her, a few days before succumbing to cancer.

Each guitar is special, but when Zahara picks up a black guitar, she bursts out laughing and points to a little white sticker. Before Bulelwa Mkutukana, 33, became Zahara she was “Spinach” or “Spinny” to those in her village. It’s a nickname she has never been able to shake.

“This was my sister’s guitar,” she says, holding it affectionately. The label that says “Spinach” is a supermarket price sticker that Zahara stuck on when the guitar was passed on to her.

Her mother, a domestic worker, had a garden where she grew spinach and cabbage. Zahara, the sixth of seven children, loved spinach, so her siblings always gave her their portions.

Unlike the cartoon character Popeye, who got his strength from eating the vegetable, Zahara believes she was born strong and the hardships she’s faced in the industry and her personal life have made her even stronger.

“When I passed matric, my parents didn’t have money for tertiary education,” she says.


Zahara has won 48 awards including 17 South African Music Awards, Metro FM awards, international awards and Glamour Woman of the Year

Circumstances saw her picking up her sister's guitar and she started busking on the streets of East London. Strength means overcoming weakness.

Last year Zahara spoke out about her battle with alcohol. She talks candidly about her addiction and how she has fought it. Lockdown helped give her the time she needed to face her demons.

“I’m not here to make hits,” she says. “I’m here to tell my life story so that I can inspire and give hope to somebody else. Lockdown actually gave me time for that, to cool down and sit down. If I needed to cry, I cried, and then I got over it.”

Zahara broke into the music industry in 2011 with Loliwe, her debut album, which went double platinum in just 17 days. But by 2015 rumours started surfacing that the songstress battled with the bottle. She at first vehemently denied the allegations, but in 2018 she spent the month of December in hospital, fighting for her life after a diagnosis of liver failure.

Last year she admitted to being an alcoholic. She also took aim at her former management, TS Records, for allegedly withholding money owed to her for royalties.

Sitting in her home bar, with not a bottle of alcohol in sight, Zahara says she now realises that alcohol was never the issue.

“When it comes to music, I have never disappointed you, I’m still the bestselling artist ever in SA, I’m still breaking my own records when it comes to awards, when it comes to sales.”

The problem lay in why she drank in the first place.

Sometimes the anxiety you feel, you can’t eat, you can’t think, you are always lashing out. This is what I was going through

“I used to drink for myself to be happy, but now I saw I was drinking to sleep because of my brother’s death and what the company was doing to me. I couldn’t talk to nobody because I was scared of everything,” she says.

“This is what we do as black communities: there’s no depression. I’m sure I did go through that depression phase but it’s just that you don’t understand and don’t know what it is. It’s not small. You can be winning awards and crying yourself to sleep. Sometimes the anxiety you feel, you can’t even eat, you can’t think, you are always lashing out at people. This is what I was going through.”

At the mention of her late brother, her eyes well up and tears run down her face. She wipes them with a tissue and says: “I’m going to blame this on the mascara.”

Zahara vividly recalls the day she found out on social media that her brother had been murdered. Moments before a performance, she was scrolling on Facebook and saw a picture of a young man lying face down in an area close to her house. Refusing to believe it was her brother, she went on stage to perform. After her performance, her manager confirmed that the man in the Facebook post was her brother, and that he had been murdered. She went straight to the airport to get the first flight she could from Johannesburg to East London.

“After all of that, nobody ever asked me how I got through it and how was I coping. The only thing they were watching was: does she have a glass? There was a month when I couldn’t do anything. But then I’d go on stage — I had to go on stage a week after my brother passed away — and I’d go and sing for you and give hope to people, when I actually needed help.”

Zahara vividly recalls the day she found out on social media that her brother had been murdered.
Zahara vividly recalls the day she found out on social media that her brother had been murdered.
Image: Alon Skuy

This was the year she contemplated returning home and giving up her musical dreams. She called her mother to say she was packing up and coming back to live a simple village life singing for the cows.

Her mother, who had supported her daughter’s career since “Spinach” started singing in church at the age of six, encouraged her not to give up. Today, Zahara is grateful for that advice. Her recent inclusion on the BBC’s list of the Top 100 Women in the World has added to her sense of accomplishment. The list is made up of largely unsung female heroes from different parts of the world. Zahara is commended not only for her success in the music industry but for speaking out against violence against women.

This is also partly what led to her struggle with alcohol addiction. In 2011, while still reeling from the euphoria of her first huge success, she was attacked twice in her home town.

WATCH | The music video for Zahara's track 'Thembalam''

One night she was walking to church with a friend, using her phone, when a man grabbed their handbags and her phone. He stabbed Zahara in the face and her friend in the chest.

Pointing to the scar on her forehead she says: “I was bleeding and I thought he stabbed me in my eye because the blood was just all over my face. I went to the hospital and before they put me together I said wait, I work with my face, please don’t stitch.” Tears roll down her cheeks again as she recalls the second incident. This time she was on her way home after a night out at the movies with a friend.

She got into a metered taxi and the driver said he needed to fetch his wife before dropping her off. He called his wife who said she was working late, which meant he could drop Zahara off first. She noticed that the driver was taking an unfamiliar route, and protested.

“Then he hit me with his elbow, right here” — she gestures to her throat — “then he locked the doors. I was ready to break the window but then he sprayed pepper spray and I couldn’t breathe. I thought I was going to die that day.”

The man stopped in a remote area and got out.

“His mistake was to go to the back of the car. I didn’t know what he was getting from the boot. I opened the door and I ran into the bushes. I ran and ran, then I fell and I heard two gunshots. I thought, it doesn’t really matter, I’m dead. Then I just lay there.”

After lying frozen in fear for “about 15 minutes” she got up and made her way to her sister’s house. The trauma of that experience has stayed with her. Sharing these stories is integral to her message condemning gender-based violence.


Zahara's debut album 'Loliwe' sold 500,000 copies, going double platinum in just 17 days

She has also had good times. One of her all-time highs was a private performance, when she was 23, for Nelson Mandela at his Qunu home. She laughs with joy at the memory, saying she was so overwhelmed she forgot the lyrics to her song Thekwana.

She says she will never forget the words Mandela spoke to her that day. Doing a near-perfect impersonation of the great statesman, Zahara describes the moment:

“After I sang Loliwe, this is what he did: he clapped his hands and said, ‘You are a very special girl, and South Africa is blessed to have you, and may the stars … wherever you go, may they shine upon you’. I was like, OK, I’m blessed, I’m fine, what more do I ever need?”

She says her motto, even in dark times, has always been that she is here to inspire and bring hope, not just make hits. Her new album, almost complete, is a compilation of songs with which she wants to bring hope to others.

As she speaks she alternates between laughter and tears. She often bursts spontaneously into song. She can sing about anything, she says, and to prove it she starts improvising a song about a dustbin in her unique raspy voice.

When Zahara sings, even a dustbin can be an inspiration.

Zahara on 16 days of activism against gender-based violence

“It’s not about being ashamed, it’s about speaking out. Think about those kids. I’m from the village, I know from school, since primary and high school, what boys do to us as girls. And we keep quiet. They take you into a corner — how many young girls have been raped at school? And they’re quiet. It’s like it’s instilled in young boys that women are their property. We’re not, we are each our own person. We belong to ourselves, we were born for our own path. If I’m in your path, I’m with you, let’s walk together — it doesn’t mean you own me."

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