As Shingai releases her much-anticipated debut single and video, Coming Home, here’s our interview with her from issue one

“My usual is unusual,” Shingai Shoniwa says. It’s a small sentence, but explains a lot. As the British-Zimbabwean lead singer and bass player for Noisettes — a band that tested boundaries musically and aesthetically — she has never followed the pack. Born to be bold (her name means “to be courageous” in the Shona language), her debut solo EP Ancient Futures, dropping soon, sees Shoniwa take an even more adventurous path. The first fruit of it is the single ‘Coming Home’, which is accompanied by a video shot in her mother country, Zimbabwe with a team of local creatives. “Coming Home is my klaxon call for the diaspora to reunite with those at home and build a bridge of hope,” Shingai says. “Many of us are scattered and undernourished by the environments we have found ourselves in. We are still healing. ‘Coming Home’ is an ode to our resilience and optimism, even through the chaos. We are a loving people and this is a love song for the future.”

Having worked alongside artists such as Baloji (on his latest album 137 Avenue Kaniama, and spoof TV episode The Kaniama Show), Spoek Mathambo, Thandiswa Mazwai, RZA, Giorgio Moroder and Mick Jones, and with three successful Noisettes albums with guitarist Dan Smith on her CV, collaboration remains the soul of the new record despite it being a solo release. Guest songwriters include Dave Okumu (The Invisibles) and Jean Baptiste. So how do these names relate? “The thing that unites us is a common essence behind a lot of the music we love — hip hop, rap, grime, reggae, dub poetry, punk — you can trace a lot of the rhythms and syncopations back to Africa.”

It’s a history lesson she’s used to giving. When Noisettes first started out, journalists would label them indie rock and tell her she was “playing white bloke’s music”, to which she’d retort: “Just think about where a lot of our inspiration in terms of guitar players come from. You’re going to hit the blues at some point, and then you’re going to hit gospel, and then you’re going to hit Africa — and there’s no avoiding it.”


The continent resonates through the EP’s sonic intent, from the squelchy club track ‘Zimtron’, to the spacy ode to sound system culture ‘Champion Styles’. Drawing as much on the Zimbabwean mbira as drum machines, the sound travels far and wide, with a little help from Gabriel Makamanzi and Zivai Guveya from the core band led by legendary musician Thomas Mapfumo. “It’s called Ancient Futures because a lot of incredible ideas concerning art, science, philosophy and the stars can be traced way beyond the Greeks and back to Abyssinia,” she says. “People listen to this music and say there’s a ‘homegrown’ feel, but my idea of home- grown is being able to grow yourself wherever you are. I grew up around council estates in south London, and we spent summers in the dondo (bush) and time in Malawi; so for me home has be- come wherever I am. I keep adding to it.”

The EP grew out of the previous EP Tropical Metropolis, which teased a couple of years ago but didn’t come out. “It represented this flower that managed to make it through the roughest, most synthesised, man-made piece of concrete. I felt like that organic matter trying to push through a set of choices,” she explains. “Being told, on the verge of getting signed, ‘You could be the British version of this’, I was like, why would I want to copy what anyone else has done?” But that’s not to say she doesn’t have heroes. “Look at Nina Simone, she went from being the blues-jazz ‘what’s-expected-of-you’ darling to reaching inside to an unsafe place to express something which ultimately brought people together. Ancient Futures is taking the past, good and bad, into the future. It’s a chance to raise our vibrations and not repeat mistakes.”

Shoniwa has also been busy building an acting career. She will star alongside Terry Pheto in upcoming feature film Faces, by British-Nigerian filmmaker Joseph A Adesunloye, and will play the ancient female pharaoh Hatshepsut in the forthcoming Hollywood movie Protector of the Gods. Shoniwa’s fashion sense and performative sensibilities landed her the part after director Kameko Tarnez witnessed one of her gigs in London. Hatshepsut is often depicted as having adopted male attributes to assert herself as a leader, but Shoniwa is having none of that. “We can’t compromise what’s on the outside,” she says. “Many women have been heralded in history for what they wore rather than what they actually did. But it’s not a bad thing if it makes you dig deeper, because to have both inner and outer strength is incredible. I often think that if you have a great heart, a great mind, a great soul — you’re going to shine anyway.”

Shingai plays London’s Jazz Café on 17 April

Photography The Masons
Words Emma Gilhooly
Styling Talulah Mason
Hair Magalie Katende, Bianca Simone Scott
Make-up Nance Katende
Styling assistance Iona Dutton
Photography assistance Lauryn McKinson and Ollie Dickens
Creative production Lois Browne
Visit Shingai

Published on 28/03/2019