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THE 100th ISSUE: A Conversation With the Princess of Africa, Yvonne Chaka Chaka

Published 8 months ago
By Simone Sribrath

From Hollywood exports and Grammy artists to award-winning ideas that can save the world, Africa is not only diverse in its people but also in its industries and creativity. For FORBES AFRICA hundredth issue (since the magazine’s inception in 2011), we decided to curate a list celebrating these very ideas, inventions, and influential role models that have spelt Africa’s growth over the last decade.

Singer, actor, philanthropist, activist, businesswoman, and humanitarian, are just some of the words associated with the Princess of Africa, Yvonne Chaka Chaka. She talks to FORBES AFRICA:

Q: So, just tell me a bit about yourself, and what led you to be going on this incredible journey?

A: Well, you know, growing up in Soweto, during Apartheid, I mean, I was born in 1965 and so growing up and so were to watching all the atrocities that with knowing that you are just an entity in this country, never allowed to vote, you know. And when my father passed on the government, took the house from my mum, because she was a black single woman and unmarried because her husband had died. Seeing her fight and seeing what that did to my family inspired me greatly in terms of where I wanted to be in life and I wanted to make a difference.

Q: And then, what was it like, for you to reach the heights of your career that you have? I mean, especially given your years of activism during apartheid, and now becoming this kind of meteoric power within Africa?

A: Well, I think just growing in that environment, seeing inequality, and knowing that there’s very little that we can do, but maybe just to, to get an education and be empowered, because that was the only thing that could have taken us out of our situation, to just get education, even though the education that was given to black people was minimum, but I thought, I’ll grab what I have and make do with it. So I became very lucky because when I completed my matric, I started singing, initially my mother wanted me to go and study law, I wanted to study to be a chartered accountant and when that didn’t happen, and I started singing,

That, for me was just a great platform. Because I thought, whoo, this is a great platform to start telling the world about my country, about what inspires me what I’d like to see, you know, in others, and what I can learn from others, and how to make South Africa a better place. So I was quite lucky that my very first debut single, sold about 25,000 brands in a week.

That was amazing and made me extremely popular. I don’t know, how did my manager do it for me to be very popular even outside South Africa during those times, and that’s when the name the princes of Africa came up, so I started traveling to places like Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, and all those places. For me, it was Africa, lovely Africa accepted me, and Africa has laid out this red carpet for me. And I wanted to, to know, Africa better, I could have wanted to go to live in America, in Paris or anywhere else; but I was very happy to be to be known in Africa, because Africa opened its arms, you know, for me. And yeah, and I’m just so happy to be an African and a woman for that matter.

Q: So that brings me to my next question. What does being an African icon mean to you?

A: Woah… I don’t regard myself as an icon, I just regard myself as a servant because when people open their arms for you and when people give you a platform to be able to perform, what do you do in return? So for me these people allowed me into their homes without me even asking, that’s when I’m on television; when I perform at a stadium or any function, they leave what they’re doing and come to support me by watching my show.

So I just think sometimes we become taken away and think we are doing our fans a favor, when no they aren’t as it’s their love and support that makes us who we are. So I never take anything for granted. I appreciate every single moment that I’m granted by the people who have supported me through all these years because I would not be Yvonne Chaka Chaka, the princess of Africa without the support they have given me and my music.

So I don’t think I’m an icon, I just think I’m a servant and I’m asked by a higher authority to do this work and continue to serve my continent in the role that they have given me.

Q: And you also have the awards to show for it. Speaking of, what was it like for you getting the Crystal Award from the World Economic Forum?

A: You know, 2012 was just a very amazing year for me. There was going to Davos for the first time, and I’ve been traveling all over, you know, and then I get invited to Davos for this honor.

So, I went to Davos, but already, oh, wow, I mean, icons and more. It was just something to be nominated, and, even if I didn’t win, the fact that I’m counted amongst these people, it matters to me.

And I was very, very chuffed, I must say, you know, because, you know, the World Economic Forum, it’s the, it’s the highest sector in business, you know, and it’s serious people who go there, then you have precedents from different countries, and there’s few activists that go there and, civil society, you know, but I was very, very chuffed and, and really honored to have been given this award by the World Economic Forum and one of my favorite people was sitting right at the front then and kept on cheering for me, it was the Archbishop Tutu, and it was just so amazing

And, yeah, it was it was just that crazy moment for me and I kept on pinching myself, but it was just, amazing.

Q: There are a lot of black female African singers in the continent currently, but there are very few who own their own music label and their own production company, tell me what that experience has been like for you and kind of being part of the marginalized population when it comes to doing something like that.

A: You know, I was quite lucky when I started singing and I was found, you know, I guess I was at at the right place at the right time and the very first music, which was extremely popular, was written for me. And when I thought, when I saw that there was longevity in the music industry, because I was getting famous, and I was making money at the time, then because I came from a very poor family, and I thought, I’m not going back to the life that I lived.

I started investing in different things, you know, because I bought, I don’t know if in 1980 or in 1990, Yvonne Chaka Chaka will be there, or things like that. So every royalty I earned was, invested in some way, either through short term investment, like five years, or things like that. And when I thought I saw that, the, this is the real career that I really want to get into.

I decided, I want to leave a Gallo at the time and in1993, I started my own label, Chaka Chaka music. So I started writing my own songs, and I thought, I want to own my catalogue, because

most of those, most of those old, very popular songs, I don’t own them. They were written for me, and they owned by Universal Records, or Gallo, depending on who was buying what record company at that time, or buying what catalogue.

So that had taught me a lot, you know, and I look back, and I learned from artists like Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, and all the other big art. So for me, it was like I will pay for my own producers, I will pay my own studios and effects, I decided to build my own studio, you know, and I do everything in house.

Q: What has that experience been like for you?

A: It hasn’t been a very good experience, really, because, you know, I don’t have the manpower that the big record companies have. Sometimes people battle to get my music, I do have a license deal with Universal Records, because they have no recourse and they’re not going to benefit much. They don’t put the music in the shops.

You know, lo and behold, things have changed. You can put things now on mp3 people can download people don’t buy CDs anymore. So you can release a single and put your music, you know, on different platforms here and get that money. But even with that streaming that people rave about, there’s still no good policies, and what royalty should be paid and things like that. But I’m just happy that I can put my music in any platform, my own YouTube channel, and people can listen. And, I own it, the fact is that it’s mine and it’s my catalogue, and I own it. So there’s disadvantages and advantages, but you know, it is my IP I hold it, you know, and it’s mine, and if anybody wants to come and offer me, whatever, I would sell it at whatever price without any middleman.

Q: And I think your savviness as a businesswoman comes through there but not just there, I mean, you’re on the board of so many different companies, which sector has been interesting for you to be a part of and a bit of a learning experience?

A: Well, really, I love my humanitarian work. I really love it because, you know, working with, UNICEF, GAVI Global Fund, and all those NGOs, if I may call them all or centres, have opened my eyes, and broadened my horizon. You know, just going to different countries. I remember going to, I think it was Tanzania and somebody, you know, a woman had walked for like two hours as her child was sick and as she got to hospital the child was declared dead.

And I had a lump in throat. I thought, things that me and you take for granted could have saved this child. What really got to me most was, this woman did not want to leave the body behind. She said, I’m going to have to piggy back him dead as he is, and go back home, because what am I going to say to my husband.

That traumatized me so much, and so those are the things that I see happening around, and if I can do my little bit to help, I really try, I can’t be everything to everybody. So when I go, when I go and do all my humanitarian work, it’s good to be on the podium with the likes of the Bill Gates of the world and ministers or presidents but for me, it’s when I go to those people, you know who have absolutely nothing but make do with the little that they have.

So for me, there is proper empowerment, when you go to people, listen to them, not tell them what needs to be done, listen to them, because they know they have problems, all they want is a hand up, not a handout.

So when you empowered them it will level the playing field for people where the environment is conducive for them to function, they would do that. And when people are healthy, when they are educated, they know how to fend for themselves. So that sector really has really, really made me love that sector.

Q: Working in that sector has also led to collaborations with other people who have the same feeling as you I’m sure, who for you has been one of your favorite people to work with or collaborate with bat on stage or in studio?

A: I mean, I’ve performed with different people really, from Bono to Beyoncé. I think everybody are doing their bit. You know, I mean, there’s a lot of people out there, who, who would do a lot about education, you know, something about the health sector, excuse me, the health sector, others would want to see girls, you know, having sanitary pads. So all the people that have worked with, I must say, they’ve been amazing, because they do their little bit, wherever. And I think it’s important that we all do our little bit in our small corners.

I’ve also gotten to work with a lot of young people like Berita, and Lira and we’ve just rereleased Umqombothi with Amanda Black And it’s just been so amazing to work with young people just to hear from them, what inspires them? And how would they do things now, you know, because during our time, there was no social media, you know, you just had to sing, go to the go to the shows. And, and that was it, there was really nothing. It was just newspapers, magazines, and television. So now, our young people have got all these platforms, to expand their talent and showcase their talent. And they can be watched by people everywhere in the world, and it’s very, very good.

Q: You also have such an array of experiences to your name, most recently your Motherland tour documentary, what was that like?

A: Motherland tour for me, I was quite lucky.

Because I worked so well, with different organizations like a Global Fund, GAVI, malaria people, and it was easy for them to to fund the motherland tour because I did not want to be a Goodwill Ambassador that just goes there and give cheques and go.

I wanted to know, if they said, we’re supposed to go to Uganda, or Kenya or Malawi, I really wanted to know, what am I there for, what are the pre people’s problems? What are the challenges they go through? How do we help them to help themselves, so I really wanted to get engaged.

And I think they just liked that mind-set. I think at first they could not understand they could not believe, you know, they just thought that I would just come and look pretty to have makeup and tick a box off and be done, but I wanted to be there for the people for real.

You know, for me for the things that I’ve been asked to be a goodwill ambassador, I thought it’s a great platform to then do what is right. Go to those people don’t only go there when there’s cameras, but go there for real, ask questions, learn from them, help with their struggles and challenges, open doors for them, you know, if they can’t get to the Minister, or the First Lady, or the president? And I’m able to do that, why wouldn’t I do that? And in the past 15 years doing all of that, that’s exactly what I’ve done. And that culminated to doing the motherland tour, you know, because it was the stories of these African women who are really trying to do good in their communities. So we documented that as I was traveling from Sierra Leone, Ghana, and all those other places.

Q: My last question, what is the mantra or motto that you live by?

You know, my mantra is that we’re born with nothing. And when we’re born, we’re here to demonstrate what we’ve been asked to come and do. So each and every one of us has some form of good. And when we die, we take absolutely nothing. So there’s no need to be selfish, greedy, or wanting to kill one another. Because you know what, we can’t take everything that we’re fighting for and what makes us greedy or selfish with us when we die. So we just die with absolutely nothing. So let’s just enjoy the life whatsoever in life. And that’s it.

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