The First Lady Of Afropop

Forbes Woman Africa
Published 8 years ago
The First Lady  Of Afropop

The names Nhlanhla Nciza and Mafikizolo are like bread and butter. Nciza embodies style and elegance, but behind this creative, is a businesswoman trying to make her mark parallel to her music career.

When she grabs the microphone, the world dances at her feet. Nciza fills the stage with joie de vivre and ebullience. She has the voice most people only dream of, that contemporary, yet retro throwback to Miriam Makeba, which appeals to both young and old. She dances on stage with panache, like a shy child being encouraged, but with elegance and class.

Nciza, 36, is not just the ‘first lady’ of Mafikizolo, but a woman harnessing another passion into a business. Having taken interest in the imaging of her career, it naturally followed that this stylish songbird would make a successful foray into fashion design, through NN Vintage.

Mafikizolo, which means ‘new arrivals’ in isiZulu, has long outgrown its name. Nciza and fellow band member, Theo Kgosinkwe, have stuck it out for more than a decade, through thick and thin.

The duo has enjoyed a longevity uncharacteristic of many music bands. They started out competing at talent competitions, and now they’ve ended up winning numerous accolades.

“The awards mean a lot. We’re getting more love than we did before,” she says.

At the fourth MTV Africa Music Awards (MAMAs) in June, in Durban, Nciza thought she had no chance. A Nigerian was certain to win with their country’s 125 million subscribers ready to cast their mobile votes. A safe bet, since the Nigerian mobile market is the largest on the continent. Instead it was Nciza and Kgosinkwe who ended up walking to the podium for Song of the Year, for their hit anthem Khona. They also won for ‘Best Group’.

“Winning Song of the Year means a lot especially that Nigeria has a bigger population than South Africa, and we still won the award. It shows that people still love our music all over the continent,” says Nciza.

Mafikizolo returned from the United States (US) in June following their debut at the Black Entertainment Television (BET) Awards in Los Angeles. The judges nominated Mafikizolo for Best African International Act, pitted against other exceptional African musicians including Nigeria’s Davido. Together, they had collaborated on a song called Tchelete, meaning money in seTswana, that’s currently ruling the airwaves in South Africa. Davido won on the night but for Mafikizolo, just being there – and performing for the first time in the US – was remarkable.

Fifteen months after releasing their double-platinum eighth album, Reunited, following their hiatus, the group sealed their comeback with eight wins at the South African Music Awards (SAMA) in April, along with Channel O and Metro FM Awards, also in South Africa.

 

Trials And Tragedy

Mafikizolo’s story is also one of struggle. The band formed in 1997, and signed with one of South Africa’s biggest recording companies, Kalawa Jazzmee Records. Their first four albums barely made a ripple.

Worse was to come…

In December 2001, the group, then a three-member band, nearly died in a car accident. The trio had decided to drive to Katlehong, following a performance in Durban. Once home, they decided to drive in the dead of night to Mafikeng for a performance the next day.

“Theo wanted to drive, I guess he wanted to impress his new girlfriend, now his wife. So the rest of us fell asleep and we were woken up by a big bang. And the next thing I remember was lying on the gravel on the side of the road,” says Nciza.

Their car had been hit by a train. Fortunately that night, all of them survived. The rest of the band was discharged the next day from hospital, but Nciza had to stay on for over three months.

Lucky to be alive, the group released an album the following year, Sibongile, meaning ‘we thank you’ in isiZulu. It was their breakthrough.

All was well. The group had picked up the pieces and were getting back on their feet when tragedy struck again on Valentine ’s Day in 2004. Vocalist Tebogo Madingoane was shot and killed in a road rage incident in South Africa.

Madigoane had brought the Kwaito sound to the group and his loss was another blow. Nciza and Kgosinkwe never thought they would end up as a duo, but in sadness, they did. After mourning Madingoane, the two picked themselves up with the sound of Mafikizolo.

Then came a purple patch. They released three more albums, Khwela, Van Toeka Af and Six Mabone.

 

Mafikizolo 2.0

Their popularity grew but in 2008 they took a break to reinvent themselves as solo artists.

“It was scary for me and a completely different experience as I was so used to depending on Theo for so many things… I had to gain confidence and believe in myself, so I used my other talent to grab people’s attention and that was my [passion for] fashion,” she says.

During this time, Nciza released two albums, Inguquko (Change) and Lingcinga Zam (My Thoughts), and also started to put more hours into her clothing business, which she had started a year before.

However tragedy followed her. Nciza and her record company executive husband, Thembinkosi Nciza, lost their five-year-old daughter Zinathi in a car accident in December 2009. She was with her grandmother on their way to a pre-school to pick up a cousin when their car crashed into a tree. The grandmother blacked out behind the wheel and suffered minor leg and chest injuries.

“My work was greatly affected. I was in the middle of promoting my second album when Zinathi passed, so everything was on hold. A part of me is gone and it is the kind of emptiness that I may have to accept that may never be filled… I really did not know where to begin, where to start picking up the pieces and for a very long time I just remained in one place not knowing how to move on, it felt wrong to move on,” says Nciza.

“Were it not for my husband, I really don’t know how I could have started living again. In 2012, I was blessed with a son, Luvuyo and I am just grateful to God that he gave me a chance to be a mom again.”

LOS ANGELES, CA – JUNE 28: Singers Theo Kgosinkwe (L) and Nhlanhla Nciza of Mafikizolo perform onstage at the Music Around the Globe during the 2014 BET Experience At L.A. LIVE on June 28, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Tommaso Boddi/BET/Getty Images for BET)

After mourning her daughter, she pulled herself together, mustered strength and continued with her career. Her family kept her going.

“Keeping busy helped me focus on other things, so I started writing music again, performing and started designing again,” she says.

Through NN Vintage, Nciza started to hire young people looking for jobs.

“I wanted to develop young talent. It was more about the love [of clothes and music] and not making money. I didn’t look at it in the business sense,” she says.

Nciza says she acquired her compassionate nature from her father, a court interpreter, who, even when his immediate family was struggling, would invite cousins into his home. Nciza ventured into the fashion business without any prior experience.

She hired eight seamstresses, a receptionist and rented a small studio where they could work from, financing it all herself, at a cost of around R70,000 ($6,500) a month. Revenue from her music career kept the business alive. But it was doomed from the first stitch.

“I realized a year and a half into my business that I had employed too many people and [had] too much equipment. When the recession came, I was probably the first person to go down,” she says.

“I lost a lot of money, around R600,000 ($56,000) including my savings. I was new in fashion and I needed to prove myself. I was a new designer and I couldn’t sell a R10,000 ($930) dress.”

Most times, the people who bought her dresses were those who knew her and her music, yet there were times when she struggled to make sales. She was so proud she kept the business failures to herself.

“I didn’t want to tell people that NN Vintage wasn’t there anymore,” she says. Her husband could have helped financially, but Nciza wanted to go it alone. She had to let go of nearly all the employees who worked for her. By the end of 2010, to keep her brand alive, Nciza stopped dressing clients and only designed for herself.

The following year, she went back to the drawing board. She started by sketching her own designs and slowly hired seamstresses to bring her designs to life.

“Right now it makes sense. I still want to learn more and empower myself. I want to learn how to make a garment,” says Nciza.

“When I started out, I was a bit conservative. I wore below-the-knee dresses. It was me at the time. What I do is not necessarily following trends.”

And indeed, Nciza is a fashion risk-taker. She is a musician with a palette for setting trends, just like the black and white dress on the cover of this issue, which she first wore for the opening act of the MAMAs.

“For this particular performance, I wanted attire that commanded attention, so I played with a lot of color and bright accessories. My designs are always inspired by Africa. They are feminine, yet bold and fierce at the same time,” she says.

At last year’s SAMAs, she wore a long-sleeved silver umbrella shirt with a pink ribbon around her waist and skirt. Another risk she took was at this year’s Metro FM Awards where she wore a monochrome striped peplum shirt with an umbrella skirt.

Her designs are for her fans. The revived NN Vintage is aimed at making garments for young adults and older women carving a niche in their industries.

Having been in the fashion business only a few years now, Nciza admits she is not making “crazy” money just yet, but claims people trust her brand. Nciza says she now sells garments costing up to R7,500 ($700), and is slowly getting her clients back, some from as far as Tanzania and Botswana. This would allow her to employ designers and more seamstresses and also open a store when the time is right.

“I plan to create a special range to supply to bigger stores, so it can reach all parts of the country, as that is my biggest challenge right now. I have also started with a men’s range and it will be launched soon,” says Nciza.

Few musicians are able to juggle their music careers, business and family, but Nciza is doing well.

LOS ANGELES, CA – JUNE 28: Singer Nhlanhla Nciza of Mafikizolo performs onstage at the Music Around the Globe during the 2014 BET Experience At L.A. LIVE on June 28, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Tommaso Boddi/BET/Getty Images for BET)

Mafikizolo’s music is inspired by their upbringing, their neighborhoods, their stories of love, and hardship.

“You don’t need to sell your soul in order to get ahead. Try and push, only talent will get you where you want,” she says.

Indeed, hard work and talent have taken Nciza and Mafikizolo to attain the success they are enjoying today. Nciza has created a new brand of South African music and a new brand of fashion. Both have her unmistakable stamp.