Kulture Noir is a work of healing by Simphiwe Dana

Like most people, I have turned to art as a salve for these uncertain and devastating times. The most prominent feature on my playlist has been Simphiwe Dana’s Kulture Noir, released 10 years ago this year. Dana, who burst on the music scene in 2004 with her critically acclaimed debut Zandisile, is celebrated for her socially conscious oeuvre which often shows up just at the most critical moments of our present. 

Dana’s work has responded to the Marikana massacre and the kidnapping of schoolgirls in Chibok. So it makes sense why her work feels so important right now, especially in the midst of the grief surfacing all around us. Reflecting on this work a decade later is necessary, as it is crucial to archive the work of our sages not only while they are still living, but because the public archiving of African women’s contributions to art matters.

Kulture Noir feels so timely as it deals with internal and external worlds. It is a musical interpretation of some of the ideas popularised by some of Africa’s towering intellectuals. It dives deep into the ideas of the burdens that come with existing as a black person in an anti-black world, and the effects this has on one’s psyche.

The careful and deliberate arrangements of each track give the sense that when you immerse yourself in Kulture Noir you are entering a space of meditation, not necessarily to escape reality but to deal directly with this heaviness, hopefully towards healing. 

Dana’s voice occupies the spaces between the syncopated rhythms of the instruments which make for a transcendental experience of this body of work. At some points her melodies are sustained in long notes, with a vibrato at their tail end, a signature sound of Dana’s in order to emphasise the mood of each song, in case it isn’t all clear just by hearing the instrumental accompaniment.  

Dana is known for visually experimenting with Afrofuturism and expanding the idea for a contemporary African landscape. It is very rare though that her music is read to think about the transcendental in ways her visuals are. It is also rare that we even explore the expansive genius work of women artists such as Dana. 

The lyrics and the instrumental arrangements work together to encourage our imaginations to take flight. Dana sings in isiXhosa, but not understanding the words doesn’t necessarily stop listeners from getting a sense of the themes explored. 

Pan-Africanist ideology is not simply reflected in the lyricism, it is also heard through the merger of various genres bred on the continent. Dana adds a mythical element to the sound with a unique voice that she commands over each note. The way she sustains notes, and the ways she uses her voice to accent each word reminds one of the meditative compositions of the African prophet of Ntsikana. 

Dana incorporates various forms of guitar playing from Maskandi of Kwa-Zulu Natal to Mali, to Afrobeat especially in “Fela’s Azania”–an attempt at recreating the legend’s musicianship. 

Kulture Noir also reaches back to the percussive traditions of the Eastern Cape made famous by Nofinishi Dywili. By placing value on ancient and modern African compositional traditions Kulture Noir is another reminder of the contributions Africa has made to music as we know it. 

Very rarely do we honour how Africa has always been on the cutting edge of some of the foundations of music. This is particularly appealing in recent times where we are reduced to nothing more than lab rats, where we constantly have to prove our worthiness as a civilisation. 

This decade-old work emerges as relevant to our times. It speaks to the importance of African unity–an important message specifically for South Africans, who tend to boast of exceptionalism, which in the end breeds xenophobic violence. An anthem like “Hay’ihambo” calls us towards this unity reminding of us of our shared humanity and our shared spiritual source.  

We tend to underestimate the power of self-love and the power of healing from history, and now as the world remains perplexed at the low rates of coronavirus in Africa, their narrative of Africa as a tragedy is challenged. Dana’s work both lyrically and sonically is on beat reminding us of how worthy we are. 

The vocal arrangements play a role as both vocal and percussion together with the instruments. The vocals are layered as a call and response, with Dana filling the empty spaces between the breathing breaks left by the foundational vocals. 

Lyrically, the work addresses our nervous condition, and perhaps this is why it is so appealing to me now that the most certain thing is uncertainty. Dana reminds us that our imperfect parts of ourselves are worthy, that we are worthy of healing. 

Politically, her lyricism provides a scathing critique of the unfinished work of liberation movements, a relatable trend across the continent.

Where freedom has often given us wings, but not much ability to take flight due to the unbroken structural barriers.How do we live a high quality of life in a world where black people are closely followed by the possibility of poverty, where corruption is rampant, and leaders loot resources aimed at serving people? The failures of the state are ever more real in the middle of a pandemic where health systems of developing nations are already fragile. 

“Aph’ amaqhawe” (where are the heroes) starts us off and we end with “iNkwenwezi” (star). Perhaps the reasoning for this is to remind us that in the end, we are our own shining heroes. That your imperfections matter, that your healing matters and that it begins with you. Dana seems to be concerned with the importance of lifting the heaviness. The careful curation of the album allows us to journey through pain and uncertainty to emerge on the side with less of a load to carry. 

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