In Conversation With Shungudzo

“It’s a good day to fight the system,” declares Shungudzgo, the Zimbabwean-American philanthropist, singer/songwriter, on her debut album ‘I’m not a mother, but I have children.’ Using words as weapons of love, Shungudzo utilized the time and space of quarantine to put together a body of work entirely on her creative terms.

Given the current state of the world, Shungudzo’s new record is topical and will spark multiple important conversations. Since 18 months old, she’s been reading books that evolved into her love for poetry. Embracing the safety and openness of just herself, she found healing in writing.

Later on, she began dressing her words in melodies, but it wasn’t until she was an adult, she gained the courage to follow her dreams. Around nine years old, Shungudzo’s family moved to America, where she thought inequity, inequality, and injustice didn’t exist. That not being the case; the transition from Zimbabwe to America was even more difficult.

Shungudzo’s debut album ‘I”m not a mother, but I have children’ has the means to lay the foundations for people talking about their differences as a stepping stone towards a conversation. Her talent to produce catchy melodies alongside sociopolitical poetry has been something she’s been exposed to as a teenager.

Currently healing from heartbreak, reminding herself she is a whole person deserving of love, Shungudzo breaks it down – her journey to realising her dreams, the meaning behind her name, and themes behind her music.

How are you doing today?

It’s an honor to be speaking to you today. Thank you for your time. I’m doing okay. I’m healing from a heartbreak and trying to remember that I am a whole person without the love of my (past) life. Trying to remember that I am beautiful and desirable and deserving of love, even if this one didn’t work out. Ultimately, though, I am so grateful to be alive. Grateful that we all beat the statistical odds to be born onto Earth and are here now. 

How are you feeling with ‘I’m not a mother, but I have children’ out for everyone to hear?

I am feeling so excited to finally have an album out — and completely on my creative terms. I’m feeling so thankful to anyone who’s taken the time to listen and respond to what I have to say. I’m also feeling an urgent need to make another album, and am working on it now.

What has been the feedback so far?

The feedback has been generally loving unless someone totally disagrees with my perceptions of life and politics. Which was expected, as I know no two humans experience and observe life the same way. Those who aren’t so loving towards my music are at least open enough to share their differences in political opinion with me, which I think is a wonderful stepping stone towards conversation and understanding. A world in which we can’t talk about our differences is one in which discrimination and segregation continue to exist. 

Why did you make the promise to yourself you will write a poem a day?

Poetry saved me, as a kid who grew up in a family and community that wasn’t very emotionally open. I used it to explore my emotions, my opinions, my identity, and to activate my healing within the safety and openness of the company of just myself. I chose to write poetry every day because it’s how I was able to learn my own mind and begin the process of understanding how to use it in a positive way. 

How did you get into poetry at such a young age?

My mother recently told me that I was reading books by 18 months old. She and my father put a lot of focus on my academic growth when I was younger. I loved reading as a kid and it naturally turned into writing. As a kid, I wrote short stories and bound them together into books. I started out wanting to be a novelist, but eventually settled into poetry. Maybe because it’s more concise and I tend to dry my written ideas up very quickly when I try to write something long. I also love the shape of poetry — the way it sits on a page as if the words are choreographed dancers, and the paper their stage. 

How did you discover your passion for music?

I wouldn’t say I found music so much as it found me. I started making songs at a young age — it felt like a natural progression from poetry to begin dressing my words in melodies — but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I gained the courage to follow my dreams and view art as a legitimate career. I hope that, more and more, society will fully legitimize art as a career. There are so many talented artists amongst us who don’t pursue their crafts simply because they’ve been told it’s too risky or nonsensical. I’d argue that all career paths are risky, and that we all may as well just do what we love. Loving your job makes all of its toughest moments easier, and the successes that much more fulfilling. I understand that not all people have the privilege of pursuing the dreams, but what a beautiful world we’d live in if pursuing your dreams weren’t a privilege, but a right and opportunity granted to all! 

What did you love about doing gymnastics?

I loved the discipline that gymnastics taught me, which is so much of why I was able to make an album last year. I hated the perfectionism, which I’ve had to spend many years unlearning — allowing myself to be flawed, learning how to treat my flaws gently, and — in many cases — realizing that my greatest flaws are also my greatest strengths. 

When and why did you move to America?

I moved back to America with my family when I was 9 or 10. I assume my parents moved us back for the sake of education and opportunity. There are so many facets of living in America that I’m grateful for, but also so many elements of American culture that I have to work hard at unlearning — or not learning at all. For example, the perceived importance of money in American life and the attachment it seems to have to happiness here. Perhaps because life is so expensive here, and most people require more money than they have in order to meet their basic necessities. I suppose that’s the case everywhere, but the inability to feel joy when one’s pockets aren’t full here is real and sad. 

How was the transition, from Zimbabwe to America?

The transition from Zimbabwe to America was difficult. I thought I was coming to a place where inequity, inequality and injustice didn’t exist. I assumed that the American government was made of up angels and saints, and that no American could go hungry or be unhappy. The harsh realities I faced when we landed here — and I both observed and experienced them very quickly — were so much the opposite of the dreamland I’d hoped for and, in a sense, been promised. 

What did you study at Stanford University? How was it?

I studied Civil Engineering and Sociology. It was amazing to go to school in such a beautiful and innovative place, but it very quickly became obvious to me that what I was studying was not what I wanted to do with my life. I was lucky to have an academic advisor who encouraged me to explore my creativity. That’s when I became serious about music.  

What is the meaning behind your moniker?

Shungudzo is my middle name. It was given to me by my aunt in Zimbabwe, on the day of my birth. I was born dead, or almost dead, having not received oxygen to my brain for a very long time. The doctors prepared my mother to lose me. When I survived, they told her that I would be seriously mentally impaired. Instead, and I very much think it’s due to my mother’s and my aunt’s belief in me — divine feminine magic — I was reading at 18 months old and writing not long after. Shungudzo means, “To be determined.” Shungudzo Kuyimba means, “To be determined to sing.”  

When did you tell yourself you wanted to start working on your debut album and make it into what it is today? Was it a reaction to what was happening in the world?

I’ve been writing sociopolitical poetry since I was a kid, and I’ve been wanting to make this album, about this subject matter, since I first ventured into music 13 years ago. My life took many twists and turns, to the point that I actually quit music to do something more “responsible” for a while. But I quickly felt how unfulfilled I was, and decided — perhaps for the first time in my life — to do exactly what I knew would make me happy over what I knew would make other people (my family) happy. Many years after that decision was made, I found myself in quarantine with the time and space to finally express myself in the ways I’ve always wanted to, and this album was not conceived, but born. 

How did the writing process look like for this album? Did you make a list of what topics you wanted to touch upon? What was the intention with the album?

When I started writing, I knew I was making a body of work, but I didn’t know that it’d be an album. At a certain point, I realized that I couldn’t tell the story I wanted to tell within the context of something as short as an EP. Once I decided I was making an album, I thought about it in terms of emotion and intention. I wanted to express as many of the emotions I’ve felt surrounding my own, and the collective, human experience as I could, and I knew I was finished when I’d covered all of the bases — from bold optimism to sheer frustration. 

Were there specific tracks that were extra difficult to write?

“Where are my friends?” was the last song I finished on the album. It was particularly difficult to finish because the drummer, Scara, passed away before I finished arranging his drums. He was a remarkable talent, who lived in Zimbabwe, and still had so much of his life to go and music to share with the world. When I became emotionally blocked making the finishing touches on the song, I called my friend, Shruti Kumar. She is a brilliant engineer, composer, songwriter and producer who came in at the final hour, on the final song, and took the album over the finish line. I’m so grateful to her, and to Scara and Shekinah (who plays electric guitar on the “Where are my friends”), for their contributions.

How did you come up with the concept for the ‘Already Free’ music video?

Budgetary restrictions, haha! I knew I had to make a visual as cheaply as possible that would do justice to what is one my favorite songs on the album. I also have a phenomenal teammate and visual partner, Mark Nesbitt, who always comes through with a camera, enthusiasm and creative suggestions of his own that make everything better!

How did you choose the Zimbabwean musicians you featured on the album?

I recognize how privileged I am to be able to pursue my dreams as a musician, and on a global platform. It’s so important for me to share my privilege, which is why I posted on both Instagram and Twitter, asking for Zimbabwean musicians in Zimbabwe to send me their music. I went through almost 200 people’s messages, and then reached out to those whose sounds I thought would compliment the songs I had almost finished for the album. Countless brilliant people reached out to me, but I was looking for something very specific, and genreless, when it came to who I invited to be part of this project. I look forward to collaborating with so many more musicians from Zimbabwe in the future, and to starting a greater venture to give artists in Africa the opportunity to share their stories and work on a global scale. 

What are you planning next?

I’m really excited about playing live, be it my own shows or opening up for an artist I admire. I’m manifesting opening for Michael Kiwanuka and will not stop mentioning him in interviews until it happens! I’m also planning to continue growing as a human in hopes that, someday, I meed my soulmate and I’m ready for them when I do. 

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Words: Karolina Kramplova