Shingai Shoniwa On Finding Independence In The Music Industry As A Black Woman

Shingai Shoniwa is a force — you can sense it in her music and voice, equal parts Billie Holiday, David Bowie, and something of her own. You can feel it in her aesthetics, as seen in her recent music video “We Roll,” unique and celebratory of her London and Zimbabwean roots. And you can sense it in speaking with her, as I did earlier this year over a languid four hours during which she talked passionately about her latest project from an isolated bungalow in the Caribbean where she was on lockdown.

The musician, who goes by Shingai, is the former frontwoman for the U.K. rock band Noisettes, who splashed the U.K. charts with their 2009 album “Wild Young Hearts.” Now, 12 years after navigating the belly of the beast that is the music industry, Shingai has released an independently produced solo album, “Too Bold,” an Afrobeat- and soul-infused journey through self-discovery and self-love. The album is, in many ways, the culmination of the artist’s fight to return to herself after navigating a white- and male-dominated music world that never quite understood her or, perhaps more accurately, never cared to.

Wow. First, I’m just so moved to be asked a fundamental question. For the last decade or so, it’s felt like nobody really took the time to get to know me and all the facets of my creativity. When you read a lot about white male musicians, you tend to know all the details about them; their music, songwriting, process, inspirations, and what they’re doing this for. In our conversation below, Shingai discusses how the COVID-19 lockdown changed her, healing from post-colonial trauma, and why music is the ultimate tool for connections.

And there’s a whole club. You know, you’re either on the cover of Mojo and Uncut and all those kinds of “rock ‘n’ roll” Rolling Stone magazines, but you don’t get pieces that tell you about the inner workings of beings like us, right? Like, what makes us tick? What makes us move? What gives us energy? Right now, you can probably hear the waves in the background. I had to get out of; some might say, Babylon — or just whatever this Western “lockdown” thing everyone is experiencing and coping with in different ways. But it started to take a toll on me, and I needed to get out. I needed to get away from all of that concrete. I needed to get away from all of the bricks and the mortar and just all of the energies that were quite fear-based, making everybody feel like they weren’t allowed to connect and be there for each other.

Shingai Shoniwa

What does self-care currently look like for you?

Self-care is something that’s a lifelong journey for me. Skins I’ve been using a fantastic product called Nurture, which is helping me to maintain and heal several scars that I’ve picked up on the battlefield along the way. It’s helping me embrace my imperfections, almost mirroring how music/creativity helps heal my inner scars. In addition, to Nurture, I’ve been learning reiki, a healing energy therapy. It’s complementary to yoga and meditation for those exploring alternative self-care pathways. I’ve had the honor of training with an incredible group of women called the Reiki Flow Collective in Grenada. A growing number of international Black female creatives, including Esperanza Spalding, are among our alums.

You’ve released this new solo album, “Too Bold,” independently after releasing several Noisettes albums via a major label. Can you talk a bit about the process of creating this album and why it was essential for you to put this out on your own?

Wow. That’s a good question. It’s been talked about more since, not just lockdown but the whole Black Lives Matter movement, and many creatives have been sharing their truth and experiences in the music industry, but a lot of it is not what it seems. And I think many Black female musicians, especially ones signed to major labels and in this sort of machine, face many challenges with, as you say, being their authentic selves and finding their voices. Oh, my God, where to start…

So I was signed to a major label with the Noisettes, and we did three albums, and I had some unique experiences then. I remember being on tour with Rihanna, taking pictures, and saying, “Oh, my God, wow. This could be something special.” And I felt like as a very unique, young, Black female artist at that time, America was a lot more open to my sound, genre, and fluidity because it wasn’t necessarily a thing; there wasn’t any word for it back then. And, in the U.K., it was very much based on rigid genres. I think that if you’re a Black female, it was like you have to sing and, you know, look a certain way and have your hair a certain way, and be a particular complexion, et cetera, et cetera.

So, I had a rocky time being on the major label. And, you know, I’m so proud of the music that I made, the visuals. I had to fight at every step to ensure I represented how my imagination and spirit wished to be defined, but I didn’t want to have to do that fighting anymore. I just really wanted not to have to explain and code-switch all the time constantly. It’s up to you what records you want to make and how to tell, see, produce, and play the stories and the narratives you want to show. So I had to become independent for that.

Where were you at the beginning of the lockdown last year?

January [2020] was blessed. It was about finishing the album, recording, getting things locked, and coming up with titles. And then February, the lockdown happened, and because my mom was down and she’s a breast cancer survivor, my siblings and I decided to move out of our London flats to the family home in Kent because you weren’t allowed to go in and out of London. So basically, from the middle of March, I ended up living back at the family home again. We were almost there for five months, and we hadn’t lived together since we were teenagers. So that was a significant shift as well because, as I said, for the last decade, it’s just been a push, push, push, push, push—the tour, tour, tour, tour, tour. And because of the uniqueness of my voice and perhaps the voices of ancestors coming through me, I felt like I had to always … I mean, it’s not just me. Many people like us think we must work ten times harder than everyone else.

What was something complicated you had to go through last year? 

April came around, and then by May, I just started to feel super different. Super, super weak. I started having a personal meltdown, basically [Laughs]. Yeah, I had an emotional breakdown because I’m someone’s niece at my mom’s. I’m someone’s daughter. But I’m also someone’s big sister. I’m someone’s auntie. So obviously didn’t have my personal space as I would have been used to. Also, I think a part of my identity over the past decade has been built around and strengthened by my ability to roam, tour, sing, and create in different places worldwide. My axis was always moving. Like you know what Jimi Hendrix said, “Axis: Bold as Love”?

So my body was trained not to need it. Like my muscles were trained like that. And so, I never really had the chance to stop and process all of the thoughts of not just the microaggressions but the moments of oppression and discrimination I’ve experienced in the last ten years. I never really told people what I had been through. I think this might be something that brown girls go through a lot. We have to internalize and keep it moving, right? Because if we seem weak, we seem to not be out to get the job done. People seem intimidated by, or unable to cope with, a vision of Black female vulnerability and pain. So the meltdown was necessary. I needed to break down a lot of the stuff I was carrying. I realized the world is having a critical conversation right now. And we need to have this conversation. We need to hear each other weep, bawl, howl, or speak and support each other.

What’s something great, like really incredible, that happened to you last year?

I was welcoming a new member of the clan into the family. My niece, my beautiful new niece, was born. When I got out with her, I almost saw her say, “Come on, Auntie! You can do it! Ensure you do your best to upgrade this world because I’m coming!”

I’ve always felt that your work, your work, and work with the Noisettes felt very political, even if it wasn’t always explicitly political. But in this album, especially, there’s no fear or obscurity to what you’re saying. You’re being very bold, for lack of a better word.

I understand the power of art, how influential qualitative art is, and how that can ignite revolutions. When you look at kind of the consequence and post-colonial slavery, it’s something that we are assuming right now. I feel it’s something that in the U.K., they are just about becoming OK with us being allowed to talk about slavery and their role in it and how they intend to atone within the healing process. So with this album, I’m not expecting to do millions in a day for me. It’s just about this album reaching that critical mass, right? Getting that 1% to 10% of people can feel the vibration and the intention from what I see in my desire to heal and know some atonement in my generation so that our nieces and nephews ― so that history doesn’t keep on repeating itself.

How are you connecting with people?

I had an awful experience in LA in 2016 and ’17, where I was stalked. Then I was supposed to start releasing my new photo material, but I was unsafe. It was such a harrowing experience that I had to hide in England while going through the courts for almost two years. My ability to make music and communicate was weaponized against me in the form of his self-defense. So basically, if I was getting cross-examined and I had just done a show, or I had been spotted meeting up with some like-minded musicians or artists somewhere in London or out and about, just in the community online and offline, it would be like, “Oh, well, if the defendant, who has been stalking her to within an inch of her life, is making her feel suicidal, then how come she was supposed to go up on stage yesterday?”

In 2016 and 2017, I lost all of my social media handles because the stalker had compromised them. And I had almost to learn to opt-out, which I did for about a year because I was traumatized by it. But then, when I returned, I had to become almost quite cunning. Or, like, learn how to think in that strategic sort of way. And I learned many about social media’s light and dark sides that I hadn’t considered before. It’s to the annoyance of my friends and family. I’m the kind of person that sees the good in everybody.

There’s something that I’m making right now. I know it sounds a little bit out of this world, but I feel like it’s almost fiber-optic and like a kind of superpower in itself, like the energy and the rhythm and the melodies that I’ve dug deep in and have allowed myself to be open to, to like, sing. I feel like every note and every bass line is coming from such a heavenly and almost electrified place that I feel like that’s doing a lot of communication on my behalf.

What music, books, art, etc., are getting you through this time of isolation? 

I highly recommend “Indaba, My Children.” It loosely translates as “The Affairs of My Children, ” in most Bantu languages,” is an excellent read. Credo Mutwa’s African allegory weaves together the motherland’s mythical, factual, and celestial tales from ancient times to the near future—an epic read. I’m also partial to indulging in a few vintage sci-fi novels by Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, and Michael Moorcock. The Betty Davis documentary “They Say I’m Different” is a poignant piece about one of my favorite artists. She’s written mainly from the rock ‘n’ roll story, but her legacy is undeniable—a must-watch.

Highly recommend reruns of “Desmond’s,” an 80s-’90s classic comedy series about an iconic barbershop and the charismatic Afro-Caribbean family that runs it. I grew up around the corner from Peckham, where it’s set, so it always takes me on a South London safari when I watch it. Nova Twins bring the fire to their latest album. They also are featured on the all-female remix of my song “Too Bold,” which drops along with a video on International Women’s Day (March 8). I finally got around to watching the M.I.A. documentary. Sha Sha is an Afropop singer and fellow Zimbabwean, killing it on the Amapiano scene in Southern Africa. I related to her story, being the child of revolutionaries that have never fitted into the usual boxes; I also found it refreshing to see a moving portrait of her creative process.

What do you imagine for 2021 and beyond?

I’ve been consistent in my authenticity and creative values from day one when it was extremely rare for people to see a woman of color leading a band with the fearless audacity and love for my craft that I still possess. It’s an honor to be regarded as a natural hair and style icon, as I feel that the connection between Black expression and adornment goes back to the beginning of time, and I love to celebrate this on- and offstage. I’m unmistakably present in my music and breathe life into every bar/lyric.

I believe that bold times call for bold moves, so artists must step up and earn their positions. With warriors in my ancestry, I’m grateful for the visionaries who paved the way, and I am in no hurry to undo the work they did. Things get super challenging, but I feel a sense of duty to take things to the next level and give folks a season of music that will encourage people to rise. “Too Bold” is my bravest work, but audacious songs need brave ears.

It’s awkward when people, grown-arsed institutions even, are scared of or show resistance to artists who already have so much stacked against them in terms of prejudice. It is perhaps a testament to our inherent power to influence others positively. Artists who inspire people to seek and fight for real liberation have the opportunity to be beacons of light. Some great artists who want to raise the vibration and change the game for the greater good are coming through now. Let’s reach out to each other and collaborate more. Surprise them. Surprise ourselves. Let’s strengthen the international community of Black creatives and allies and show the world we can move as a force.

I also hope that we can be open to investing in and living in future locations where we can be free to live up to our full potential and own our spaces (and ourselves), places where we can cultivate a legacy that we’ll look forward to passing on. We’ve overinvested in the houses of others built on rocky ground at best. The suffering of others props up homes and institutions. However, I view this moment as an opportunity to address and reset any negative agendas, focusing on a heart-led plan for the greater good that starts with us. For, as they say, “The revolution starts from within.”

“Average” artists or those still “playing it safe” may need to prepare for more turbulence. Cutting through the noise and current world events is harder if your creative identity is lackluster, uninspired, or underdeveloped. Navigating the industry as it struggles to maintain its rusting facade can also suck the joy out of what was once a great passion for many musicians. Contrastingly, it’s an exciting time to be a game-changing artist if you’re not afraid to rise to the occasion. Read the room.

The artists who wrote out of the “general” story of “popular music” are usually juicy. There’s power and gems to be found in the truth of our musical lineage. Discern who the real game-changers are and support them. Write them back in. We might not be staring at you from the front page of your go-to magazine/digital platform. We may not be “A-listed” on the usual commercial radio stations you may rely on to bring you the latest quick fix, but one thing’s for certain. We won’t be written out of the next chapter.

And I’ll bet my axis, as bold as love, on this. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Getting Through…” explores how people from all backgrounds and walks of life — artists, scientists, entertainers, healers, activists, entrepreneurs, and “everyday” folks — are processing, connecting, and caring for themselves and others during these rough times. Hopefully, these conversations will serve as a record and a guide for anyone who reads them. Read interviews with author Fariha Roísín, yoga instructor Mominatu, writer and actor Tavi Gevinson, and actor Taylour Paige. Calling all HuffPost superfans! Sign up for membership to become a founding member and help shape HuffPost’s next chapter.

Tyson Houlding
I’m a lifestyle blogger with a passion for writing, photography, and exploring new places. I started this blog when I was 18 years old to share what I was learning about the world with family and friends. I’ve since grown into a freelance writer, blogger, and photographer with a growing audience. I hope you find inspiration and motivation while reading through my work!